Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Fiction

Fields and Forests Bare: A Reader’s Update and Returning to Wildfell

IMG_0296-0.JPG

After a series of reading misadventures I return to old reading habits, revisiting the Brontës like you would old friends. This week I will be rereading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. When I last read it back in 2011 (how time flies!) I loved Anne immediately. I’ve since reread Wuthering Heights and continued to adore it, but have never returned to Anne Brontë until now.

I’ve read the first couple of chapters this afternoon and there has already been a subversive feminist Victorian discussion concerning male and female upbringing:

You affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation; – and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith – It must be, either, that you think she is essentially vicious, or feeble-minded that she cannot withstand temptation, – and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity.

I couldn’t read this without thinking about poor Clarissa Harlowe. I look forward to judging the rogue in this novel, now that I have read Clarissa – the battle for the worst husband in literature begins.

In other reading news, I read The Castle of Otranto over Halloween and hated it. I was really surprised, with my usual love of the gothic novel. I had a particularly badly formatted edition which didn’t help. But if you’ve read it – please tell me what you thought of it. I have managed to find a couple of contemporary novels which I would highly recommend: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (the greatest twist, completely fascinating, best read if you know nothing about it) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (WWII novel with utterly heartbreakingly beautiful writing).

Finally, the classics spin has come around again, this was my list:
1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
2. The Monk, Matthew Lewis
3. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
4. The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Bosewell
5. Vilette, Charlotte Brontë
6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
7. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
8. La Regenta, Leopoldo Alas
9. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence
10. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
11. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
12. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
13. The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling, Henry Fielding
14. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
15. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
16. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
17. Ivanhoe, Walter Scott
18. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
19. Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott
20. Pamela, Samuel Richardson

So I will be reading The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling by Henry Fielding by January 5th. What did you get in the spin? Does anyone want to read along with me?

Hope you have all had a great weekend, I spent today stomping around in the mud with my friend whilst wearing inappropriate footwear. For now, back to the ragged rocks of Wildfell Hall.

Advertisements

Gathering Books and Blankets: Why I Saved My Reading for Winter

Every year I am taken aback by nature’s force in changing seasons. When summer arrives – glorious! The light and the colour makes me feel as though I have been looking at the world through a film of silk that has slowly rippled away. For some, the end of summer is a terrible and inescapable fate. For me – not so. There is work to be done in the winter.

How could it be any other way for us readers? September is forever associated with going to school with sharpened pencils and enthusiasm and it will always make me yearn for the first experiences of discovering and dissecting great novels. Hugh Walpole (more on him later) said The years of our childhood are of course the foundation of all our life. We never altogether emerge from them. So it looks like I’ll be stuck with odd urges to write essays about literary devices forever and ever. October then. Bringing a dark and nostalgic spirituality – I want to read ghost stories and I will read Wuthering Heights for the billionth time and I wouldn’t have it any other way. November and December come forth with traditions – the Victorians, please.

If you have been reading Charlotte Reads Classics since my old, infinitely more productive writing days, you’ll know that nothing fires up my enthusiasm like a book with big landscapes. Most recently found in Sons and Lovers, akin to the natural, pastoral, wildness of the Brontës. This is what I need in the winter – big reading.

Books I would recommend saving for winter:

  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  • Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë
  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

My winter book this year might be The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling by Henry Fielding. Have you read it? I also would like to try The Castle of Otranto this month to get a quick gothic fix. If I should have a studious book blogger month, I would like to compare the new Rosamund Bartlett translation of Anna Karenina to my dearest, most beloved copy. We shall see what the nights bring.

The book that prompted me to write my first blog post in months (I have of course missed you dreadfully) was one I found in the library this afternoon: Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole. I had never heard of it before, but the blurb was utterly impossible to resist:

The first volume of The Herries Chronicle, which recounts the dramatic fortunes of one family from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, in a magnificent Lake District setting. Here is fiction in glorious, sweeping measure, set against wild and beautiful scenery and crowded with fairs, balls, weddings, duels, witches, abductions, murder and romance.

Rogue Herries tells the story of the larger than life Francis Herries who uproots his family from Yorkshire and brings them to live in Borrowdale where their life is as dramatic as the landscape surrounding them. Proud, violent and impetuous, he despises his first wife, sells his mistress at a county fair and forms a great love for the teenage gypsy Mirabell Starr. Alongside this turbulent story runs that of his own son David, with enemies of his own, and that of his gentle daughter Deborah, with placid dreams that will not be realised in her father’s house.

The book was published in 1930 and the author was a contemporary and friend of writers like Henry James, John Galsworthy and Virginia Woolf. Whilst they have entered the canon, Walpole’s popularity seems to have vanished almost entirely after his death. There also seems to have been a bit of a scandal regarding W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale. So with positive and negative reviews, we’ll see.

If you’d like to take my advice on winter reading, here is a handy checklist for when you’re inspired:

  1. Mood lighting. No winter reading should be indulged in harsh glare. Candle light whilst romantic, will hold you back. Aim for something in between.
  2. Heating. It’s cold outside and you will need to be tucked under your finest quilt or woolly blanket for the most immersive reading. Hands can be warmed around a hot mug. Get someone to cook something homely for you.
  3. Reading material. Preferably over 400 pages because you’re compensating for an extra four hours daylight. Pick a classic because they’re tried and tested. Bonus points for themed reading.

The World Was Reduced to the Surface of Her Skin

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing. I enjoy the art of all sorts here immensely; but I suppose if I could pick my enjoyment to pieces I should find it made up of many different threads.

I love this quite from Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch and it is particularly handy when I want to write about an author with a very specific style. This is a writer who is so refreshingly original that it is a pleasure to read his books solely for the pleasure of knowing them.

There is no way you could read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and mistake his writing for anyone else. One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in the fictional village of Macondo, in a typical (if there can be such a thing) Latin American country. The things Macondo faces are things that Marquez would have experienced during his childhood in Columbia: civil war, fruit plantations, small villages transitioning into modernity. Whilst the story is of its place, there are plenty of universal themes here; life, love, sadness, loneliness, tradition and family.

Marquez once said that “[a]fter the death of my grandfather, nothing really happened to me any more”. This happened when he was eight. In many ways people read his signature style of magical realism as the world seen through the eyes of a child. This novel is certainly full of that sort of imaginative power.

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Firstly, Marquez is king of beautiful sentences. Just read it! The village is founded by the family and has a real Garden of Eden sort of vibe. The Bible here is the magical element mixed with the reality of evolution (‘prehistoric eggs’). This immediately sets the tone for the kind of storytelling that follows. This is a story of a town who suffers from insomnia, of alchemy, gypsies and revolution. Family history becomes myth and legend, and the imagery is outstanding.

The only problem I had whilst reading One Hundred Years of Solitude was that I found it hard to keep all the characters straight – there are about twenty-five Aurelianos! However, even this has a poetic explanation: Time in this novel is not linear and generations of family history is told as though it was happening all at once. Plenty of characters live until well over a hundred, and even the dead don’t always keep quiet.

People say Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing is like a carnival and I would agree. It is colourful, always moving, vibrant, strange and foreign. A wonderful combination.

A Modern Middlemarch

In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up, little stars spread far away in the floodwaters, a firmament below. Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom.

Sons and Lovers is the unease you feel at night, the light in the morning when you set off for work, and the still and quiet moments with your family. It is the way you question the path you are taking and where you wanted your life to go anyway. It is the mud stuck to your shoe, the wind tangling your hair and the salt on your lips.

Even with all the reading and thinking and discussing of Sons and Lovers that have made up a big part of my life over this last week, this is a novel that defies explanation. It is a gut novel, a spirit novel (and those are my favourite).

To try to make my point, here is a list of things this novel is said to be:

  • A record of working class life
  • An exercise in self-analysis and psychoanalytic theory
  • A depiction of positive/negative roles for twentieth century men and women
  • A critique of industrial capitalism and the transition between the agricultural past and the industrial future
  • Realism

Honestly, it is all of these things, but it is none of them too. No one thing gets to the heart of it. When I was reading, I kept thinking that I felt like I was reading a very English novel – it is pastoral, natural, and really the sort of novel that was defined by the nineteenth century. It begins like Middlemarch: Spanning history and geography, social drama and conflict.

What makes Sons and Lovers a modern novel, or more modern than a George Eliot novel, is the content, the time. The world is changing. The traditions are there, the writing on nature is where D. H. Lawrence is his most beautiful. But the bulk of the book is borne out of the twentieth century tribulations of a young creative soul from a working class background. (Hello, Joyce, secretly appearing in all my posts.)

The most interesting parts of this book were the conflicts between different kinds of love – familial, soulful, romantic, passionate, friendship. Paul, the second son, has a relationship with his mother that you could compare to the attachment of a young child. He has no desire to live with any woman other than her.

Lawrence describes the two of them sitting together:

They were both very happy so, and both unconscious of it. These times, that meant so much, and which were real living, they almost ignored.

The mother/son bond is something that critics highlight as an autobiographical element. From reading around a bit, it seems that whilst Lawrence considered the book a tragedy in the classical sense, he was offended by the (inevitable) Oedipal comparisons. I think most of his female characters were quite one-dimensional except for Mrs Morel. He writes the women in the book to be a bit like men, but with absences. A lot of the book was exploring what defines women and men; how are they different and how do they live together.

“Here’s the sea-coast morning, big and permanent and beautiful. There is she, fretting, always unsatisfied, and temporary as a bubble of foam. What does she mean to me, after all?

Yes, sometimes the writing was obvious and a lot of the time I felt like rolling my eyes. Yes, I really think Lawrence was capable of writing women as well-rounded as men and I really wish he had done. Yes, a lot of the time this book made me feel sad.

However. Sons and Lovers, you were such an unexpected joy.

Edit: I read this with o, whose writing is as impeccable as her literary taste. Here is a link to her excellent review of Sons and Lovers.

Reading Sons and Lovers: Men and Women

20140408-091530.jpg

This week I have been reading Sons and Lovers, with some surprising results. Firstly, I have fallen for this book. I miss it when I’m not reading it and I’ve started looking forward to my commute (I have a new, longer but more picturesque train journey) because it means more minutes I can spend alone in the company of my new book.

This comes as quite the surprise because I have only ever read one other D. H. Lawrence novel – Women in Love – and hated it. I’m not actually sure why I even decided that I should buy another of his books, but there you go. Glad I did.

The beginning of Sons and Lovers follows Mr and Mrs Morel through their early years of marriage. They live in a mining town with young children and not much money. It is quite a depressing beginning to the story – life is a struggle and their marriage is unhappy. They live in a row of houses alongside the other miners and their families, which leads to a very public sort of life. The houses are joined together and people are always out and about in the alleyways that run along the back. There are no truly private spaces.

Whilst there are obvious downsides, like people barging into your house and everyone knowing your business, there is a real sense of community that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. When Mr Morel is ill and can’t go to work, the rest of the street looks out for his wife and children:

Every Friday, Parker and the other butty put by a portion of the stall’s profits for Morel’s wife. And the neighbours made broths, and gave eggs, and such invalid’s trifles. If they had not helped her so generously in those times, Mrs Morel would never have pulled through, without incurring debts that would have dragged her down.

There is a tendency in hindsight to idealise the period before the First World War as a long Edwardian summer. Being published in 1913 means that the book has none of this golden hue. Life is hard. I have been trying to imagine living Mrs Morel’s life, but I actually felt quite depressed by the prospect. Obviously I can’t imagine it without being influenced by modernity, but I really empathised with Mrs Morel’s moments of despair:

The prospect of her life made her feel as if she were buried alive.

I don’t think we see marriage today as permanently as it has been in the past. Here, Mrs Morel comes to despise her husband (this isn’t a spoiler, I promise! It’s on the blurb!) but her lot is completely tied to his. She has young children, she has no means of making a living – she is imprisoned by his successes or failures.

Books like Sons and Lovers always make me wonder about men, women and relationships. Readers today can appreciate both sides of the marriage because the roles of men and women aren’t as fixed as they were. I can appreciate that having to work long hours in a dangerous and grueling job for very little wages would be both stressful and isolating.

The Morels seem hardly able to connect with each other. She falls out of love, he doesn’t. The time they spend together becomes a pause for her, something to endure before her real life continues. For him it is a gap, an absence, a lack. He needs her for comfort; she needs him for means of living.

“But it’s as well to be a woman as a man,” he said, frowning.
“Ha! – is it! Men have everything.”
“I should think women ought to be as glad to be women, as men are to be men,” he answered.
“No!” she shook her head. “No! Everything, the men have.”
“But what do you want?” he asked.
“I want to learn. Why should it be that I know nothing!”

Next, Part Two, when the children are grown up. It will be interesting to follow the changing attitudes that come with a new generation and the end of childhood innocence.

Leather bags and broad minds: Thoughts so far on Mrs Dalloway

 

image

If I were to imagine the narrative of Mrs Dalloway, its long strings stretching through and across the streets of London, I would think of curling ribbon or ivy tendrils, something that could creep and swerve towards the skyline just as easily as it could crawl along the ground.

The reason I think of this novel as clambering upwards as much as reaching across is determined by the nature of Virginia Woolf’s writing. As her writing twirls and flits into one mind or the next, I pictured a London street scene; frozen in the midst of movement, as the author did nothing more than guide us to listen to one mind or the next. Reading stream of consciousness is fascinating whilst demanding of concentration. So far I am reminded of the challenges of Ulysses: How is it possible for me, the reader, to pick up on and understand every nuance in someone else’s mind? Their memories aren’t mine.

Early on in the novel, before Clarissa has even brought the flowers home, this quotation really caught my attention:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly – why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

This is why I have been thinking of Mrs Dalloway in terms of a full range of movement. As the story is firmly rooted in the human mind, so the narrative follows us. We all spend a lot of time thinking about day-to-day, mundane, low-level things. Occasionally something happens that makes us think about grander, higher concepts, like philosophy or art or religion. Not just that, these higher concepts are the things that connects one person to another, that forge ideas about what makes us human, or what is important in being human.

A man can be seedy-looking, carrying a leather bag whilst an aeroplane flies overhead and if you were a passer-by then perhaps that is all you would see. The greatness of Mrs Dalloway, in the first thirty pages and my humble opinion, is that Woolf makes the internal external. The seedy-looking man draws his conclusions about the power of religious imagery and we would have been none the wiser.

The Lives of Readers

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbours’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

 

I came across this, my favourite Middlemarch quotes, and wanted to share it with you today. I think it can say a lot about not just our individual lives, but about our experiences as readers.

Just a little post, as there is cinnamon and orange baking away in the oven. Hope everyone’s Christmas plans are going smoothly.

 

Night Walks

 

penguin-great-ideas-dickens

Tis the season, and I am exhausted. But jolly. I love this time of year, even though work is absolute chaos. I’ve wrapped all my presents and turned the heating up. I’m still loving reading Middlemarch, slowly, and am just about to finish book three.

 

Whilst battling the crowds and stealing precious quiet moments away to myself, I fancied something light. You might think Dickens doesn’t quite fit this category, but this is a little book from the Penguin Great Ideas series.

Night Walks describes Dickens’ suffering as an insomniac, instead of sleeping he  goes out walking the streets of London until the small hours.

The restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep, formed one of the first entertainments offered to the contemplation of us houseless persons.

I love this essay as a document of times been and gone. Anything that lets us glimpse into human life, the unseen every day, is completely fascinating. Must read The Diary of Samuel Pepys next year.

Slow Paths, Scenic Route

With just one day off before Christmas Day, things are getting pretty manic. I am still reading Middlemarch, albeit incredibly slowly, but I am enjoying savouring these small dips in and out of the tangled lives of this provincial town. A great touch has been reading Lydgate’s visits to various important members of the community whilst on my own daily journeys. These are quiet moments, away from  busy modern life, a lifeline to a bit of peace.

Not that the lives of the characters in Middlemarch were necessarily peaceful, of course. I had planned to write a beginner’s guide to the reform bill of 1832, although finding the time has been impossible. Ever so briefly, the bill was the turning point in gaining equality in politics and had been a long time coming – ever since the French Revolution. Here are some things that happened because of it:

  • People able to vote almost doubled
  • Power of voting given to those lower in social/economic classes (but still only the rich middle classes)
  • Members of Parliament were redistributed to correspond to the population

Reading very briefly into this means I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rising middle classes in Middlemarch. And hopefully the political part will make more sense. I really enjoyed all your comments about the male/female narrator and George Eliot, they are certainly fuel for thought.

Up tomorrow – a new discovery I’ve very high hopes for…

Hear of Things So High and Strange

15

Mrs James Guthrie by Frederic Lord Leighton

There is nothing quite like rediscovering an old favourite. Middlemarch is a book I remember being bowled over by. I was expecting a dry, complicated read (as a teenager I was probably put off by the politics) but was captivated by the world and relationships Eliot created. Now, eight years later, I am returning to see how things have changed.

I finished the first book yesterday evening and am happy to report that though I may be different, Dorothea is as readable as ever. The first book is mainly about the sisters, although other characters are introduced towards the end. Thinking about Eliot writing as a man, I enjoyed finding her both cutting of silly women but supportive of the capabilities of others in turn. I think her world view is very sensible and think she’d probably be quite an inspiring woman to have met in the 1870s.

Seeing as the book covers all aspects of life before the First Reform Bill of 1832, it occurs to me that this is a historical event that I should read up on. Something for tomorrow’s post, perhaps.