Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Classics

Time Regained

Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be a boy eternal.

– The Winters Tale

Reading classics inevitably means looking backwards. Our favourite times have been and gone, people have lived and died, and events have run their course. In some ways, each of our reading days could be the same as they were yesterday.

But we know, as a collective of  classics readers that our reading lives will never get stale. Each new book we find takes us to, quite literally another time. And are we not able to define ourselves in the contrast?

In this spirit and inspired by o I’ve put together a list of ten classics that I would like to read sooner rather than later. Five are completely new to me and five are re-reads.

Five classics to move forward:

  1. The Red and the Black, Stendhal
  2. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, Henry Fielding
  3. Pamela, Samuel Richardson
  4. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  5. The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope

Five classics of eternal boyhood:

  1. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë
  3. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  4. The Shooting Party, Isabel Colegate
  5. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Let’s travel the world together.

For What Do We Live, but to Make Sport For Our Neighbours and Laugh at Them in Our Turn?

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The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Austen should be read in the winter, on dark evenings with warm lights on. Sitting in an armchair, with the glow from the lamp not so different from the light of a candle.

Good books and good conversation: It turns out we are quite Georgian in our evening occupations.

When the Beating of Your Heart Matches the Beating of the Drums

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Let us understand one another. Are we weeping for all innocents, all martyrs, all children, whether low-born or of high estate? Then I weep with you. But, as I said, we must then go back far beyond ’93 and Louis XVII. I will weep with you for the children of kings if you will weep with me for the children of the people.

The culmination of all my reading in 2013 ended at midnight, when I finished Les Misérables. I won’t lie, I was openly weeping. Finishing this book has managed to be both the highlight and biggest loss of January. Yes, there is always great satisfaction in completing such an iconic (and long) classic but I am devastated because book that hasn’t left my side in all this time is over.

Reading Hugo for the first time reminds me of Tolstoy because of the underlying philosophy that seeps through the story. From this book (and Anna Karenina) I think that their ideas are quite similar: The best you can do in life is to love other people and God, and being good and being happy are the same thing. Levin’s spiritual awakening is not unlike Valjean’s early encounter with the Bishop. This philosophy, whether it concerns the muzhiks or French peasants, at its simplest level should extend to politics. The suffering of the wretched all comes down to the government or the King not loving the people. This contrast of law and love is excellently and unpreachingly drawn between Jean Valjean and Javert. Both men are doing what is right, but one stands for human kindness, the other for duty.

A brief timeline of my reading experience would go as such:

  • Part I Fantine: This is really good, even the bit about the Bishop. Excited.
  • Part II Cosette: This is Anna Karenina style good. This book is amazing! Why do people not like it?
  • Part III Marius: I don’t like him, more Jean Valjean please.
  • Part IV The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis: Well, quite good but this is dragging on a bit.
  • Part V Jean Valjean: I CAN’T STOP CRYING

What makes Les Misérables so great? Jean Valjean. In my humble opinion, he is the greatest character in any book I’ve ever read and is definitely the benchmark for all literary greatness. Seriously, you should read this book just for Jean Valjean, an ex-convict whose journey takes him to represent the best values of humanity. I’m way too close to the end of the book to write about him properly because I just want to write in capitals and gush relentlessly. HE IS THE BEST MAN. During twenty or so years he overcame his hatred for the society that refused to see past his so-called crimes. His character is an amazing feat of writing, with a perfect ending.

The only aspect of this book, really, that prevents it from becoming an absolute favourite is that there is so much in it slowing down the action – when I really really really needed to know what was happening to Jean Valjean I found it hard to read twenty pages on Paris’ sewer system. The topical essay style sidelines were interesting, but the highlight for me was definitely the plot. Well, the plot involving Jean Valjean anyway.

Yesterday evening I went to see the film and I really enjoyed it. Sadly I had to leave for the cinema with thirty-three pages left unread but luckily I had pretty much read all the plot in the film. I love the songs from the musical (although a lot of the singing was far from perfect) but the main things that stood out were that the film was very beautifully shot and very well cast. However, despite being a good few hours long it was so shallow, compared to the terrifying depths of Hugo’s novel.

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Hats off to Hugh Jackman, who was totally what I wanted Jean Valjean to be.

I’ll just say it again: He’s so good, you should really read about him.

Clarissa, Or, The True Story of My Reading in 2012

Merry Christmas! I hope it was wonderful for everyone. Mine was a very relaxing couple of days with family and I enjoyed it immensely.

As Christmas seems a concluding event to the year, it seemed especially satisfying that on Boxing Day I finished reading Clarissa. Yes, ours had been a year long affair, but like her family I neglected her terribly in the summer months. Now it is all over I feel quite sad but luckily I have the sense of achievement for comfort. Clarissa is an excellent read. Yes, really. If you want to be convinced to buy it, this is o’s post that convinced me.

Very well read.

Very well read.

When I started reading it back in January I was overwhelmed. The language was tricky and dense and despite my enthusiasm not a lot was going on in terms of plot. I read a few pages here and there until April, when I put the book down. And it stayed down. From time to time I would look at it sitting on my bookshelf and feel a bit guilty, but I started my War Books project so I wasn’t inspired to pick it back up. I knew that to finish it, I would have to read nothing but Clarissa until the bitter end and I wasn’t in the mood. Then came November and the awareness that I would have to start now or never if I didn’t want to be dragging my old reads into the new year. Funnily enough, I had managed to stop at just the moment Clarissa gets exciting. (Clever, me.) I made my schedule and stuck to it – actually I beat it slightly – and here we are.

Clarissa has got to be the ultimate classic: One of the very first European novels and one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers. I’m not quite sure why it is so neglected. Yes, it is incredibly long but that doesn’t stop us reading War and Peace or Les Misérables. Rather amusingly, in the Author’s Note at the end Richardson justifies the length of the novel by claiming that the details are what makes the story realistic and enjoyable, therefore why would you complain about getting a complete picture? (Incidentally on the Jane Austen note, there is a clergyman who is sent to check up on Clarissa who I’m sure must have been a basis for Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.)

I wasn’t sure I would warm to Clarissa herself in the early stages because she’s so virtuous. I completely did, though. I fell for her hook line and sinker. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone still ploughing through it, but what other end could there have been for her? And for Lovelace? The way the family separates and takes sides is so convincing and so much more interesting from only getting it through odd perspectives. I took sides too – I was always pleased when I turned the page and the next letter was one from Miss Howe or Mr Belford. The presence of Richardson at all was slightly mystifying because it really, honestly felt like I was reading real letters. Perhaps an obvious comment to make, but the characters are like Tolstoy’s – genuine people who change and adapt over time.

For a lot of this book I was only looking forward to finishing: I was counting pages and scheduling time. However, when I realised I was onto the final ten pages, I was gutted. I was so sad that something I had been carrying around and thinking about all year was leaving me. Read Clarissa for its characters and richness, for it’s often surprising plot, for its family drama, for its place in history, for its descriptions of a world far removed yet not so dissimilar from our own.

Just make sure you read it.

All Summer Long: Letters 219 – 381

December so far has been a great month for me. Last weekend we decorated our Christmas tree, drank mulled wine and watched Muppet’s Christmas Carol (yes, that was all in one glorious day) so I’m definitely feeling festive! Work is hectically busy but whilst I’ve been madly tired, I’ve enjoyed sitting around reading Clarissa in the evenings whilst it is dark and cold outside.

I am ever so slightly ahead of schedule and am now into the August letters. I’ll do a quick summary of June and July and then I’ll write more non-spoilery things afterwards.

In June: She is still prisoner in the house, which catches fire (a bit) and in the ensuing chaos Lovelace gets into Clarissa’s bedroom and attempts to seduce her. Clarissa manages to run away to Hampstead, but Lovelace manages to find her. He tricks her back to the original house in London (this is a real spoiler so I’ll give you another warning to skip over it) makes her lose her senses and then her honour. After a while she manages to escape again and the month ends with her finally getting back in touch with Miss Howe.

In July: A lot of the letters between Clarissa and Anna are working out that Lovelace had been forging their letters to each other. Clarissa is really ill from her massive trauma and is unsurprisingly incredibly depressed. Really annoyingly, when Anna, Mrs Howe and several of Lovelace’s female relations find out what has happened to Clarissa they think the best solution is still for Clarissa to marry Lovelace. Clarissa has to write millions of letters saying she never will. Lovelace has sent his friend Belford to find things out about Clarissa and what she is up to. He doesn’t seem to think he’s done anything wrong (bastard) and that he can still win her over. Belford, however, is more sympathetic towards Clarissa. At the end of July Clarissa has written to her sister and has hinted in her letters that she would like to be if not forgiven by her family, then at least not hated.

Making myself go back and give Clarissa proper attention is what this book needs. Where I was once stalling, I can now wholeheartedly write that I LOVE THIS BOOK. And also, finally, I love Clarissa herself. Initially I wasn’t sure  because she seemed virtuous and not much else. Now I realise that she is less one-dimensional when you pay attention to what is unspoken. I mean, you don’t  as an eighteenth century woman write about how much you desire a less than virtuous man in your letters. But equally, you don’t run away with a man you find repulsive. So yes, she’s virtuous, but she is tempted too. And as more unpleasant things happen, her strength of character really shines.

After the first few months of letters, I never thought Clarissa would become so compelling, I can’t stress more that if you’ve started it you should pick it back up! You won’t regret it.

New To My Bookcase

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I went to a book fair today and here are my spoils: Cousin BetteSelected PoemsLady Chatterley’s Lover and French Life and Ways. I am particularly pleased about the Ted Hughes collection because it has my favourite poem in it.

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A cover shot of Lady Chatterley’s Lover has to be included because it is so iconic – I am really pleased to own a copy. French Life and Ways is a fun purchase: published in 1906 it is a series of conversations written in French and English. Basically it is a phrase book, but not like one I’ve ever seen before. It is very lyrical, very old worldly, very amusing and pretty much a piece of social history. I suppose I don’t technically need to know the proper way to ask for tea in a salon, or which seats in the theatre will have their views blocked by ladies’ hats, but I want to know all the same.

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In the last week – not at the fair – I picked up some more classics: The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A SelectionWar and Peace (I want to re-read this and my other copy fell apart), A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. In conclusion, my Classics Club list has crept up to over a hundred!

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I also got Night Walks, Wigs on the Green, Any Human Heart and Vanished Kingdoms.

What a week! In reading news, I’m still managing to keep to my Clarissa Schedule and have finished the second week’s pages but am holding off on a post about them until I get to the end of the June letters.

Happy December everyone!

Clarissa, Letters 161 – 218

Why did I put Clarissa down for six months? Its great! Last week I read the May letters and have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it has been to pick back up. No more language struggle and I’ve finally got to the part where there is full on plot!

Spoilers in this paragraph only: May sees Clarissa and Lovelace hiding away in town. Surprisingly they are still not married and Lovelace trying to be controlling and adoring in turns. Officially, he is trying to sort out his inheritance and estate settlement but instead he is scheming. The women of the house they are living in are conspiring with Lovelace and stealing Clarissa’s letters. There is a bit of a twist towards the end of this section where Lovelace pretends to be uniting Clarissa with her Uncle. He isn’t though… because he’s Lovelace.

In this section, more than any others, I’ve really started to appreciate Clarissa and her risky position. I’m intrigued by what the eighteenth century attitude to her life choices so far would be, as Richardson seems pretty sensitive to the difficulties in preserving a woman’s reputation – especially when there is a dastardly man involved. Anna Howe is still my favourite character because she is both a voice of reason and helps to remind me that these are essentially the romantic problems of teenagers. I really enjoyed this week’s reading and am going straight for the next part.

The Lady of Letters: How to Read Clarissa in Six Weeks

Yes, I am committed to my previous post and I will finish Clarissa this year. I am so committed I made a list (of course) to make sure I don’t spend the last few days of 2012 panicking that I can’t read it all in time.

Week One 19th – 25th November: Letter 161 – 218, page 702
Week Two 26th – 2nd December: Letter 219 – 253, page 867
Week Three 3rd – 9th December: Letter 254 – 319, page 1020
Week Four 10th – 16th December: Letter 320 – 381, page 1167
Week Five 17th – 23rd December: Letter 382 – 465, page 1339
Week Six 24th – 31st December: Letter 466 – end.

I have been reminding myself that the language will be tricky again but I’m certainly up for the challenge!

Ready, steady, read…

The Last Book List of 2012

I’ve been living in my new house for a couple of months now and I have finally got all my bookshelves back up and organised – including my bookcase of classics.

A small selection…

Obviously this means I have been rediscovering my books and I am craving a doorstop of a read. Chunky books, long reads; I love them. These are the ones from my bookshelves that I am itching to start:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (well, I did start this one… I just stopped)

Alas with seven weeks of the year left I won’t be able to read them all this year, plus I’m not mentioning that I started and laid aside both Martin Chuzzlewit and Shirley. I will get around to finishing both (I don’t give up on books!) but neither of them are right for what kind of book I’m in the mood for.

I am currently reading The Quincunx by Charles Pallister – also a long read at 1191 pages! I’m just over half way through so I think I’ll finish this week. Has anyone else read this? I am really enjoying it. It is a Victorian mystery but written by a modern author. I’ll do a proper write up when I’ve finished but so far, so good, and its great for storytelling in the style of Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

The next book I want to conquer is Clarissa. I’ve already read 500-ish pages of it so it only seems right to read this before I start another massive book. I’ve got 957 pages to go, and six weeks to read them in. That amounts to 159 (and a half) per week – easy. We’ll see anyway. I originally wanted to read Les Miserables by the time the film was released in January (I think) but that might be a bit too short notice. But that will be the next long read after Clarissa because I keep reading other people’s posts about it at the moment. Original credit must go to o, because I immediately bought a copy after reading this.

In conclusion – let’s celebrate winter 2012 by staying inside and reading really long classics.

I Have Been a Waif for Twenty Years

And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!

Always, always, always read your favourite books more than once. I fell in love with Wuthering Heights as a teenager because it was wild. A passionate, emotional book that every stroppy teenager can’t fail to identify with. As an adult – it is so much better. Everything that was difficult the first time (mainly who was related to who, and how) was simple, which meant I could pay attention to parts previously hidden.

I think the biggest thing about Wuthering Heights is confusion at its reputation for being a love story. Yes, Catherine and Heathcliff have no ordinary connection but I can’t help thinking that people who list them as a great couple must be mad! I had forgotten quite how horrible Heathcliff is and that really the book is about the very worst of human emotions: Jealousy, betrayal, revenge. What I really enjoyed during this particular read was the cathartic nature of younger Catherine and Hareton’s relationship. I found it much more touching than I did the first time.

I just really love Wuthering Heights. I can’t write about it in any way that does it justice because it is one of my everything books. It has fantastical depths and unrestrained brilliance and it never leaves you. When I was reading it, I felt like I was Lockwood too – looking in on this tiny rural society. Just read it . And then read it again.

I had an excellent Saturday – spent walking from Haworth to Top Withens, a ruin said to have inspired Emily Brontë when she was writing Wuthering Heights. Luckily, despite being absolutely FREEZING, not only did it not rain, there were even sporadic bouts of sunshine. The walk started in Haworth village and was a seven mile round trip across open moors like this:

Top Withens is next to that tiny tree in the distance!

I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum again but didn’t take any photos because I couldn’t beat the amazingly atmospheric mist that had descended when I went last year.

I am reading Shirley by Charlotte Brontë at the moment, although I haven’t read enough yet to talk about it. I think in terms of Brontë-love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still my favourite, closely – very closely – followed by Wuthering Heights.

Further reading: I love this Guardian review.