Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Read in 2011

The Italian

The Italian

Her heart was as heavy as her step; for when is it that peace and evil passions dwell together?

I’ve been reading more gothic stories, this time The Italian by Ann Radcliffe. Overall I enjoyed the novel and a return to Radcliffe’s beautiful writing. I read The Mysteries of Udolpho and whilst I liked it I got a bit stuck with all the descriptive landscapes. This novel in comparison was good because there was still the focus on the sublime landscape but it didn’t really get in the way of the plot. On the downside, there aren’t the supernatural elements you find in Udolpho.

I don’t want to give much of the story away because the beauty of The Italian were the (most often completely unexpected) twists and turns. Basically the story involves a forbidden love between a Neapolitan nobleman Vincentio di Vivaldi and the beautiful but lowly and orphaned Ellena Rosalba. Vivaldi’s mother concocts a plot with her confessor to have Ellena kidnapped and imprisoned in a nunnery. The course of true love never runs smooth: On their way to elope they are taken captive by the Holy Inquisition. Throw in some parental revelations and you’ve got yourself a pretty captivating story!

I think the reason I liked The Italian so much is that it has almost all of my favourite gothic qualities:

  • Pathetic fallacy: There is an amazing kind of atmosphere in this novel; storms in all the right places, still and beautiful evenings during vespers, despairing seas and obstacles as big as mountains.
  • The sublime: Definitely not a concept I completely understand but I am enjoying trying to work it out in my head – its the part of the novel that has really stuck with me afterwards. I think the focus on the landscape is supposed to invoke a feeling of greatness beyond human comprehension, which is why gothic novels (etc) manage to be both beautiful and horrible at the same time.
  • Disguise:  Lots of dark places, flowing robes, concealed people and paths, secret identities.
  • Villain: Schedoni, the confessor, is a perfect gothic villain. He is passionate, dark, guilty, ambitious, ruthless, has a horrible horrible past, and is supposed to be the basis of a lot of Byronic Victorian characters.

It wasn’t until I put this list together that I started thinking about Frankenstein. Shelley wrote her novel twenty years after this was published which I suppose makes it easy to see the beginning of Radcliffe’s legacy. There is something about the writing of the late 1700s/ early 1800s which is so interesting… Perhaps a new reading list is coming on.

Reading Ghosts

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Wasn’t he looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn’t see?

Ghost stories, horror films – whatever it is, nothing is more unsettling than creepy children. There is even a Phones 4 You advert on at the moment that involves a ghostly girl that I mute whenever it comes on the TV.

The Turn of the Screw involves a governess, her two charges, and the ghosts of a previous governess and manservant. What really got me about the ghost story itself was that you are never quite sure whether the ghosts are a trick by the children or whether the governess is mad. The reader doesn’t know which, and a lot of the time the characters in the story don’t know either. The experience of reading about the ghosts appearing was unsettling – particularly the first time one appears. The atmosphere is incredibly well written – the ghost appears, looking entirely human, standing on top of a tower looking directly at the governess who is walking in the garden. The way James described how the ghost was staring unrelentingly made me imagine it so clearly I got chills. I love reading ghost stories (despite being completely unable to watch horror films) because physically they give you something reading other genres can’t; I can swoon about romantic heroes, laugh at jokes and cry at unhappy tales but nothing heightens all the senses like a ghost story does.

This novella put me very much in the mindset of reading The Woman in Black, which I loved. I think the element of both that draw you in are the fact that the story is being read from something written down. In this case the story has been passed to the unnamed narrator by someone who was given a autobiography of the governess’ experiences. In The Woman in Black the story is being written/ told to the narrator’s family. I suppose the role of the narrator in the ghost story is to add some authenticity to the account. There is also something dangerous about listening to/ reading a ghost story – like you are being let into something secret, something irrational, but something weirdly familiar.

I thought The Turn of the Screw was quite different to The Portrait of a Lady, which is the only other Henry James novel I have read. One is more Victorian, the other more romantic. The contrast between the two, and the experience of reading both make me convinced I would like to read more Henry James.

The Daily Dickens

Bleak House

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Next year is Dickens’s 200th anniversary, a good time to correct some assumptions I had about him. I read Great Expectations a few years ago, and whilst I didn’t loathe it, I didn’t love it either. This might be because I had to study it, but mainly I thought it was bleak, depressing, and I hated all of the characters (with a slight exception towards Miss Havisham). I decided afterwards that all Dickens novels must be like this one and I wouldn’t like those either.

Well, I was WRONG. I picked Bleak House for a few reasons, mostly superficial:

  1. When I read Howards End is On the Landing, Susan Hill says it is her favourite of all of Dickens’s novels. Anything that might be an influence on Susan Hill seems like a good a recommendation as any.
  2. The penguin cover uses detail from Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw (1829) which has a lovely, atmospheric, slightly gothic quality.
  3. I adore the challenge of a long book.

Rather helpfully, Bleak House was split into twenty parts, published in nineteen monthly installments March 1852 to September 1853 and so the Daily Dickens challenge began.

“Bleak House operates outside, as well as within, its mid-Victorian context. Not only do its themes strike us with surprising immediacy: law, social justice and all the dangers of a diseased society, from political complacency to misdirected philanthropy leading to compassion fatigue; child abuse by neglect, exploitation or emotional deprivation; questions of feminism, the problems of working mothers and dependent parents; the psychology of escapism and frustration, depression and despair; even the deadening effects of the class system have survived the nineteenth century.” -Nicola Bradbury
The broad scope of the novel was incredibly appealing; Dickens included a whole range of society from slums to aristocratic drawing rooms. The novel’s central theme of  the Jarndyce and Jarndyce chancery suit creates very middle class main characters Esther, Ada and Richard. I liked Esther’s narrative running throughout the book, but she is definitely not the most interesting character. The court case spreads to include other levels of society (both above and below) which is where the really eccentric characters join the story.
One of my favourite characters was Lady Dedlock. At first her boredom and restlessness seems typical of her status, but as you delve into her life story her cool exterior becomes fascinating. The discussion of women’s choices in marriage and childbirth were given quite a respectable place in Bleak House, although their actual actions were of course governed by the conventions of the time.
Now that I have finished reading Bleak House, I feel as though I have been let into seeing the world as it was.

Penguin are holding a Dickens Readathon; attempting to read all of Dicken’s sixteen novels, one per month, finishing in the anniversary year. Whilst this is too ambitious a task for me with all the other reading I do, I can definitely now count myself a Dickens fan and will enjoy reading more of his novels in the future.

Painting Roses

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Retracing my childhood steps through Wonderland meant I found all kinds of things I had missed as a child. I have to say that I prefer Alice’s first set of adventures to her second, which is possibly why I couldn’t remember much of Through the Looking Glass, except for the Jabberwocky, but even remembering that might be down to the Tim Burton film.

The whole nonsense parts and word play were so much cleverer than I had remembered – I think because as a child, they went straight over my head – and for the first time I read all the poems through properly! Lewis Carroll seems to be something of an enigmatic figure and his relationship with the original Alice (Liddell) is a bit… dodgy… by today’s standards. There is going to be an exhibition at the Tate liverpool from the 6th November so I’m looking forward to finding out more.

I read that the three most quoted works of literature in the West are The Bible, Shakespeare, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The main thing I loved about Alice’s Adventures is how freshly imaginative the stories seem, even now. Considering how iconic Alice is – put a blue dress, stripey tights and a hairband on and everyone knows who you are supposed to be – the fact that the stories are unrivaled by any other writer is an amazing literary achievement.

The Tiny Wife

The Tiny Wife, Andrew Kaufman

The idea behind this is just as quirky as Kaufman’s All my Friends are Superheroes. But that book is good whereas this one isn’t. It is about a robber who only steals items of sentimental value, which means crazy things start happening to people. It seemed exactly like Andrew Kaufman tried to boil down All my Friends are Superheroes into some kind of formula, and then recreate the exact same thing. The Tiny Wife doesn’t smack of effort or originality like his first novel.

So, don’t read this, but read his other one instead.

Franny and Zooey

Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger

I confess I don’t know much about J. D. Salinger, other than:

Catcher in the Rye is amazing.

He was properly reclusive.

So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by reading something written by someone I don’t know much about, but surprised I was. I didn’t expect Franny and Zooey to be so religious. I guess I always thought of Salinger as too cynical for faith.

As soon as I started this I remembered why I loved J. D. Salinger’s writing all those years ago. It’s sparse, cutting narration. It’s sense of focus where people are flailing messy contradiction. Although as I side note I did remember not liking the speech giving worthiness a lot of his characters are disposed to do.

I liked the Franny section best for the atmosphere – the courtship of American college students in the fifties. And I guess everyone in their twenties has experienced the disillusionment Franny is going through.

This book was great for the purpose of literary discoveries – I enjoyed meeting Buddy Glass, who is said to be most like the author himself. But if this was the only thing I had read by J. D. Salinger I think I would have felt differently.

Weird Nostalgia

The Accidental, Ali Smith

This is the first Ali Smith novel I’ve ever read and, wow, she is good. The Accidental uses a family holiday in Norfolk to unravel a tangled family situation and their personal histories. She managed to make me interested in, and understand, characters that I never thought I would like. And whilst none of the Smart family were particularly likeable I did feel myself rooting for them.

Ali Smith is queen of this century’s stream of consciousness, which whilst interesting, is not always easy to follow. Her writing is very clever, and seems very natural when it must be incredibly well thought out.

After this, I would definitely recommend and read more by Ali Smith. The Accidental was a nice end to my summer reading.

When Shall We Three Meet Again?

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown

I read so many classics, and I’ve always endured a love affair with the writing of previous centuries. So many hours spent as a child labouring over high society and high language has left me feeling like easy reads are not worthy reads. But of course they must be, I fell quickly in step with the world of The Weird Sisters mostly because of its conversational tone. I felt like a confidant of the innermost secrets and histories of the characters.

It was one of those books where everyone complains about their family set up which, in short, sounds amazing. Being named after Shakespeare characters, hobnobbing with university professors, reading all day and long into the night…

Eleanor Brown must be incredibly well read and scholarly but she doesn’t show off about it, which was nice.

One idea that has really stuck with me since finishing The Weird Sisters is that a love of reading is like searching for the one book that you can adopt as yourself. We are all waiting to find the one story, the one collection of words that defines us, so we know we aren’t alone.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

After bumbling through the first half of this book at an agreeable (but slow) pace, I caught a cold. The past two days have been spent in a mad devouring, delirious kind of reading – this book has enchanted me.

Susanna Clarke is a complete legend. She has crafted her tale expertly, particularly when it comes to her alternative history of England. I love books that mix the real and the fantastic, and I love it even more when they do it believably. The tone of all the myths and stories were just right – I kept forgetting and trying to remember if I’d heard of them before. The legend of the Raven King fits perfectly into the English historical landscape. The images of the ravens and the fields remind me of childhood holidays in the countryside.

I’ve had this book for a while without managing to psyche myself into starting it. I finally began to read after reading The Night Circus. The inside jacket of the book described it as like Angela Carter, Audrey Niffenegger and Susanna Clarke. Clarke was the last in the trinity so it seemed like I was bound to love this really.

Throughout the whole book I kept thinking that nothing was obvious. Clarke doesn’t pick the spells you’d expect, the myths you’d expect, or even the places you’d expect. Obviously I can’t talk about the ending but hell yeah. It is a satisfying one.

This weekend I must take a trip. I need the northern landscape, moors and paths through the heather.

Tea with Darling Miss Lucia and Miss Mapp

Mapp and Lucia, E. F. Benson

I am so intrigued to find out how funny this kind of book is to people who aren’t English. I would describe Mapp and Lucia as quintessential English dry wit – very much the same vein as P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books. Since reading this I have discovered it is actually number four in a series. I suppose this is the most readily available one as it contains the two main socialites Mrs Lucas and Miss Mapp jockeying for position.


I loved this – it was so light and made me chuckle out loud. I got so attached to the characters, which admittedly seems bizarre because they are all so awful! They roam around the 1930s countryside, renting each other’s houses, acting out Francis Drake’s knighthood in full regalia, painting, playing Mozart, pretending to speak Italian and continually trying to out do one another. The whole plot of the novel is basically centred on schemes to beat one’s social rival whilst pretending not to have those intentions at all.

I would definitely read some of the others when I wanted to read something cheerful and light.