Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Writers

Look at Me! The Author!

A Classics Club achievement – another Wilkie Collins completed. After loving The Woman in White I moved onto The Moonstone and I now appreciate why Collins is accredited with being the father of the detective novel. It’s a little bit of a tie as to which was my favourite because there were parts of both books that I enjoyed. With The Woman in White it was the characters and the atmosphere that captivated me, but The Moonstone was completely plot driven.

The Moonstone is about an Indian diamond that goes missing after a dinner party, but it goes much further than a classic whodunit! There are some great characters, particularly the ones languishing away with unrequited love, but I didn’t get attached to them like I did with characters in The Woman in White. However, this was a really enjoyable book that kept me guessing  all the way through (I didn’t work it out).

Wilkie Collins is an author who always draws the reader’s attention to his purpose. The Dead Secret was an experiment in what happens to the reader when they are told the plot twists at the beginning of the book, before the characters are. In The Woman in White Collins wanted to ‘trace the influences of circumstance upon character’, whereas the purpose was the opposite in The Moonstone – how characters shape circumstance. I thought it was quite witty the way different narrators appeared as the ‘author’:

Here follows the substance of what I said, written out entirely for your benefit. Pay attention to it, or you will be all abroad when we get deeper into the story. Clear your mid of the children, or the dinner, or the new bonnet, or what not. Try if you can’t forget politics, horses, prices in the City, and grievances at the club. I hope you won’t take this freedom on my part amiss; it’s only a way I have of appealing to the gentle reader. Lord! Haven’t I seen you with the greatest authors in your hands, and don’t I know how ready your attention is to wander when it’s a book that asks for it, instead of a person?

I think the self-consciousness of the book makes reading it feel a bit like going to a murder mystery party: You and a group of people are dressed up and acting out parts and you have an influence over the outcome.

Even whilst writing this post I’ve been umm-ing and ah-ing about which I preferred… I think it is The Woman in White, but only just.

The Woman in White

I hadn’t planned on reading Wilkie Collins straight after Little Dorrit, because I really really want to read the copy of I Capture the Castle I bought last week. But there is a The Woman in White readalong and seeing as it was on my Classics Club list – why not? I’m self confessedly rubbish at following reading schedules so you shall not be surprised that I didn’t manage to follow this one either. If you want to take part, the readalong is going on until the end of April.

Before I say anything else, I have to start with some gushing. The Woman in White is brilliant! If you haven’t read it, put it on your to read list immediately (and then actually read it). A mightily fine book, but maybe not the one you were expecting. As the readalong graphic proclaims: there are no ghosts. This was a surprise as I had just always assumed this was a gothic kind of ghost story. Instead it is an insanely well crafted thriller told by several different narrators with twists that made me (embarrassingly, actually) gasp out loud. Should you be in the mood for a gothic story, there are plenty of elements to keep you happy; passions running high, doubles, people being locked up and setting churches on fire.

Comparing Dickens and Collins seems quite natural; they were contemporaries and travel buddies. What struck me about both writers was that I thought their writing was quite effeminate.  Both have a reputation of authoritative maleness that made their choice of writing from a woman’s perspective surprising. I was definitely pleasantly surprised when Esther appeared as a narrator of Bleak HouseI suppose the question is whether the female voices are accurate, or just appear to be. With women’s voices so limited in the 19th century their fictional representatives often fall into types: Virtuous or scandalous, wronged and weak or defiant and disobedient. There are hints of both in Collins’ writing.  The male / female divide wasn’t limited to the female characters themselves. Walter Hartright, the overall narrator of The Woman in White reminded me of Gilbert Markman from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Were the Brontës writing in their own voices, or had they mastered writing as men writing as women? A side note: if you like Anne Bronte you’ll like this.

Earlier this year I read The Dead Secret, which was the novel that Collins wrote before The Woman in White. It very nearly put me off Wilkie Collins altogether! I read that it is seen as Collins practicing the themes he mastered later in his writing. To be honest, the effect of this was that it seemed like a very underwhelming version of this novel. There are still secrets, grand old houses and mysterious parentage, but it is nowhere near as successful as The Woman in White.

Nice to Meet You, Mr. Wells.

I’ve progressed from men of property to men of parts:  A Man of Parts by David Lodge.

David Lodge draws on letters, autobiography and novels to create a fictional biography of H. G. Wells. I haven’t read any books by Wells, in fact the only thing I knew about him prior to beginning this book was that he had a fairly unconventional marriage. Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements explored Wells’ belief in free love: Basically whilst Wells was a married man, he had an arrangement with his wife that he could have affairs as and when he pleased. A Man of Parts focuses on the relationships Wells had with various mistresses and how that affected his career and beliefs.

I’ve only ever read one other fictional biography, which was The Paris Wife and was about Hemingway in the Paris literary scene of the 1920s. I really enjoyed that book because of the dynamic created by looking in on a circle of writers. A Man of Parts doesn’t disappoint in this way: H. G. Wells’  contemporaries were writers like Ford Madox Ford and Henry James. The discussion about why different writers choose to write was interesting. For example Henry James was portrayed in this novel as writing towards the higher (?) purpose of creating art itself. He was interested in beauty rather than structure. Wells in contrast was writing to change the world. He used his novels as a medium for expressing his social and political views. The discussion of writing was very welcome in a book about a writer; I enjoyed reading about how Wells worked best and how prolific his writing was.

H. G. Wells was a writer of a very particular era. (Yes, more war talk!) His writing prior to the war was political and heeded warning messages for the future. This changed to a very pessimistic and hopeless outlook after the second world war. He was also a socialist, and  advocated women’s rights, particularly for unmarried women with children… Whilst he was impregnating mistresses, he was looking after them!

You don’t need to have read H. G. Wells to appreciate this book, in fact, Lodge may just convince you to read them. The book relies heavily on the theory that art copies life, and so each of the novels appears to be a product of each period of H. G. Wells’ life. To such end, I now have Ann Veronica and Tono-Bungay ready and waiting. They aren’t so much science fiction as his more famous novels, more social commentary, and from parts of the book that I found most interesting. I’d also like to read Mr. Britling Sees It Through, but I will have to hunt out a second hand copy first as its out of print.

I’ll let you know what I think of H. G. Wells’ own writing in a few days…

The Modern Writer Needs Neither Characters Nor Plot

The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels could no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it.

There is a joke between my friends about readers splitting into two camps: reading for plot or reading for people. I confess that most of the time when deciding to read a book, I don’t really consider the plot. I’ve started many famous novels with no idea what they are about but they have passed my first line test regardless. I won’t ever buy a book without reading the first line. My plot driven friends have decided that the books I like to read are ‘full of people chatting in drawing rooms’. So, when I read this passage in Atonement, there was no way I could let it pass without comment. The novelist in the paragraph above is Briony Tallis, the narrator, the younger sister, the one who needs to atone.

Virginia Woolf and her stream of consciousness novels influence Briony’s writing, and  Ian McEwan may be following his own advice. This is the second of his novels that I have read (the other being Enduring Love) and there are similar methods of writing in each: Plot and characters come second place to impression and small unusual events. In Atonement it is a play, a broken vase, a fountain. In Enduring Love it is  a hot air balloon, a picnic, a child. The writer picks out a detail of life that wouldn’t feature in the lives of characters in any other novel. Ignoring an outright description of character makes for the strongest impressions. I think you can never truly know how you would react in certain situations unless you are in them, but the way you react tells you more about yourself than any mundane description could. McEwan uses this idea to his advantage and creates truly real characters. Without seeming to strive to create them at all.

Now having said that plot isn’t an issue, Atonement is a fabulous story. It manages to explain broad concepts in humanity like love and war through a concentrated set of characters. There is childhood, there is a war, there is the home left afterwards. I really enjoyed the constructed nature of Atonement. All the references to Briony’s writing, as well as being told from the start about her ‘crime’ makes the purpose of the story clear, but it never unfolded the way I would have predicted.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?

The ending, perfect fiction. In a few words, the meaning of the novel changes. It is the cleverest thing I have read in ages. (I remember the very same effect in Enduring Love!) The story is a brilliant one and as clichéd as it may sound I feel like I’ve come full circle with the people in it.

The edition I have is part of the Vintage 21st birthday series. Each novel is a different colour, Atonement is much more green than my photo makes it look: it is exactly the colour of Cecelia’s dress worn that evening in the library…

I am now reading The Report by Jessica Francis Kane. It is about the events at Bethnal Green tube station during the blitz, ever so slightly (sob) linked to Atonement.

Paris with Nancy Mitford

This month I changed my mind about everything I wanted to read. I put Dickens to one side and I picked up a modern classic instead. A new reading love affair began with The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. Oh, it has been a whirlwind fling! Once I had finished the first book I immediately went and bought Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. I’ve devoured them all and I’m longing to go back to Paris!

Nancy Mitford writes brilliantly witty social commentaries about an age completely lost after the war. She writes about the difference between English and French aristocrats, their love affairs, high society and gossip. The characters are absolutely amazing; there were so many times I put the book down and said ‘You’ll never believe what has happened now!’ In a true testament to how original and enjoyable I found these novels: I feel exactly like Nancy opened a door into these characters lives and let me watch it all play out. I feel really sad that I’ve finished them, but know I’d happily re-read these books over and over again.

The Pursuit of Love is set in the English countryside. Alconleigh is a similar country house to the ones the Mitford girls grew up in. Fanny, the narrator, and her cousin become of age and start looking for love. The book mainly follows Fanny’s cousin Linda, whose marriages take he from conservative MPs in England to Communists in Spain before eventually finding true love in Paris. Fanny is autobiographically based on Nancy herself, and as a narrator she is fantastic. I was dying to know more about her!

Love in a Cold Climate follows Fanny as a newly married woman in Oxford. She tells the story of a childhood friend, Polly, and her marriage following her return to England from India. There are some brilliant characters and plenty of high society. I’m not sure why this is the referenced Nancy Mitford novel, I preferred The Pursuit of Love.

The Blessing is a full on Parisian extravaganza. The love affair is between Grace, and English girl and her french husband Charles-Edouard. Their son is a total brat and concocts many an elaborate scheme to keep them apart. Full of Parisian life and romance, this novel is a decadent indulgence, but has plenty of ridiculous characters to laugh at!

Don’t Tell Alfred is a (for me) much appreciated return to Fanny’s life. It takes place after her children have grown up, when her husband is unexpectedly given the job of Ambassador to Paris. It is only fair that Fanny gets to go to Paris too, I suppose! This is a slightly sad novel as it covers the changing attitudes of the younger generation.

What comes Next? I fancy going for WWII / 1930s-1950s  kind of books so expect Atonement, more Stella Gibbons, maybe even the beginning of The Forsyte SagaLittle Dorrit is not abandoned, but there is plenty of time for Dickens when I’m more in the mood. Ditto Clarissa. Meanwhile it’ll be a test to see if I can wait for payday before I buy Wigs on the Green – the last (in print) novel of Mitford’s left to read.

Endings, of Sorts

Time has been flying by this month and I’ve ended up posting this a lot later than I thought I would have. This post is a bit of a mash up of my reading over the last two weeks before Christmas – Christmas posts to follow shortly!

After my bout of complaining about Sense and Sensibility I did manage to complete Emma. I even enjoyed it. It was the first time I had read it, and found its silliness somewhat light relief after ploughing through Sense and Sensibility. I loved the character of Emma’s father; his gruel in the evening, panic at dining in company, wariness of chills, robbers, colds, overexertion, wet feet, mist, marriages… As for Emma herself, I thought she was pretty lucky that everyone was so tolerant and adoring of her. I’m not sure she’d get the same reaction today – although Cher was pretty believable in Clueless. I wonder if Austen felt a little bit of glee in sending up women like Emma (I hope so!). I suppose I read Austen for the marriages not the money, although I did miss having a heroine I truly wanted the best for.

I called it a day on Advent with Austen after that, but I was pleased with what I managed. I read Death Comes to Pemberley, Jane’s Fame, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. My conclusions are: I admire Austen for the legacy she has left and I have no desire to ever read an Austen spin off. At long last I have read all of Austen’s major novels and my order of preference is:

  • Northanger Abbey
  • Persuasion
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Emma
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Mansfield Park
I didn’t get to read Claire Tomalin’s biography or Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, but thats okay – they’ll just sit snugly on the shelf until their time comes.
Following the Austenathon I needed something new, but guaranteed to be brilliant. I started writing a round up of the this years reading when the solution was obvious – Margaret Atwood. She is one of my very favourite authors, who I first discovered back in January. I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was immediately hooked by Atwood’s immense talent and sheer genius. She is so intelligent and such a brilliant writer. She creates characters I feel I know inside and out, people I’ve lived with, loved, parted with, and missed as soon as the book is over. I then picked The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace to read back to back and loved them both too. So I chose the last two Atwoods on my bookshelf to see the year out as it began.
Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride? I could read them both (and did!) but which to start with? I read the opening lines of both:
‘Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.’ – Cat’s Eye
‘The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began.’ – The Robber Bride
I eventually picked Cat’s Eye because of the introduction by Ali Smith – nothing but praise, enthusiasm and an urging sense that not reading this book means you are missing out… It turns out I had been missing out, because Cat’s Eye is a fantastic book. I absolutely fell in love with the main character, Elaine. The book is about childhood, growing up, bullying, depression, creativity and the passing of time. It was such a realistic portrayal of childhood innocence and the way the rituals and games of youth are remembered. This has definitely overtaken The Blind Assassin as my favourite of all Margaret Atwood’s book which I’ve read so far.

The Robber Bride didn’t hook me in quite the same way: it wasn’t instant love like Cat’s Eye but a growing interest in the characters. Zenia is a fantastic literary villain – after a few chapters I couldn’t believe how much I disliked her! I can’t recommend Margaret Atwood’s books enough, because I haven’t read books by many other authors with such a fantastic imagination.

Lost the Will to Austen

Advent with Austen has had the very unfortunate (and unexpected) outcome of making me unable to read any more. Before I started this, I had grown up appreciating Austen – ever since my Mum and I watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I was eight and had found the pinnacle of romance. We visited the stately homes, talked about the merits of and empire line and I read the book.

So far, so good. At University I had to study Mansfield Park. Despite this being Jane’s favourite I couldn’t get into it, but put that down to (a) studying it, and (b) that Mansfield Park and the heroine differs to her other novels. So even though I was never taken with Mansfield Park I still considered myself an Austen fan. A few years later I read Northanger Abbey and fell in love. Not only that, but it introduced me to a whole genre of writing that I’m still enjoying discovering. Quite recently I added Persuasion to my list, and carried on appreciating Austen.

The first book I read for Advent with Austen was Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman. I really enjoyed this book and it whet my appetite for exploring more of Austen’s writing. The best part of Jane’s Fame is how Harman captures the reception of Austen’s work through each century after publication. I also found out which authors Austen enjoyed – Samuel Richardson for one, an author I can’t wait to try, and who I cannot mention without a reference to o’s review of Clarissa (probably my favourite ever book blog review).

My overall feeling reading Jane’s Fame was guilt for not having read the major novels, let alone any of the short/ unfinished stuff. So here was my opportunity, and Sense and Sensibility was dusted off. As you may have read – I didn’t like it! But other people do! It is some people’s favourite Austen novel! Alas, even with a weeks hindsight, I still don’t see it – and everyone else’s reviews just leave me confused.

Perhaps against my better judgement I decided that finishing the big six would make me feel better so I went straight onto Emma. It has been a week, I’m barely half way through, I have 29 chapters to go and I seem to have lost all enthusiasm for reading. I’m bored. I’m bored with Austen. How has it all gone so wrong? I really and truly love three of her books. Why is she ruining this for me? Maybe this is a lesson in not just liking classics for the sake of their canonical value. I suppose its very unlikely that I’m going to love every classic I read. But the status of books as ‘classics’ heightens their worth for me – they have stood the test of time and are part of history. They shape writing today and in the case of Austen, they shape popular culture.

I’ll finish Emma, but it won’t be the achievement I thought it would be before I started. I can’t be alone in this: Are there any classic authors or novels you felt sure you would love but didn’t?

An Ambitious Year of Dickens

Next year is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday! Having recently discovered (perhaps a little late) how brilliant he is, I’m going to try and read as many of his novels in 2012 as possible. I’m really excited to extend my repertoire and am planning to read from his big sixteen novels:
  • The Pickwick Papers, 1837
  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, 1838
  • The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1839
  • Barnaby Rudge, 1841
  • The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841
  • A Christmas Carol, 1843
  • The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844
  • Domeby and Son, 1848
  • David Copperfield, 1850
  • Bleak House, 1853
  • Hard Times, 1854
  • Little Dorrit, 1857
  • A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
  • Great Expectations, 1861
  • Our Mutual Friend, 1865
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870


Reading Shakespeare

I am so excited about Risa’s Reading Shakespeare event. A play a month for 2012 – yes please. As a teenager, I loved Shakespeare. I used to look forward to studying them at school just for an excuse to learn more about them! Unfortunately I lost my enthusiasm but I fully intend to get it back… AND I’ve already got tickets to see a production of A Winter’s Tale in February – so I might read that as well… Whilst I’m making ambitious reading plans, I might as well throw in an a desire to read Shakespeare by Bill Bryson too.

I fully intend to read all of these, and hopefully I will stick to it. The schedule is:

January: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
February: Macbeth
March: Henry V
April: Much Ado About Nothing
May: Antony and Cleopatra
June: Richard III
July: As You Like It
August: King Lear
September: Cymbeline
October: Twelfth Night
November: Othello
December: Pericles

The added bonus: there will be posts on 15th, 18th, 21st, 24th, 27th of each month which correspond to Acts I, II, III, IV, and V. Each play will get a very thorough reading!

There really is such a magic to Shakespeare’s plays, whenever I’ve seen one performed I’ve been blown away.

Sorting Out Sensibility

I’ve started reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time and it wasn’t until chapter ten that I suddenly thought… Sensibility… What is it? Austen’s titles are so recognisable that I never thought about the words she chose for them. A little bit of afternoon research and I feel better! Sensibility isn’t a word we use now, but it was quite the concern of the eighteenth century.

Sensibility began as a scientific concept quickly adopted by philosophers. It is based on people’s perception of and response to events. It seems to be an emotional and intellectual concern – people with sensibility often showed signs of extreme distress, tenderness and ‘fine feeling’. This popular idea inspired writers who turned it into a literary movement: the sentimental novel. For example the narrator of The Sorrows of Young Werther demonstrated a very exaggerated response to unrequited love which led to young readers following his unwise example *spoiler removed, sorry Jillian!*.

The sentimental novel seems quite similar to gothic novels: I’m particularly thinking of Ann Radcliffe’s heroines! They faint at a moments notice, love passionately and unwaveringly, and weep at the beauty of mountains. There are a couple of other authors who wrote novels about sensibility that were admired by Jane Austen, for example Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the sentimental novel was no longer popular; perhaps sensibiity had become cheapened; the activities involved in being ‘sensitive’ became more associated with illness. Sense and Sensibility was a latecomer to the genre, and satirises the sentimental novel by contrasting sensibility with actual sense and reason: Elinor Dashwood is sensible and considering, whilst Marianne Dashwood is passionate:

Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility.

I’m quite good at avoiding ever finding out the plot of classic stories if I’m likely to ever read them, so I have never seen an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility or let anyone tell me anything about the plot, so I’m curious to discover – reason or emotion – which will prevail?

And so, Advent with Austen continues. I finished Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame last night but I think I will wait until the end of my Austen adventures to review it.