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Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope

Can You Forgive Her by Anthony TrollopeCan You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope
Series: The Pallisers #1
Published by Penguin Classics on January 1, 1865
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 847
Source: Purchased: print book
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Alice Vavasor cannot decide whether to marry her ambitious but violent cousin George or the upright and gentlemanly John Grey - and finds herself accepting and rejecting each of them in turn.

Increasingly confused about her own feelings and unable to forgive herself for such vacillation, her situation is contrasted with that of her friend Lady Glencora - forced to marry the rising politician Plantagenet Palliser in order to prevent the worthless Burgo Fitzgerald from wasting her vast fortune.

In asking his readers to pardon Alice for her transgression of the Victorian moral code, Trollope created a telling and wide-ranging account of the social world of his day.

So, it had been my plan to read all of the Palliser novels in 2016. Like many of my plans this year, this one was a flop. I read precisely one of the Palliser novels in 2016. This one. And it wasn’t even a book I hadn’t read before – I actually made it this far in the Palliser novels once before, in college. I am a Palliser failure.

It’s interesting as well, because even though I theoretically prefer the idea of political novels, being a bit of a political junkie, in reality, I had a much easier time with the Chronicles of Barchester – which are thematically ecclesiastical and countrified. I read all six of them last year and loved the heck out of them.

But, to return to the burning question of whether or not I can forgive her, let’s talk about this book. Trollope follows the courting and marital fortunes of three young ladies: Alice Vavasor, Kate Vavasor and Glencora Palliser nee M’Cluskie. Alice is really the primary character – and when we meet her she is engaged to John Grey, a thoroughly worthy man whom she professes to love. I think she does love him, but she’s sort of an idiot about it, to be quite honest. Kate shames her into breaking up with Mr. Grey so that she can get re-engaged to Kate’s brother (Alice had jilted George before the novel begins), who is also Alice’s cousin (eww), George Vavasor. This goes badly because George Vavasor is an abusive, violent ass who belongs in prison.

Simultaneously, we have Lady Glencora Palliser who is married to the incredibly dull Plantagenet Palliser, or Planty Pall, a political whiz kid who is being tapped as the Chancellor of the Exchequer because he is so ineffably dull and trustworthy that everyone wants to put him in charge of Britain’s treasury (and how lovely it, given the current situation with the recent U.S. election, is to think of the guy in charge of the national treasury being dull and trustworthy. I’m sure that Plantagenet Palliser would be capable of running his twitter account like an adult. But, I digress). Glencora was an heiress who fell in love with a wastrel – the handsome, lazy and not terribly bright Burgo Fitzgerald, but was convinced by her family to marry the boring guy instead. Glencora is pining for Burgo and his fine, manly form, Trollope being willing to openly acknowledge that women feel sexual attraction as well as men. Burgo is a man with an eye to the main chance, so he decides to try to persuade Glencora (and her money) to run away with him.

So, the full question of Can You Forgive Her would be, I suppose, Can You Forgive Her For Being So Incredibly Stupid? The answer is yes, provisionally. Alice is a rather modern young woman who wants a life that is more interesting than wife of a staid country squire, and her attraction to George was counter-productive but understandable. George needed Alice (and her money) to run for Parliament – and she found that a very worthy use for her inheritance. She – at the end – does the smart thing and marries John Grey, and because of her friendship with the Pallisers, John Grey is asked to run for Parliament. In essence, Alice gets exactly what she wants. Glencora,on the other hand, entirely lacks substance, so Trollope knocks her up and giving birth to the future Duke of Omnium provides her with a bit of gravitas. Poor Burgo just can’t win.

There’s a whole additional plotline about a widow named Mrs. Greenow and her two competing suitors – the unctuous, self-satisfied and revolting Mr. Cheesacre, and the flashy, acquisitive but less revolting, Captain Bellfield. I don’t have time for that plotline, though, so I’ll just mention it in passing. It is mostly hilarious to watch Mrs. Greenow play the two men like a pair of trouts on the line, as they are all the while thinking that they have the upper hand on her.

Trollope is at his best with his female characterizations in Can You Forgive Her. One of the things that he does best – as well as any of the Victorians and far better than most (cough, Dickens, cough), is write women who are complex, interesting and who feel like they could’ve authentically existed within the period. His writing is satirical and humorous, but not over the top so, and he clearly feels affection for his female characters. Alice and Glencora, for all that their fates remain consistent with his cultural reality, step far outside of the path that society intends for them at various times. Trollope, thankfully, does not punish them for these transgressions, but allows each to prosper in her own way.

Will Glencora ever fall in love with Plantagenet? Unlikely, but she seems to have gained some sense of contentment and maturity before the end of the book. Alice, on the other hand, has as good a chance at genuine happiness with John Grey as any female character in any Victorian novel ever. Only Kate, who remained true to the Victorian female ideal of slavish subjugation to an unworthy man through the entire novel, ends with a truly questionable fate – although I choose to think that Alice found her a wonderful man in the manner of Mr. Grey (although it is also entirely possible that Kate Vavasor was a lesbian, and that she was using fidelity to her brother to avoid the responsibility to marry a man, which would make the fact that her brother is such a thoroughly bad lot all that much more tragic).

So, I can recommend Can You Forgive Her, but I still significantly preferred pretty much everything in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. Ultimately, I preferred the country and the simple to the urban and political. Nonetheless, I still plan to read the rest of the Palliser novels, but I have no idea when that will happen. Maybe 2017?


Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Hangsaman by Shirley JacksonHangsaman by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Classics on 1951
Genres: Classics - by women, Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 240
Source: Purchased: ebook

Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

Hangsaman was Jackson’s second novel, after The Road through the Wall, which was published in 1948. Published in 1951, Hangsaman is nominally a bildungsroman about a college freshman named Natalie Waite who attends a Bennington College-like institution. She is the daughter of a second-rate writer and a mother who is a rather desperate housewife. Broken into basically three sections, the novel begins with Natalie at home, on the cusp of going away to college. The second part deals with her first weeks at school, and her fragility and difficulty adjusting to the changes. The third part is a frankly strange look at Natalie’s devolution into what appears to be mental illness. The ending is cryptic and unresolved.

There are several important women in this book. The male characters are largely superfluous to the story – being entirely self-absorbed and interacting with the women primarily as extensions of themselves, Eves to their Adams, created from their ribs, without independent significance. Natalie herself, as a college student, is in a state of limbo, as a young woman who has left the shelter of her father’s home but hasn’t yet transitioned to the shelter of a husband. She is very much in a waiting period – hence, probably, the last name that she was given. Her role in the community and in the larger world is unclear to the reader, and it is unclear to Natalie.

Her interactions with her father show disturbing and inappropriate amounts of enmeshment and a cavalier attitude towards Natalie’s autonomy. Confronted with her unhappiness, her father responds:

There is no doubt but what the class of girls you have as friends is not a representative one, but my plans for you never did include a broad education; an extremely narrow one, rather—one half, from the college, in people and surroundings; the other half, from me, in information. My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while.

Natalie’s relationship with her mother is even more tenuous and fraught than her relationship with her father. The first section focuses extensively on a party which her mother is hostessing, which her father has arranged, and there is a long discussion between Natalie and her mother in which her mother explains to her all of her father’s faults, and warns her against marriage. The party itself is excruciating and bizarre, with Natalie interacting with the guests and simultaneously carrying on a mental conversation with a detective who has, in her imagination, accused her of murder. And then there is the sexual assault, alluded to but unexplained, which occurs when one of the guests takes her into the woods behind her home and does something which is never described, nor really referenced again, but which hangs like a pall over the rest of the book.

Both of her parents only see her in relation to themselves, and not as an independent entity.

“It seemed that perhaps her father was trying to cure his failures in Natalie, and her mother was perhaps trying to avoid, through Natalie, doing over again those things she now believed to have been mistaken.”

In addition, Natalie’s fellow students, mostly women, largely dislike her as they jockey for social position, and at least one of her peers is involved in a sordid affair with a professor who is already married to an emotionally fragile ex-student who has grasped the brass ring (marriage, to a handsome intellectual, like Natalie’s mother. Or Shirley Jackson herself) and yet found her prize hollow, retreating into an alcoholic haze to cope. The other young women are superficial, dismissive, and occasionally even mean, but they are brashly capable of navigating a world that is causing Natalie to fall apart completely. Jackson was writing this book in 1951, while her husband was a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont, and as such she would have been intimately familiar with young women in Natalie’s position. There are references, some off-handed, some less so, about conflict between young women living in dormitories, about affairs, sometimes with professors, and suicides, and pregnancies and abortions. As the novel progresses, Natalie’s very grasp on reality seems to splinter, until, after her trip home for Thanksgiving, she is on a bus back to college , and

She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature—when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness . . . and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her—her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts like jewels never seen . . .

The narration changes, briefly from third person to first person. Even now, looking back, I don’t know what any of this means – who is the narrator of this passage? Is he – she – real? Natalie’s imagination, again? When Natalie returns to campus, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes almost a thriller, with midnight wanderings and a terrifying plunging through the dark Vermont woods.

Jackson was adept at plumbing the psyches of disturbed, repressed young women – Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie. This is an unsettling book, with its look backwards at the cost that society imposed on young women who didn’t fit into the roles that society prepared for them. Not a ghost story, not a murder mystery, Hangsaman is something more abstract but in some ways even more terrifying – a narration of the mental disintegration of a sensitive young woman in a society that neither makes an effort to understand her, nor cares little for her psychological well-being.

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail LermontovA Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Published by Penguin Classics on 1839
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 208
Source: Purchased: print book

In its adventurous happenings–its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues–A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin–the archetypal Russian antihero–Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

The description about adventurous happenings, abductions, duels and sexual intrigues makes this book sound far more interesting than it actually is. The “archetypal Russian anti-hero,” Pechorin, is a tedious amalgam of self-absorption lacking in even rudimentary self-awareness, and arrogance untethered from substance.

I actually read a different version. But the cover of this one is so much more perfect than my edition that I had to use it. Because, if I had to come up with a modern equivalent for Pechorin, he is the pretentious, annoying hipster, pretending to be deep and soulful, but really as shallow as a puddle on a hot day. The kind of irritating manipulative assbasket who needs to be unironically beaten to death with his copy of Gravity’s Rainbow before he cuts a swathe of destruction through the lives of other people with twice as much character.

Upon finishing, I was reminded of the men in Fitzergerald’s books (Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, and the relentlessly douchey Dick Diver), whom I universally loathe, and Bungalow 89, a revolting piece of pretentiousness passing for meta-fiction that I somehow stumbled upon in Vice, written (badly) by James Franco. You can find the original here, if you feel like a morning spent retching would be a good use of your time.

If I could Thunderdome him, I’d put him up against Austen’s mistress of manipulation Lady Susan. She’d steal his wallet and roll him for his kidney, leaving him bloody yet somehow still convinced that she is in love with him, and is the most perfect of women.

Conclusion: Skip it and go straight to Tolstoy.


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth GaskellNorth And South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Published by Penguin Classics on 1855
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 521
Source: Purchased: print book

'How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?'

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

John Thornton

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

the kiss

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage by Anthony TrollopeFramley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
Published by Penguin Classics on 1861
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 576
Source: Purchased: print book

Mark Robarts is a clergyman with ambitions beyond his small country parish of Framley. In a naive attempt to mix in influential circles, he agrees to guarantee a bill for a large sum of money for the disreputable local Member of Parliament, while being helped in his career in the Church by the same hand. But the unscrupulous politician reneges on his financial obligations, and Mark must face the consequences this debt may bring to his family.

Framley Parsonage is the fourth book in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. I’ve not yet made it to The Small House at Allington, which is the next book in the series, and seems to be universally beloved. In my order of preference, I would go: 1. Barchester Towers; 2. Framley Parsonage; 3. The Warden; 4. Dr. Thorne.

Framley Parsonage is basically a more perfected version of the same story told in Dr. Thorne.

In his autobiography, Trollope said about Framley Parsonage:

“The story was thoroughly English. There was a little fox-hunting and a little tuft-hunting, some Christian virtue and some Christian cant. There was no heroism and no villainy. There was much Church, but more love-making.”

As I’ve previously mentioned, I have really been enjoying the Chronicles of Barsetshire, and this book was no exception. There are two main intertwined plotlines: the (mis)fortunes of the unhappy Mark Robarts, a clergyman who unwisely finds himself in the midst of shady financial dealings with notoriously profligate and unreliable Mr. Sowerby, and the romance between Ludovic Lufton, son of Mr. Robarts high-minded patroness Lady Lufton, and Mark’s sister, Lucy, who is well-below Ludovic in social class. As you can likely guess, as Mark Robartes fortunes sink as a result of his gullibility with respect to Sowerby, Lucy’s fortunes hang in the balance.

It was often painful to read of Mark’s incomprehensibly poor decision-making. There were moments when I wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled. And I’m going to disagree a bit with Trollope’s assessment – Mr. Sowerby was thoroughly villainous.

Ultimately, though, it is a very satisfactory installment in the chronicles. And, while I’ve not read it, I recently learned that Jo Walton wrote a mash-up featuring dragons instead of Victorian clericals. Which sounds like the most awesome thing ever.

Framley Parsonage with dragons. Fuck, Yeah!

Framley Parsonage with dragons. Fuck, Yeah!

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
on 1850
Genres: Classics - American
Pages: 228
Source: Purchased: print book

Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne's concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale, trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided.

Ugh. I really hate the Puritans.


My relationship with this book is . . . conflicted. On the one hand, my number one biggest pet peeve is hypocrisy and this book is chock-full-o-hypocrisy. On the other hand, Hawthorne’s point is reasonably well-taken and his writing is quite compelling.

Everyone knows the general story: Hester Prynne, married woman whose husband is no where in the vicinity turns up pregnant, thereby establishing that she has – gasp – committed the grievous sin of adultery. Not inconsequentially, so has her partner, but given that he lacks a burgeoning belly broadcasting his sin, no one is able to name and shame him since she won’t say who it is.

Who is it? Josh Duggar. They met on Ashley Madison.

duggar ashley madison

Just kidding – it’s Reverend Dimmesdale, the town moral and spiritual leader hypocrite. I fucking hate hypocrites. Sorry for the profanity (not really). It being the 1700’s, she’s shoved into the stockades and then has to wear a scarlet letter on her dress forever.

Anyway, Hester gives birth to Pearl, a fey, otherworldly child. She’s relegated to a cabin in the woods, like the local hedge witch, where she dispenses herbal remedies and comfort to the long suffering denizens of the worst place on earth to live, if you’re a woman.

Reverend Dimmesdale, on the other hand, deteriorates into insanity because, unlike Hester, whose sin is upon her breast for all to see, his sin is hidden in the deepest, darkest, festering recesses of his soul. I think I am maybe supposed to feel bad for him. I don’t, by the way. I’m waiting for Anonymous to hack his email and expose him for the asshole that he is, along with all of the other town leaders who are no doubt getting a little something-something on the side, but since they are men, no one cares.

I like Hester, though. She makes lemonade out of lemons, for sure. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t recommend this book – or Hawthorne at all, honestly – unless you, like me, decide to do some sort of a classics project, in which case, skip the beginning Custom House part because it is tedious and adds nothing whatsoever to the story.

The end.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas HardyFar From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Published by Penguin Classics on 1874
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 433
Source: Purchased: ebook

Independent and spirited Bathsheba Everdene has come to Weatherbury to take up her position as a farmer on the largest estate in the area. Her bold presence draws three very different suitors: the gentleman-farmer Boldwood, soldier-seducer Sergeant Troy and the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak. Each, in contrasting ways, unsettles her decisions and complicates her life, and tragedy ensues, threatening the stability of the whole community. The first of his works set in Wessex, Hardy's novel of swift passion and slow courtship is imbued with his evocative descriptions of rural life and landscapes, and with unflinching honesty about sexual relationships.

I read this book all the way back in March, before the release of the new film adaptation. It was chock full of crazy melodrama. I wasn’t in the mood to write a thoughtful review, so I didn’t review it over here.

I posted a review on Goodreads, however, that has turned out to be the most popular review I’ve ever written. I’m still not in the mood to write a thoughtful review, so I’m just going to repost it over here.

Hi! I’m Bathsheba Everdene!

Bathsheba Everdene

And I’m Poor Decision Making Bathsheba Everdene

Poor decision making Bathsheba Everdene

I sent a random Valentine to a guy on a neighboring farm asking him to marry me, even though I don’t even like him! This turned him into an annoying semi-stalker who spent the next several years begging me to marry him for reals!

And then, in a further display of my terrible judgment, I married a philandering asshole who only wanted my money and my luminescent beauty! The girl he really loved starved to death with his unwanted child, so he spent a bunch of my money to buy her a really great headstone, and then ran away to join the circus!

And then, when he came back from the circus for no reason whatsoever, the semi-stalker shot him. AT CHRISTMAS! In front of the whole county.

Don’t be like this me!

Bathsheba and Gabriel

Marry Gabriel Oak on page 25, like you should have, you silly cow.

Miss Majoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

Miss Majoribanks by Margaret OliphantMiss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
Series: The Chronicles of Carlingford #5
Published by Penguin Classics on 1865
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 512
Source: Purchased: ebook

Returning home to tend her widowed father Dr Marjoribanks, Lucilla soon launches herself into Carlingford society, aiming to raise the tone with her select Thursday evening parties. Optimistic, resourceful and blithely unimpeded by self-doubt, Lucilla is a superior being in every way, not least in relation to men.

emma approved

I had expected to enjoy this book much more than I did, although my experience reading it was odd. While I enjoyed it, I also struggled with it and, at one point, set it down for months with only about 20% of the book left to read, before finally finishing it up last week. I think it just wasn’t the right book at the right time, because once I decided to put it to bed, it only took me a couple of hours.

The title character, Lucilla Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks, evidently) is very Emma Woodhouse-like. The book opens with her returning home to her village of Carlingford after finishing her education, and preparing to “be a comfort to her dear papa” and intending to whip the village into shape. Heaven only knows how they survived without her. She is a pistol.

Thus, while the town ripened more and more for her great mission, and the ignorant human creatures, who were to be her subjects, showed their usual blindness and ignorance, the time drew nearer and nearer for Miss Marjoribanks’s return.

So that it cannot be denied Miss Marjoribanks’s advent was regarded in Carlingford with as much interest and curiosity as she could have wished. For it was already known that the Doctor’s daughter was not a mild young lady, easy to be controlled; but, on the contrary, had all the energy and determination to have her own way, which naturally belonged to a girl who possessed a considerable chin, and a mouth which could shut, and tightly curling tawny tresses, which were still more determined than she was to be arranged only according to their inclination.

The book goes on from there, describing the rearrangment of the home, Lucilla’s exploits in throwing dinner parties, and her romantic travails. There are three young(ish) men vying for her hand at various times, but she has decided that she will remain unmarried for ten years to enjoy herself.

One gets the sense that she is a trial to her long-suffering papa, and that, far from desiring Lucilla to “be a comfort to him,” he would just as soon be left alone with his books and his fireplace. I sympathize with this desire. All of that coming and going and youthful energy can be draining. I picture him sitting here:


Wishing mostly to be left alone to read.

As it was with Jane Austen’s Emma, Lucilla gets herself into trouble with her meddling, and causes a number of little crises in the neighborhood. One gets the impression that no one appreciates her quite so much as she appreciates herself

She had succeeded in a great many things, but yet she had not succeeded in all; and she had found out that the most powerful exertions in behalf of friends not only fail to procure their gratitude, but sometimes convert them into enemies, and do actual harm; which is a discovery which can only be made by those who devote themselves, as Miss Marjoribanks had done, to the good of the human species. She had done everything for the best, and yet it had not always turned out for the best; and even the people who had been most ready to appeal to her for assistance in their need, had proved the readiest to accuse her when something disagreeable happened, and to say “It was your fault.”

In the second stage of her progress Miss Marjoribanks found herself, with a great responsibility upon her shoulders, with nearly the entire social organisation of Carlingford depending upon her; and, at the same time, with her means of providing for the wants of her subjects sensibly diminished, and her confidence in the resources of the future impaired to an equal degree.

Anyway, the book has quite a twist at the end, and one that was really unexpected. I was moderately impressed by Margaret Oliphant – she is a lesser Victorian who has gotten little recognition. This is her most famous book, and it only has 1,242 ratings on Goodreads. Miss Marjoribanks would make a fantastic BBC television adaptation, so someone really needs to get on that.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country by Edith WhartonThe Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
Published by Penguin Classics on 1913
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 370
Source: Purchased: print book

Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton's second full-length work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine's marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted. - Anita Brookner

This book is the second in Wharton’s cycle of books focusing on women and marriage in gilded age New York. The first, House of Mirth, was published in 1905. House of Mirth was her first full-length novel. The Custom of the Country was the second of the three, published in 1913. The Age of Innocence completes the cycle, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Each of them explore female autonomy and marriage in the late nineteenth century, focusing primarily on upper-class New York society and the extensive rules and limitations of that society.

The anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is Undine Spragg, a midwestern girl with seething ambitions who has dragged her newly rich family to New York. Born in the fictional Apex City, Undine has an outsized sense of importance coupled with absolutely no principles whatsoever. She is, and remains, total tabula rasa through the entire book, an empty vessel to be filled with whatever social niceties are required to fit into the group to which she aspires. She cares for essentially no one and provides no value at all save her extraordinary youthful beauty. Sirenlike, she convinces four different men: her father, Abner Spragg, her New York husband, Ralph Marvell, her French husband, Raymond de Chelles, and, coming full circle, her Apex City husband Elmer Moffatt that she is precisely who they want her – and believe her – to be.

In mythology, Undine is an elemental water spirit, a nereide, a nymph, who is born without a human soul and must marry a human male in order to achieve immortality. This is a fine analogy to Undine Spragg, a woman who is so utterly self-centered that she is incapable of even the barest human feeling for another person. Like a nymph, she is physically gorgeous, eternally youthful, lithe, slender and innocent of appearance. She has the ability to be completely artificial and yet appear utterly without artifice. The men whom she marries believe her to be exactly who she appears to be, until much too late.

Edith Wharton is frequently unkind to her female characters. Undine is different. She is never really forced to pay the price for her decisions, but, in part, I think that this is because she is incapable of feeling like she did anything wrong. She is a human wrecking ball, a vampire squid wrapped around the face of those who love her, sucking them dry and discarding the empty husk that she leaves behind.

In many ways, she reminds me of some of the other great anti-heroines in literature: Emma Bovary, Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, Becky Sharp. And there is nothing like reading about an anti-heroine and realizing that many of the qualities that make her an anti-heroine are the same qualities that might make a man a hero. Or, at a minimum, successful. Undine, as a woman, has no ability to make her own money or be independent, and she lacks any sort of a control or restraint to prevent her from behaving really, really badly. She is pure consumption, unbridled by convention, with no ability other than manipulation to achieve her aims.

She makes her parents miserable, with her constant social climbing and relentless demands. Near the beginning of the book, she has target-locked on a specific social class exemplified by old New York families, and demands that, in order to insinuate herself into that class, her father purchase her an opera box, so she can see and be seen the class with which she wants to associate herself. When her father demurs, because of the cost, but suggests he might be able to afford a seat, she responds:

“I’d a good deal rather have a box for the season,” she rejoined, and he saw the opening he had given her.

She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold — and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

Every decision she makes turns out, in her mind, to be the wrong one because she is simply incapable of contentment. There is a great, grasping need at the bottom of her that can never be filled. She marries into New York society, and that turns to ashes because, as it turns out, old families don’t necessarily possess the kind of material resources that she needs in order to be amused. And because she is Undine Spragg, beautiful and demanding, she never, not even for one minute, feels that she should have to make the best of any situation. Rather, the situation must make the best of her, or she is out. When husband number one conveniently kicks off, opening the way for her to remarry a Catholic French Count as a widow, not as a divorcee, she is briefly contented with the great chateau and the title.

In some ways, she’s met her match in Raymond de Chelles. She tries to manipulate him, and he merely ignores her. When she throws a tantrum over their reduced circumstances, and attempts to guilt him into selling some of his heirloom tapestries in order to keep her in her accustomed splendor, he responds:

“Ah, that’s your answer — that’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us!” He stopped a moment, and then let his voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. “And you’re all alike,” he exclaimed, “every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in — if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about — you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they are dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of what we have — and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.”

After this, she finally, ultimately, frees herself from him and marries her equal, Elmer Moffat, a man who is just as newly rich, just as crass, just as brash as Undine herself. With unlimited resources and a husband who will make no demands upon her, she believes that she has finally achieved that which she is due.

But even at the end of the book, I’m left with a strong belief that this one will not stick. That the black widow spider that is Undine Spragg de Chelles Moffat will not be content for long. The book ends:

But under all that dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guest she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Honestly, is there anyone, finishing this book, who doesn’t think that somewhere there is a president who doesn’t have a prayer in hell of standing in her way when she decides to marry the ambassador to France? Because seriously, Undine Spragg could reduce Donald Trump to a pile of quivering ectoplasm in thirty seconds flat.

Edith Wharton is, as always, brilliant. But, unlike so many of her other books, this book is a hard diamond of a thing. I cannot sympathize with Undine Spragg, because there is no humanity in her at all. She is the ultimate expression of the Randian ideal: pure selfishness, gorgeous and demanding, standing with hand outstretched, wearing a beautiful dress.

Penguin Classics A to Z: Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Penguin Classics A to Z: Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel HawthorneThe Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published by Penguin Classics on 1852
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 304
Source: Purchased: print book

A superb depiction of a utopian community that cannot survive the individual passions of its members. In language that is suggestive and often erotic, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells a tale of failed possibilities and multiple personal betrayals as he explores the contrasts between what his characters espouse and what they actually experience in an 'ideal' community. A theme of unrealized sexual possibilities serves as a counterpoint to the other failures at Blithedale: class and sex distinctions are not eradicated, and communal work on the farm proves personally unrewarding and economically disastrous. Based in part on Hawthorne's own experiences at Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community, The Blithedale Romance is especially timely in light of renewed interest in self-sufficient and other cooperative societies.

The only other Hawthorne I have read is The Scarlet Letter. In choosing the books to read for this little project, I decided to rely in large part on randomness and serendipity.

The basis of this book was Hawthorne’s time at Brook Farm, a communal living experiment conducted in the 1840’s by several well-known American intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. The experiment was largely a failure in real life, and it was very definitely a failure in fiction.

The main conflict in this book comes from the relationship between the narrator, Miles Coverdale, and three other characters: Zenobia, a young woman of fiery beauty, Priscilla, more delicate than Zenobia, and Hollingsworth. Told from the perspective of Coverdale, we basically have a love triangle between Hollingsworth and Zenobia/Priscilla. Coverdale himself is apparently not romantically attractive to either of the young women.

In time honored fashion, Hawthorne spends most of his time talking about the romantic travails of his characters and very little time actually talking about the process of growing food or surviving in a socialist utopia. It’s all rather silly, really, with altogether too much swooning, weeping, and manly chest thumping.

So, overall, it’s not a difficult read, but it also wasn’t, to me, a particularly compelling one. I’m no fan of wilting flowers in fiction, and Priscilla was wispy and girlish, and spent an excessive amount of time fainting. Zenobia was slightly more interesting, although the absurdity of her pulling an Ophelia in her distress over losing the guy is just really a total fail in my view.

I think I’m probably done with Hawthorne.

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