Tag: classics club

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.


The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith WhartonThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
on 1920
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 305
Source: Purchased: ebook

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”

This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

The Age of Innocence is the third book in Wharton’s loosely-linked cycle focused on upper class New York of the 1870’s (the other two books are The House of Mirth, published in 1905, and The Custom of the Country, published in 1913). She’s writing from a distance, looking backward between 30 and 50 years, but this is an era and subject that is deeply familiar to her by dint of her birth. Wharton herself was fairly unconventional – unhappily married to a man who was seriously mentally ill, she commenced an affair with a newspaperman and divorced her husband.

The Age of Innocence, unlike the other two books, is narrated by a male character, Newland Archer, who provides a bridge between the older, conventional attitudes and newer, more liberated attitudes, and is, to some degree, crushed by convention. He lives on the cusp of change, but chooses to follow the strictures of society. He is conflicted about what he really wants from his life.

On the one hand, when speaking of his future wife, he says:

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set,” in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

He chooses May Welland to be his wife, an athletic, beautiful and extremely proper young girl who is totally conventional. He announces this choice with desperately unfortunate timing on the very evening that he will meet May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who, as it turns out, represents the consuming passion of his life. There are many moments during the book that are turning points, where he could choose passion, but, instead, he follows duty and societal expectation.

There is something both noble and sad about Newland Archer. He was an anachronism, even in Wharton’s time – the honorable man who would sacrifice passion for domesticity. As the book continues, the shackles around Archer tighten by his own choice. At any moment, he could throw caution to the wind, leave May, leave New York, and follow his heart. But he never does, and I end up thinking more of him for the sacrifice, not less.

He could not deplore (as Thackeray’s heroes so often exasperated him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

Archer acknowledges that May has been raised to be just that which she has become – a “blank page.” She has been raised to go, innocent, from father’s home to husband’s home. The entire society is in a conspiracy to ensure that ladies like May never have to confront the difficulties of life. How terribly suffocating and infantilizing that must have been. But, in spite of that, she knows, of course, that her husband is passionately in love with someone else. And it isn’t just sexual passion, it is also intellectual passion. With Ellen, he has found his soulmate and his intellectual equal, someone who would challenge him. May was not capable of engaging him.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

In the end, what does Archer gain? Well, his children of course, who love him quite dearly. And May, who, limited as she was, sacrificed as well.

He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died — carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child — he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

By the end of the book, Archer’s world has changed inalterably. His son is marrying the daughter of Julius Beaufort, a young woman who resembles Ellen Olenska in many ways – sparkling, vibrant, unconventional – with the approval of society. Archer knows that it has changed too late for him – he is the old guard, his children are the new. They will get their chances. He sacrificed his for duty.

Wharton knows how to end her books with a knife twist to the gut, and we get one here, too. Archer doesn’t hold out for happiness at the end. He lived the life he chose, and he will honor that choice, painful, limiting, sometimes sad and always dutiful, even to the end.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters. At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

That hurts.

Madame Bovary, Book III

Madame Bovary, Book IIIMadame Bovary (Book 3) by Gustave Flaubert
on 1856
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 335

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'

Henry James wrote: “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment.” (James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 80.)

I would not go so far as to call it perfection. But it is very, very good from a technical perspective, although it seems to lack soul. Or heart.

Part 3 begins with Emma and Leon meeting one another at the Rouen Cathedral. They re-encountered one another at a play, and made plans to meet. Emma wrote Leon a letter, explaining that she could not become his mistress, but when she is unable to have it delivered to him, she takes it to the cathedral to give it to him herself.

Then, seeing her again after three years of absence his passion reawakened. He must, he thought, at last make up his mind to possess her.

Whether her intentions are pure or not, it all goes awry, and one of the great and lasting parts of the book occurs when Emma and Leon take a coach which they use to drive around and around town, endlessly, obviously committing adultery in the back. This is probably the strongest image within the book – we see it from the perspective of the coachman, who states:

He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression.

And then Flaubert tells us:

Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.

In the beginning of the affair, Emma is again full of joy and life and the emptiness is, temporarily, filled by the passion that Leon stirs within her. But, of course, it cannot last, and Emma begins, again, foolishly, to turn to debt and shopping in an effort to fill herself. She desires to cut off the affair with Leon, as he has become as familiar to her as her own husband. In one of my favorite quotes, Flaubert tells us that

They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

Isn’t that wonderful – “the platitudes of marriage.” This section of the book is so frustrating, because I just wanted to shake Emma until her teeth rattled, telling her that she was a silly woman, that she was squandering everything. As she becomes more desperate about the failure of the affair, she becomes more profligate, less able to resist temptation. She is morally and financially bankrupt, soulless and demanding, seeking to be filled up externally rather than finding a way to fill herself.

There is, of course, no happy ending for Emma Bovary. Like Anna Karenina and Lily Bart, both of whom came after Emma, the prevailing society demands the proper punishment for a woman who dares to demand more than she afford in both life and love. In a deeply desperate, and absurdly romantic, fit, she commits suicide. But even that is bungled – rather than fading off in an appealingly girlish and pathetic fashion, she dies in terrible pain, in fits and gushes and grossness. Flaubert pulls not a single punch with Emma’s demise, we hear of it in all of its terrible glorious drama.

And there is no happy ending for anyone else, either. By the end of the book, the sins of the mother are visited upon poor Berthe, who loses everyone and everything, and ends up a factory worker, in a cotton mill.

So, what was Flaubert’s point? Was he telling the bourgeoise to want less, to not even try to ape their “betters?” That the realistic pessimism and emotional privation of their lives was all there was ever going to be? Or was he strangely sympathetic to his creation. He is quoted as having said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” What does this even mean? Does it mean, as some readers have speculated, that Flaubert is referring to using his own adulterous affair with a poet as the basis for Emma Bovary’s relationships? Or is it deeper than that, describing a self-loathing of his own bourgeoise roots as the son of a surgeon, with his own pessimistic tendencies and his own desire to be more.

Ultimately, for me, Emma Bovary falls far short of Lily Bart from The House of Mirth (by Edith Wharton), but ends up on par with Tolstoy’s remarkably self-indulgent Anna Karenina.

My final post on Madame Bovary will deal with The Public vs. M. Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert’s 1857 obscenity trial following the publication of the novel in La Revue de Paris.



Madame Bovary, part 2

Madame Bovary, part 2Madame Bovary (Book 2) by Gustave Flaubert
on 1850
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 335
Source: Purchased: ebook

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'

In Book Two of Madame Bovary, Flaubert is the architect of Emma’s ultimate downfall. She meets the characters who alter her life in ways that she cannot foresee – Homais, Lheureux, and Leon Dupuis. At the beginning of Book Two she is hopeful that her life will improve, and will be more satisfying. She develops an unfortunate habit of buying things that she wants, but cannot afford. Emma is a strongly sensual character, attracted to beautiful things.

Then Monsieur Lheureux delicately exhibited three Algerian scarves, several packets of English needles, a pair of straw slippers, and finally, four eggcups in cocoanut wood, carved in open work by convicts. Then, with both hands on the table, his neck stretched out, his figure bent forward, open-mouthed, he watched Emma’s look, who was walking up and down undecided amid these goods. From time to time, as if to remove some dust, he filliped with his nail the silk of the scarves spread out at full length, and they rustled with a little noise, making in the green twilight the gold spangles of their tissue scintillate like little stars.

She also meets and falls in love with Leon, although their relationship remains platonic at this point in the book. If Emma Bovary had a soulmate, it was Leon Dupuis.

She is shallow, but in some ways she is grasping desperately for depth.

“She wanted to learn Italian; she bought dictionaries, a grammar, and a supply of white paper. She tried serious reading, history, and philosophy. Sometimes in the night Charles woke up with a start, thinking he was being called to a patient. “I’m coming,” he stammered; and it was the noise of a match Emma had struck to relight the lamp. But her reading fared like her piece of embroidery, all of which, only just begun, filled her cupboard; she took it up, left it, passed on to other books.”

She wants more, always more, than the stolid and uninspired life with her stolid and uninspired husband. She is looking for beauty, for passion, for joy, and for love. Emma is a great emptiness, seeking to be filled. Ultimately, she finds this passion in an illicit relationship with the womanizing, rakish Rodolphe. It is painful to watch him play her like a fish on a line – Flaubert even uses the analogy to describe her: “Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”

Emma is one extreme or the other in this section of the book. Some readers have speculated that Flaubert may have envisioned her as what we would, in modern parlance, call bi-polar. She goes from an excess of passion for Rodolphe:

She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

“Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her.”

And then, when he inevitably leaves her (as Flaubert made sure that we, the reader, understood that he would), she goes into the depths of despair. As she did at the end of Book 1, being deprived of her lover causes Emma to utterly collapse.

It is really easy to develop a dislike of Emma Bovary. It is impossible to respect her, she is such a flighty fool, so easily distracted with the “ooh shiny” pretty bauble or calculated compliment. But, at the same time, it is possible to sympathize with her. She has been poorly educated and raised to be nothing more than a pretty ornament on the arm of a bourgeoise husband. She has been given desires well beyond her station, and no resources to either fulfill them or discover their emptiness on her own.

I see parallels between Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and The House of Mirth. The desperate beautiful woman is a staple of classic fiction.


Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Les Miserables by Victor HugoLes Miserables by Victor Hugo
Published by Penguin Classics on 1862
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 1272

Victor Hugo's tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Miserables is a novel on an epic scale.

See my first post here.

It took me 15 months to finish Les Mis. I started it in September, 2012, read about 800 pages before setting it aside and coming back to it last week.

Where to begin to unpack this amazing, sweeping, epic, colorful, occasionally frustrating and digressing, often absorbing novel?

I want to start with one of the primary themes that I see running through Hugo’s narrative: justice. I see Hugo’s absolute commitment to justice as being central to the novel. Some people might say that this is a novel about redemption – but I disagree. No one who was “redeemed” required redemption – rather what appears to be redemption is, in my view, actually Hugo providing a form of justice to his character.

Let me begin with Jean Valjean, who is the central figure of the narrative. There are several turning points in his life, and Hugo leaves justice for Valjean until the last, lingering pages of this 1200 page tome. Because most of Valjean’s life is characterized by injustice, not justice. French society, Hugo says pointedly, was terribly unjust toward Valjean. His initial crime was one of such insignificance, of such a lack of importance, that the effects of it on his life represent the very heart of injustice and inequity. He – literally – stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, and while, yes, this does constitute a crime under French (and most other nations as well) law, the value of the item stolen is negligible, the impact on the victim nearly non-existent, and the amount of malice and criminality demonstrated by Valjean through the theft sparse, indeed. This was a crime that was perpetuated by a society of such injustice that children die for the want of a slice of bread, and men are villainized for the remainder of their lives – no matter what they do later – because of it.

Jean Valjean did not require redemption from French society. He “redeemed” himself, to the extent necessary, when he took the town in which he was mayor and he made society there more just, more functional, and more equitable. He did not require redemption for his soul – he received that from Bishop Myriel near the beginning of the book. What Valjean needed, and what he finally received, was a just acknowledgment that he was greater than his worst moment, and that there was more to him than the theft of a loaf of bread. This is what he gets, belatedly, at the end, from Marius and Fantine.

Now, I want to move to Fantine. Fantine is another character that is the victim of both terrible poverty, but also, of a terribly unjust world. Her conduct is no worse than that of the man who impregnated her, but he is undamaged. She is plunged into a world of want so terrible that Hugo’s descriptions of it are heartbreaking. There is no justice for Fantine in life, but Hugo ensures justice for her in death through her daughter, Cosette. Hugo has a bit of a habit of passing the wages of justice onto the next generation. Fantine is good, her daughter is rewarded.

Thenardier, on the other hand, passes the wages of his sins onto his children, to their ultimate demise. Gavroche and Eponine are both killed on the barricades, fighting for a more just society. Their father has no principles, so this is a bit of an ironic twist of fate. In spite of his utter moral bankruptcy, he accidentally raises children much better than he is, whose moral compass is not so irretrievably broken.

Hugo is melodramatic, and this book is huge. There is so much contained in it that it is impossible to pack it all into one reading, much less one post. I don’t know if I’ll come back to it or not after more time has passed, but I am not sorry that I read it. I shouldn’t have quit when I did, and I regret waiting as long as I did to complete it.


Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne BronteAgnes Grey by Anne Bronte
Published by Penguin Classics on 1847
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 272
Source: Purchased: print book

At age 19 Anne Brontë left home and worked as a governess for a few years before becoming a writer. Agnes Grey was an 1847 novel based on her experience as a governess. Bronte depicts the precarious position of a governess and how that can affect a young woman. Agnes was the daughter of a minister whose family was in financial difficulty. She has only a few choices for employment. Agnes experiences the difficulty of reining in spoiled children and how wealth can corrupt morals. She later opens a school and finds happiness.

2/2014 and the first book of the Bronte Project.

Agnes Grey was published in 1847. This was an exceptionally good year for the Brontes – 1847 saw the publication of Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which combined to form a trifecta of Bronte awesomeness, and includes the two most well-known books by the Brontes.

Anne Bronte was the youngest Bronte, and remains the least well-known of the three sisters. She died extraordinarily young, at 29 years of age. Her only other published work is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was out of publication for many years at the behest (as I understand it) of the eldest and most prolific sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was published under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Agnes Grey is a bildungsroman, or a coming of age story, in this case, of the titular character, Agnes. The book begins with Agnes and her sister living at home with her parson father and their mother. Father unwisely invests money with a merchant who ends up dying, and the family loses all their savings. Agnes, in a bid for independence, decides to go to work as a governess. She ultimately obtains a position as a governess for a wealthy family, and leaves the family homes and goes out in the world.

I really liked this book. I was not a fan of Wuthering Heights when I read it many years ago (I am rereading it this year), although I did love Jane Eyre. Agnes Grey is, in my mind, less sophisticated than Jane Eyre, but has many of the same themes. Anne Bronte used the book as a vehicle to explore oppression of women, animal cruelty, love, marriage and religion.

I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on the Victorian era as well as reading books that were written in and during the Victorian era. There are two lectures, so far, that dealt directly with women – one about upper class women and one about working class women. The circumstances for working class girls/women were fairly dire, actually, and Agnes Grey does a good job of illustrating that direness. Agnes finds herself working for a family that is clearly inferior to her in most domains – she has more common sense, more integrity, she is better educated, she has a greater work ethic, she is more useful. The only area that they exceed her is in that of wealth. They are rich, she is poor.

Each of the families, nonetheless, considers themselves and is considered by society, to be her superior. The Bloomfield family – the first family where she is a governess – has raised their eldest son to be an overtly cruel human being. He is abusive – both verbally and at times physically – to Agnes, and he casually tortures small animals. His education is a total loss because no one exerts even the slightest degree of control over him to force him to learn, and being the eldest son of a wealthy family, there is no incentive for him to be anything other than what he desires to be. Agnes is dismissed when she fails to educate him.

The second family, the Murray family, is less casually abusive but concomitantly more frivolous. Agnes is governess to their two youngest daughters. The eldest, Rosalie, is a pretty ornament who thinks only of flirtations and marriage. Matilda, the youngest, is a foul-mouthed tomboy who is also a liar (I confess a bit of partiality to poor Matilda. She’s so screwed in that era). The appearance is the reality for this family, and nothing matters but what is on the surface.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne Bronte’s experience as a governess. One of the things that I found interesting was how little actual learning was going on in the schoolroom. I am sure that not every Victorian wealthy family was the same, but Agnes was given no authority at all, and was therefore ignored at best and abused at worst. I cannot think of few worse jobs than being charged with the education of spoiled, entitled, in some cases quite possibly sociopathic, children who have total power over your life. It’s a nightmarish prospect.

It is easy to wax nostalgic for the past, and for eras like the Victorian era. Reading a book like Agnes Grey is a useful exercise to remind us that we should not idealize the past.

I will have more to say about Agnes Grey, and the other Bronte sisters, and probably the Victorians in general, over the course of the rest of the year. I would probably call Agnes Grey a minor masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. I have heard that Anne’s second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is even better.

I have started Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, for a read-along with Maggie, over at Maggie’s blog, An American in France.

Quote from Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather.

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins by Louisa May AlcottEight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
Series: Eight Cousins #1
Published by Puffin Classics on 1874
Genres: Children's fiction, Classics - Victorian
Pages: 299
Source: Purchased: ebook

After the death of her father, orphan Rose Campbell has no choice but to go and live at the 'Aunt Hill' with her six aunts and seven boy cousins. For someone who was used to a girl's boarding school, it all seems pretty overwhelming, especially since her guardian Uncle Alec makes her eat healthy things like oatmeal, and even tries to get her to give up her pretty dresses for more drab, sensible clothes. Will Rose ever get used to her Uncle's strange ideas and all her noisy relatives? Will there come a day when she can't imagine living anywhere else?

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom make up the duology of books about the main character Rose Campbell. These are two of my favorite Alcott books, which I recently re-read for the Alcott event and also for my ongoing series on children’s classics.

Of the two, I prefer Eight Cousins, which is the story of young Rose, who is orphaned and sent to live at the Aunt Hill, with her two great-aunts. Both Aunt Plenty and Aunt Peace are rather elderly spinsters. Rose has lived with her father, George, apart from the rest of the Campbell clan, which consists of five other Campbell brothers and their wives and offspring.

When Eight Cousins begins, Rose is 13 years old. This part of the story takes us through Rose’s 16th-ish birthday. Rose is the only girl of her generation, with 7 male cousins from age 16 (Archie) through 6 (Jamie).

Rose is sweet-natured, and ends up being raised by her bachelor Uncle Alec, a seafaring doctor who has “ideas” about child-rearing that most relate to girls being treated more like boys, and encouraged to read good books, take lots of exercise, and not wear corsets. Rose is a rather sickly child when she arrives at the Aunt Hill and is rapidly restored to health by dint of a large waistband, fresh milk, fresh air, and lots less sighing over girly stuff. This could be annoying, but it really isn’t, since the treatment of girl-children during this era was mostly ridiculous and Rose’s raising is much more consistent with how I personally think girls should be raised (with lovely things like access to books and education) versus how they were actually raised.

Alcott’s father, Bronson, was a well-known educational reformer, and Alcott’s stories are full of themes about equality of education for women. Rose is not eligible to attend actual school (being a girl and all), but Uncle Alec makes sure that she has access to resources to allow for some self-education.

There is some of Alcott’s trademark moralizing, but it isn’t as heavy-handed in the first volume of the Rose Campbell story as it becomes in the next. Rose is raised to be, and is generally, thoughtful, modest, honest and generous. She spends a lot of time caring for her sick cousin, Mac, who is the studious one of the lot, and is two years older than Rose.

The boys are a boisterous, rowdy crew. The Campbells are obviously quite affluent, and Alcott’s theories, as well, about the obligation of the rich to care for the poor are mostly shown through Rose’s charitable activities. Rose is quite an heiress, and decides early that she wishes to be a philanthropist and to help others with her fortune. She is a bit of a Mary Sue, but she’s so darned charming about it that it works.

This is a classic for a reason. It is probably much too quiet and modest a story to appeal to modern girls. Which is too bad, really.

The sequel to Eight Cousins is Rose in Bloom. Review forthcoming.


Classics Club November Meme

November Classics Club Meme Question:

What piece of classic literature most intimidates you, and why?

This is a great question! My initial impulse was to go with War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. But I’ve been reading Anna Karenina, and I’ve read other works of classic Russian literature, so, in spite of the Russian naming conventions that make those books somewhat of a challenge, the piece of classic literature that most intimidates me was not written by Tolstoy. Nor was it written by Eliot, Dickens, or any of the other Victorians. And, no, not Hugo, either, since I am very much enjoying Les Miserables, another long book that much intimidated me before I started reading it.

No, the classic that most intimidates me is James Joyce’s Ulysses. As for why, I have three words: Stream. Of. Consciousness.

I struggle with this particular narrative form. Faulkner makes me nuts. Thomas Pynchon, in spite of his – probably – deserved reputation as a master of modern language makes me want to, erm, do violence to myself. I tried reading Gravity’s Rainbow several times. I think I remember something about a banana plant growing under a sink that occurred early in the book. I’m not sure I ever got beyond page 25.

In spite of this struggle, as someone who likes to consider herself rather well-versed in modern literature, I felt like I should read Gravity’s Rainbow. I hauled it from pillar to post, through no less then ten moves, before I finally acknowledged that there was no chance I was ever going to read it and I sold it back to a used paperback store. Last time I was in that store, my copy was still sitting on it’s shelves after approximately seven years. It seems that people do not go to used bookstores for the purpose of buying semi-impenetrable, post-modern tomes.

So, yes, Ulysses. That’s the one that most intimidates me. It might take me a couple of years to work up the energy to give it a go.

The Classics Club Challenge

While I was wandering about the internet this morning, I checked in on a blog I love, called Dead White Guys, which mentioned that the blogger was considering signing up for a Classics Club challenge which involved a commitment to list 50 classics to read over a 5 year period.

This is a rather enormous undertaking, and I have a history of being really bad at reading challenges. I have been meaning to embark upon a Dickens project every single January for the last five Januaries. I have contemplated, undertaken, and abandoned dozens of such challenges.

But this one sounds like more fun. Maybe it’s the long-term nature of it. Maybe it’s the serendipity of starting this blog and then finding the challenge. Maybe it’s my delight with the fact that there is a huge community of people who are blogging about reading books that were written hundreds of years ago, and that you can get for free online. Maybe it’s the chance to kill two birds with one stone, since I’ve added all 12 Dickens novels to my list. Completing the challenge will also complete the Dickens project.

Whatever it is that compels me forward, I’m in.

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