Tag: victorians

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.


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.


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BronteJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
on 1847
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 507
Source: Purchased: print book

Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.
With a heroine full of yearning, the dangerous secrets she encounters, and the choices she finally makes, Charlotte Bronte's innovative and enduring romantic novel continues to engage and provoke readers.

Can I get a little Bronte sister love here, people? Jane Eyre was a reread for me, and, along with Wuthering Heights is one of two Bronte sister classics that I read years ago. I chose this as a reread because I want to read more by the Brontes and I had such a limited memory of this book that I thought it would be a good place to start.

At this point, all I can really say is “wow.” Jane Eyre is a marvel of a book. I am still plugging away at Les Miserables, but I whipped through Jane Eyre in less than a week. I had splurged and bought the Norton Critical Edition, which contains all sorts of excellent extra content – information about Charlotte’s education at the Cowan Bridge School of Clergyman’s Daughters (upon which Lowood was based), some of her letters during the time that she was a governess at Roe Head, and, even, her response to a criticism of Jane Eyre published during her time.

The book opens with an injustice perpetrated upon Jane by her cousin and this aunt, which leads to the cruel incident where she is locked in a room and basically terrorizes herself into a state of hysteria. That incident, terrible though it was, results in a couple of positive changes in Jane’s life – her acquaintance with a doctor and with Bessie, two people who show her some genuine kindness.

From there, the novel moves quickly through her years at Lowood School, spending some brief time on her acquaintanship with Helen Burns, a young woman who dies of tuberculosis, in the same fashion that she lost two sisters at Cowan Bridge School. Lowood School begins as a place of deprivation, and ends as a place of refuge. Jane tells of those years:

During these eight years my life was uniform: but not unhappy, because it was not inactive. I had the means of an excellent education placed within my reach. A fondness for some of my studies and a desire to excel in all, together with a great delight in pleasing my teachers, especially such as I loved, urged me on. I availed myself fully of the advantages offered me. In time I rose to be the first girl of the first class; then I was invested with the office of teacher; which I discharged with zeal for two years; but at the end of that time I altered.

From Lowood School, Jane goes to Thornfield, where she takes her place as a governess to Adele, the ward of Mr. Rochester. So commences the love story of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the mystery of Thornfield Hall. Told in the first person, the reader experiences her falling in love with Mr. Rochester, the anguish of believing that he loves another woman who is unworthy of his regard, and then her experience of learning that her love is returned and that he wishes to marry her. All the while, the strange happenings at Thornfield throw her off balance, confuse her, and make her wonder what is true and what is her imagination.

Jane Eyre can be roughly divided into three sections: the pre-Thornfield period, the Thornfield period and the post-Thornfield period. Charlotte Bronte, a clergyman’s daughter, uses Biblical quotes and allusions to great effect in the novel, and a well-footnoted edition is helpful in understanding the book. The Thornfield period is a gorgeously gothic: mysterious and foreboding. Jane, upon learning that her beloved is married and has deceived her, responds with integrity and self-abnegation, by leaving him. She consistently behaves with integrity and compassion, even to the individuals who have arguably wronged her. The post-Thornfield period is critical in understanding the deeply compassionate and passionate nature of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre is a remarkable novel. I loved basically every word of it, and I highly, highly recommend it. I’m planning on a follow-up post where I discuss some of the additional content in the Norton Critical Edition, including Charlotte’s response to her critics.

1901: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

1901: Kim by Rudyard KiplingKim by Rudyard Kipling
on 1901
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 396
Source: Purchased: print book

Kim is set in an imperialistic world; a world strikingly masculine, dominated by travel, trade and adventure, a world in which there is no question of the division between white and non-white.

Two men - a boy who grows into early manhood and an old ascetic priest, the lama - are at the center of the novel. A quest faces them both. Born in India, Kim is nevertheless white, a sahib. While he wants to play the Great Game of Imperialism, he is also spiritually bound to the lama. His aim, as he moves chameleon-like through the two cultures, is to reconcile these opposing strands, while the lama searches for redemption from the Wheel of Life.

A celebration of their friendship in a beautiful but often hostile environment, 'Kim' captures the opulence of India's exotic landscape, overlaid by the uneasy presence of the British Raj.

According to wikipedia, in 1901, when Kim was published, the first Nobel Peace Prize was given to French poet Sully Prudhomme over Leo Tolstoy, a decision that many people considered outrageous. Anthropologist Margaret Mead was born, and Johana Spyri, author of Heidi, died. Other notable works published in 1901 include My Brilliant Career, by Australian author Miles Franklin, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, and Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.

This was my first book by Rudyard Kipling. Mr. Kipling was born in India in 1865 to a British mother and father. He lived in India until he was five, when he was sent home to England, as was the custom in British India. There has been criticism of Kipling’s “imperialist” viewpoint as relates to India. Nonetheless, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1907.

I found Kim to be both a bit of a struggle and occasionally transcendent. I love reading about British India – there is something so exotic about that time period and place, with its pageantry and intrigue. The culure and geography of India is endlessly fascinating. Much of what I loved about Kim was the way that Kipling described India. For example:

The Grand Trunk at this point was built on an embankment to guard against winter floods from the foothills so that one walked, as it were, a little above the country, along a stately corridor, seeing all India spread out to left and right. It was beautiful to behold the many-yoked grain and cotton wagons crawling over the country roads: one could hear their axles, complaining a mile away, coming nearer, till with shouts and yells and bad words they climbed up the steep inclined and plunged on to the hard main road, carter reviling carter. It was equally beautiful to watch the people, little clumps of red and blue and pink and white and saffron, turning aside to go to their own villages, dispersing and growing small by twos and threes across the level plain. Kim felt these things, though he could not give tongue to his feelings and so contented himself with buying peeled sugar-cane and spitting the pith generously about his path. From time to time the llama took snuff . . .

and, also:

Thus, after long hours of what would be reckoned very fair mountaineering in civilized countries, they would pant over a saddle-back, sidle past a few landslips, and drop through the forest at an angle of forty-five on to the road again. Along their track lay the villages of the hill-folk — mud and earth huts, timbers now and then rudely carved with an axe — clinging like swallows nests against the steeps, huddled on tiny flats halfway down a three-thousand-foot glissade; jammed into a corner between cliffs that funneled and focused every wandering blast; or, for the sake of summer pasture, cowering down on a neck that in winter would be ten feet deep in snow.

Kim is a picaresque novel of the main character’s adventures in India. He is an orphan of a British soldier who grows up on the streets of Lahore. He meets and becomes the disciple of a Tibetan lama, and he is recruited to carry a message to the head of British intelligence in Umballa. He is educated in an Indian school for British boys, and is ultimately recruited into “the Great Game” or into the intelligence service of the British raj. He is chameleon-like, able to take on new identities convincingly and easily. The book ends before Kim’s twentieth birthday, when he is barely out of childhood, before he has decided which path he will take – will he continue to seek enlightenment with his lama, or join the Game?

Kim himself often shows much confusion over his own identity. Near the end of the book, he cries out:

“I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again.

He did not want to cry, — had never felt less like crying in his life, — but of a sudden easy, stupid tears trickled down his nose, and with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without. Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be drive, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to.”

Overall, I enjoyed Kim. Kipling is sometimes considered a children’s author, and Kim is sometimes considered a boy’s adventure novel. This is a multi-layered book that “presents a vivid picture of India, its teeming populations, religions, and superstitions, and the life of the bazaars and the road.”*

*”Kim”. in: The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer. Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online.

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