The Botathen Ghost (1867) by R. S. Hawker

256px-robert_stephen_hawker_1864

By Richard Budd (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

She floated along the field like a sail upon a stream, and glided past the spot where we stood, pausingly. But so deep was the awe that overcame me, as I stood there in the light of day, face to face with a human soul separate from her bones and flesh, that my heart and purpose both failed me…

After swearing a few weeks ago that I’d tackle some of the old unread books on my shelf, I diligently picked up Malcolm Bradbury’s To The Hermitage, which I’ve been hoarding for years. Sadly, within a couple of pages I quickly discovered that I wasn’t really in the mood for such a wordy, convoluted book right now. It’s not the fault of the book – I’m sure on some other occasion we’d have gotten along just fine – but at this moment it just felt like a bit of a chore. This seems to be happening to me quite a bit recently and I never know whether it’s best to persevere or just give up and move on to something else. On this occasion I laboured on for another two weeks, so unenthusiastically that I managed to read just thirty more pages, before deciding that enough was enough. Time to move on. To be brutally honest, I don’t know whether I’ll go back and finish To The Hermitage as this isn’t the first time I’ve given up on it. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

I was feeling a bit demoralised by the whole experience so I reached for my Penguin volume of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories for comfort. It’s been nearly a year since I last read any of the short stories in this anthology and it was really quite relaxing to jump back into them. The first of the two stories I read this week was R. S. Hawker’s The Ghost of Botathen. Hawker, I’ve discovered, was an eccentric Cornish clergyman (he apparently excommunicated his own cat) whose works were relatively popular in his time, although they don’t appear to be very widely known today. This particular story is based on a local legend and takes the form of extracts from a diary kept by seventeenth century clergyman, Parson Ruddle. Ruddle describes being called to comfort a teenage boy who claims to have often seen the spectre of an old woman at Botathen, an isolated spot on the Cornish moors. The woman is none other than Dorothy Dinglet who has been conspicuously deceased for several years already so Ruddle blithely trots off into the wilds to witness this vision for himself.

The setting of Ruddle’s encounter with the woman is wonderfully atmospheric although not particularly threatening. This being the seventeenth century he’s unable to exorcise the phantom without express authorisation from a bishop so there’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the story while Ruddle trots off to ensure all the administrative boxes are ticked. In the end, however, the exorcism itself is wrapped up in a few brief, rather unsatisfying sentences that don’t really illuminate things a great deal. It’s all very vague, presumably because the dead woman’s reappearance in the physical world was caused by unfinished business so shocking to Victorian readers that it couldn’t be spelt out in black and white on the page. You can make some guesses, of course, but some cold, hard facts would leave you feeling less cheated. It’s a little austere, this one, but I quite liked the atmosphere and the setting.

Our Mutual Friend (1865) by Charles Dickens

OMF

I unexpectedly found myself at home alone on Saturday night and was able to devote the whole evening to finishing this book. I had the radio on, a cup of tea on the coffee table, a cool summer breeze through the window, and a whole evening of Our Mutual Friend. It’s been ages since I was last able to spend so much time reading so it felt like quite a luxury.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first read this nearly fifteen years ago and loved it from the start. My tastes have changed a little since then so I was concerned that on second reading it might not be quite as good as I remembered. Would it fall flat compared with some of the other Dickens novels I’ve now read? (As an aside I can only say again that I blame The Old Curiosity Shop for casting these doubts in my mind. It’s not even that bad a book but I seem to have lost all my enthusiasm, and all my faith in Dickens, since then). I’m relieved to say, however, that I enjoyed Our Mutual Friend even more the second time so I think it’ll remain a favourite.

There were a couple of things that struck me particularly this time round. Firstly, it’s interesting that this feels so much darker compared with some of his other novels. At its simplest, Our Mutual Friend is a novel about wanting things you can’t have (whether that’s the immense Harmon fortune or the love of a woman who despises you) and the awful, spiteful things that people do when they can’t have what they want. It certainly feels like there’s a lot of death in this one so, combined with the absence of the usual comedy interludes, it’s a bleaker, gloomier read. This was Dickens’ last completed novel before his death so I wonder if maybe he was just feeling a bit curmudgeonly by this time in his life. You certainly get the feeling throughout this novel that he’s frustrated by the injustices he sees around him and increasingly bitter towards the Veneerings and the Podsnaps of this world.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about my love of two of the female characters in the book, Bella and Lizzie. This time, I found myself ever so slightly disappointed by Bella’s passive acceptance that a secret must be kept from her, at least for the time being. I know Dickens’ aim is to show that she’s changed for the better, that her contentment with her new life has driven away all that ambition, but it’s a little out of character. (Plus, if I was Bella I’d be bloody furious if I found out that I’d been lied to. It seems weird that she isn’t). But really, this is quite a small thing. On the whole I think Our Mutual Friend contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters, from poor Jenny Wren to Mr. Venus, articulator of bones. Like many readers, I have a particular soft spot for Eugene Wrayburn, the silent, bored barrister who gets dragged in to the Harmon saga on the coattails of his lawyer friend.

Composedly smoking, he leaned an elbow on the chimneypiece at the side of the fire and looked at the schoolmaster. It was a cruel look, in its cold disdain of him, as a creature of no worth. The schoolmaster looked at him and that too was a cruel look, though of the different kind, that it had a raging jealousy and fiery wrath in it.

While I like his healthy cynicism about the world around him, I found his treatment of other people more intriguing than I remembered. I suppose you could argue that it’s his cruel mockery of the unfortunate schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, who happens to be his love rival, that sets them all on their dangerous path. I wonder whether, if he’d been a kinder man, a less selfish one, Headstone’s obsession might not have taken such a grim turn.

I know a lot of Dickens fans have mixed feelings about this particular book and I know it isn’t perfect. There are a few too many characters than are probably really necessary and of course he does go on and on about stuff that really isn’t important to the story. But still, I do think it’s an example of Dickens at his best. It’s so carefully plotted and there’s so much depth to the characters that I think you can probably overlook some of the finer complaints. There’s nothing quite like it.

 

War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy

WarAndPeace

After two months of steady reading I finally (reluctantly) finished War and Peace last night. I know of several people who claim to have read this book in just a couple of weeks but I’m glad I took my time to enjoy this one at a slower pace. I’m genuinely sad now it’s over but I always feel a bit like this when I finish a particularly long book. They bring on the worst book hangovers.

I’ve been updating here fairly regularly with my progress so there isn’t a great deal to add to all my previous posts. Book 4 contained a death I hadn’t seen coming (having deliberately not listened to the last episode of the radio play), the pursuit of the retreating French army, a rescue, some friendships and a final reunion. It ends on the promise of both good and bad things looming in the future and I can almost understand why some readers believe that Tolstoy should have just left it there. Following this is the epilogue, which is a both an update on where the main characters are several years down the line and an essay on why ‘History’ will never be fully able to grasp why and how these events all came to pass. It’s a weird way to end such an epic piece of fiction – not with a bang but with a whimper, you might say – but it seems quite fitting to me. Tolstoy strove to provide a true glimpse into life in all its glorious and petty detail, to show that there’s a thin line between war and peace and that there’s never really an end to this cycle; I think I’d have found a neater ending disappointing.

And I think it is all the detail that makes this book so completely engrossing. Nothing is too small or insignificant for Tolstoy to describe. The discussions of the war council, the preparations for Natasha’s first ball, Anatole’s coachman, and the troublesome peasants on the Bolkonsky estate: Tolstoy casts the same searching eye over them all. You might think that this could get boring quite fast but I found that the opposite was true. All of Tolstoy’s descriptions feel really vivid and some images stayed with me long after I’d moved on to the next page:

 “Some of the dust was kneaded by the feet and the wheels while the rest rose and hung like a cloud over the troops, settling in eyes, ears, hair and nostrils and, worse of all, in the lungs of the men and beasts as they moved along that road. The higher the sun rose, the higher rose that cloud of dust and through the screen of its hot, fine particles one could look with naked eye at the sun which showed like a huge crimson ball in the unclouded sky. There was no wind and the men choked in that motionless atmosphere.”

Another side effect of all this attention to detail is that you feel like you have a much deeper relationship with the characters, even the ones you instinctively disliked at the beginning (*ahem* Natasha Rostova). I can’t think of many other books that so meticulously describe the emotional workings of each character or create such believable inner worlds for them, complete with all their contradictions, whims and caprices. I think it’s his sympathy for his own characters that I like best. He shows that people, like wars, are indescribable. There’s a horrible scene describing the execution of Russian prisoners by French soldiers where he even warns the readers not to condemn too harshly but to try to understand how a myriad of random circumstances and choices brought the world to this point. It’s kind of hard not to admire the way he does this.

There were a couple of occasions, particularly towards the end, when I felt like I was struggling through very thick mud with this book. The fact that I came out of it and still think it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever read is probably testament to how readable and enjoyable this is. I can understand why it’s rated so highly and loved by so many people. On the flip side, I can also completely understand why one of my colleagues hates it with a passion. Each to his own, I guess.

While I was reading I often had the curious feeling that this was life and that everything else was just revolving around the book. Does anyone else ever get that feeling? It’s been a long time since any book has made me feel so completely and utterly absorbed in another world like that. I have another brief post on this book to write (just tips for any future readers) and then it’ll go back on the shelf. It’s probably about time I moved on with my life!

 

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

LadyAudley

“My intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that boundary line between sanity and insanity….”

After my dismal failure with The Sot Weed Factor I threw myself into Lady Audley’s Secret thinking a bit of fluffy Victorian melodrama would be a welcome change of scenery. It was. With just a few short chapters to go this morning I found myself speed reading on the train to work, desperately trying to cram in as much as possible before my stop. Annoyingly I reached the final big reveal, an intense deathbed confession, just as my train pulled into the station. If it hadn’t been such a wet day I might have continued reading while I walked to the office but instead I had to put the book away and spend the next four hours at my desk mulling over this dramatic twist until lunch time. This is one of the worst things about reading on public transport. You are completely at the mercy of the bus route or the train timetable.

LadyAudley2Describing Lady Audley’s Secret as a bit of fluffy melodrama is really pretty unfair. It makes it sound kind of trivial when really it’s cleverly written and very entertaining. To begin with it follows two separate plot strands. Firstly there’s rich widower Sir Michael Audley and his unlikely romance with a much younger and much poorer governess. At the same time as this new Lady Audley is being installed in Sir Michael’s grand home, his nephew Robert meets an old friend named George Talboys who has just returned to England from the gold hunts in Australia. George is on his way home to reunite with the wife he hasn’t seen in three years when he reads the devastating news of her sudden death in the newspaper. He abruptly disappears a short while later and Robert becomes convinced that something terrible has happened to his friend and that his uncle’s pretty new wife knows something about it.

I think I’m probably just a bit of a sucker for all that Victorian sensationalism. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of arson/murder/bigamy/insanity/blackmail every now and then? It’s all so gripping that you can look past the fact that the plot really hinges on an improbable coincidence and that actually there isn’t any real mystery. We all know from the beginning what Robert suspects, even though he’s too afraid to give voice to those suspicions.

Some of Braddon’s characters are described with real warmth, detail and humour. This is one of my favourite character portraits:

“He was like his own square-built, northern fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight. He was all daylight. He looked at everything in the same broad glare of intellectual sunlight and could see no softening shadows that might alter the sharp outlines of cruel facts, subduing them to beauty.”

Her female characters are particularly compelling and you can tell that she’s taken particular care to make them feel real. There’s no swooning, no delicate weeping into lace handkerchiefs, no infants clutched tenderly to bosoms. What a relief.

Lady Audley is full of fire and passion and I liked her very much, even though I know I probably wasn’t supposed to. I like the idea of all this emotion being hidden behind a ‘doll-like’ and ‘childish’ face. She never feels particularly dangerous (in fact, there were several occasions when I felt quite sorry for her) and I was a little let down by the way she was eventually dealt with, both by Braddon and by Robert Audley. It was all just too convenient, too quick and easy. I’d have been happier if she’d been motivated by simple greed or ambition instead of being some kind of unnatural, unwomanly villainness. Really I’d have found it easier to believe in Robert’s madness.

Towards the end it all unravels pretty quickly but I didn’t really mind that. It’s not great literature perhaps – I preferred The Woman in White which is similar in many ways – but it’s still an entertaining read.