Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I Love to Hate

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

This week’s theme is character focussed and gives me the perfect opportunity to think
about some of those characters I get a real kick out of hating. They’re not always the main villains but they’re the ones I can’t wait to see get their comeuppance.

I don’t know if I’m just an angry, resentful person but I didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble putting this list together.

1. Daisy in The Great Gatsby. I will never forgive Daisy. What an awful, awful human being.

2. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. Why won’t he see sense? It’s infuriating.

3. Elizabeth in the Poldark series. Ross is an idiot.

4. Almost everyone except Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Austen’s
books are full of perfectly silly, intentionally annoying characters who make the real heroes shine in comparison.

5. Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre. Although, in fairness to Blanche, Rochester’s behaviour to both she and Jane at this point of the novel is kind of, well… he’s a bit of an arse here, isn’t’ he? Sorry.

6. Grima Wormtongue in the The Two Towers. Having manipulated, lied and flattered his
way into a position of power his downfall is so satisfying to see.

7. Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. I love the book but it’s hard to watch them deliberately hurt each other. They’re selfish, hateful people.

8. Mrs Trunchbull in MatildaA properly terrifying children’s villain.

9. Mondego, Danglars and Villefort in The Count of Monte Cristo. By the end of this book I was egging the Count on with real bloodthirsty gusto; I was so desperate for him to get his revenge.

10. Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She deserves everything she gets.

This list is quite classics heavy although that certainly wasn’t my intention when I started writing it. Maybe more recent novels have moved away from this sort of character? Or maybe I don’t read the right kind of modern books. I don’t know.

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Bronte Waterfall and Top Withens

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My recent discovery that Lucy at Hard Book Habit and I share an appreciation for Emily Bronte’s poem ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ reminded me that I’ve still not provided the second part of my post on the visit P and I made to Haworth back in June. This, then, is that post but be warned: there are a lot of shaky, over exposed camera-phone pictures coming up….

A couple of days after our visit to the Bronte Parsonage P and I drove back that way with the intention of walking along the Bronte Trail as far as the waterfall and back again. We’d already walked to the top of Malham Cove earlier that morning (it was awesome, in case you were wondering) so to save our poor legs we ended up ditching the car at the Penistone Country Park, halfway between Stanbury and Oxenhope, and walking from there. It knocked a couple of miles off the trip. At this time it was still quite sunny so we weren’t in any particular hurry and there was plenty of time to admire the lambs, the green hills and the distant view of Haworth behind us.

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It took about forty minutes in all, I reckon. Probably less.

When we got to the falls there were quite a few people milling about taking pictures so we sat on a rock overhanging the stream and watched some children playing with a dog in the water below. In spite of the bustle around us it still felt peaceful. It’s a really beautiful spot.

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We weren’t especially tired and although the weather looked like it would turn – there were some seriously ominous clouds on the horizon – I thought we’d probably have just enough time to walk the extra mile or so to Top Withens, the supposed inspiration behind Wuthering Heights. At this point I have to say that this is one of the reasons why I think P is a particularly lovely person; we could both clearly see that it was about to rain a lot but he could tell that I secretly had my heart set on going to Top Withens so he not only insisted that we go but also made out that it was all his idea so that I wouldn’t feel bad about dragging him around the moors on a pilgrimage to a site he doesn’t really care about in the rain. He’s great.

Unlike the first part of our journey, the walk from the waterfall to Top Withens was almost entirely uphill, much rockier and desperately muddy. The green and rolling hills had very quickly been replaced by desolate, windswept moorland. The tiny tree on the horizon in the photographs below marks our final destination.

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We were probably about a third of the way there when it started to rain. The sky turned quite dark and the temperature dropped but even thought it was all quite depressingly bleak I was secretly thinking how perfect this all was; if you’re going to visit Wuthering Heights for the first time you might as well do it in a storm, right? Like Lockwood at the start of the novel.

I said this to P but he was keeping very quiet.

Thankfully it didn’t rain for long and, British weather being what it is, the skies were clearing by the time we reached the top of the hill. The farmhouse is derelict now of course but it was inhabited right up until the 1920s. There’s a display board detailing the history of the house and a plaque noting the part it is reported to have played in Wuthering Heights. The building doesn’t really match any of the descriptions of the farmhouse in the novel but I can well imagine that Emily Bronte took inspiration from the setting; the spot it occupies is at the top of a crest overlooking the moors and completely exposed to the elements. It’s eerily bleak.

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We had a really lovely weekend in Yorkshire but I have to say that this was absolutely my favourite part.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

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And if the razor grass cut my legs I would think ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake. All better than people. Better. Better, better than people.

Thanks to my lovely friends and family (and a carefully curated Amazon wishlist) I received a ton of new books for my birthday in June. They’re currently stacked up under the coffee table and will likely remain there for ages and ages while I slowly work my way through them. It’s not often I have nice things to say about Amazon (who need to pay their damn taxes and treat their staff a bit better) but I do kind of love the wishlist feature. It makes birthdays for lazy people like me so much easier.

Wide Sargosso Sea was the first to graduate out of the unread pile. I’d been curious about it for quite a while; it came highly recommended by a friend and I knew enough about it to suspect that we’d probably get along quite well. This novel is Rhys’s attempt to give Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason, Jane Eyre’s original madwoman in the attic, a voice and a life before Bronte’s classic story. The first part of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Antoinette and gives an unsettling account of her lonely childhood in Jamaica in the 1830s, shortly after the abolition of slavery. After a traumatic start for Antoinette the novel jumps ahead several years to the days immediately after her marriage to Mr Rochester (who’s never actually named in the novel). His narrative is one of resentment at having been coerced into a marriage with a Creole girl he doesn’t care for and later suspicion when he finds cause to doubt her. For the last few short chapters the novel again leaps forward in time, this time to a point where it overlaps with Jane Eyre; a wild, forgotten Antoinette is now captive in the attic of Thornfield while Rochester lives his life below, trying to forget that she ever existed.

As a Jane Eyre lover I found this last chapter most fascinating of all but in truth I was pretty taken with the whole of Wide Sargasso Sea. It had occurred to me before now that for a character so vital to Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is given very little page time by Bronte. In effect she isn’t much more than a dramatic plot twist. When I first read the book as a teenager I pushed aside the niggling feeling at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, Rochester hadn’t treated his first wife (or Jane) very fairly; I argued that the book was a product of its time and that really Rochester, who never claims to be an honourable or a good man, was probably doing her a kindness by not having her locked up in some appalling asylum somewhere. I expect these are the kinds of things that many readers consider and while I’m not usually a fan of prequels I love the fact that Rhys must have wondered about some of the same things.

Rhys’s Rochester is aloof and occasionally cruel, much as he is in Jane Eyre, but she doesn’t really depict him as a liar or suggest that he behaves any differently to other men of his class and time would have done in his situation. Antoinette, on the other hand, is traumatised, desperate, childlike and distant; although she narrates much of the novel she still feels strangely shadowy towards the end. Rhys plays up her sense of isolation throughout the novel by suggesting that she doesn’t belong anywhere; as the daughter of a former slave owner she’s reviled by the island’s black inhabitants but as a Creole she’s not considered civilised by the white Europeans, including by Rochester.  She’s stuck in some lonely, untouchable place between the two so by the end of the novel you’re not really sure who the real victim is here. Were the seeds of Antoinette’s madness sewn in her childhood or was she driven to insanity by her husband’s cruelty? Were Rochester’s suspicions about his wife well founded or did he willingly accept an explanation that offered him an easy way out? I was still pondering some of these questions a week after I’d finished the novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea provided a welcome chance to tick off another destination on my Around the World in 80 Books tour. For Antoinette Rhys evokes the West Indian islands of her childhood as an almost indecently lush, green garden but for Rochester it’s an overwhelming contrast to Thornfield:

“Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.”

It’s claustrophobic and disorientating, much like this novel. And I mean that in a good way.

Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage

My birthday weekend was spent in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. P organised the whole trip as a surprise, mainly, I suspect, because I’ve been banging on about how much I want to visit Haworth for years. Literally years and years. It must have been getting quite annoying. Anyway, I wasn’t planning on writing much about the trip but it was Bronte Country and this is a book blog so it only seems right to post a few photos, although I now realise that I might have to divide this into two separate posts in order to squeeze it all in.

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We got the steam train into Haworth from Oxenhope. It’s only a short journey – less than ten minutes – but it feels very Victorian and I quite liked imagining Charlotte and Ann Bronte encased in those wood panelled carriages on their way to see their publisher in London. Although they obviously wouldn’t really have taken that particular route, now that I think about it. Duh. Anyway, you can take the train through to Keighley – which we did later that afternoon – but first we got off at Haworth to do some exploring.

The Bronte Parsonage is only a five minute walk from the station and its well sign posted but up a fairly steep hill. Haworth’s cobbled streets were decked out in bunting and it was a beautifully bright day so everything looked neat and welcoming, far cleaner than they probably did a hundred and fifty years ago I imagine. It was a slow walk up the hill and we kept stopping to admire all the Bronte themed cafes, bookshops and gift shops that dot the High Street. When we finally got there we spent a lovely couple of hours in the Parsonage. I’m not going to say too much about it – you should go, that’s all you need to know – but I will say that for this Bronte fan it was ridiculously thrilling and kind of overwhelming.

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I spent a bomb in the gift shop and then we explored the neighbouring church. The current church was rebuilt in the 1870s so it isn’t the same as the one in which the Reverend Bronte preached but there is a Bronte chapel with some memorials to the family.

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We followed our trip to the church with a nice lunch sitting in the sun outside one of the cafes on the High Street. We returned to the area a couple of days later to explore the surrounding countryside but I’m going to save that part of the trip for another post, just to prevent this one from being obscenely long.

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Forgive the slightly self-indulgent holiday-snappy post. I’m a little bit in love with Haworth.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

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Throughout January I listened to the audiobook version of Clare Harman’s excellent and very sensible biography of Charlotte Bronte on my drive home from work each evening. I always think January is the bleakest of months and I don’t particularly enjoy long stretches in the car at the best of times so as the days passed I was surprised to find myself looking forward to my cosy night-time drives with the Brontes. As the audiobook was drawing to a close I wanted to prolong that nice companionable feeling a bit longer so I went on the hunt for a new-to-me Bronte novel in all the (three) bookshops close to my office. I had an idea that it might be a good time to read Agnes Grey or Villette or (ideally) some of Emily’s poetry, but alas, it was not to be.

The best I could manage was a rather tatty copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which I found squished at the end the Bronte section in Waterstones. It followed a whole shelf and a half stuffed full with beautiful copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which made me feel a little sad for poor, overlooked Anne Bronte.  I was pretty certain I’d read this already (and didn’t think much of it) but my memories were pretty hazy so I parted with the cash and it came home with me. It turns out that the book I read fifteen years ago was possibly one of those abridged versions mutilated by Anne’s horrified publishers in the years after her death. It was definitely much shorter than the version I’ve just read so I had a hard time reconciling this version with the one I very vaguely remember from back then. It’s nice in a way because it made the book feel new-to-me all over again.

Anne’s publishers subjected the book to pretty heavy editing after her death to mitigate some of the negative publicity that both of Anne’s published novels seem to have attracted.  It seems highly unfair now but I expect the novel’s themes were pretty shocking to readers of the time (“Wildfell Hall it hardly seems to me desirable to preserve”, wrote Charlotte later. “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake”).  This is the story of Helen Huntingdon and her radical decision to flee from a drunken, womanising husband after years of torment at his hands. Much of Helen’s story is told in diary format but it’s sandwiched between letters written several years later by Gilbert Markham, her only friend during her months in exile. For once, I wasn’t a huge fan of the diary/letter style but only because it feels like such a direct, confrontational novel; I think it needs a more direct style of narration perhaps.

“… for, since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him that I feel his degradation, his failings and transgressions as my own; I blush for him, I fear for him, I repent for him, weep, pray and feel for him as myself; but I cannot act for him and hence I must be, and am, debased, contaminated by the union, both in my own eyes and in the actual truth…” 

My main fascination with this novel lies in the fact that it so obviously draws upon Anne’s own experiences with her brother Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and drug addiction. It must, I think, have been a bitterly uncomfortable book to write and it gives you a strange sense of how impotent the sisters must have felt as they watched their brother rage and waste away the opportunities offered to him as the only son in the family. The injustice of their situation is mirrored in Helen’s powerlessness to do anything for herself or for husband. Of course, in the eyes of the law and the church Helen’s property is Arthur’s property, she is Arthur’s property, so she is completely at his mercy. Her decision to run away is a radical one but leaves her vulnerable to rumour, suspicion and condemnation.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to based on my experiences with the abridged version fifteen years ago. I’m reluctant to spend too much time comparing it to the other Bronte novels I’ve read but I will say that it doesn’t have the romantic brutality of Wuthering Heights but it’s not as restrained as Jane Eyre either. Anne clearly didn’t feel shy about portraying a very real and very common, but rarely discussed, problem in all its grubby sordidness or to say that it wasn’t fair to deprive women of any power to help themselves in situations such as this. The writing isn’t as polished as her sisters’ perhaps but while the subject matter (and all the moralising) may feel a little dated now it’s a much braver novel than it perhaps gets credit for.

I detested Gilbert Markham more than I hated Helen’s wicked husband but it’s weirdly refreshing every now and again to read a Victorian novel in which the menfolk are unremittingly awful in every possible way.

Top Ten Tuesday: facts about me

It’s been a while since my last TTT post. I let them slide back in March and have been waiting for a good reason to go back; this week’s theme is ideal since it’s pretty vague and doesn’t involve racking my brains for ten books that tenuously fit the given topic! The general idea this week is for a series of bookish facts about me, but I’m rubbish at following very basic instructions so….

Earlier this week I was thinking about how certain books can end up tied to specific times and places in our memories, so I’ve adapted the question to suit this instead. Here are some books and the memories that they spark for me:

1. I read The Great Gatsby during one lonely night in a Polish convent.

2. I read Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? when I should I should have been writing my Masters dissertation (and I’m eternally grateful to my then flatmate for hiding the book so I could get some work done).

3. I read Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series when I was far too old and I’m not ashamed.

4. I read Pride and Prejudice over several long days in a hospital waiting room when my nan was sick.

5. I read The Lovely Bones against my better judgement and have regretted it ever since.

6. I read Rebecca whilst hidden in a field of long grass by a river at the height of summer.

7.  I read P.S. I Love You at work and was very nearly fired from the horrible retail job I was doing at the time.

8. I read Jane Eyre three times in a week when I was thirteen and off school for the Easter holidays.

9. I read 100 Years of Solitude whilst lounging by a swimming pool in the south of France with my sister by my side.

10. I read Twilight because my friend hated it so much and I was curious.

That’s it for another Top Ten. I’ll try not to leave it quite so long next time!

Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite female characters (some of whom are also introverts…)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week there was no set topic, I was free to choose my own… 

This started out as just a plain old list of some of my favourite female characters in literature but it got out of hand pretty quickly…. I kept thinking about how much I hate it when writers think that a female character has to be ‘feisty’ in order to be interesting. I mean, honestly, that word is overused. I can’t see it or hear it without wanting to headbutt something.

It makes me wonder about all the introverts out there who aren’t represented in fiction. Why don’t we get a look in? Can you have a strong, interesting female character who isn’t (urgh) ‘feisty’? Or are the thoughtful, more reserved, characters destined to always be the weak and simpering damsels in distress?

Eventually I decided I was being a bit unfair on the world of literature, partly because it turns out that quite a few of the characters on my list fall somewhere towards the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum. Clearly they do exist. It got me to thinking though, are they on my list because there’s something more relatable about characters who have more going on inside? Or am I just drawn to characters who seem a little more like me?

And then I started to wonder, why does everything have to be so black and white? Why should any character be an extrovert or an introvert? Or clever or stupid? Or kind or cruel? Aren’t the best characters the ones who are a little bit of everything and nothing and one thing one day and another the next? The ones who are like actual people.

And then I thought: Stop it, just write the list….

1, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. The first time I read this book I felt like I’d known Cassandra forever. Her narration is so easy to read and she’s so likeable that it’s impossible not to get swept up in her life. Like any normal human being she’s sometimes surprised by her own feelings. I like that.

2, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. There’s something about Esther that makes me uneasy but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is. I suspect it’s possibly because she’s so perfectly written that you almost feel like you are descending into the darkness with her. It’s quite unsettling.

3, Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She doesn’t have much to say for herself but there’s so much going on under the surface with Jane. I love the fact that she absolutely insists on doing what she thinks is right, in spite of all the entreaties from the man she loves and even though she knows it will make them both bitterly unhappy. It’s hard not to respect that (even if you do kind of want to give her a good shake…).

4, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. No introduction needed. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Hermione is the best character in HP, right?

5, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Eliot. I won’t lie, I hated Dorothea for ages. She comes across as very self-righteous in the beginning but you eventually learn that she just wants to feel like her life has some value. She’s full of so many worthy intentions but she makes some really daft choices.

6, Dinah Glass in The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross. Without Dinah that wicked headmaster would be ruling the world by now and then where would we be? Huh? That little girl kicked ass.

7, Miss Marple in the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie. Never underestimate Marple, that’s the first rule of book club. She sees, hears and understands everything, all over a nice cup of tea and a piece of fruit cake on the lawn. The old dear runs rings around all those patronising, young detectives.

8, Amy March in Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. I know Jo and Beth get all the love and I admit they’re pretty great but I think Amy deserves a little recognition. She’s vain and whingey and has a weird obsession with limes that I’ve never understood….. She’s not as placid as Beth and Meg, nor as fiercely independent as Jo, but you could argue that she matures, and learns, the most over the course of the novel. She’s a nicer person at the end of it.

9, Guinevere Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. I’m ridiculously fond of this book and of Miss Pettigrew, the downtrodden, middle-aged governess who turns up for a job interview and gets caught up in a glamourous whirlwind of parties, filmstars, nightclubs and fashion shows. It’s silly but I’m always thrilled for poor Miss Pettigrew. I’m glad she gets to have some fun for once.

10, Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I’m usually a bit dismissive of Dickens’ female characters but I’ll make an exception for Estella (and Miss Havisham too in fact). I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Estella, I feel sorry for her. There’s a bit at the end of the book where she says to Pip, “Suffering has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken but I hope into a better shape…” It’s practically my favourite thing ever. 

So there we have it, some of my favourite female characters. Is there anyone you’d add to the list? Who have I missed? (Besides Elizabeth Bennett obviously!).

In the interests of fairness I may well devote my next TTT freebie to my favourite men in fiction!