The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim

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For the first time in a very long time I am nearly, oh so nearly, up to date with blog posts. All those half written reviews I had languishing on the laptop for weeks on end have now been posted as part of a three week long burst of activity which probably clogged up a few news feeds and inboxes; sorry about that.  Thankfully I might now be able to go back to more regular, less erratic blogging habits.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April is a really lovely book with which to welcome in this new era, especially because it perfectly demonstrates the impact of blogger recommendations on my ever evolving reading habits. I hadn’t really heard of von Arnim until a short while ago and it was only noticing the consistently favourable reviews popping up on the various book blogs I follow that encouraged me to give this one a try. Now that I’ve read it I can wholeheartedly add my voice to all those many others that sing its praises. It does mean that I’m very conscious that all the words I want to use in this post – ‘enchanting’, ‘gentle’, ‘delightful’, ‘magical’ and so on – are going to sound quite tired though. I’ll try to refrain from being too gushing or trite if I can.

 To those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine, small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. X, Box 1000, The Times. 

When the above advertisement appears in The Times, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot see a chance to escape from their quietly miserable lives in wet, dreary London. To defray the cost they place an advert of their own in the paper and recruit two strangers as holiday companions: formidable Mrs Fisher and the young, cynical Lady Caroline Destler. Each woman arrives at beautiful San Salvatore with her own unhappiness in tow but after the petty squabbles and misunderstandings die down the relationships between them thaw and the castle begins to work its magic.

This is a warm, witty novel and one of my favourite things about it has to be von Arnim’s character observations. She moves carefully from one character to another, giving each one’s complex, changing, conflicting feelings her equal and undivided attention. They’re so beautifully, so minutely drawn that I could see traces of myself in each one (even when I didn’t want to). There’s something quite sincere and personal about the way she approaches her characters so that even when they’re at their most selfish they’re strangely sympathetic. In theory the spoilt Lady Caroline – whose wealth and beauty have become something of a burden – should be truly insufferable but I was absolutely on her side in every possible way. Of course it must be hard to be so attractive to everyone. Of course she needs peace and quiet in which to take stock of herself. Of course she needs a retreat from all those ‘grabbers’ out there. Maybe I too was seduced by her ethereal looks and melodious voice.

It probably goes without saying that I was also a huge fan of the setting. I read somewhere that the castle of San Salvatore is based on a real medieval castle on the Italian Riviera in which von Arnim spent some happy summer months. Her descriptions of the castle gardens are so evocative. You can feel the heat of the sun through the pages and smell the wisteria on the breeze.

Of course, no novel is perfect and I was a little disappointed by the way in which von Arnim wraps everything up towards the end; I’m clearly a bitter, resentful person because I still can’t forgive the menfolk their poor behaviour quite so easily. It troubled me that none of the real issues at the heart of all the loneliness in this novel were really addressed and I finished with an awful niggling feeling that maybe the magic of San Salvatore wouldn’t continue to work after the characters returned home. But I am trying not to think about that one too much. This novel is so damn charming that you can’t let negative feelings like that hang about for too long.

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For Two Thousand Years (1934) by Mihail Sebastian

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“Exactly the same thing happens with that age-old call for death which is always present somewhere on Romanian streets but audible only at certain moments. Year after year it resounds in the ear of the common man, who is indifferent, in a hurry, with other things on his mind. Year after year it rumbles and echoes in street and byway and nobody hears it. And one day, out of nowhere, behold how it suddenly pierces the wall of deafness around it and issues from every crack and from under every stone.”

My last stopover on the Around the World in 80 Books tour was in the West Indies for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. For my latest trip I’ve made a completely impractical (but metaphorical) leap over the ocean back to Europe to enjoy a brief stay in Romania – thankfully cost and carbon footprint aren’t a worry here or I might have planned the whole trip better and found a more efficient route 🙂

For Two Thousand Years has only recently appeared in English and I didn’t know much about it before it caught my eye in Waterstones a few months ago. Sebastian’s semi-autobiographical novel takes the very loose form of a diary covering about ten years in the life of a young Jewish man who, when the novel opens in 1923, is an impressionable student at the university in Bucharest. I found the opening passages unsettling, mainly because these were, of course, times of great political and social upheaval and the narrator suffers a great deal at the hands of anti-Semitic mobs on his way to lectures each day. It provokes much argument amongst his friends about what the future holds for the Jews in Europe but the narrator is much more introspective; he wonders what being Jewish means to him personally and whether he will ever really be accepted on his own terms in a Romania which repeatedly rejects and threatens those like him.

The book becomes less brooding – but no less intense – as he moves away from the university and I found it interesting to observe the ways in which his views evolve as he embarks on new ventures and makes new friends. He’s much less self-conscious from here on and there’s less soul searching so I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed these chapters a little more. I hope it isn’t spoiling things too much if I say that the novel takes a quietly sinister turn in the final pages. I was in a noisy hairdresser’s salon at this point in my reading, with a head full of foils, and I wondered later whether the incongruous setting might have made these chapters more shocking than they really were. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else found them as gut-wrenchingly painful to read as I did, much more alarming even than the violence displayed by the racist mobs in previous chapters.

My engagement with this novel went in fits and starts. We didn’t get off to the best beginning but there were several long passages that I loved, I mean really loved. I was so taken with some of Sebastian’s language and imagery that I ended up underlining several long passages in pencil, more than I have with any other novel I’ve read recently. On the other hand there’s no escaping the fact that on some occasions I had a hard time staying focussed. At times I was desperate to finish this novel; at others I wanted to savour every word. My feelings switched from one extreme to the other almost continually until the final few chapters when they suddenly fell very much in the books favour. I didn’t always find this an easy read – for several reasons – but it was beautifully written and haunted me long after I finished.

I Capture The Castle (1949) by Dodie Smith

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My love affair with this book goes back nearly twenty years and I’ve long since lost sight of precisely what it is that binds me to it. If you were to press me on the subject I’d probably say something vague and noncommittal about how much I love Cassandra’s narration and her witty portraits of her mad family. I might also mumble something about the fact that their dilapidated Suffolk castle provided a romantic fictional escape from my own teenage home on a dismal fenland council estate. In truth, however, I really have no idea why I have loved this book for so long. I just know that I have and that it makes it really hard to write an objective review now that I’ve just reread it. I suspect anything I write will sound either a bit too gushy or (worse?) just a bit stale. Instead, in lieu of my usual review style post, here are some of my favourite quotes from I Capture the Castle… 

The opening scene contains some of my favourite descriptions but I particularly love this exchange between Cassandra, her desperate sister Rose and stepmother Topaz at the height of their genteel poverty:

“…It may interest you both to know that for some time now I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.” 

I told her she couldn’t go on the streets in the depths of Suffolk. 

“But if Topaz will kindly lend me the fare to London and give me a few hints-” 

Topaz said she had never been on the streets and rather regretted it, ‘because one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights,’ which is the kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate. 

It makes me think of this later comment:

“Topaz was wonderfully patient – but sometimes I wonder if it is not only patience but also a faint resemblance to cows…” 

God bless Topaz.

Two profound truths that I couldn’t agree with more:

“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.” 

“Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did – flat country seems to give the sky such a chance.” 

I’m not lying when I say that I think of this passage almost every time I enter the eerie silence of a really old church:

I could hear rain still pouring from the gutters and a thin branch scraping against one of the windows; but the church seemed completely cut off from the restless day outside  – just as I felt cut off from the church. I thought: I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness. 

That might be my favourite one of all I also love the slow evolution from this:

“I know all about the facts of life and I don’t think much of them.” 

To this:

“No bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”

To this:

“Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

Forgive the departure from my normal style – this just seemed the easiest way to approach this particular topic but my usual posts will resume very soon. I just read Tove Jannson’s Summer Book and adored it so there’ll be more in a day or two…

 

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.

Vile Bodies (1930) by Evelyn Waugh

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“Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.” 

“Oh Adam, you are a bore.” 

I think Vile Bodies is possibly the most attractive looking book I’ve bought myself in a long time. It cost £3 In a little secondhand bookshop in Ironbridge (just opposite the iron bridge, in fact) where we stopped on our way to Wales last February. The shop had shelves and shelves of orange Penguin Classics and this one caught my eye because of the glamorously 1980s faux Art Deco cover. I love it. At the time I didn’t have a particular wish to read Vile Bodies but I always feel well disposed towards Waugh, partly because I enjoyed Brideshead Revisited but also because I read somewhere that he and his second(?) wife, also called Evelyn, used to refer to each other as Hevelyn and Shevelyn in company. If that’s not inducement to buy a book I don’t know what is.

It’s not an easy book to get into, Vile Bodies, but it’s a fun one. The narrative jumps about all over the place, throwing in a hundred characters at once with no introduction and telling large chunks of the story in sparse conversation. It’s hectic and a bit indistinct but I soon settled into it and quite enjoyed myself. This is Waugh’s satirical take on the ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s, among them young Adam Fenwyck Symes. Adam returns to London at the start of the novel and is quickly drawn into a heady whirlwind of parties, hangovers, prosperity, poverty, engagements and un-engagements. He and his friends stumble from one party to the next, drinking too much and sleeping too little, always accompanied by a reporter from the Daily Excess and leaving a wake of destruction wherever they go.

I love the dialogue in Vile Bodies; it’s rapid and bitterly funny and so easy to read you almost don’t notice it. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that jolly-ho Bertie Wooster style and you can find tons of completely ridiculous examples here.

“Well!” they said. “Well! How too, too shaming,  Agatha darling,” they said. “How devastating, how unpoliceman-like, how goat-like, how sick-making, how too, too awful.” And then they began talking about Archie Schwert’s party that night. 

This could end up being a very quote heavy post if I had my way.

For a book in which nothing much really happens it’s surprisingly busy and Waugh whisks you through at such a pace that there’s almost no time to consider what the point of it all is, which I realise now is actually probably the point. It soon becomes apparent that in spite of appearances no one is really having any fun at all, not the party goers and certainly not the onlookers. It’s all curiously empty and kind of sad. For me Waugh seems to be suggesting that his generation’s endless pursuit of fun is a response to the traumas of the previous years; unlike their parents, they were almost born knowing that the good times don’t last. He couldn’t have seen that another war was looming around the corner but even without hindsight the final scenes of the novel are touching in a strangely frivolous and surreal kind of way. I liked this book very much indeed.

After finishing Vile Bodies I fully intended to continue wading through my unread pile but I bought His Bloody Project on Saturday, in a rare moment of my own kind of frivolity, and got hooked on it straight away. I’m finished now so there’ll be another post here soon.

The Woodlanders (1889) by Thomas Hardy

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I’m back from a short break with lots of apologies for the unexplained absence. In the two weeks since I was last online I’ve had a lovely holiday in snowy Eastern Europe whilst what can only be described as a political shitstorm went down in the US. Yikes. However, I’m not going to dwell on all that too much because I finally got round to reading The Woodlanders after a year of procrastinating and this is of much more relevance to the here and now. Hurray. I’m now ready with tea, custard donuts and a few spare minutes in which to get some thoughts down.

“There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child.”

The Woodlanders is the story of Grace Melbury, whose adoring father has devoted a large portion of his small income to educating his daughter well above her station. It’s not done out of greediness or pride exactly but out of a sort of sacrificial love for his beloved only child. Until now Melbury has always intended that Grace will marry woodman Giles Winterbourne, the son of his late neighbour, but his daughter’s growing refinement convinces him that she’d be happier marrying someone richer and more successful. And so it happens: the lovelorn Giles is ditched, rather reluctantly it must be said, and Grace is encouraged to fall for the worldlier, more exotic, newcomer Edred Fitzpiers. It all goes horribly awry in the end of course. You wouldn’t expect anything else.

Poor old Grace. No one ever really asks her what she would like to do and I wonder whether, if they had, it might have saved everyone a lot of bother in the end. I suppose they’d probably just have ignored her wishes though. It isn’t her fault, of course, that she’s been educated to such a level that she no longer fits in with her old friends, who regard her as too clever for them, or with the upper classes who think she’s too low down in the social pecking order. Her relationship with her well-meaning father is quite touching though and her story really brings home how very much at the mercy of their husbands and fathers women used to be. For this precise reason, however, I wasn’t overly happy with the ending of the novel – I think I’d have preferred something a bit more radical from Grace even if it would have been quite out of character. Still, after all the heartbreak that had gone before, it was nice to see Grace make her own decisions about something; even if I didn’t approve of her choices they probably went down a bit better with the audience of the time.

I read the Penguin Classics Edition because, well, I love Penguin Classics. This one, however, let me down. It wasn’t the fault of the novel itself but the footnotes. Normally I’m a bit obsessive about footnotes; I don’t always like interrupting the flow of the story to read them straight away but I’ll wait a while and check several at once when I get to a good place for stopping. On this occasion though I found myself becoming increasingly reluctant to check because they kept cross referencing events yet to happen in the plot, and not just small events but major plot twists. I was less than a hundred pages into the story and I already knew that so and so were going to get married, this person would have an affair, and these people would be dead before the final page. Brilliant. Thanks, Penguin.

Our Mutual Friend (1865) by Charles Dickens

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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.

 

On Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam

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Image courtesy of Victorian Web

 

I’ve made a big fuss in the past about how irritating I find some of Dickens’ female characters. Rereading Our Mutual Friend has reminded me that I haven’t always felt this way, that there are some occasions when he almost gets them right. For every awful Lucie Manette flinging herself about and sobbing everywhere, or for every Little Nell pathetically submitting herself to death’s embrace, there’s a thoughtful, rational equivalent to soften the blow. In my hurry to find fault with Dickens I sometimes forget this.

There are two characters in Our Mutual Friend that I’m thinking of here. The first is Bella Wilfer, John Harmon’s intended bride and ‘widow’. On the face of it, Bella is spoiled, vain, self-entitled and petulant. She’s a far cry from your usual Dickens heroine. I think it’s important to remember, though, that her engagement to a man she’s never met offers an escape from a poor and unhappy home, although she’s bitterly conscious of how embarrassing the arrangement is for them both. Harmon’s sudden death humiliates her, deprives her of the comfortable future she’d been looking forward to, and makes her all the more determined to find a rich husband. In her own words, she’s become a ‘mercenary wretch’.

“Talk to me of love!” said Bella contemptuously, though her face and figure certainly rendered the subject no incongruous one. “Talk to me of fiery dragons! But talk to me of poverty and wealth, and there indeed we touch upon realities.”  

I have a lot of sympathy for Bella. She knows she’s not an angel but for all her faults, she’s grateful for her later good fortune, loyal to the Boffins and genuinely keen to see her long-suffering father made happy through her success.  Those close to her know that there’s a kind heart in there somewhere but it takes a while for her to see it in herself.

Lizzie Hexam is the other character to spring to mind here, mainly because the Lizzie/Wrayburn/Headstone triangle is one of my favourite plot strands in this novel. When I first read this novel fifteen years ago I was a little dismissive of Lizzie, mainly because at first glance she appears to be one of those too virtuous Dickensian characters I hate: born into grimy poverty and tainted by her father’s involvement in the Harmon murder, she works hard to send her obnoxious brother to school and tries to rise above her past. So far so yawn. If this was in fact the sole substance of Lizzie Hexam I probably wouldn’t be writing this but I’ve been struck on this reading by her insistence on making her own decisions. Whether it’s the warnings of a well intentioned neighbour, or her own brother pressuring her into marriage with a respectable schoolteacher, Lizzie stands her ground… (at least until Eugene Wrayburn turns up). For an apparently meek and friendless young woman she knows her own mind and sticks to it, whatever the consequences for her reputation and her relationship with her beloved brother. And when things take a dark turn she has the good sense to remove herself from the situation.

On a side note, I also don’t think it ever really occurred to me just how murky Wrayburn’s intentions towards Lizzie are until now. He manipulates her into accepting his help (for not entirely selfish reasons) but doesn’t really consider the harm her does her. Although he clearly cares for her he appears to be mystified by his own intentions towards her.

“Eugene, do you design to capture and desert this girl?” 

“My dear fellow, no.” 

“Do you design to marry her?” 

“My dear fellow, no.” 

“Do you design to pursue her?”

“My dear fellow, I don’t design anything. I have no design whatever….” 

God knows I love Eugene Wrayburn, but there’s definitely something a bit selfish, a bit cruel even, in his power over Lizzie. Is he just toying with her? Does he plan on seducing her and then bolting? Lizzie’s a bit of a dreamer but thankfully I don’t think she’s entirely naïve here.

My progress through this book continues to be slow but I am now finally into the second volume. Hurrah!

 

Our Mutual Friend and finding time to read…

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I’m rereading Our Mutual Friend. I’ve given up on two other books recently and this seems to be the only one that I’ve been able to settle into. You might have thought, given how much the new job has knackered me out, that I’d fancy something light-hearted and easy on the brain to read in my spare time, right? But no. Dickens it is.

“I shouldn’t care so much if it wasn’t so ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough to have a stranger coming over to marry me, whether he liked it or not. It was ridiculous enough to know what an embarrassing meeting it would be and how we never could pretend to have an inclination of our own, either of us. It was ridiculous enough to know I shouldn’t like him – how could I like him, left to him in a will, like a dozen of spoons…?” 

Our Mutual Friend was one of the first Dickens novels I ever read. I was fifteen at the time and I remember being a little baffled by it, although I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was really not like anything I’d ever read before then and I’m now finding, all these years later, that I was completely right to be baffled: the cast of characters is overwhelming, the writing occasionally incomprehensible and Dickens frequently gets side-tracked making long points that could be made in just a few sentences. He also has an annoying tendency to carry his metaphors on for far too long, so he’s still referring to a very, very minor character as ‘the hammer-headed young man’ several chapters after he was first mentioned in passing. It would be more helpful to the reader if he could just call him ‘the coachman’ (on the rare occasions when he appears) which is what he actually is. Between ‘the hammer-headed young man’, the ‘analytical chemist’ (a footman) and the ‘the satellite’ (a policeman) it’s impossible not to get a little confused sometimes.

Having said all this, I’m also finding that I was quite right to enjoy this book and to remember it so fondly. The plot is carefully woven and wonderfully detailed. The ‘mutual friend’ of the title is the mysterious John Harmon, whose body washes up on the banks of the Thames in the very first chapter. Harmon, we are told, had been returning to England, after many years spent abroad, to marry a woman he’d never met and to claim an inheritance founded on dustheaps. His murder, and the attractions of his wealth, bind together a disparate group of characters from across the city; from the poor young woman who helps drag Harmon’s body from the water to the elderly dustman who inherits his fortune, they’re all pulled into the shadowy depths of the Harmon mystery. It’s a tale of greed, changing fortunes, spite and (this is Dickens after all) love. Throughout it all the river lurks in the background, uniting those who live and die along its shores and giving the whole book a dark, brooding sort of feel.

Of course, there’s all the usual social commentary and Dickens hasn’t yet been able to resist having a pop at workhouses, the education system, child poverty and the like. I particularly love it when he uses characters like the vile Veneerings to make a point about the sponging, snobbery and idleness of the rich. They really are repellent. One of my favourite bits of spitefulness is directed at dear Lady Tippins and her “immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon.” As you might expect, there are several voices of reason elsewhere in the cast to counterbalance all this pomposity.

My reading has been painfully slow going so far and, although I’ve been reading for over six weeks now, I’m only just getting into Book Two. But I’m hopeful that it’ll be the first book I actually manage to finish since We Need New Names back in April. Now that my journeys to and from work consist of long stretches on the motorway, I can only look back in fondness at all those lovely hours I used to spend reading on trains and in station waiting rooms each morning and evening. What luxury. And I didn’t appreciate it at all at the time.

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent favourites

toptentuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is all about recent five-star reads…. 

I’ve only completed ten books so far this year so for the purposes of this list I’m taking ‘recent’ to mean ‘in the last six months’…

1, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. When I think over the ‘best’ books I’ve read over the past six months, this one stands head and shoulders above almost all of the others. I’m still surprised that such a stark book can be so powerful.

2, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Overall I had mixed feelings about this book but there’s no escaping the fact that it was absolutely absorbing. I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

3, On Tangled Paths by Theodor Fontane. I loved this. It was quiet  and understated but beautifully written.

4, Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. At the other end of the spectrum, a melodramatic bit of Victorian romance can also go a long way…

5, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Without a doubt this ranks as the best book I read, not just recently, but in a very long time. I think it’s spoiled me though – nothing I’ve read since then has captured my imagination in quite the same way.

6, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. This witty novella was exactly the thing to get me through my first bout of post-Tolstoy blues.

7, The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. Vividly imagined but not quite carrying the depth I wanted it to, I look back quite fondly on this now that I’ve had a week to think it over.

……………….. And this is where I run out of ideas. Only seven truly enjoyable reads in six months? That’s pretty sad really. I need to get myself out of this reading funk soon. Does anyone else ever feel like this? What do you do to bring yourself out of it?