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.

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: Nineteenth Century Gothic

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week’s theme is all about books I’d include on my syllabus if I taught a literature course of my choice.

I’ve included here a combination of books and short stories I’ve already read as well as ones I’d like to read:

1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This doesn’t need much of an introduction, does it? I know this book fairly well because I read it for A’level English and then again at university. It was a ground-breaking piece of fiction back in 1818 and an important landmark in the development of Gothic literature.

2. The Vampyre by John Polidori. This short story is worth reading alongside Frankenstein since they have similar origins. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how they came to be written.

3. The Signalman by Charles Dickens. This wouldn’t be the blue bore without one reference to Dickens a week, right? You can find tons of examples of the Gothic in Dickens’ work but this short ghost story has always given me the heebie-jeebies.

4. Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not yet read this but it’s been on my TBR list for ages. Years ago I went to Whitby, the home of Dracula, with some friends and paid £3 to go on a ‘haunted house’ tour which eventually culminated in the four of us being chased shrieking through a dark cellar by a man in a mask. Absolutely mortifying.

5. The Hound Of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was thirteen when I read this and it scared me half to death, until I realised the truth about the hound. If you were being pernickety you’d point out that this was published in 1902 and therefore doesn’t belong on my list. I’d say well, it was probably written in the years before that. I wouldn’t know, I’ve conveniently not checked.

6. The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This has been on my shelf for about ten years and I’ve still not got round to it. I love Oscar Wilde’s short stories and I can well imagine that any Gothic novel he wrote would be bloody brilliant too.

7. The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. This isn’t just one of my favourite works of Gothic literature, it’s one of my favourite novels in the world ever. It’s got wicked plots, villainous villains, mistaken identity, madhouses, ghostly figures in the woods…. Seriously, what’s not to love about this book?

8. The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James. Aah, Mr James, my old nemesis, we meet again. I haven’t attempted this one yet but it sounds great. I just have to get over my appalling fear of Henry James.

9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I’ve never been able to decide whether I really love Wuthering Heights or really hate it! But I do like the way Bronte uses the moors to create that brooding intensity. What is it about the Yorkshire landscape that screams Gothic to so many writers?

10. The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve not yet read any books by EAP but I’m told this is a particularly good one. I also quite like the sound of The Pit And The Pendulum.

Doesn’t ‘Nineteenth Century Gothic’ sound like a font?