The Sunday Salon: Re-Reading Sense and Sensibility

This week I’ve been re-reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  I’ve made it a tradition to  re-read an Austen novel every year.  In 2011 it was Pride and Prejudice (read my review), and last year I re-read Emma.

I first read Sense and Sensibility in 2007, and it was my personal tipping point in becoming a Janeite.  My review appears on my old LiveJournal blog, here, but I have to admit it doesn’t say much.  Or maybe I’m just catching more details this time around.  I know the basic plot already, so I can focus more on Austen’s characters and wit.

The men seem to get short shrift.  Elinor and Marianne’s brother John falls victim to his manipulative wife and fails to provide for his mother and sisters, then makes nice later, probably realizing what a jerk he’s been.  Willoughby is a cad, and we know it, but much of his bad behavior occurs off-stage.  And Edward Ferrars: what does Elinor see in him, anyway?  He’s just sort of “there,” someone Elinor has pined after for some time.  But why?  Colonel Brandon is one of the few men with depth, although honestly I’m not sure if that’s because of Austen’s writing, or Alan Rickman’s portrayal in the 1995 film adaptation.

The women fare better, although my imagination is once again enhanced by memories of Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.  Elinor is a rock, almost too much so.  She is entrusted with a secret that is actually devastating news to her personally, and yet she sucks it up and keeps the secret for four months.  She doesn’t even tell her mother or sister.  I could not do this.  And while she’s dealing with that, Marianne experiences personal trauma of her own, and there’s Elinor at her side providing comfort.

If Elinor is one of those common-sense, no-nonsense women, Marianne is her opposite.  Emotional and somewhat frivolous, Marianne goes where her mood takes her.  Left to her own devices, she would fail to check herself in conversation, and blurt out whatever comes to mind.  When Marianne is dealing with trauma, everybody knows it.

And then there are the ancillary female characters.  My favorite is Mrs Jennings, a busybody who gets it wrong more often than not.  Austen sets up a hilarious moment in chapter 30-something, where Mrs Jennings overhears half of a conversation between Elinor and Brandon, and jumps to conclusions.  Mrs Jennings attempts to discuss what she thinks she heard, and Elinor answers based on what really happened. Hilarity ensues.  This type of comedy is Austen at her finest.

As I write this, I’m actually only about 80% of my way through the novel, about to begin Chapter 41.  I know the ending will be satisfying, as Austen’s novels always are.  So I think I’ll brew a cup of tea and get back to it!

Who is your favorite character in Sense and Sensibility?

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Play the Classics Spin!

The Classics Club is sponsoring a fun game called The Classics Spin.  Here’s how it works:

  • Pick twenty books unread books from your Classics Club List.
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Select the corresponding book from the list.
  • The challenge is to read that book by April 1, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading!

I honestly don’t think I have any “icky” books on my list, but there are have several I’ve put off because others caught my attention.  Some are Persephones, some are Viragos, and then there are some  miscellaneous classics.

  1. William, by Cicely Hamilton
  2. Mariana, by Monica Dickens
  3. Far Cry, by Emma Smith
  4. Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple
  5. The Shuttle, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  6. Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton
  7. The Children, by Edith Wharton
  8. The Mother’s Recompense, by Edith Wharton
  9. Mandoa, Mandoa by Winifred Holtby
  10. The Misses Mallett, by E. H. Young
  11. Chatterton Square, by E. H. Young
  12. Family History, by Vita Sackville-West
  13. No Signposts in the Sea, by Vita Sackville-West
  14. The Beth Book by Sarah Grand
  15. Company Parade, by Storm Jameson
  16. Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton
  17. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  18. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
  20. The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

I wonder which one I’ll read in March?

UPDATE February 18:  The spin-o-meter chose #14!

The Sunday Salon: A “Surprising” Classic

This month The Classics Club posed a question to its members:

“What classic has most surprised you so far, and why?”

I had to think about this one for a while.  “Surprises” come in many forms: plot, characters, writing style, enjoyment, etc.  On my Classics Club list are books I enjoyed, disappointing books, and others that weren’t what I expected.  But as I scrolled through the list, one stood out as the biggest surprise so far:  The Warden, by Anthony Trollope.  My review opens with this:

This review could be subtitled, “In which I develop a fondness for Anthony Trollope.”  A couple of years ago I gave up on Barchester Towers, and while I had my reasons I never felt good about it.  This time I decided to start at the beginning of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, and I’m glad I did.

Bookish friends told me  The Warden was a quiet novel, and an important introduction to Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire.   I was helped along by a tutored read on LibraryThing, which explained the intricacies of the 19th century English church and other important context.  But mostly I fell in love with Septimus Harding, the title character.  He was such a dear man, and nearly done in by unjust accusations.  While my love for Septimus came as a surprise, perhaps more surprising was how much I loved the entire book, and how it set me on a course to read the complete Chronicles of Barsetshire.  I read Barchester Towers in December (read my review), and I’ll be reading the third novel, Doctor Thorne, next month.

I love discovering new authors, and when they are classics, so much the better!

What’s your most surprising classic read?

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The Sunday Salon: My Classics Club “Clunker” of 2012

Welcome to another Sunday chez Musings. I’ve been thinking about The Classics Club January Meme, which asks:

What is the best book you’ve read so far for The Classics Club — and why? Be sure to link to the post where you discussed the book! (Or, if you prefer, what is your least favorite read so far for the club, and why?)

This is perfect for the new year, one of those “take stock of where you’ve been” kind of questions.  For those not familiar with The Classics Club, it works like this: members commit to read and blog about at least 50 classics over 5 years.  I read 19 books in 2012, so I am well on my way (a list of the 19 titles appears at the end of this post).  But because of the Club and the influence of other classics bloggers, I keep adding to my list!  It now stands at 64 books.  At my current pace it shouldn’t be a problem to read 45 books over the next 4 years, but then again I’ll probably keep adding to the list, too.  No big deal, as long as I’m enjoying the ride, right?

Now, about the January question.  I enjoyed nearly all the books I read last year, and there was no runaway favorite.  But there’s definitely one that didn’t work for me:  Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers (read my review).  This was her last work, and in fact she died before finishing it.  My edition was published in 1993 as a finished work, based on research and notes.  The premise was interesting — American women in the British marriage market — but the characters lacked the depth of Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) or Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country).  Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, so it was especially disappointing to read something that just wasn’t up to scratch.

Did you read any classics last year?  Did you have a favorite, or a “clunker”?

Here’s the complete list of classics read in 2012 (visit my Classics Club page for my 5-year list and links to reviews):

  1. Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple
  2. Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson
  3. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey
  4. A Wreath of Roses, by Elizabeth Taylor
  5. Poor Caroline, by Winifred Holtby
  6. The Rising Tide, by Molly Keane
  7. The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns
  8. A Game of Hide and Seek, by Elizabeth Taylor
  9. The Sleeping Beauty, by Elizabeth Taylor
  10. Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor
  11. The Soul of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor
  12. The Wedding Group, by Elizabeth Taylor
  13. Blaming, by Elizabeth Taylor
  14. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
  15. The Warden, by Anthony Trollope
  16. Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
  17. The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton
  18. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
  19. Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

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Review: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

2013 marks the centenary of Barbara Pym, a British novelist with a unique gift for capturing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of post-WW II England.  Her characters are usually middle-aged women, clergy, and academics; her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, includes all three.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are sisters, unmarried and of a certain age.  Belinda is devoted to Henry Hoccleve, a love interest from her youth, now married to Agatha and serving as archdeacon in the village.  Harriet is routinely pursued by an Italian count who inexplicably also lives in the village.  Every few months he proposes marriage, and Harriet routinely declines.  Instead, Harriet focuses her attentions on each new curate arriving in the parish, knowing full well her attentions will not be seen as anything other than maternal.  Both women are perfectly comfortable sharing a house and caring for each other as old age approaches.

The entire village is quite comfortable, actually.  Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and social life revolves around community activities like the annual garden party.  People tend their gardens, women knit, and everyone seems to have at least a cook/housekeeper to prepare Sunday lunch while they are away at worship.  This routine is disrupted when Agatha goes away on holiday alone, and both academics and a bishop visit the close-knit community.

Pym is delightfully witty, capturing perfectly the village’s rich cast of characters.  Henry has an inflated view of his abilities; his sermons are known for their length and liberal use of quotations from obscure sources.  His idea of a perfect party activity is to read aloud to his guests. Really, Henry just likes hearing the sound of his own voice:

There was of course nothing she would have liked better than to hear dear Henry reciting Milton, but somehow with Agatha outside and so much to be done it didn’t seem quite the thing.  Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.  (p. 21)

But his talents are largely lost on his flock:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. (p. 107)

The minor characters are just as amusing.  There’s a brilliant scene when the local seamstress refuses to eat food Belinda provided after discovering a caterpillar in the vegetables.  Sock-knitting and the perils of the Kitchener stitch are covered in more detail than I would expect to find in a novel.  Pym’s writing had me chuckling all the way.

The plot was also satisfying, with just the right amount of conflict and uncertainty even as I knew everything would turn out all right in the end. Some Tame Gazelle is an ideal comfort read.

Check out Heaven-Ali’s post for an equally complimentary view of Some Tame Gazelle.

Review: Pomfret Towers, by Angela Thirkell

Discovering a new author is so much fun, especially when they have published many books, and you know you have those to look forward to as well.  Such is the case with Angela Thirkell, and Pomfret Towers which is part of her 29-volume Barsetshire series.  I received this book from a Secret Santa, and was looking for fun, light reads over the holidays.  Pomfret Towers fit the bill completely.

The novel is set in Barsetshire, a fictional English county created by Anthony Trollope.  Where Trollope’s novels are set in the 1850-60s,  Thirkell’s take place in the first half of the twentieth century.  Pomfret Towers centers on a weekend house party for the young people of Barsetshire, hosted by the elderly Lord and Lady Pomfret.  For Alice Barton, it is her first house party and she’s scared to death: unsure of what to wear, how to conduct herself, and what to expect of servants.  Her first instinct is to excuse herself completely, but she is convinced to attend when she learns good friends Roddy & Susan Wicklow will be there, along with her brother Guy.  Once at Pomfret Towers, Alice meets a couple of young men who capture her interest, and the feelings seem to be mutual.  But Alice is an unlikely match for both, so one wonders throughout how all this will turn out.  Needless to say, over the course of the weekend there is much courting, and matchmaking by older members of the party, and Thirkell keeps the reader guessing about how people will pair off.  Because, of course, they do.

Thirkell delivers the romantic storyline with a strong dose of social satire, poking fun at certain character types.  Besides Lord Pomfret, who provides considerable much comedic value, she makes fun of authors, like this one:

Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. … When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded upon the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbours. (p. 3-4)

There are also annoying party guests, social climbers, and several all-around good people.  Mix them up with an interesting and funny story line, and you have a highly enjoyable novel.  I look forward to reading more of this series.

Review: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson

53 - Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a tribute to 19th-century Scotland.  First published in 1937, it was reissued in 2004 as Persephone Books #53, with the usual classic endpaper.  It’s a simple story, a comfort read, told by the elderly Mrs Memmary, caretaker of the once magnificent, now crumbling, Keepsfield estate owned by the Countess of Lochlule.  The setup involves a group of tourists who stumble upon Keepsfield, now available to let as a holiday home.  One of the women falls into conversation with Mrs Memmary, encouraging her to talk about the estate and the family that once lived there.  Mrs Memmary is somewhat reticent, but tells her about the day Rose, the current Countess, turned six.   The woman asks more questions, which leads Mrs Memmary to relate more chapters in Rose’s life.  The reader can imagine Mrs Memmary and the woman spending a couple of hours over a cup of tea, while the rest of the tourists explore the estate.

Lady Rose grew up in a very privileged environment, never wanting for material possessions but also, as was typical of wealthy society at the time, distant from her parents.  She sees Scotland as superior to England and, really, anyplace else, as does everyone around her:

“So I shall take your hand, child, and turn you to the sea — like this — and I shall say to you, read, and fill your mind with the wonderful history of Scotland; look, and fill your eyes with the glorious beauty of Scotland; dream, and fill your soul with the poetry and romance of Scotland; and let the love of your country be always in your heart, Lady Rose.”  (p. 51)

Rose attended an English boarding school and, at eighteen, made her debut and became engaged to a Scottish nobleman.  She fulfilled her duty as an heiress and wife, but here her story departs from the expected norm, and Rose turns out to be a surprisingly strong character.  She acts rather impulsively on her convictions, resulting in irrevocable change that, as these things do, has profound positive and negative consequences that make for interesting plot twists.  You will have to read to learn more.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is aptly described by Persephone Books as “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” with the simple prose I would associate with other fairy tales.  Each of Mrs Memmary’s flashbacks are introduced in a way that reminded me of old movies.  Can’t you just imagine this bit on screen?

So old Time seized his book and began to turn back the pages, ten, twenty at a time — more than seventy pages of yellow leaves. Through them all the great white house gleamed whiter, and soon the Greek girl at the fountain was laughing as the waters of a bygone day gushed over her reaching fingers.  (p.21)

This book didn’t exactly bowl me over, but it was an interesting representative of a literary period and a pleasant diversion.

Review: The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton died before completing The Buccaneers; her unfinished manuscript was published in 1938.  Author Marion Mainwaring worked from Wharton’s notes to publish a finished novel in 1993. The Buccaneers is a satirical look at society’s “marriage market” in the 1870s, seen through the eyes of five debutantes who, having been unsuccessful in American society, travel to London to spend a social season in pursuit of eligible, wealthy Englishmen.

In true Wharton fashion, the girls are initially successful, but their long-term prospects and happiness are far from certain.  The story eventually centers on Annabel St. George, the youngest and the one who makes the most promising match by marrying a duke.  Annabel is stifled by her dull husband and controlling mother-in-law, and is unable even to enjoy the benefits of wealth, since she is given very little spending money.  After finding mutual attraction with another man, Annabel must make difficult decisions about her future.

Yawn.  This is the stuff of dime-a-dozen romance novels.  The Buccaneers is less sophisticated than Wharton’s better-known works, like The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country.  The characters lack depth, the plot is too simple, and there are too many little sub-plots that drain energy from the novel.  I’m a huge Wharton fan, but I can’t recommend this one.

Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

This was my second attempt at reading this book (read about my first, failed attempt here).  I learned a valuable lesson:  always read a series in order.  Barchester Towers is the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. In The Warden, Trollope introduced Septimus Harding and Archdeacon Grantly, and established important plot points that continue developing in Barchester Towers.

When we last saw Mr. Harding, he was recently ousted from his position as Warden of a charitable hospital due to controversy over compensation and duties, and assumed a lesser role in a nearby church.  Now, a few years later, he is comfortably ensconced in his role and, it seems, semi-retired.  The appointment of a new bishop resurrects questions of the hospital warden, since the role was left vacant.  Bishop Proudie brings a different style to Barchester, being more “Low Church” than “High Church.”  But perhaps more importantly, he is ruled by his wife:

This lady is habitually authoritative to all, but to her poor husband she is despotic. Successful as has been his career in the eyes of the world, it would seem that in the eyes of his wife he is never right. All hope of defending himself has long passed from him; indeed he rarely even attempts self-justification, and is aware that submission produces the nearest approach to peace which his own house can ever attain.

Proudie is also heavily influenced by his chaplain, the creepy and slimy Obadiah Slope.  Both Slope and Mrs Proudie have strong views on who should be appointed Warden, and Slope is also angling to be appointed to the more senior position of Dean.  Slope and Mrs Proudie engage in a very amusing  battle for control of the diocese as the hapless bishop looks on.

But Barchester Towers is about much more than church politics.  In this second novel, Trollope further develops the Barsetshire area, introducing characters from all layers of society and skewering them with his excellent wit.  There’s also a romantic storyline, in which Harding’s widowed daughter Eleanor is courted by three different gentlemen, with everyone else conspiring to influence the outcome.  Trollope shows his hand early on, allowing the reader to enjoy these antics without worrying about Eleanor doing something stupid.  All’s well that ends well, for both Harding and his daughter, and Trollope’s summing up in the last chapter left me feeling very satisfied indeed.

Trollope’s writing is filled with detail, devoting an entire chapter to introducing a single character and going on at length about issues in the church which may need some research to fully appreciate.  Reading his work requires some investment of time and effort, but I’m now a complete convert and am looking forward to working my way through this delightful series.

Review: The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter is Alice Rowland, the 17-year-old daughter of an abusive father and a very unhappy (and abused) mother.  Alice tells her own story in stark and simple prose, such as this scene at her mother’s deathbed:

As I climbed upstairs I could hear the breathing again, now that everything in the house was still. I went to Mother’s room and she was still asleep. Her face was flushed, and her breathing was certainly very loud. Although it seemed cruel, I shook her; but she still stayed asleep and the heavy breathing seemed to come louder. I didn’t know if it was a good thing, this heavy-breathing sleep, or if I should send for a doctor although it was so late at night. I even wished Father would come home and tell me what to do. Eventually I left her well propped up with pillows so that she would not suffocate and went to bed. (p. 36)

After her mother’s death, Alice lived in fear of her father and even suspected him of having done something to hasten her mother’s passing.  Her father quickly took up with another woman and ignored Alice.  Alice knew her life wasn’t “normal” or “happy,” but was powerless to change it.  Her only escape was an apparent supernatural power, the ability to levitate at will.  Was this real, or psychological dissociation?  Comyns lets the reader decide.

Barbara Comyns’ novels are oddly fascinating, and I never know what to make of them.  Her no-frills, unemotional writing style is about as exciting as reading a newspaper, and yet this is still an intense and tragic story.  This is my third Comyns novel, and I’d say they are very much an acquired taste.