Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so. One may say that hankering after naughty things is the very essence of the evil into which we have been precipitated by Adam’s fall.

Mark Robarts is the recently appointed vicar of Framley, and happily married to Fanny.  His future appears secure, but Mark longs after “naughty things” like fox-hunting, horses, and parties.  His troubles begin when he co-signs a loan for a so-called friend, Nathaniel Sowerby.  Unbeknownst to Robarts, Sowerby is deeply in debt and on the run from creditors and bill collectors.  Robarts naively believes everything will work out, and fails to tell his wife about the debt he’s incurred.

In Framley Parsonage we are also reunited with several other notable characters from the three earlier books:  Archdeacon Grantly and his family,  Dean Arabin and his wife Eleanor, Mrs Proudie the bishop’s domineering wife, Doctor Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and the outspoken and very funny heiress Miss Dunstable.  I loved seeing these old friends in new settings.  I also enjoyed Trollope’s wit, as he poked fun at the clergy:

Let those who know clergymen, and like them, and have lived with them, only fancy it! Clergymen to be paid, not according to the temporalities of any living which they may have acquired, either by merit or favour, but in accordance with the work to be done! O Doddington! and O Stanhope, think of this, if an idea so sacrilegious can find entrance into your warm ecclesiastical bosoms! Ecclesiastical work to be bought and paid for according to its quantity and quality!

And at men in general:

 “My dear!” said her husband, “it is typhus, and you must first think of the children. I will go.”     “What on earth could you do, Mark?” said his wife. “Men on such occasions are almost worse than useless; and then they are so much more liable to infection.”

But back to Mark Robarts.  It wasn’t long before his future looked bleak, but this is Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, where things invariably turn out well in the end.  In fact, the last chapter of Framley Parsonage is entitled, “How They Were All Married, Had Two Children, and Lived Happy Ever After”.  The journey from near ruin to happily ever after is a long, meandering one with several related threads.  As Mark is facing financial ruin, his sister Lucy comes to stay, and meets young, unmarried Lord Lufton.  They are instantly attracted to one another, but Lady Lufton has strong feelings about her son marrying the vicar’s sister.  And so begins another long, meandering journey in which Lady Lufton discovers why Lucy is the ideal choice for her son, and learns a few things about herself in the process.  Trust me — that’s not a spoiler!  Trollope’s outcomes are always predictable, but it doesn’t matter because getting there is so much fun.

Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is commonly read in secondary school, but I missed out, and the upcoming film release was just the inspiration I needed to finally read it.  That, and a husband who read it about a month ago, and really wanted to discuss it.

The story is short, and seemingly straightforward.  Jay Gatsby is a wealthy man known for throwing huge, lavish parties on his Long Island estate.  His next-door neighbor, Nick Carraway, narrates the story and views Gatsby with a sort of detached awe.

I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited — they went there.  They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. (p. 41)

Nick’s friends, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, are also new to Gatsby’s parties, but not new to wealth, being part of old, established Long Island “aristocracy.”  Gatsby himself maintains an aura of mystery.  No one knows much about his past, and speculation abounds: he’s a bootlegger, he killed a man, he served in the war, he went to Oxford … or perhaps not.  But he’s clearly “new money,” and Daisy and Gatsby have a shared past which becomes a central conflict in the novel.

The Great Gatsby is a tightly written work of only 180 pages.  Fitzgerald quickly immerses the reader in 1920s society, infuses his characters with a certain emotional desperation, and uses them to portray everything he felt was wrong with America during this period, especially greed and the quest for wealth.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, but to a great extent they are simply vessels for Fitzgerald’s message.  And despite being short on both character development and setting, Gatsby still feels complete, with a strong plot and thought-provoking themes.  I’m looking forward to the film to see how these themes are brought to life.

Addendum:  Claire @ Word by Word published a superb review of The Great Gatsby a day after mine.  Read it now! 

Review: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope

In this third volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope leaves behind familiar characters from the first two novels, and introduces his readers to an entirely new cast.  The eponymous Doctor Thorne serves an area of Barsetshire that includes Greshamsbury and the Gresham family, which includes Frank, who has recently come of age.  Thorne lives with his niece Mary, who is about Frank’s age.  Can you see where this is going?  Of course, but that’s not the point.  It’s the journey to the inevitable ending that makes reading Trollope so much fun.

In Doctor Thorne, Frank’s father has fallen into debt, and the family’s only hope is for Frank to marry money.  Mary is of humble birth, or so everyone believes.  But Doctor Thorne has a long-held a secret about her origins, and he is far too ethical to spill the beans.  Besides, if he did there would be no novel!  Frank loves Mary and cares nothing about her class, but Frank’s mother, the haughty Lady Arabella, is constantly scheming to keep Frank and Mary apart and introduce Frank to wealthy women.  Doctor Thorne stays out of it, trusting everyone to do the right thing but defending Mary when her honor is challenged:

“Why should I object? It is for you, Lady Arabella, to look after your lambs; for me to see that, if possible, no harm shall come to mine. If you think that Mary is an improper acquaintance for your children, it is for you to guide them; for you and their father. Say what you think fit to your own daughter; but pray understand, once for all, that I will allow no one to interfere with my niece.”

Trollope infuses this novel with his trademark wit.  For example, he lets us know early on just what sort of woman is Lady Arabella:

Of course Lady Arabella could not suckle the young heir herself. Ladies Arabella never can. They are gifted with the powers of being mothers, but not nursing-mothers. Nature gives them bosoms for show, but not for use. So Lady Arabella had a wet-nurse.

Trollope guides us through several twists and turns, over more than 500 pages sprinkled with quips like this, before Frank and Mary are finally united. It’s all good fun making for a very pleasurable, satisfying read.

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: 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: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a Victorian novel about ordinary people in provincial England.  In writing it, George Eliot defied the traditions and expectations of her time by exploring real issues and allowing “bad things” to happen to her characters.  As in real life, misfortune and unhappiness are common.

Central to the story is Dorothea Brooke, who early on marries the intellectual Edward Casaubon.  But she is disappointed in marriage:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?

As Dorothea struggles to find happiness, two other couples are forging their way: Dr. Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.  Will they marry or won’t they?  And if they do, will they be happy?  Middlemarch is quite unpredictable in this regard.  And Eliot uses these couples, and the large cast of characters surrounding them, to explore how seemingly isolated events can ripple out to affect a broader population in ways large and small:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

Along the way Eliot adds liberal doses of humor and irony:

But we all know the wag’s definition of a philanthropist: a man whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance.

I read Middlemarch over a period of several months, which required frequent consultation with my notes to keep the characters and plot lines straight in my mind.  I was most impressed with the women of Middlemarch.  I started out thinking Dorothea was a bit of milquetoast, but came to like her a lot.  She had a strong social conscience which both trapped her into marriage and provided her path to long-term happiness.  Rosamond Vincy, however, lowered in my estimation with each turn of the page.  And then out of nowhere Rosamond’s aunt, Mrs. Bulstrode, rose up and showed herself to be an amazingly strong woman.  Where the typical woman of this period was meek and obedient, Harriet Bulstrode stood up to the most serious social pressure she and her husband had ever faced:

But this imperfectly taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her–now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life.

Well, I could go on.  Eliot covers a lot of ground in 880 pages, and it’s filled with memorable moments and brilliant writing.  Sure, I could have finished several shorter books in the time it took to read this one, but I have no regrets.

Review: Miss Hargreaves, by Frank Baker

Imagine if you and a friend created a fictitious person, and then that person showed up on your doorstep!  That’s exactly what happened to Norman Huntley and his friend Henry Beddow.  While on holiday in Ireland, they visited a village church.  To amuse themselves in conversation with the sexton, they invented Constance Hargreaves, lifelong friend of a former vicar at the church.  They had a grand time pulling the sexton’s leg, telling him about Miss Hargreaves’ personality, her unusual pets, her interests in music and poetry, and on and on.  After the visit, and still carrying on a bit, they sent a letter to Miss Hargreaves’ address.  When Norman received a letter in return, he was flabbergasted.  Then Miss Hargreaves came to visit, and she was everything Norman and Henry had imagined.

Speechless, I sat down at a marble table and faced the Woman I had Made Up on the Spur of the Moment.

… ‘It is such a very long time since we met; indeed, I cannot remember now when or what that was. My memory — alas! — works but spasmodically in this, the evening of my days.  But what an evening!  Oh, yes! It is no use disguising the fact; I am no longer young.’ She leant forward across the table, tapped me on the chest with a silver pencil suspended from a chain around her neck. ‘Eighty-three, Norman; eighty-three! Five reigns. And yet — I feel as though I had been born last week! Youth’ — she declaimed, touching her heart — ‘lives here.’  (p. 60)

Norman doesn’t know how to explain the sudden arrival of a supposed dear friend.  He’s sure everyone would think he’d lost his mind.  And well, perhaps they would, so he continually ducks the question.  He begins to question himself:  perhaps he really did meet Miss Hargreaves long ago?  Miss Hargreaves proceeds to insert herself into Norman’s life.  She insists on meeting his family, and even goes so far as to buy property in the town.  She completely monopolizes his time, but in a good way, just as you would expect from someone you’ve known for years.  But Norman begins to chafe under all this attention, and under the questions and stares coming from his mother, his girlfriend, and others.  Then he begins to discover his power over Miss Hargreaves:  if he imagines her in a situation, he later learns the situation actually occurred.  Some of his actions have permanent ramifications,  altering their relationship.  This creates a huge moral dilemma:  if Norman can invent Miss Hargreaves, perhaps he can make her disappear.  But does he want to?  Could he bring himself to do such a thing?

I instantly liked Miss Hargreaves.  Strutting about in her tweed jacket and absurd hat, spouting off with her opinions, reading her poetry aloud, drawing attention to herself and yet repeatedly protesting, “I abominate fuss.”  She made me laugh at every turn.  There were times I wanted to smack Norman, especially when he was being weak or self-centered.  And I really worried about him when he faced the moral dilemma, because up to then he had been alternately kind and cruel to Miss Hargreaves.  So as not to spoil it for others, I’ll just say the story wraps up in a way that follows the will of both characters, and feels perfectly right.  I won’t soon forget Miss Hargreaves.  Perhaps I’ll even meet her someday. 🙂

The Sunday Salon Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day to honor all who served and died in military conflict.  And as it happens, I just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  So without further ado, I bring you my review … lest we forget.
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Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel shows the realities of armed conflict through the eyes of Paul, a young German who served at the front along with several of his classmates.  When the book opens, the men have been in service long enough to adapt to the food and living conditions, to see action, and to come together as a unit.  And they began to understand that those in authority weren’t any better off than themselves:

For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress — to the future.  We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them.  The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. (p. 12)

It doesn’t take long for the war to take over a man’s entire being, and turn him into someone very different than he was before:

We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war. (p. 87)

When Paul is finally granted leave, he finds it difficult to adjust to daily life at home.  Some want to hear about his experience, but he prefers not to share it.  Some want to glorify the war, and he is also unwilling to take part in those conversations.  Some, like his mother, would rather remain ignorant, which is just as difficult for Paul.  He returns to the front and sees even more intense action than before, including killing a man in hand-to-hand combat.  Remarque served in World War I himself, and doesn’t shy away from the details.  He also brilliantly depicts the emotional impact of battle, from remorse to complete mental breakdown.  The book follows Paul and his comrades through staggering loss, all the way to the end of the war.

Many books about war are a “play-by-play” of battle scenes told from the victor’s point of view. By definition, they seek to show why the war was necessary, and the good it brought to humankind.   All Quiet on the Western Front is something altogether different, asking readers to consider whether any good at all can come from war.  As far as I’m concerned, the answer is “no.”

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Midweek @ Musings: Two Short Works by John Steinbeck

Some time ago, in a fit of Steinbeck-related enthusiasm, I stumbled upon two of his shorter works in a used book sale.  I loved The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, so I thought, why not?  They’re cheap!  I’ll read them right away!  Three years later they were two of the oldest books on my physical TBR pile.  Every time I looked at them, my eyes — and urge to read — went elsewhere.   And since I really wanted to cull my stacks this year, I decided it was time to face up to these two slim little books.

I read both Tortilla Flat and The Pearl over the long Labor Day weekend.  Am I glad?  Well, no, not really.  Sure, I crossed a couple of books off my TBR list.  And I made room on my shelves, although truth be told these books are so small the impact is hardly noticeable.  But you see, I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them, and I hate when reading becomes a chore.  It’s difficult even to muster the energy to write proper reviews.

Needless to say I’m happy to have moved on to some better reading!

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Tortilla Flat is an impoverished area near Monterey, California, inhabited by ne’er-do-wells described on the back cover of my edition as “a colorful gang whose revels recall the exploits of King Arthur’s knights … gutsy denizens … curiously childlike natives.” The group’s leader is Danny, a man whose social status is instantly raised when he inherits his family property.  The rest of the gang moves in, expressing intent to pay rent but never actually doing so.  The group increases in size, and each day their sole aim is to find a way to get one or more gallons of wine and spend the evenings making it disappear.  They are very loyal to one another, but swindle other people and treat women poorly.

I read just over half of this book’s 207 pages, but found the group’s escapades repetitive and boring and was unable — unwilling — to continue.

(DNF)

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Kino makes his living searching for pearls in the sea.  He is a poor laborer, with a wife and new baby to care for.  One day he finds a huge pearl, and begins imagining how it will change their lives.  He and Juana will be able to have a proper wedding.  His son, Coyotito, will be baptised and go to school.  They will join a new social class.

The poor villagers envy Kino’s new status, and Kino becomes protective and suspicious.  But when he has the pearl appraised, he finds it may not be as valuable as he hoped.  He decides to travel to the city with his family, and have the pearl appraised there.  Fueled by greed, Kino is willing to do just about anything to keep the pearl.  And that’s when his life begins to unravel.

This book was vaguely familiar; I think I may have read it in school.  Steinbeck does a fine job showing how greed can make someone irrational.  The style and tone were probably spot on when this was first published in 1945.  For contemporary readers, the theme is a familiar one, and doesn’t have the same impact.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Second Movement, by Anthony Powell

The “second movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time is a collection of three novellas:  At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones.  Set in England during the years just before World War II, this dance includes many characters familiar to readers of the first movement.  The protagonist, Nick Jenkins, is now an established writer working for a film company.  In At Lady Molly’s, Anthony Powell sets the stage by introducing readers to several new characters who will figure prominently in Nick’s life.   They include the Tolland family (several brothers & sisters, and their stepmother), and Chips Lovell, a professional colleague whose literary role is to introduce Nick to other people and situations.  Social themes are introduced as well,  particularly political developments in Germany, and society’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis during this time period.

While the first novella has a seemingly endless cast, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant focuses on Nick, his new wife, and their close friends the Morelands.  But the dance continues, with familiar characters moving in and out of their lives, including Nick’s school friends Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham.  Finally in The Kindly Ones, Powell begins in Nick’s childhood, providing a complete “back story” on certain characters and lending new context to their role in the dance.

There is very little “action” in these novels.  Instead, there are a myriad of social situations where the dialogue moves the action along.  For example, one character will tell a story about another, and in this way we learn of marriages, affairs, deaths, and so on.  One of the intriguing aspects of this series is the way Powell conveys the passing of time.  It’s such a critical element, and yet is only expressed indirectly. Months and years are never mentioned, and rarely do we know someone’s age.  We get a sense of elapsed time primarily through historical or cultural cues (i.e.; the Abdication), and only occasionally by specific mention (i.e.; “several years passed …”).

I also love Powell’s turns of phrase, like this bit:

She was immaculately free from any of the traditional blemishes of a mother-in-law; agreeable always; entertaining; even, in her own way, affectionate; but always a little alarming: an elegant, deeply experienced bird — perhaps a bird of prey — ready to sweep down and attack from the frozen mountain peaks upon which she preferred herself to live apart.

And, at the close of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, this powerful paragraph:

I thought of his recent remark about the Ghost Railway.  He loved these almost as much as he loved mechanical pianos. Once, at least, we had been on a Ghost Railway together at some fun fair or on a seaside pier; slowly climbing sheer gradients, sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a unique work, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

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