The Sunday Salon Review: Summer, by Edith Wharton

This was a big week in literature, with the Booker Prize announcement on Tuesday.  I also reached a reading milestone:  reading all the Booker winners through 2009.  This inspired me to write a retrospective on Booker winners, with my view on favorites and clunkers.  I’ve ordered the 2010 winner, The Finkler Question, and plan to read it in November.

This week I also finally read a better-than-average book, so I saved up my review to share with you today.  Actually, it was also a pretty busy week, so it was Saturday by the time I sat down to write my review!  But whatever the reason, here it is …


Charity Royall came of age in North Dormer, an isolated Massachusetts village.  Her guardian was a prominent lawyer, who gave Charity a home after her mother proved unable to care for her.  Charity has led a life of relative privilege, and has no memory of life up on the impoverished Mountain.  She resigns herself to village life, and working as the local librarian.

Then one day a young architect named Lucius Harney arrives in North Dormer, to visit his aunt and sketch local buildings.  He is much more worldly than Charity; he buys her nice things and introduces her to unimaginable experiences.  Despite lawyer Royall’s efforts, the passion between Charity and Lucius culminates in a full-fledged clandestine affair.  Although Charity lacks experience, she enters into the affair with full knowledge and intentions.  The time she spends with Lucius is memorable and idyllic, and the subsequent turn of events is not entirely unexpected.  Towards the end of the book Charity has to navigate some extremely difficult situations which show her depth and strength, and her actions in the last chapter show clearly why Wharton gave this character the name, “Charity.”

Charity Royall experienced emotions and physical sensations that women in the early 1900s simply didn’t discuss with others.   Edith Wharton was a pioneer in portraying Charity as a normal, healthy young woman, creating a new view of female sexuality.  My edition of Summer included an introduction by Marilyn French that discusses this topic at length, and greatly enriched my reading experience.


Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

The Sunday Salon Review: Precious Bane, by Mary Webb

It’s hard to believe Sunday is here again; this week just flew by.  I finished Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (read my review), and wrote a post inspired by cover descriptions for its various editions.  I then moved on to read a Virago Modern Classic, Precious Bane by Mary Webb.   Webb was a romantic novelist from Shropshire, England, who wrote in the early 20th century.  Her work was not well-known until shortly after her death, when the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, publicly praised her work.  In the introduction to my edition, Baldwin wrote, “The strength of the book … lies in the fusion of the elements of nature and man, as observed in this remote countryside by a woman even more alive to the changing moods of nature than of man.”  Read on for my review …

In the early 1800s, not long after the Battle of Waterloo, a young woman named Prue Sarn lived with her mother and brother Gideon on a farm in the Shropshire countryside.  Born with a cleft lip, Prue’s prospects are limited: her mother believes she is cursed, most of the townspeople think she has evil powers, and she will almost certainly never marry.  Everyone she meets remarks on her condition, unable to see the beautiful person inside.

After her father’s death, Gideon gets Prue to agree to long-term indentured service on the farm.  Gideon is ambitious, and believes that just a few years’ hard work will vault them into a new level of society, including a fine house in town.  He promises Prue money to treat her lip, and riches for Jancis, a young woman he hopes to marry.  Gideon works tirelessly and the farm prospers, but he always wants more.  He puts off his marriage, afraid that a wife and children will get in the way of his pursuit of wealth.  His singular focus often alienates him from others:

He was ever a strong man, which is almost the same, times, as to say a man with little time for kindness. For if you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path.  So when folk tell me of this great man and that great man, I think to myself, Who was stinted of joy for his glory? How many old folk and children did his coach wheels go over? (p. 84)

Meanwhile Prue soldiers on, with interminably long hours of hard labor.  In her time off she learns to write, keeping a journal which forms the basis of this novel.  In describing day-to-day events, she offers keen observations on members of her community:

Sexton’s missus was just the opposite. She always made me think of a new-painted coach, big and wide, with an open road, and the horn blowing loud and cheerful, and full speed ahead. She was gay in her dress as a seven-coloured linnet, and if she could wear another shawl or flounce or brooch, she would.  … I used to think myself, seeing her and Sexton together, that she was like a big hank of dyed wool, and he was the thin black distaff it was to be wound off on to.  (p. 97)

But Prue, being a normal healthy young woman, longs for long-term companionship.  She falls in love with Kester Woodseaves, an itinerant weaver.   She worships him from afar, afraid her appearance will scare him off, but one day she saves his life and their relationship begins to change.  The rest of the story shows both Gideon and Prue evolving on paths that are true to their characters, with both expected and unexpected consequences.

I liked Prue’s character a lot; she was able to summon strength in times of great adversity, and show compassion even to those who had wronged her.  Gideon was a greedy jerk, and Kester his complete antithesis.  In some ways the story was too predictable, but was improved by some very dramatic segments in which the characters’ lives were permanently changed.


Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Review: Mary Lavelle, by Kate O’Brien

Mary Lavelle is a young, naive Irish woman who leaves her home and her fiancé John to work as a governess in Spain.  At 22, she felt a strong need for independence:

To go to Spain. To be alone for a little space, a tiny hiatus between her life’s two accepted phases.  To cease being a daughter without immediately becoming a wife.  To be a free lance, to belong to no one place or family or person — to achieve that silly longing of childhood, only for one year, before she flung it with all other childish things upon the scrapheap. (p. 34)

And so she arrives in the Pyrenees, and the Areavaga family home, to serve as a “Miss” (as they are called by the locals).  Mary’s primary responsibility is teaching English to the three daughters.  This must have been a common arrangement in the 1920s, because Mary soon encounters a group of women in a local pub, all serving other families.  Some have made a career of it, either because they enjoy the independence or because their marriage prospects back home are slim and they cannot afford to be a burden on their family.  Mary both enjoys and is bewildered by these women: their lifestyle, their way of conversing with one another, and their relative isolation, since most have never bothered to learn Spanish.

I expected Mary to be the typical “naive girl abroad,” and she does indeed spend a fair amount of time taking in the sights and declaring her love for Spain.  Early on, she attends a bullfight with another Miss, despite her strong views against the sport.  She is, not surprisingly, horrified but also captivated by the tradition.  The locals are equally captivated by Mary, who apparently is the most beautiful woman anyone in the region has ever seen.

Enter Juanito: oldest child and only son of Don Pablo Areavaga.  A few years older than Mary, he is married with a young child.  But after exchanging a long glance with Mary on the stairway, the two completely fall for each other.  While Mary knows Juanito is off limits, she begins to question her feelings for John.  Juanito finds excuses to visit his parents in order to see Mary.

Well, you know where this is going.  If this story were set in modern times, the reader would be treated to a sordid affair followed by divorce, and the couple would live happily ever after.  But divorce was forbidden by the Catholic church, so the love between Mary and Juanito was not to be.  Or so I thought.  Mary and Juanito both spend too much time mooning about but then suddenly, Mary turns out to be the stronger of the two.  She takes the bull by the horns, so to speak, and makes life-changing decisions regarding Juanito.

Mary’s strength and decisiveness saved this book for me.  I had a difficult time understanding the so-called “love” between Mary and Juanito.  The two could barely communicate with one another, appeared to have no shared interests, and yet felt they were meant to share a life together.  Both Mary and Juanito were a little too one-dimensional for me; O’Brien did a better job developing the ancillary characters, like Don Pablo and other governesses, than she did her protagonists.  This was an average read, and not O’Brien’s best work.

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Classics Circuit Review: These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer

Today I’m pleased to welcome Georgette Heyer to Musings, as part of her Grand Tour on The Classics Circuit.  This is my first experience with Heyer, and I’ve enjoyed reading all the reviews and commentary posted during the past two weeks.  Because my February reading was kind of heavy and not all that great, I actually began reading my choice on the first of March.  I zipped through the first third of the novel, using it as a break before reading another rather somber work.  And when I returned to finish These Old Shades, I found it a quite amusing diversion from my typical fare.


Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is a rake if there ever was one.  Men fear him; respectable women will have nothing to do with him.  He spends most of his time in the gambling houses of Paris, leaving his sister Fanny in charge of his English estate.  One night he encounters a young boy on the run from his employer, and makes an impulsive decision to buy the boy to serve as his page.  Avon had a hunch he could use Léon to his advantage.  Léon is grateful, and completely unaware of any ulterior motives.  Avon’s friends are mystified by this sudden turn of events.  Avon remains secretive, but gradually the reader is let in on the details.

Léon is, in fact, Léonie:  a girl.  And Léonie is the daughter of Avon’s greatest enemy.  Set in France during the reign of Louis XV, the story is filled with rich detail of the period’s “Polite Society.” Avon’s first task was to train Léonie in the role and manners of a young lady.  Even as Avon set these wheels in motion, he was also plotting revenge against his enemy. What follows is an amusing romp through the English and French countryside, filled with rich imagery and intrigue.

However, Avon didn’t expect the affectionate feelings that developed between him and Léonie.  He suppressed these feelings, because he was so much older than she, and was unaccustomed to caring for another person.  Heyer surrounded Léonie with so many eligible bachelors, keeping the reader guessing almost to the end.  In some ways, this story was predictable:  justice was dealt to the bad guys, and at least a couple of people lived happily ever after.  But somehow the predictability didn’t matter to me.  I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

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