Monday, July 6, 2020

The Anne Series by L.M. Montgomery

I've been hearing plenty of nostalgia about Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne series recently. Along with everything else she ever wrote, these are heart-warming classics which I read many times during my childhood and youth. Anne is a genuinely beautiful soul whose happy outlook can't help rubbing off on readers. Even though I've referred to them lots since starting this blog, I haven't read them for many years. I decided I'm well overdue for a re-read. 

They're easy, pleasurable reads, so I'll space the eight of them out each fortnight, to take about four months all up. Each write-up will include aspects I still love, things that didn't impress me so much this time round, and great quotes. Please feel more than welcome to join me, or at least follow my progress. We'll kick off in a fortnight with Anne of Green Gables, the bestseller that got this mighty ball rolling. 

And just to add a bit more fun, let's give each book an alternative title to match the F.R.I.E.N.D.S sitcom format. If you've read the series before, these might spur your memory, and if you haven't, they'll stimulate your curiosity. Now, stay tuned for more as we get stuck into this Anne-athon.  

Anne of Green Gables
The One with the smashed slate

Anne of Avonlea
The One where she teaches school

Anne of the Island
The One with all the Proposals

Anne of Windy Willows
The One with Two Titles 

Anne's House of Dreams
The One with the Creepy Amnesiac Dude

Anne of Ingleside
The One with all the Kids

Rainbow Valley
The One with all the Minister's Kids

Rilla of Ingleside
The One Set during the Great War

Sunday, June 28, 2020

'The Hobbit' by J.R.R. Tolkien

Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.


This is my choice in the Genre Classic category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. Of course it's classic fantasy, but it's been ages since I've delved into any of these Tolkien stories. I'd forgotten a fair bit. Bilbo, the homely hobbit, is gatecrashed in his cosy home by the Wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves, headed by their chief, Thorin Oakenshield. They insist that he accompany them on a perilous journey to take back their mountain full of treasure from Smaug the dragon, an evil squatter who stole it from Thorin's ancestors generations ago. Gandalf has decided that Bilbo is the perfect guy to be the group's 'burglar'. Perhaps 'reclaimer' would be more accurate, since he's assigned to steal it back for its rightful owners. Bilbo is understandably unwilling to go, but they're an impossible mob to refuse. So we're off on an adventure.

Even though we readers haven't visited Middle-Earth ourselves, it's written in such a way that we can draw from snippets of earth geography stored in our imaginations to fill details with our own colour. Here's a good line about architecture. 'On some of the hills were castles with an evil look, as if they'd been built by wicked people.' Or we're invited to use our knowledge of forests in descriptions of the great Mirkwood. 'There was no movement of air down on the forest floor, and it was everlastingly still, dark and stuffy.' With a few great lines, we're there on the quest with Bilbo and the dwarves.

Who can help but notice Gandalf's habit of going missing? Occasionally he drops a big announcement that they're now on their own. (With some nonchalant line like, 'Hey ho, I'm off because this isn't really my adventure, but I might join you down the track if I have time.') And other times he just pulls a disappearing stunt, leaving his friends scratching their heads and inquiring, 'Hey, have you seen him?' I know it's revealed further through the series that he has an excellent reason, but in this book it's left a mystery.

It's easy to pay Gandalf out, since the others are essentially clueless in the face of trolls, goblins, wolves and spiders. Yet his absence does enhance the plot, forcing them all, especially Bilbo, to scrape from the barrels of their own resources in desperation and save the day. It would be a far more tedious story with a powerful wizard on hand every step of the way. The Elvenking says, 'Farewell, O Gandalf. May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected.' Well yeah, we get the impression that is indeed his modus operandi.

Deep underground near the goblin caves lives the pathetic, bulgy-eyed Gollum in his murky lake. I so enjoyed his high-stakes riddle-off with Bilbo. I'm one of those readers who can't help feeling sorry for this lonely, slimy character. I totally understand his despair at losing the one thing he has going for him in his miserable life. His ring was his protection and meal ticket. Even though the story doesn't divulge much at this stage, there's a sense that the ring has a sinister intelligence of its own. Perhaps it knows its future potential is limited with Gollum, so makes extra sure to sneakily slide off his finger. Super well played by the ring. A bit of an internet search reveals that Tolkien re-wrote this incident for the second edition published in 1951, to make Gollum's personality more consistent with that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the initial 1937 version, Gollum wasn't as pathetic, hostile toward Bilbo, or attached to his precious ring.  

Racial tension adds a nice dimension to our sense of place. We have the droll, mercurial quality of the essentially good elves, in contrast to the more down-to-earth, plodding natures of the dwarves, whose eyes light up at the thought of treasure. 'Even decent enough dwarfs think elves foolish, which is a very foolish thing to think.' But has Tolkien written himself into a racial dilemma, with his creation of the goblins and orcs?

Here we have a race which is simply born bad, not to mention ugly. They have horrible stony voices, never make beautiful things, but are experts at producing ingenious gadgety ones, such as cruel torture devices. I'll be on the lookout for a 'good' goblin in the books to come, but somehow doubt I'll find one. If we're to take Middle-Earth as a sort of duplicate of our plain Earth, does this create some ethical awkwardness? I think we wisely refrain from considering this aspect as a mirror of earth in any way at all.  

At the ultimate destination is the mighty dragon Smaug, who won't give up without a fight. A dog in the manger at heart, he merely sleeps on the outrageous hoard of treasure he's stolen, and goes berserk when he realises one golden cup is missing from a mountain that would take a century to excavate. But Smaug has his Achilles Heel, or in his case something more like Dragon's Nipple. Without being too spoilerish, I found his destiny in this story a bit anti-climactic, after all the build-up.

The best of this book is, of course, its title character. Bilbo is a pocket-sized legend. At first I was indignant on his behalf, for being forced to risk his life for something he didn't care a rat's behind about - dwarf treasure in some distant mountain. I wondered if that was a major story weakness, in fact. A quest's main character with no vested interest in the stakes! Why should we care about a hero drawn into someone else's agenda? But pretty soon it becomes all about friendship and loyalty, as he realises he's fighting with his quick wit so his friends may enjoy the home comforts which are rightfully theirs.

He also has undeniable good luck. Bilbo has a great knack of stumbling over major gems while he's just strolling along. And I love how he delivers the dwarfs some sass when he think he's in the right. Even the great Thorin Oakenshield gets a bit of lip from the disgruntled hobbit.

What makes Bilbo most heroic is his value for the really important things in life, which are exceptionally ordinary. His head is never turned with greed, like certain dragons and dwarfs, because home comforts always retain their rightful place. He knows full well the sound of the kettle on his hearth and the sizzling of bacon and eggs can't be beaten. His new coat of mail is a wonderful tribute but he knows it looks silly. The Elvenking is spot-on when he says, 'Bilbo Baggins, you are more worthy to wear the armour of elf princes than many who have looked more comely in it.'

Maybe the crux of the tale is poor old Thorin's final revelation. 'If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.'

This story has inspired me to keep on with the epic. I'm not going to tackle The Lord of the Rings as a whole review, but will break it up into its three components, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It might not be for some time, but they're coming. 


Monday, June 22, 2020

Fictional characters and the gift of pianos

My kids and I all had piano lessons at some stage. As a 19-year-old still living at home, I purchased a whopping ancient second hand upright, totally untuned and weighing a tonne. I lived at home with my parents on a fairly large property with a twisty, rustic driveway, and the delivery guys' grumbles have stuck in my memory all these years. On the other end of the spectrum, my daughter far more recently walked inside with a light keyboard tucked beneath her arm, which a mate had lent her. The one thing we had in common was good intentions we failed to see through. Big or small, we never stuck it out to be as proficient as we'd like to be. (She's moved on to the ukelele now, which is far more to her liking.) 

But piano nostalgia sometimes takes hold of me, especially when they pop up in good stories. Recently I dug up a great romantic novella on my kindle entitled 'Mail Order Revenge' by Angela K. Couch. It was a lovely quick read about a mail order bride who went into her marriage with scary intentions to wreak havoc, but eventually softened toward her new husband. Just the sort of tonic I sometimes need to unwind and relax. What helped disarm the heroine, Elizabeth, was when the hero, Axel, purchased a surprise piano for her. They lived on a very remote property in the era of horse and carts, so it was no mean feat getting it there. She just melted when she found out. 

But Axel and Elizabeth definitely aren't alone. Their story set me thinking about all the piano gifts ever given by fictional characters. My word, has it ever occurred to you how many there are? When somebody from the pages of a book wants to make to meaningful present to somebody special, it seems as often as not they decide upon a piano! Wow, I've never given anyone a piano in my life, or ever received one either. Have you? So what is the big draw card for these heroes and heroines?          

My guess is it must be a combination of size and significance. The sheer magnitude of a such a present declares commitment far more than something like flowers or chocolate. And it's undeniable that the recipient is getting far more than a wooden frame and ivory keys, valuable as they are. It's the gift of music! Beneath proficient fingers, music is the language of the soul, and the preferred communication of angels. Hearts may be stirred and emotions primed for hours on end. Perhaps the giver has an ulterior motive in choosing a piano, hoping that the loved one will remember them, whenever they sit down to play. 

Here are five classic examples that spring to mind. As you read them, I'll ask you to look out for your favourite.    

1) Mr James Lawrence to Beth March
This kindly old gentleman's gruff mannerisms unintentionally scare the timid daughter of his next door neighbours. He deeply regrets it, because Beth's sweet face reminds him of a little girl he lost years ago, and he dearly wants to be friends. At first he extends her a permanent invitation to give his own neglected keys a work-out whenever she feels like it. But eventually he orders a brand new piano all of her very own to be delivered to her home. That's the catalyst that spurs timid Beth to give Mr Lawrence a warm thanks. And hence two different but equally lonely people bond over the gift of music. (See my review of Little Women.)

2) Captain William Dobbin to Amelia Sedley
This shy and awkward soldier is madly in love with his best friend's wife. When Amelia's family goes bankrupt, all of their household goods are sold off at auction. William secretly buys Amelia's treasured piano, just for the pleasure of sending it back to her anonymously. Amelia chooses to assume it was a final gift from her dead husband George, who we readers know was far too self-centered and cheap to dream of doing any such thing. Her piano brings her great comfort for years - until her horror and mortification when she discovers the real benefactor. She stops playing it, at least for a little while. (See my review of Vanity Fair.)

3) Frank Churchill to Jane Fairfax
This expensive gift is the cause of much misunderstanding. The young dandy buys it for his secret fiance, but she prefers that he didn't because of the embarrassing speculations it gives rise to. Emma Woodhouse for a start, imagines a scandalous situation in which the smitten husband of Jane's closest friend sends it to her. Emma talks herself into believing her own far-fetched suspicion. She even confides it to Frank, who plays along. He's highly amused, but neither of the young ladies are when they learn the full extent to which he has meddled with both of their emotions. He has a lot of smooth talking to do. (See my review of Emma.)

4) The previous tenant to the Nolan family
Overworked and underpaid, Katie Nolan certainly regards the piano in their new apartment as a special gift, although the poor lady who left it behind didn't really intend it to be. She simply couldn't afford to have it moved. She asks Katie and her family to please take great care of it for her, and explains that she couldn't resist the way it smartened up the appearance of the drab little room. Katie cleverly barters with an acquaintance for piano lessons in return for house cleaning. She makes sure her two kids both watch carefully, in order to squeeze in three students for the price of one. It pays off down the track for her son Neeley, who has talent enough to earn some good money from his skill. (See my review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.)

5) The Ingalls family to Mary
Okay, this one is actually an organ, but I believe it fits this list anyway. I could've called it 'the gift of keyboards'. While Mary Ingalls is busy studying far from home at the College for the Blind in Iowa, her parents and sisters decide to chip in to buy her the welcome back home present of her dreams. Playing music is one of Mary's great passions, and they anticipate all the happiness it will bring her. Alas, their own delight is deferred when she opts to spend her holidays at the home of a friend instead. But it's all worthwhile when Mary comes home the following year and discovers what they've done. I believe this organ is still on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum The love and patience shared by Pa, Ma and the girls makes this my personal favourite. (See my review of These Happy Golden Years.)

So which is yours? Since they're all so good, I'd really like to know if there are any genuine stand-outs, or if they all get an equal number of takers across the board. So I'll do something different and ask you to please comment with your favourite of these five here or on social media. And soon I'll update this post with the results of my very informal poll. 

And as always, can you think of any others to add?    

Monday, June 15, 2020

'Cranford' by Elizabeth Gaskell

Through a series of vignettes, Elizabeth Gaskell portrays a community governed by old-fashioned habits and dominated by friendships between women. Her wry account of rural life is undercut, however, by tragedy in its depiction of such troubling events as Matty's bankruptcy, the violent death of Captain Brown or the unwitting cruelty of Peter Jenkyns. Written with acute observation, Cranford is by turns affectionate, moving and darkly satirical.

I'm making this my choice for the Abandoned Classic category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. I almost finished it long ago when I studied it for Uni English as a teenager, but only read enough to pad out what I felt my essay required. At the age of 19, I thought it was all about a bunch of pompous old spinsters and widows in a poky old town, regretting missed opportunities and trying to enforce a snobbish pecking order. Well, I still think it's about a bunch of self-important senior women trying to maintain their social status. But I seem to have developed more of a tolerance for that sort of thing, perhaps because some of it has come home to roost. The themes of dwindling time and money really leaped out at me this time round.

The narrator is a modest young woman whose name is revealed close to the end as Mary Smith. Mary often stays with distant family at Cranford. Miss Deborah Jenkyns was an autocratic town leader who has recently died, leaving her far more gentle and nervous sister Matilda (or Matty) in charge of their household. Matty thinks she'll make a mess of things and shame Deborah's memory. But several of her bossy sister's former decisions turn out to have a negative impact on her own life, which is obvious to Mary but not to Matty. And Miss Matty pulls through on strengths Deborah never had, such as empathy and generosity.

The community is revealed as one of general poverty, but they're able to conceal it, and even make it fashionable with an unspoken pact to disapprove of 'lavish spending.' The ladies all consider their cost cutting a form of 'elegant economy' and pay out anyone lucky enough to be able to splash out a few bucks as vulgar and ostentatious. I have to laugh as I read their reasoning, since this sort of sour grapeism has even made its way into our 21st century budgeting over the years.

The story deals with layers of time. Mary the narrator is speaking nostalgically as she looks back to her youth when she stayed with Miss Matty Jenkyns at Cranford. During that time period itself, she helps Miss Matty delve even further back as they collate old letters and talk about the happenings of former generations. This really makes time feel like a set of Babushka dolls, in which we can't help finding ourselves stacked. And what goes around most certainly seems to come again.

Several memories for me were loaded with extra significance Gaskell definitely can't have intended, because the events in my mind were way in my past and her future. She was long dead and I hadn't been born yet. Reflecting on her girlhood during the Napoleonic war, Miss Matty muses, 'I used to wake up in the night many a time and think I heard the tramp of French boots entering Cranford.' I straightaway remembered my Dad talking about about his own boyhood in the early 1940s of South Australia, and saying, 'I used to wake up and imagine I heard German troops marching down the streets of Adelaide.' Nothing levels human experience quite like reading books.

I can't help noticing that when Elizabeth Gaskell pokes gentle fun at the old snobs, they still come out on the page as sort of lovable. Even the totally stuck-up Mrs Jamieson. In Jane Austen's merciless hands, the same ladies could be made to look ridiculous and even villainous. (Think Mrs Elton, young Mrs Dashwood, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.) Is there a lesson there for us readers? Maybe since we have a choice to choose the lens through which we view people, we should make an effort to see those around us lovable instead of abominable. That can sure be a hard ask though. 

Overall, it's not an exciting book, but a highly readable one if you like small town politics and the fusing together of different personalities. And it was said to have been Mrs Gaskell's own personal favourite. I'm guessing that might have been at least partly because of the many gentle teasing and humorous remarks she slipped in. Such as when Martha the maid says, 'I won't listen to reason. It always turns out to be what other people have to say.' This little book is worth reading for Elizabeth Gaskell's keen sense of humour.


Monday, June 8, 2020

'An Unreliable Man' by Jostein Gaarder

From the creative genius of Jostein Gaarder comes a beautiful novel about loneliness and the power of words.
Jakop is a lonely man.
Divorced from his wife, with no friends apart from his constant companion Pelle, he spends his life attending the funerals of people he doesn't know, obscuring his identity in a web of improbable lies.
As his addiction to storytelling spirals out of control, he is forced to reconcile his love of language and stories with the ever more urgent need for human connection.


This is a most thoughtful unreliable narrator case, because we're warned at the outset in the title. Jakop is a lonely, middle-aged teacher with a weird pastime. He attends the funerals of total strangers, making up cockamamie stories about his brief but meaningful encounters with the dear departed in case anybody at the memorial services should inquire. People can't contradict him from their coffins. Although individuals often leave Jakop cold, he's addicted to hanging out in the middle of tight, extended family groups because there's something compelling about belonging. 'I doubt if I'm any fonder of people than the next man, but life has made me incredibly fond of families.'

As Jakob narrates his story, his own solitary past comes to light, including a history of being picked on at school. The younger Jakop bought into the shame which seems inevitable with victims of bullying. I've been there many years ago, and the memory is still strong. Forget all about any platitudes along the lines of, 'It shows more of a problem with them than it does with you.' We're closed to that sort of reasoning when we're in the thick of it. It's incredibly easy for young people to assume that since we're targets, our personalities must be seriously flawed. So apart from a brief unhappy marriage, this poor guy has been a fringe dweller at other people's events for years. He knows he's treading a delicate path with the potential to blow up on him at any moment, but so far so good.

Since he was a young boy, Jakop has one good friend named Pelle, and we have to read the book to understand the complexity of their relationship. Eventually a lady named Agnes meets the pair of them and begins to figure out what makes them tick.

Whoa, there are any number of themes for different reviewers to pick up on, depending how deeply we want to wade into linguistics, mythology, Christology and all the other deep and meaningful topics which ring Jakop's bells. Several of them went way over my head. For a simple reader like me, the best takeaway by far is that we are often far greater people than the social faces we present. As left of field as Jakop's creative coping mechanisms may seem, they help him plumb depths of his own personality that would never otherwise see the light of day. In fact, he often regards his different facets of storytelling as part of an entity which isn't himself at all.

I do get where Jakop is coming from. If you've grappled for years with the sense that you present an awkward, inhibited public face, you may think that any rebuffs are well deserved. Yet this book offers us encouragement to shrug in the face of rejection or indifference, and think, 'Perhaps this is the best face I can present right at this specific minute, but I know full well that what these people think they're seeing is not a fraction of all I am.' And then it doesn't seem to sting so hard. I've been giving quiet, shrinking souls the benefit of the doubt for years, and Jakop's story confirms that I'm on the right track. Our kindest response must always be, 'Just because I'm not getting the best of this guy (I hope), I'm sure there's bound to be more facets of him than I'll ever see.'

It's not my favourite Gaarder tale. (That is still The Solitaire Mystery, at least right now.) But Jakop is one heck of an unreliable narrator, who doesn't build himself up as a person many people want to spend time with. And I know enough now to think that Gaarder's one of those authors who'll be bound to deliver if we persevere, and sure enough, the magic worked on me the further in I was drawn. 


Monday, May 25, 2020

Intriguing fictional books we'll never get to read

If you're a bookworm like me, you've probably jotted down several titles to search for just because they sound so jolly good. Yet sometimes they're hard to track down, especially if they're old or out of print. I was thirteen years old the first time this frustrating wild goose chase happened to me. And since then, I've come up with another stack of super-enticing sounding books we'll never have an opportunity to read ever. This is because they only exist within the fictional worlds of others. They were written by characters from novels, and the only way we'll ever get to read them is to travel into the worlds in which they're set. Here is a list of titles I would surely love to read if only they were available to me. All I can do is highlight the books in which they're entrenched. See if you can add to it. 

1) The Moral of the Rose
This is the bestseller written by Emily Byrd Starr just when she'd given up hope of becoming a great writer. It starts off as a string of yarns about a family named Applegath, which Emily wrote to help Aunt Elizabeth recuperate from a broken leg. But the final product turns out to be a 'witty, sparkling rill of comedy in which characters troop into Emily's consciousness demanding a local habitation and a name.' Cousin Jimmy clandestinely sends the manuscript to one of Canada's leading publishing houses, and surprises Emily with a letter of its acceptance. Its subsequent contradictory reviews helps fans like me wish we could read the novel too, to add our own opinions to the mix.

2) Help
It's a shocking expose about the true lives of coloured maids in southern Mississippi, contained within a novel that has an almost identical name. Help is written by Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan, who puts her reputation on the line to tell the dirty truth about racism people would prefer not to hear. Her co-authors Aibileen and Minny insist on remaining anonymous, since their lives will be utterly destroyed should anyone guess their identities. It's blatantly obvious to the white female employers whose lives are bared for all to see, but of course it's in their own best interest to purse their lips and refuse to claim their characters. After seeing how hard and furtively the heroic trio worked on this book, I would have loved to read it. (See my review of The Help)

3) The Transfiguration of the Commonplace
This religious self-help book is written by Sandy Stranger, who was once one of the schoolgirls in her teacher Miss Jean Brodie's favoured set. Sandy apparently grows from a sly and cynical young girl to become Mother Superior of a convent. Her own amazing development is enough to make me want to read the acclaimed book she eventually writes. It's title is most fascinating too. I probably would have preferred this book to The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie itself. (See my review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

4) Disturber of the Peace
This is literally Miss Buncle's Book. Quiet, retiring author Barbara Buncle has spared nobody. All of her neighbours are presented larger than life, warts and all, making it obvious to the townspeople that the fictional world is in actual fact a carbon copy of their town. The indignant victims of Barbara's sharp pen long more than anything to figure out the identity of author 'John Smith' so they can pay him out. But nobody would ever dream of suspecting mousy, unassuming Miss Buncle. (See my review of Miss Buncle's Book)

5) Magical Me
Gilderoy Lockhart, the flamboyant celebrity wizard, is signing copies of his hot-off-the-press autobiography at Flourish and Blotts bookshop. He tugs poor, bashful Harry to stand beside him for a cheesy photo shoot, then drops the bombshell that he's the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. And this is only the latest of the pretentious, self-aggrandising books he's written, which comprise most of their second year curriculum. Only later do Harry and his friends discover Gilderoy's fraudulent secret. He has plagiarised almost every incident in his books, then wiped clear the memories of the true greats. Okay, this book might be the most groan-worthy on my list, but I guess it'd still be worth reading for the laughs.

6) The Lifebook of Captain Jim
Here's a second offering from Lucy Maud Montgomery, because her characters seem to write such great books. Captain James Boyd, the lovable retired sea captain, has lived a fantastic and eventful life, but lacks the writing skills to do his experiences justice. When professional author Owen Ford comes to town, he instantly recognises the opportunity set before him. Owen does a series of interviews and gives the old man's memories the treatment they deserve, making the Lifebook a bestseller. How I would have loved a copy of my own, when I was reading about it in Anne's House of Dreams.

7) Songs and Sonnets
Mac Campbell, a nerdy and unpolished young hero from Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom has produced a book of poems that has wowed the world. It's said to 'smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.' Now he's hailed as a young genius, and the boy cousins who used to tease him regard him with respect. To the adults, 'their Ugly Duckling is now considered the most promising young swan of the flock.' And best of all, his little book helps him wow the socks off his cousin Rose, since she finds his verses so awesome and seductive. How I wished Alcott had given us a sample or two of what he wrote. I suspect she held back because she'd given his brilliance such a awesome build-up, she herself probably doubted she could deliver. 

8) Distributing Heaven
I had to have a go at this myself, so I'm finishing with one of my own, which I wrote way back in 2009 when my kids were small. I got the idea straight after the huge disappointment of being unable to find the sequel to a book I adored. So I wrote my story in such a way that the same thing happens to my young hero, Jerome Bowman. He loves a memoir named Distributing Heaven written by a man called Gareth Edgley, and goes to great lengths to locate its sequel. The back cover tantalises him with the promise, 'If you thought this story was gripping, you've seen nothing yet!' But it's all in vain, no matter where his search takes him, until a twist at the very end. I named my own book A Design of Gold after the elusive title he was searching for, and I guess the irony is that paperback copies of my own book are now quite rare. (See here)

Which titles from this list do you join me in longing to read? Can you mention any others to add to my list.

Monday, May 18, 2020

'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' by Anne Bronte

This is the story of a woman's struggle for independence. Helen "Graham" has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage. Exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.

This is my 19th Century Classic in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. What a powerful read. The moral is, 'Girls, don't romanticise bad boys.' This book puts Anne Bronte into a class of her own, since her two sisters' novels tend to do that very thing. But I think Anne considered it her mission to show that you can't reform them. She has her heroine Helen say of her new fiance, 'I should think my life well spent in the effort to preserve so noble a nature from destruction.' Then she proves by his later behaviour that it's bollocks! 

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Gilbert Markham is the first narrator. He's a young country farmer who's curious about Helen Graham, a beautiful artist who lives with her small son in a wing of the nearby Wildfell Hall. It's a cold, inhospitable place, and she pays their rent by selling paintings. Gilbert finds Helen prickly, opinionated and over-protective of little Arthur. But as her deep and intelligent nature charms him, he gradually falls in love with her, and suspects she's warming to him too. Village gossips hint that Helen isn't the simple widow she seems, but the truth is a bitter blow to Gilbert. Her husband is still alive and she ran away from him, taking their son with her. 

The bulk of the book is Helen's diary; one engrossing flashback. She tells her own tale of how she fell for Arthur Huntingdon, a charming rake who sweeps her off her feet but turns out to be a bad-egg who makes her life a living hell. 

I think Anne's reputation of being the weakest Bronte sister is totally undeserved. It's like trying to argue which is most inferior out of apples, oranges and bananas. Perhaps she doesn't have Charlotte's classical scope of reference or Emily's mystical tone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This story is refreshingly free of Charlotte's frequent waffle in French, which is a plus in my books. Anne has an earnest, candid style and plenty of graceful 19th century dialogue which I love. And that's as good as anything the other two have. 

Her characterisation is excellent. We can see exactly why Helen falls for Arthur in the first place, then grows to resent him so fiercely later on, while it's clear to us that he's the same douche all through. Anne Bronte has created a classic case of the initial attraction feature eventually becoming the biggest turn-off. At first Helen loves Arthur's 'joyful, playful spirit', but it takes living together to reveal him as a shallow, restless narcissist with no idea how to fill his spare time if he's not drinking or gambling. And since he's a member of the landed gentry, that's every day.

Arthur expects Helen to drop everything to amuse him. He's a cheat, a liar who never intends to keep his word, and eventually winds up as an alcoholic. His emotional abuse is horrendous, and when he starts pulling similar dirty moves on Arthur Junior, Helen knows enough is enough. Her allegiance has rightfully shifted from her husband to her innocent son. She does what few wives of the era would have done, and leaves him. Anne Bronte was surely among the first to suggest through this story that marriage vows should not be binding when enough lines are crossed. 

But then there's the Gilbert factor! My word, far more complex than just the 'better guy', he's super-reactive and life in his head space is just one emotional roller coaster after another. Gilbert is a hot-head and an over-thinker rolled into one, which is not the best combo. But he has empathy for others and a sense of his own shortcomings, which Arthur seemed to have been totally born without. They are Gilbert's saving graces. 

Ultimately it's Helen's story. She draws on her courage and rock solid Christian faith to bolster her conviction that the socially unpopular move is her only recourse. And I love her comments that mark her as a clear introvert centuries before the 21st century introvert liberation I've been enjoying. For a start, she finds social chit-chat draining. 'I'm wearied to death with small talk. I cannot imagine how they go on as they do. I hate talking where there is no exchange of ideas or sentiments, and no good given or received.' And many modern introverts surely echo, 'You preach it, sister!' 

There's so much more I could share about this book, including its secondary characters? The Preface, written by Anne Bronte herself, is well worth a read. It seems rigid nineteenth century PC standards deemed that drunken louts behaving like morons shouldn't appear in the pages of novels. Authors should entirely block them out, as if they don't exist. I loved reading Anne's own polite justification for causing offence. Basically, she says that she won't use her writing skills simply to give escapist readers some feel-good sighs. She felt she had a responsibility to warn idealistic girls like Helen about handsome, walking stumbling blocks with the potential to ruin their lives. Her own words are beautifully formed, so here's a direct quote. 

'Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller or to cover them with branches and flowers?'  

If I'd been around back then, I would have written to Anne, congratulated her for a fantastic job and told her that I think the drunken chapters were the most impacting of the whole book. Unlike her sisters, she calls a jerk a jerk. It's so authentically written, I believe Anne probably drew a lot from real life with her brother Branwell. What we're getting are probably creepy echoes from their Haworth Parsonage home two hundred years after Branwell's carrying-on. And it sticks in my mind long after finishing the book. 

Finally, I love this cartoon from Hark, a Vagrant, which I won't share straight onto the blog and violate copyright laws, but the link is here