Monday, April 6, 2020

'The Enchanted April' by Elizabeth von Arnim

A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed.

The women at the center of The Enchanted April are alike only in their dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. They find each other—and the castle of their dreams—through a classified ad in a London newspaper one rainy February afternoon. The ladies expect a pleasant holiday, but they don’t anticipate that the month they spend in Portofino will reintroduce them to their true natures and reacquaint them with joy. Now, if the same transformation can be worked on their husbands and lovers, the enchantment will be complete.

The Enchanted April was a best-seller in both England and the United States, where it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and set off a craze for tourism to Portofino. More recently, the novel has been the inspiration for a major film and a Broadway play.

Here's a runaway bestseller from 1922 to highlight in the month of April, for obvious reasons. It'll also do nicely for my Classic by a Woman category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's a pretty good choice for this crazy year of strict Covid-19 measures, since these four ladies have chosen to do a bit of self-isolation together. But whew, what a story. Love is so thick in the air, it's almost suffocating.

Four ladies who are virtual strangers decide to each chip in part of their savings to rent San Salvatore, a medieval villa in Italy, for the month of April. All four are suffering from burn-out, adrenal exhaustion and disillusionment with their ho-hum lives in London.

Lotty Wilkins is a mousy little tryhard who suspects she keeps disappointing her solicitor hubby Mellersh. During the story, she taps into a dormant prophetic power that transforms her. Pious Rose Arbuthnot is ashamed that her husband Frederick, a raunchy memoirist, is earning money on sin and sensationism. She aims to acquire happiness through good works and self-denial, but it's exhausting her!

Mrs Fisher is a gruff and overbearing elderly widow living in the grand old past. Her father was a great host, and she's forever name-dropping dead celebs from her childhood into conversations. And Lady Caroline Dester is a stunning beauty who suffers the misfortune of being overly admired wherever she goes. She's all peopled out and just wants to recharge in peace and quiet without empty small talk and silly jokes.

The setting, which sounds like a Mediterranean version of a Thomas Kinkade painting, turns out to be quietly restorative, sanding down their rough edges and coaxing out their inner goodness. It even acts as a magnet for males, including the two irritating husbands along with the young man who owns the villa. And what do you know, it has a similar remedial effect on the dudes. Who woulda thought?

Is it way too cute? You bet! Lady Caroline's situation annoyed the heck out of me at first. We're supposed to believe her attempts to be rude and stand-offish keep failing because her face is such a beautiful filter. My word, was Elizabeth Von Arnim serious? Mean girls with snarky intentions can always get their messages across, no matter what they look like! But when you look at all the five star reviews, it seems this book somehow gets away with heavy-handedness that might destroy any other story. Or who knows, maybe the atmosphere starts working its way with us through the pages. I went from groaning to grinning, yet the kitsch writing quality surely never changed.

It's quite cool when the owner, Thomas Briggs, tells Rose that he's an orphan. 'Oh, are you,' she said, with proper sympathy. 'I hope you've not been one for very long. No, I mean I hope you've been one very long. No, I don't know what I mean, except I'm sorry.' At least Von Arnim has nailed the awkward response.

I kept thinking I should DNF it and move on, but continued turning the pages for the following reasons.

1) I like seeing how people who have just met each other manage to work through personality clashes and find common ground. It's the same reason I occasionally persevere with reality TV series.
2) The concept of healing environments intrigues me, because I do believe place contains power.
3) I appreciate epiphanies. It's easier for readers to take characters' lessons on board, especially when we have no means of getting to breathtaking Italian villas ourselves.
4) The inclusion of the blokes shows good sportsmanship. This story isn't just feminist propaganda about how women may be better off without them, but stays well balanced, showing that there are two sides to communication glitches.
5) I like garden settings. Anyone who liked The Secret Garden may enjoy hanging out with four grown-up versions of Mary in a similar environment.

I guess Von Arnim's two main themes are as solid and sound as they ever were. Firstly, whenever we start treating others with kindness and respect, they may surprise us by acting nicer toward us in return. And secondly, our environments truly do make a difference to our satisfaction levels, and perhaps even altar our characters for the better. So it's in our own best interest to choose good ones whenever we can. This book is a lovely destination overall, but prepare yourself for quite a cheesy, twee road to get there.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Masters of choosing a great attitude

Here's a list for where we find ourselves in 2020, which will always be remembered as the year of Coronavirus. We are still just a couple of weeks into the global social distancing measures intended to flatten the curve of new cases. Reluctant hermits everywhere are feeling a gamut of impotent emotions bouncing between fear, impatience, boredom, and frustration. I've noticed some positive remarks from exhausted souls embracing the peace and quiet, but that might peter out if this drags on for long. On the whole, we just want the threat of a catastrophic pandemic behind us and our old lives back. 

Our only recourse is to wait this out, so it would seem the one thing we can control is our attitude. So I've drawn on the collective wisdom of philosophers, characters from epic historical classics and kids' tales alike. Since these diverse people all figured out the same secret under very adverse circumstances, I'm taking it as a clear sign that it's universal enough for us to latch onto too. Let's make the choice to follow in their footsteps, and here they are.   

Smith Wigglesworth
This stern and scary plumber turned evangelist from the early 20th century was known partly for his unconventional healing methods, in which he'd forcefully strike the ailing body parts of patients seeking prayer. However, he did see stunning results, and a delve into his personal life reveals that he lived with an iron control over both his faith and his emotions. One quote of his I appreciate is along the lines of, 'When I wake up, I don't ask Smith how he's feeling. I tell him how he's feeling!' Perhaps our friend Smith was onto something there.

He was a famous French Enlightenment philosopher who helped shape western thought as we know it. Voltaire was known for his outspoken championing of pure reason, and his criticism of church and state alike. Poles apart from Wigglesworth in most of his thinking, they did converge on that one simple, possibly crucial matter of attitude. Voltaire said, 'The most important decision you will ever make is to be in a good mood.' Hmm, that's from a famous thinker, folks.

Pierre Bezukhov
Our chubby young millionaire from War and Peace was battered from pillar to post in his emotions throughout most of the huge novel, as he tried desperately to wrap his head around the meaning of life. His huge bank balance and outspoken advisers left him reeling and puzzled. Only when he was captured by the French as a prisoner of war, herded with a group of other Russians toward the border and stripped of all but the rags on his back did the answer dawn on him forcefully. True freedom and meaning consists of being free to make the choice to stay serene, peaceful and optimistic no matter what the world deals out to us. It takes losing everything for Pierre to gain that epiphany through experience, and by then we readers have journeyed with him for so long that it's a powerful eye-opener for us too. (My review is here.)

This happy little heroine of kid's lit had the secret all along, and clung to it even when people tried to shoot her theory down. It's the Glad Game her father taught her as a tiny tot, when she received a pair of crutches in a relief box instead of the doll she'd hoped for. He told her in effect to use her imagination to create lemonade from the lemons life throws at us. In her case, Pollyanna could be glad that she didn't need the crutches. That moment started a revolution that lasted through a whole book series, as Pollyanna grew up sharing her Glad Game with whoever she encountered. And in our digital era, we needn't look far to find a host of online Pollyannas dispensing positive advice to help us through our global crisis. (Here is my review)

Uncle Tom
He's the sturdy, noble slave from the novel that helped shape American history. Every day in which Tom served his earthly masters was done from an attitude of setting his heart on things above, which he trusted contained immeasurable glory and joy beyond his wild imaginings. He knew that transitory circumstances always change, which kept him patient no matter what. The only time Uncle Tom opened his mouth in opposition to Simon Legree, the cruelest master of all, was not so much a mouthful of backchat as a triumphant faith statement and attitude shaper. Tom told Legree that no matter what he inflicted on his body, he had no influence whatsoever over his attitude and soul. Tom's allegiance to God and looking to help from heaven would continue no matter how hard Legree tried to stamp it out (and that rotter tried his very best!) Tom's decision to remain trustful and optimistic was the defining crux of his life. Hurray! (My review is here.)

Esther Summerson
Charles Dickens' only ever female narrator is hard to forget, because life has taught her the benefit of choosing cheerfulness every single time. This girl practices what she preaches. Her loved ones are horrified when her beautiful porcelain complexion is ruined forever by the smallpox scars left over from a long illness. After one moment of grief, Esther draws on her habit of looking for something to rejoice over, instead of dwelling on her very hard luck. Maybe she couldn't have done it if it hadn't become second nature over time. But here's what she said and meant with all her heart. 'I found every breath of fresh air, every scent, every flower and leaf and blade of grass, every passing cloud and everything in nature more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet. This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight to me.' (Check out my review of Bleak House.)

Toad of Toad Hall
Okay, this egomaniac isn't the best role model in general, but he does learn some valuable wisdom while serving a jail sentence for car theft and reckless driving. The jailer's generous daughter brings him a delicious plate of bubble and squeak on toast to help cheer him up, and to the great surprise of both, it works. The succulent dish, appealing to all five senses, is the catalyst Toad needs to snap into a happier frame of mind. He discovers that thinking pleasant thoughts is a real mood-booster. Toad's new and inspiring thoughts include, 'Chivalry, poetry, broad meadows, and cattle browsing in them raked by sun and wind: kitchen gardens and straight herb borders; warm snapdragons beset by bees; the comforting clink of glasses set down on the table; breakfasts on bright, frosty mornings; cosy parlour firesides on wintry evenings; the purring of contented cats and twitter of sleepy canaries.' That's the spirit, Toady! When optimism fires his imagination, he begins to consider creative ways out of his fix which never occurred to him for as long as he was sobbing with hopelessness and depression. (Review of Wind in the Willows is on the way.)

Viktor Frankl
Perhaps this humble and famous Austrian doctor and Holocaust survivor says it best of all, which is why I've saved him for last. What Frankl figured out (which is basically a very eloquent wrap-up of everyone else I've cited) saved his life in Auschwitz. He devoted his remaining years to sharing his personal testimony and attitude methodology with others. The first draft of his classic, 'Man's Search for Meaning' was written in nine days flat when he was first released. Since it's based on the most horrific personal experience, it's no wonder this 1946 bestseller keeps making a powerful impact on readers. Frankl's basic tenet is that although we can't always avoid suffering, we can always choose our attitudes in dealing with it and moving forward. 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,' he writes. 'The last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one's own way.' (Review coming down the track.)

This is only scratching the surface of book characters and authors who echo the same sentiment. I kept thinking of more, but limited it to these eight for the sake of keeping this list succinct and diverse. If you admire any of my choices, or would like to add examples of your own in the comments, please do. Most of us have more time than usual on our hands for discussion, so what better subject than good attitude examples? You could even do worse than cherry pick any book from this list to read during these times.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

'City of Girls' by Elizabeth Gilbert

Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

I have great respect and admiration for Elizabeth Gilbert's work, especially after reading Big Magic, which is one of my favourite books about forming our creative mindsets to withstand hard knocks. I wasn't as big a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but did find it interesting and easy to read. I'm sure Gilbert has established herself as one of the significant voices of the 21st century, so when I saw City of Girls at the bookshop I was interested right away but decided to hold off until I could borrow it from the library. Sure enough, it appeared recently for a one week loan, and turns out I was even more riveted than I expected to be from the blurb.

It's the overview of an elderly lady's life, focusing for the first section on the era just prior to and during the second world war, when she was a young woman. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris' high achieving parents are embarrassed when she flunks her first year at college, and send her to live for a while with her Aunt Peg, who runs a small theatre company in NYC. Vivian's knack for sewing amazing costumes makes her a favourite of all the actors and showgirls, and she also falls for the city nightlife in a big way.

This turns out to be a stunning epic about a girl who hits rock bottom and can barely hold her head up for shame, let alone figure out how to move beyond it. It's not the sort of false, misplaced shame we all get from taking critical comments and media comparisons on board. It's the huge, overwhelming shame of knowing that you've made a really bad stuff-up, bared for all to see and impossible to excuse. Vivian is a sitting duck for anyone who might cast aspersions at her, because she knows she has absolutely no comeback. We readers know long beforehand that something big is coming, and keep turning pages thinking, 'Oh oh, what does she do?'

After it's over, she's totally demoralised by a person she deeply admires, then wounded by the scathing words of a total stranger. Then in the wake of her big mistake, Vivian discovers one of life's big paradoxes. Sometimes people we pour lots of effort into nurturing relationships with just fall away, even though we may assume they will always have significant roles in our lives. And those who start off as sideliners have the potential to become very meaningful.

I really enjoy Gilbert's prose. Vivian becomes an artist with words as she tells her own story, yet she's still totally believable as the girl who says, 'How many books does a person need to read in order to prove she can read a book?' I guess it takes skillful talent on Gilbert's part to make Vivian both literary genius and rebel dunce rolled in one, but she pulls it off. And gives Vivian a great sense of humour to boot.

The opening hook grabbed me, as it's intended to. It's all meant to be one long letter. Vivian is writing her story for the benefit of a woman named Angela, who has written to finally ask what she meant to her father, since both parents are now dead. Vivian replies that she can't presume to tell Angela what she meant to her father, Frank, but she can certainly tell her what Frank meant to her! And that's what the whole story leads up to. At first it seems that Frank takes a looooong time to appear in Vivian's life, but we eventually understand why his appearance is tied up with all that went before.

Anyone who hates reading sex scenes, and stories about casual sex in general might be totally grossed out by this book! In all honesty, there is probably way too much information at times for all of us. It's not essential to the story, and certainly not the sort of stuff I can imagine Vivian would want to tell Angela! But as for the whole package, it's all about dignity, self-acceptance, looking through people's facades at the common humanity beneath the surface, and life's curveballs looking way different to how we might expect. Oh, and of course the assurance that no matter what we've done, it's possible to not only live it down but become good people in the process. What more can we ask for in a book?

Now I might look out for Elizabeth Gilbert's earlier novel, The Signature of all Things.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mark, Charlotte and Us

KOVID-19 has entered the world silently and knocked it off kilter within a short length of time. The physical manifestations aren't the focus of this discussion. We in South Australia are possibly among the least statistically affected. I think there have been 20 cases to date as I type, and we are hoping and praying that stricter quarantine of international travelers and more vigilant social isolation will knock this sucker out sooner rather than later.

But I want to talk about the financial repercussions of this beast. My husband is an entertainer who visits nursing homes for his livelihood, so our household has been hit hard. His flourishing business was decimated literally overnight, as every nursing home has cancelled visitors for the foreseeable future. Avoiding a possible over-run on our hospital system must take priority of course, but my word it takes its financial toll on families like ours, who are left overnight in the frightening position of a mortgage and no income. We have to focus solely on practical ways of staying afloat and my head has been spinning like a top and getting nowhere.  

This blog is partly about drawing on literary heroes for inspiration, so I settled on an unlikely pair for one thing they share in common. That's their confidence that all will end well, in spite of the dire way things may look. This astronaut and spider are good role models for such hard times. Then I added the true example of a family from the 19th century.

I'll give a quick summary of what they faced themselves.

Nobody would ever choose to be in Mark's shoes. He was assumed dead and abandoned on Mars. Learning to wing it and improvise was necessary to keep himself alive on a barren red planet with no oxygen, food or water. He figured out many creative hacks including the use of his own manure to fertilise potatoes. Several times things looked very dicey. Mark's typical response was, 'This seems very bad, and I know I'll work something out or else I'll die, but I'm not sure what it'll be yet.' And he did pull through, with the help of a mighty roll of duct tape that never seemed to end. (My review is here.) 

For Charlotte, it was her best friend's life at stake. Poor Wilbur the young pig discovered that he was destined for the chopping block to be made into ham and bacon. Charlotte promised to save his life, but to Wilbur's agitation, admitted she had no idea how. But Charlotte was a wise spider who knew that necessity is a powerful trigger for creative inspiration. She was so certain she'd figure it out that she refused to lose her composure at all, and even told Wilbur that his histrionics were most unbecoming and annoying. Sure enough, cool and calm won the day, and she figured out an ingenious way to save Wilbur by weaving complimentary phrases about him in her web. (My review is here.)

For more inspiration is the Ingalls family from De Smet. During a scary winter in which a freakishly heavy barrage of back-to-back blizzards prevented the supply train all season, the townsfolk wondered whether they'd freeze or starve first. The only option was to sit at home and try to wait it out, without even the modern luxury of electricity. Pa and Ma got clever, improvising their own alternative sources of heat and light. He twisted hay into hard sticks to replace the scarce coal, and she made button lamps from scraps she had on hand. Perhaps they'd never have thought of these measures if the need had not been so dire. (My review is here.)

I guess we must all call on our inner Mark, Charlotte or Charles and Caroline Ingalls in the days ahead. There is no way of estimating when this is all going to end, which makes it all the more heartbreaking and frustrating for anxious control freaks like me. I just want my husband to be employed again, our elderly citizens to be safe and sound, and the assurance that anyone who needs a hospital bed for whatever reason may be assured of quality care. Oh yeah, and just a little bit of cash flow for groceries and overheads would be nice! But it's looking very much as if faith and creativity will be vital while we're waiting. In the spirit of these two heroes, my motto must be, 'I know we'll get through this, because we have to eat, although I'm not sure how it'll look.'  

Are any of you in a similar position to us? Perhaps we could pool creative ideas of staying afloat, if we're all sharing social distancing at home while supplies run short and income dries up. I can't suggest much myself, because I've got nothing yet. But at least we have cool, calm legends to inspire us in anxious times. Hopefully their example will prove to be even more contagious than COVID-19.         

Monday, March 16, 2020

'Charlotte's Web' by E.B. White

Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte's Web, high up in Zuckerman's barn. Charlotte's spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur's life when he was born the runt of his litter.

E. B. White's Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. This edition contains newly color illustrations by Garth Williams, the acclaimed illustrator of E. B. White's Stuart Little and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, among many other books.

This will go into my 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge for the category with a person's name in the title. The last time I read it was as a 9-year-old behind my classroom desk during silent reading. It all comes rushing back. Wilbur, a tiny piglet who was runt of the litter, is saved from the chopping block by a little girl named Fern. Alas, his luck soon runs out. Fern's father eventually sells Wilbur to his brother-in-law, Homer Zuckerman, who intends to make him into pork sausages and bacon. But Wilbur makes an unlikely alliance with a great brain who intends to save his life. She's a spider named Charlotte.

As is often the case, I enjoyed the story far more this time round. The charisma of the title character won my greatest respect and admiration. Charlotte is an absolute legend who liberates us from negative, menacing impressions that abound about spiders. Who else do we even have in literature to compare her with? There's Aragog and his hungry, ruthless offspring. Or the crafty, 8-legged she-demon Shelob. Even Miss Muffet's inquisitive spider scared little girls silly. I'll rattle off several reasons why I love Charlotte, not only for giving spiders a more positive profile but for encouraging us to be the best versions of ourselves we can.

1) She accepts and defends her essential nature. 'I'm not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it's the way I'm made.' At first Wilbur has misgivings about making such a brutal, scheming and bloodthirsty friend, yet he comes to understand that she's actually humane and great for the environment.
2) She encourages us to adopt an orderly, slow pace. 'I'm glad I'm a sedentary spider.' While she lies in wait for what might come, she uses her web as a good place to sit and think, at which she excels. Even with no idea how she'll save her friend Wilbur, she's confident that something will occur to her in good time. I love her motto, 'Never hurry. Never worry.'
3) She motivates friends to become their best selves. Even though Wilbur considers himself an average little porker, he aims to take Charlotte's words about himself, such as radiant, on board. And before long, his spotless white glow begins to shine for all to see. All because of his best friend's words.
4) She's content to stay in the background, satisfied that she's done her best and made a difference to her sphere of influence. If nobody even notices, it doesn't matter one bit. When she knows she's languishing toward the end of her short life, she still spends those moments in peaceful contentment, because she's saved Wilbur's neck.
5) She has a super-descriptive vocabulary, enabling her to make applications with breadth, depth and wisdom. And once again, it's okay if she doesn't get the credit. Using her creativity and skill with words is the main thing, after all. Not being recognised for it.
6) Altogether, she's a real lady. Charlotte is elegant and smart. Quiet industry is second nature to her, and she doesn't get hung up about what others may think of her. For the short time she lives with the gang in the barn, she adds class and contemplation. A perfect role model.

The supporting characters are excellent too. Who could possibly not love Wilbur, and his stout, merry approach to life, reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh? I also sort of dig the sneaky opportunist Templeton the rat, who has no 'milk of rodent kindness' but can be coerced into good deeds if he's convinced they're in his own best interest. He's a super hoarder who proves that even the stinkiest junk may come in handy at times.

All up, this re-visited book from my earliest childhood was more of a page-turner than several other longer and more 'grown-up ones I've read recently. And Garth Williams' awesome illustrations brings the story to life. It's a good weapon in our quest not become like the conventional Mrs Arable, who's alarmed by the merest hint of her daughter's imagination.


Monday, March 2, 2020

That Pesky Plot Spoiler

It's the time of year again when students return to Uni, including older ones like myself. After my first week back, I knew I'd be altering the way I post on this blog for the duration of the semester. Much as I love it, I won't be so rigid about keeping a regular book blog that it's like a fourth subject. That would be no good at all.

So I'll be posting roughly fortnightly instead of weekly and even delving deep into my archives for old posts to dust off and tweak, like this one. I'd love to know if you've been told off for this sort of thing, as I have from time to time.

We all know book reviews are way different from plot summaries. Their purpose is to give readers an idea about whether or not they might enjoy a particular book. If we love a book, we want to sing its praises. And if we find ourselves let down, we may want to give others the heads up before they commit. Since they're for people who haven't read the book, giving away too much of the story line is a big no-no. It's generally recommended that nothing which happens after the 50% mark should be written about in great detail. Some say it should be only 25%.

I know some people who are walking, talking plot spoilers (most definitely talking). My husband is King Plot Spoiler. He only needs to mention the name of a story and our nephew has learned to poke his fingers in his ears, shout out, 'LaLaLaLa,' and dash out of the room. My husband is the sort of person who shouldn't write reviews, and thankfully he doesn't.

I make an effort to stick to the 50% guideline when I write reviews, but on rare occasions someone will respond, 'Thanks for the plot spoiler' or some equally snarky comment. It's easy to feel chastened, but I've come to believe that spoiler accidents are a peril that goes with the territory of book reviewing.

It's a problem that seriously bothers some people. I've met several lovely ladies, who are courteous, considerate and understanding in the normal course of a day. Yet if they think they've got the whiff of a plot spoiler, they turn into raging beasts. It's like waving a red flag in the face of a bull. They hurl abuse at the poor reviewer as if she's gone on a killing rampage rather than let a few details about a story slip.

But I believe we would be kind to cut reviewers a bit of slack, if they are genuinely trying hard to do the right thing. Just as chocolate bars come with the warning, 'There may be traces of nuts', perhaps book reviews should have similar disclaimers. 'While great care has been taken to keep this review spoiler free, there may be traces of story line due to the nature of the processing'. I've read a number of articles about the art of writing excellent reviews. Here are some random snippets of advice which might help to prove how murky the waters can get when it comes to making reviews completely uncontaminated.

1) Tell us who your favourite character was, and why.

Well, just say the author planned him to be a red herring. From what we know of him in the first few chapters, he may well be a heartless criminal. And maybe that's exactly what the author intends us to wonder at that stage. Yet if enough reviewers write something like, 'I really loved Alex,' then surely we approach the book with a bit of a spoilerish impression that he'll be sound.

2) Explain why the book made you laugh or cry.
I picked up a novel that seemed set to be a whimsical, light-hearted comedy. Yet a few reviewers had written, 'The ending was absolutely gut-wrenching.' Even though no specific details have been revealed, isn't it still verging on spoilerish when we know from the outset that we have to brace ourselves for something?

3) What was your favourite part of the book?

Here's my warning to reviewers. If it happens to come after the 50% (or even 25%) mark, you should tread very carefully indeed. Don't be fooled by the community of seemingly docile readers. They may well take your vague impressions like a whiff of blood.

If you are trying your best to stick to the rules when you're writing reviews, I wouldn't feel too devastated if somebody accuses you of spreading plot spoilers. Read over it to see if they have a point, then either edit it, delete it, or ignore it. And readers, if you're the sort of people who need a guarantee that everything is completely spoiler free, then maybe you should treat all review forums as a bit of a land mine area and stay out. Or if you do enter, do so at your own risk.

Image courtesy of pixabay

Thursday, February 20, 2020

'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens

Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A 'great Victorian novel', it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation.

Here is my choice for a Classic with a Place Name in the Title in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's always a pleasure to return to Dickens' London, where fog and mud reign supreme and we know that whenever any character bobs to the surface we're bound to see them again later, possibly under surprising circumstances. He pulls so many divergent threads together, which puts me in awe of his genius when I consider that his long novels were originally published as magazine serials. It means he obviously had it all planned in his head before Issue 1 hit the newsstands.

Dickens' major gripe in this novel is the frustration of court cases that drag on forever, driving some people to put their lives on hold while waiting for a verdict that may have the potential to change everything. The problem is, decisions are so prolonged that successive generations inherit all the angst. It's these non-criminal, inheritance sort of spats that absorb costs to help lawyers feather their nests, but merely break the hearts of the clients concerned and send them bankrupt.

The long-running court case in this story is Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, and the current Mr Jarndyce chooses to stand aloof from all the uncertainty and take three needy young people to live beneath his roof. Richard Carstone and Ada Clare are distant cousins whose interests are also caught up in the court case, and Esther Summerson is a young orphan he invites to keep house for them all. Esther narrates great swathes of the story. Dickens has given us many, many super-sweet, good girls, but she is the only one we are ever allowed into the actual head space of. And she's such a great point of view character!

Esther was brought up by a stern, unloving aunt who taught her that she was born as a disgrace. When Mr Jarndyce becomes her kind benefactor, she's stoked. All of Esther's comparisons are in a positive direction, since she's trained herself to choose gratitude over grumbling every time, and never grows sour or jealous of the bounty of others. She's a perfect example of how mood management should work, and succeeds in setting contentment as her default. The irony is that Esther's existence has been so hush-hushed, since she's the most admirable person in the whole book (with the exception perhaps of the guy she eventually marries.)

An intriguing underlying mystery concerns the identities of Esther's parents. It's easy for the reader to figure both out early on, and then the fun comes from watching it dawn on others as the story unfolds.

There's a very cool cast of characters across the board. It includes freeloaders like old Mr Turveydrop and the parasitic Harold Skimpole, who is surely one of the most despicable leeches in literature. It appears Dickens based his character on a fellow Victorian author, Leigh Hunt, and everyone who knew them both instantly recognised Hunt in Skimpole. The two writers were sort of friendly before Dickens wrote Bleak House, but definitely not afterwards!

There are dysfunctional families like the Jellybys and Smallweeds, and those who have chosen numbness over feeling. The scenes in which Lady Dedlock and her lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn have conversations with huge stakes, yet both apparently try to outdo each other for nonchalance and languidness are very well done. There is so much intense under-reaction from both, the air is charged with it.

This story hasn't knocked Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations from the top of my Dickens favourites list. I think there's a little too much of poor Richard's plight and Skimpole's dodgy shenanigans for that. But it's well worth a read, especially for the success in which Dickens pulled off a first person female point of view in Esther, who is definitely one of my favourite characters.