Monday, September 25, 2017

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

I've been interested in reading this title since I've seen it on several book lists and heard that book clubs love it.

On her 18th birthday, Victoria Jones is let loose on the world, after being shuffled about between foster homes and homeless institutions. All she has are the clothes on her back and a vast knowledge of different flowers acquired from Elizabeth, the loving lady who almost adopted her once.

Victoria is an independent and prickly heroine who believes she has no reason to ever trust the goodness and promises of others. One of the most consistent lessons she's learned is that vulnerability seems to be taken advantage of. That's why flowers appeal to her so much. Not only are they just what they seem, but she hoards their unique meaning all to herself, believing it gives her the one-up over others.

In the Victorian era, each flower was well known to symbolise some virtue, vice or emotion, and people chose their bouquets carefully with that in mind. In other words, the recipient could tell the giver's mood by their choice of bloom. One day a young man at the flower markets alarms Victoria because he clearly understands 'flower speak' too. Then she recognises his face from her past, when she was almost happy.

It's the sort of story we can predict turns sour. Chapters weave back and forth between Victoria's childhood and the current day, and she's obviously not with Elizabeth anymore. The story is geared toward making us want to find out what happened, but when I did reach that part, the reasons for their separation seemed disappointing and a bit pathetic. It so didn't have to happen. What an anti-climax of human misunderstanding, and people ruining their own lives. I like the optimistic feeling that things were about to look up again, but couldn't quite believe how it happened.

Victoria's falling into a successful floristry business, and managing to become a business woman in high demand stretched my credibility. She's the darling of many wealthy, classy people, before she's even one year on her own. Sure she has the flower lore, but who taught her presentation skills, or bookkeeping savvy, or business acumen? It's also a stretch that the general public would start demanding her services en-masse, to the extent that some would be placed on her waiting list or miss out. Would so many people really be willing to pay big money for the language of flowers, rather than just choosing their favourite flowers as they've always done? I can't really imagine it happening in my small part of Australia, but hey, this is a huge American city, so maybe.

Anyway, I wonder how many modern florists are up with all this. If you want to pursue it further yourself, there's a good glossary at the back, with a long list of flowers and their meanings. That was a wise move on the publisher's part, since it comes across generous, but if they hadn't included it, I for one would have complained about its absence.

So overall, I found it a pleasant read but not brilliant. Too many poor decisions, and too much unbelievable luck in spite of them all. Maybe I'm just sore because one of my favourite flowers, lavender, gets a bad wrap. It's meant to mean 'mistrust' and Victoria manages to get all the sprigs of lavender in the city wilting, un-bought in their buckets. Hey, I'd still buy it. No herd mentality for me. At the end of the day, a pretty flower and lovely scent mean just what you want them to.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

'Middlemarch' by George Eliot

By the time the novel appeared to tremendous popular and critical acclaim in 1871-2, George Eliot was recognized as England's finest living novelist. It was her ambition to create a world and portray a whole community--tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry--in the rising provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community, and in the great art that enlarges the reader's sympathy and imagination. It is truly, as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'. 

First off, there might be some minor spoilers, because this is like a review/discussion hybrid. But you'll forget them by the time you get stuck into Middlemarch.

When I was 19 and read this classic for Uni, I thought it was the best English novel on the syllabus. Years have passed and now that I've returned to it, I think it might well be the best English novel ever written. My husband said, 'But isn't it just about people living their country lives without much happening?' Some readers might answer yes, which makes the thickness seem incredible. But I love it because it's all about attitude. This book is like a magnifying glass George Eliot holds up to us, because we keep bumping into our own buried attitudes when we see them mirrored in the characters. We can't read it without wanting to make course corrections or set good thinking habits in place.

Basically, two poor marriages take place between couples who go into them assuming that what they see is what they'll get. Young Dorothea Brooke wants to make the world a better place for others, and believes it will be a step in that direction to marry Edward Casaubon, a crusty scholar twice her age, who is working on a comprehensive book in which he hopes to reveal the meaning of life. But instead of being a valuable helper to a great man, she discovers too late that he's a hopeless pedant, snuffling around in research which is already antiquated.

Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, the new young medical man, is seduced into marrying local cutie, Rosamond Vincy. He believes she'll support him in his genuine cutting edge research, but discovers too late that she's not remotely interested in any part of his life that doesn't concern herself. Rosamond has simply latched on to Lydgate to boost her own lifestyle. When things don't happen the way she expects, her contagious misery infects him.

Lydgate is the poster boy for those of us who may claim, 'There's no way in the world I'd ever do (fill in the blank)' But until you've tried walking in somebody else's shoes, there's no predicting how you'll react. It's wise not to throw around the word 'never' because you might end up with egg on your face. And while you're at it, it's a hard lesson to learn not to look down on those who do things of which you don't approve. I really loved Lydgate, and reading his humbling experiences was hard.

Casaubon reminds me a bit of Owl from Winnie the Pooh. He tries to project an image of himself as lofty and important, but gets rumpled feathers, because the hardest person to convince is himself. He's middle-aged with the bearing and attitude of an 80-year-old, which finally catches up with him. Lydgate's professional advice shows he's too far gone to be told in effect, 'Hey man, lighten up and smell the roses,' but maybe we readers can take it on board, in case we ever need cobwebs blown off us. Poor dude. Imagine coming to the end of your life with the fear that you might've completely wasted your time. But setting ourselves the task to know absolutely everything is just too big a goal. We can learn the lesson of this guy who tried it.

Rosamond is a princess in the most negative sense of the term. She doesn't realise that her mind filters out anything that doesn't put herself at the centre of everyone else's world. She's too well-bred to throw a complete Veruca Salt style hissy fit, but she's got the passive-aggressive sulk down to a fine art. And every disappointment is magnified to a disaster, because it adds to her challenge to get her own way. Truth be told, I thought back to some of my own melt-downs I remember in the light of Middlemarch and thought, 'Yep, I'm afraid that's Rosamond.' If you can relate too, there's no better incentive to stop the next time you might be tempted to react that way.

Dorothea is like a breath of fresh air, even though she has moments of deep depression, bursts into tears, finds herself stuck in bad moods and sometimes makes dumb decisions. In fact, the mistake she starts off with is a real doozy, but she wins our hearts easily, because her attitude of wanting to relieve the pain and discomfort of others is such a sound compass. She even tells Will, the true love of her life, 'Even if we had lost our own true good, other people's good would remain, and that is worth trying for,' and means every word. You can't get to the end of the book without wanting to adopt Dorothea's habit of seeing the best in everyone. Eliot shows through her intriguing heroine that it's not an attitude of naivety or idealism, but the healthiest way to inoculate yourself against the gossip, cynicism and disillusionment that's all around you.

Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch 'a novel for grown-ups.' It's hard to miss this quote if you ever want to read the book, because it's splashed around every discussion, website and on the covers of many editions, without anyone really threshing out what she might have meant. Lest you get the wrong idea, it's not an 'adult' novel as some might understand the word. It's exemplary and squeaky clean without any X-rated content. I think 'grown up' in the sense Woolf meant is more to do with the way we handle disappointments.

'Happily ever afters' are low key in Middlemarch, because characters haven't lived up to what they considered to be their full potential. It's not for lack of investing lots of toil and tears. Hopes and dreams have crashed and burned everywhere,  because the chokers and creepers of real life have strangled them, as they often do.

The wrap-up chapter tells us that both Lydgate and Dorothea considered themselves fall-shorts who never achieved a fraction of what they hoped. Lydgate never makes a major medical discovery, but finds simply paying the bills and providing for his family is a major drain for him. Dorothea never helps bring an amazing book to the public, or start a colony, but she encourages others in all the small, low-key ways she can. She's basically in the gentlewoman's trap. You're technically free to do as you please, but can't do any of the the good things that fall into your head because of society's restrictions.

The novel also has its share of people slogging away at jobs they wouldn't have necessarily chosen, because that's just what we have to do. Mr Farebrother knows he would have made a better biologist than clergyman, but life wasn't designed for a middle-aged man supporting dependent females to make a sea change. Then there's Fred Vincy, who at the start of his working life, grumbles that he would have made a great gentleman of leisure, but has to either pull something out of the bag, or keep sponging off his struggling parents. He decides estate management and agriculture is as good as anything else. (I feel for him because I've got a 'Fred' in my own household right now. It's my elder son, who's almost finished Uni and hasn't a clue what to do next. Even their surnames are similar. Vince or Vincy, you've got to love 'em.)

Mary Garth appeals to me because she understands all this from an early age, putting her in a strong position. We are told, 'She had good reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, and wasted no time in astonishment or annoyance at the fact.' That helps Mary leap ahead of the entitled Vincy kids in her outlook. She's not one to be taken in by her current versions of the 'whatever you believe you can achieve' sort of messages we still wade through in modern times. I'm sure George Eliot wouldn't be surprised that even by the 21st century, we don't really grow up until we learn to handle disappointment graciously.

I didn't get all this out of Middlemarch the first time through. But back then, I was still the teenager who aspired to write the great Australian novel, earn a fortune and go on world tours. When Farebrother tells Lydgate, 'I have paid twelve or thirteen years more than you for my knowledge of difficulties,' I probably shrugged it off just like Tertius. Virginia Woolf was right, in some ways, this is very much a book for grown-up retrospection.

But even though she gives us this dose of reality, Eliot still presents a world where wonderful surprises can catch us off guard, and refresh us to keep smiling.

A middle-aged vicar, disappointed in love, can help his young rival win the girl's hand, for the sake of her own happiness.

A young man who's been diddled out of two rightful inheritances can keep bitterness at bay, and claim that his goal is to see the good and beautiful in everything. All he wants is good friends and a soft rug to stretch out on. (We love you, Will Ladislaw.)

A couple madly in love can say, 'Stuff this mean codicil, let's get married anyway.'

A wife and mother who's been used to the good life can whip off her bright clothes and jewellery and resolve to stand by her disgraced husband through thick and thin. (Harriet Bulstrode, you're a hero.)

A young doctor who has suffered major blows, including those inflicted by his nearest and dearest, can look in the face of an angelic benefactress who tells him, 'You'd be taking a great burden off my shoulders if you'd accept this hand-out.'

Middlemarch is dense and thick, and sometimes takes lots of concentration, but is well worth the time it takes to read.


Friday, September 15, 2017

'Every Job a Parable' by John Van Sloten


A Walmart greeter, a nurse, and an astronaut walk into a church. . . .

They each bring with them their own exhaustions and exasperations, their own uncertainty about whether and how their work matters to God. Good news: All work matters to God, because all work reflects some aspect of the character of God. God created the world so that it runs best when it mirrors Him, and we ourselves find the most fulfillment when we recognize God behind our labor.

John Van Sloten offers a fascinating and innovative reflection on vocation: Our work is a parable of God; as we work, we are icons of grace.

This is a great read for anyone who finds their daily grind a bit of a drag, or can't help thinking of their spiritual self as separate from their daily, nine-to-five self. John Van Sloten believes we can stretch our minds to think of any job or occupation as a parable for the way God works. After all, he's always made himself known through real people doing real work.

First, Van Sloten knocks down the vocational hierarchy we might have all bought into at different times. It simply doesn't exist from a heavenly perspective, where every humble job has its own dignity and significance. Throughout the book, he interviews and observes people in many different professions, and then has fun revealing their essential goodness to them. To mention just a few, there are astronauts, flyer-deliverers, psychologists, residential landlords, cleaners, electricians, automative repairmen, florists, language translators, geophysicists and hairdressers. It's great to think we're all on an equal plane.

We are urged to study God's signature moves, so we can more easily notice the way our jobs reflect them. Then we can pull our attitudes about them back into sync, in case they've been a bit off. There are three roles I've held; cleaner, writer and parent, which many people can probably relate to, and I enjoyed reading the thoughts about them.

Cleaners (including anyone who cleans or regularly tidies up messes) reflect God's heart for people to have clean and healthy lives. We remove unnecessary, used trash to make room for pristine new surroundings, which is what God does on a larger scale. Cleaners everywhere bear witness to his world-restoring power, whenever we leave anything better than how we found it.

As writers, we share God's heart for creativity, and attempt to figure out the way his world works through story telling, and clarity of expression. Pondering how we're going to form our sentences allows us to catch glimpses of God's own thoughts, and spread them, for the things we're passionate enough to write about are often the things he's passionate about too.

And needless to say, as parents we enter into God's heart to care, nurture and love each others with a giving, sacrificial love.

It's a mood-lifting book to read, with plenty of cheerful ways to regard the things we might not feel all that cheerful about naturally. John Van Sloten is aware that in our darker moods, this may all come across a bit platitudinal. He advises us to keep stretching our broader perspective muscles to go with it anyway. I think it really does work, and if you look for your own job, you'll be quite likely to find it in this enthusiastic and comprehensive book.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tyndale House for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, September 11, 2017

Stories with Mirrors

We all rely on our mirrors, and probably take them for granted. We've got to use them every time we get ready to go out, after all. But in stories, mirrors tend to be a bit spooky. I think they often show us things we'd rather not face about ourselves or the wider world. The idea of having a double, or doppelganger, in some inaccessible plane may also have something to do with it. Or maybe our personal feelings about our reflections help promote the love/hate relationships we sometimes develop with our mirrors. I find it interesting that so many of these fictional mirrors possess at least a tinge of the supernatural. 

1) Snow White
Snow White Her stepmother's magic mirror on the wall caused a whole lot of mischief. Its owner kept wanting the reassurance that she was 'fairest in the land' but mirrors are honest if nothing else. When it informed her that little Snow White had surpassed her in beauty, the jealous lady decided to do away with her stepdaughter. (Also see my list of famous mean girls.)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)
2) The Mirror of Erised
This penetrating mirror reflects the elusive sight a person most desires to see. Poor Harry Potter sees himself flanked by his loving parents, while his insecure friend Ron sees himself as the recipient of several awards. Professor Dumbledore explains that the mirror has to be isolated because it drives people mad. And when he tells Harry that he himself sees socks, he's not being entirely honest.

Coraline3) Coraline
This young Neil Gaiman heroine has been enjoying the mirror image of her real life in the old house. Everything is better, including the toys and food. But then the alternative mother offers to let her stay, with the condition that she allows buttons to be sewn over her eyes. Coraline finds her real parents trapped behind the mirror, writing, 'Help Us' on the glass. The whole game changes in a flash.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There4) Through the Looking Glass
In this second part of Alice's adventures, she starts off wondering what life might be like on the other side of the mirror. To her surprise, she's able to step through and find out. You can be certain that what she finds is weird and surreal, including a wonderful garden and a tubby pair of twins.
The Phantom of the Opera
5) The Phantom of the Opera
The dressing room of the young singer Christine Daae has been set up with a fake mirror. That appears to be a good thing until it's discovered that it allows the phantom to do his mischief. My review is here..

6) Anne of Green Gables
During the traumatic years before the Cuthberts adopted her, Anne Shirley pretended to befriend her own reflection in a mirror, even naming it 'Katie Maurice.' It helped her through some very rough times, but she eventually admits it fell far short of eventual real friends, like Diana, Jane and Ruby.

7) Narcissus
It's no stretch to say the the crystal clear waters of the lake serve the function of a mirror for this mythical hero. The gorgeous young man becomes fixated with his own reflection and wastes away for love of it. (See my list of the greatest narcissists.)

Early this year, I went through a sideshow called the House of Mirrors with my son. He actually started getting disoriented and was relieved to get out. He said he felt like smashing all the mirrors to escape.  

The weird superstition that breaking a mirror results in 13 years of bad luck, proves that I'm not the only one who finds mirror stories a bit creepy. Story book mirrors are just asking to be broken, since they're made of glass. So I'll finish the list with some legendary mirror smashers. 

Dracula8) Dracula 
His shaving mirror gives young solicitor Jonathan Harker the frightening revelation that his host is actually a vampire. Count Dracula comes up behind him while he's shaving, and has no reflection! Yikes! That's one of their key traits, and the count smashes Harker's shaving mirror for giving his game away.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
9) Dorian Gray
The main character is well aware of the phenomenon that's happening. While he keeps his good looks, his portrait grows older and more repulsive looking. To keep track of the changes, Dorian desperately uses a hand mirror to compare his appearance with his picture's. That mirror comes to a smashing end during the course of the story. My review is here.

10) Richard II
Richard II The moment he's forced to give up his crown, the unfortunate king of England asks for a mirror. He expects to see that he's aged dramatically as a result of the sudden shock and grief. But he looks pretty much the same, and smashes the mirror, so that the shattered shards more accurately reflect his roiling emotions.
The Lady of Shalott
11) The Lady of Shalott
This ravishing beauty from Tennyson's poem is imprisoned in a tower by a mysterious curse, and can't look directly out at the world. She relies on her mirror to reflect the people of Camelot as they pass by, but regards them as mere shadows of the world. When handsome Sir Lancelot rides past, she can't resist the temptation to spin around and look at him directly. Big mistake. It causes the mirror to 'crack from side to side' and Elaine's death is imminent. That Lancelot broke more than just hearts.

12) Cosmo
He is the hero of a story within a story. The tale of Cosmo takes place in Phantastes by Rev George MacDonald. Poor Cosmo falls in love with a beautiful lady who lives on the other side of his bedroom mirror. He begins buying furniture and decorations especially to please her, but one day the mirror is stolen. It leads to an exhausting search in which he carries a hammer, determined to smash the mirror and free her, if he's ever in the position. See my review of Phantastes.

That's just me trying to set up another mirror idea for this blog post. Do any of these mirror stories to want to step in for more? Have I missed any you'd like to add? And finally, what is your own attitude to mirrors? Are they friends, foes, or both?  

Friday, September 8, 2017

'Jamaica Inn' by Daphne du Maurier

Her mother's dying request takes Mary Yellan on a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. With the coachman's warning echoing in her memory, Mary arrives at a dismal place to find Patience a changed woman, cowering from her overbearing husband, Joss Merlyn. 

Affected by the Inn's brooding power, Mary is thwarted in her attention to reform her aunt, and unwillingly drawn into the dark deeds of Joss and his accomplices. And, as she struggles with events beyond her control, Mary is further thrown by her feelings for a man she dare not trust....

I read this novel years ago in my teens, and decided to find out how it's stood the test of time.

Mary Yellan has agreed to her dying mother's final request. Mrs Yellan wanted her daughter to find a home with her sister at Jamaica Inn, on the lonely Bodmin Moor. But they had no idea what she'd be walking into. On the way, Mary discovers that the place has an evil name, and the coaches normally just hurry straight past. It's all she can do to make the driver stop to let her out.

Her menacing Uncle Joss Merlyn turns out to be a huge thug with swift mood changes, and the formerly merry Aunt Patience cowers before him like a whipped dog. Joss is involved in a smuggling racket that turns out to be far worse than Mary could have imagined, incorporating the infamous wreckers on the Cornish coast. There's a cast of despicable characters, including a nasty peddler who's a bit like Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter, rat-like description and all.

The setting is the real hero. Cornwall looms everywhere, and it's not just filler. Without it, the story would be nothing. It's always a perfect match for what's going on, ominous, dark and mysterious. The descriptive passages are great to read, because they make the landscape come alive. When we read it, we might as well be in Cornwall, and if we're lucky enough to get a chance to visit, we recognise it instantly from du Maurier's writing, whether or not we've been there before. (I went once, when I was 20.)

I'd forgotten what a lot of walking Mary does. She travels a huge chunk of the story on her own two feet. Nor did I remember what a strong and fearless heroine she is. Events might shock, sicken and disgust Mary, but nothing frightens her or keeps her down for long. It takes looking back from an older age to realise what a bleak predicament she's in for a 23-year-old. This girl has just lost everything. She's an orphan whose mother has recently worked herself to death in a farming lifestyle that never gave her a break.Youthful idealism has been knocked out of Mary, if she ever had any to start with. She has plenty of common sense and a good dose of cynicism, but I feel a bit sad this time round, as if she obtained it too early. Maybe that's why the romance thread is quite intriguing.

In traditional stories, starry-eyed heroines are anxious to embrace romance and fall for men they deem worthy of their affection. In Mary's case, everything's the opposite. She has no romantic ideals at all, yet somehow still manages to fall for a self-confessed loser. How is that even possible? Especially when a repulsive, older version of the man she loves is always throwing his weight around. The deterrent is none other than her uncle Joss Merlyn, and although his younger brother Jem is far more attractive, they share many of the same physical and personality traits.

Jem is a horse thief who's always grubby and broke and admits that his family have never treated their women well. Mary has seen what marriage to Joss has reduced Patience to, yet can't relinquish her feelings for Jem. There are differences. Jem seems more light-hearted, smarter, kinder and undoubtedly better company, but will these things last? As a teenager, I was saying, 'Come on, he's the better man, just go for it.' But as an older person with a teenage daughter of my own, the risks are evident. Do you still say 'Take the chance' when you consider how long 'happily ever after' may turn out to be? Especially when it will include a nomadic lifestyle with no four walls to call home. I can't believe that I didn't even attempt to balance the pros with the cons in my youth, because the cons are so in-your-face. I think every reader will have to make up their own mind whether or not Jem's charms are appealing enough to take the risk.

I remembered the plot twists and revelation of the ultimate baddie in the mystery. I think it did take me by surprise the first time through. It's all tied in with gullibility and what innocent folk will believe. It's quite disturbing really, not the least that Mary could come to such a wrong conclusion, yet still make the choices she did. The last couple of pages possibly polarise people's opinions the most. I'm split in my own mind, and I'm just one person. She faces a choice between two lifestyles which are mutually exclusive. I'm hoping her choice will work out well for her. One thing in her favour is that Mary surely won't be an Aunt Patience, whatever happens!

Here are some quotes.

Cynicism and sentimentality were two extremes to be avoided. (Yet Mary seems to bump back and forth between them at times.)

There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life. (Sad for such a young woman to reflect.)

I don't want to love like a woman or feel like a woman. There's pain and suffering and misery that can last a lifetime. (Ironic.)

It's power and glory and women and the kingdom of God all rolled into one. (Joss Merlyn, talking about alcohol. What a waste.)

There's never yet been a Merlyn that died peaceful in his bed. (She can't say she wasn't warned. How big a gamble would it be to expect that to change?)

There are things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I've never dared breathe. Bad things. Evil things. (Aunt Patience makes a good literary device to thicken the plot.)

Well, there was little use in dreaming. The present situation must be faced, and courageously too, if any good was to come of it. (The ultimate motto perhaps.)

And finally, a bit of dialogue to show why we can't help liking Mary.

Jem: Put you in a fine gown and a pair of high-heeled shoes, and stick a comb in your hair, I daresay you'd pass for a lady even in a big place like Exeter.
Mary: I'm meant to be flattered by that, I suppose. But thanking you very much, I'd rather wear my old clothes and look like myself.
Jem: You could do a lot worse than that, of course.

Here's a photo of the time I got to visit Jamaica Inn for real. This is the place which first gave Daphne du Maurier her inspiration in the 1920s. It's right by the side of the highway now, and the inside includes a few tributes to the novel, including 'Joss' Bar.' I'm sitting out on the stone fence with my Mum. Maybe one day I'll manage to go back somehow, but it's looking like that British holiday was truly the trip of a lifetime. 


Monday, September 4, 2017

The day I was rebuked by Jane Austen

During my recent read of Mansfield Park (review is here), I noticed a curious omission. Although Edmund Bertram is the hero of the story, Jane Austen rarely (if ever) described his appearance. Since it's a fairly thick novel, I started wondering if this was deliberate on her part. Otherwise the occasional accidental reference to his thick hair, bright eyes or sweet smile might have slipped through. After all, she described his party-boy older brother Tom, not to mention the rakish playboy Henry Crawford. But although Edmund made the heroine Fanny Price's heart flutter, it was always for his acts of generosity or statements of moral worth. We get the picture, he's a good man with sound principles.

Yet I'm the sort of person who likes to picture scenes playing out before me, a bit like a movie screen, while I read. I had to give him some sort of presence, because he can't be invisible. Other readers have mentioned that they find Edmund a bit wishy-washy and colourless, and I wonder if it's partly because they've been given nothing to go on when it comes to the space he fills. Since we're left to make up our own minds about his looks, I decided to imagine him fairly cute. After all, two girls were deeply in love with him throughout the whole story.

Then about three quarters through the book, Jane Austen gives us something at last! It's a line from Mary Crawford, in a letter to Fanny. 'Lord Stornaway isn't so very ill-looking, but he will not pass by the side of your cousin Edmund.' Eureka, I was right and Edmund is nice looking. I even cheered softly to myself. Mary Crawford isn't depicted as the most principled character, but we can always rely on her to get to the point many women want to know. Thank you Mary!

But a few pages later, Fanny is ticking Mary off in her thoughts 'for thinking only of his appearance.' Since Fanny is so often the mouthpiece for her author, it's pretty obvious that a ticking off from Fanny is a ticking off from Jane. Ooops, I get it, sorry. Forget my vocal applause from ten minutes ago. It really felt as if our beloved Jane Austen had reached back through the centuries to give me a rap on the knuckles for being shallow. It was a strange sensation that made me laugh, but also feel a bit sheepish.

I remembered several years ago, when I was writing a novel of my own called The Risky Way Home. My editor sometimes scribbled in the margins, 'You're focusing too much on his looks and not enough on his character.' I wonder if Jane Austen was deliberately doing the opposite with Edmund, just to make her point about the most important feature of a person. We can only guess. But I won't forget the way she seemed to speak back through the centuries at that moment to say, 'Get your priorities straight, girl.'

But I'm going to speak up in self defense here, because I have one advantage over Jane Austen. She's been dead since the nineteenth century, so I can have the last word. There are excellent reasons why I think it is important to describe a hero's appearance. As I said above, I like to have some sort of inner reference for the moving picture that plays in my imagination while I'm reading. If the author doesn't give me one, I'll make up my own, because I can't help it.

But more importantly, having an idea of what a character looks like helps us not to be overly swayed by such things. If a writer gives her characters inner beauty which shines through, then we're naturally going to love them whether they're described as attractive or plain featured. And then, we're more likely to approach people out in the real world the same way, regardless of their shape or size. It wouldn't surprise me if readers of fiction, who have come across many different looking faces in the pages of books, are quickest to see through to a person's inner essence. We are most likely not to fall for someone's ravishing appearance until we get to know them, and also most likely to see actual beauty where others might not. So there Jane, maybe in some ways, considering a character's appearance is a sign of depth rather than shallowness.

My advice to authors would always be not to go overboard with physical descriptions as if it's the most important thing, but do give us something to go on, just to help give us a feel for the character. I'd love to know where you stand on the question. How important is it to you that authors describe what their characters look like? And if they don't, do you tend to fill in the blanks?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 - Wrap Up

This year, I took part in the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. I love digging into the classics and each of the 12 categories gave it a very nice structure. I did all twelve because I like to go all the way when I bite off a challenge like this, so here's what I chose. 

A Nineteenth Century Classic - The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

A Twentieth Century Classic - The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A Classic by a Woman - The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

A Classic in Translation The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

A Classic Published before 1800 - Evelina by Fanny Burney

A Romance Classic - Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

A Gothic Classic - The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A Classic with a number in the title - Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A Classic which includes the name of an animal - The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Classic set in a place you'd like to visit - Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (New York)

An Award-winning classic - Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (Carnegie Medal, 1958)

A Russian Classic - The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

What a wonderful mixed bag it was. Because my reactions to these dozen classics varied so much, I thought I'd like to award medals to my top three picks, counting from the bottom to the top. I could think of a few contenders for wooden spoons too, but won't be that mean. Here are the best in my opinion.

Bronze Medal
 This one goes to The Fountain Overflows, which was a delight from start to finish. We don't need to wonder what living in the Edwardian era must have been like, because the Aubrey family make it very clear and entertaining. Their life wasn't a bed of roses though, as they practically lived off the smell of an oily rag. But the quirkiness of the family members and the resiliency of the human spirit come through loud and clear. 

Silver Medal
I've got to choose The Moonstone, which might be appropriate, since it was a silver gem. Wilkie Collins was so clever and tricky with the setting up of this Gothic mystery. There was no way readers could piece the clues together, although when we look back, the evidence was all there. It's so very dramatic and Victorian too.

Gold Medal
I'm going with The Brothers Karamazov, because it was such an ambitious novel with such a lot of scope. It was the first Russian classic I've ever read, and whetted my appetite for more. It's a murder mystery with a very psychological twist that kept me turning the pages, even though there were so many of them. 

I enjoyed the challenge so much, I might have another go next year and hopefully come across a few more new favourites. I highly recommend working through a list like this.