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.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Guys who were refused, then later accepted!

Leading up to this Valentine's Day, I noticed an unusual trend in classic novels. It often occurs that men who propose to the women they love are rejected at first, and then accepted by the same lady down the track. What are we to make of this? I don't think it's meant to encourage guys not to take no for an answer, nor is it to suggest that girls don't know their own minds. The best spin I can think of is that there's always room for hope. True love is shown to be an unpredictable phenomenon, because feelings may be in a state of flux at crucial moments. Fellows, if your romantic dream has been crushed, you're in great company. Take heart from these rejected chaps and hang in there.

Warning: Of course this list contains plot spoilers, so feel free to skip over any you don't wish to know. 

1) Fitzwilliam Darcy
What a superb wake-up call for this haughty individual! He tussles with the wisdom of proposing to a girl whose connections are far beneath his, and whose immediate family members are major embarrassments on legs, as far as he's concerned. Then when he finally proposes to Elizabeth Bennett anyway, he tells her his misgivings! And she tells him that he's a proud, pompous prat she'd never consider marrying in a fit! Definitely not the reaction he expected. Luckily for him, she's open-minded enough to regret her own prejudice later, and allow his better nature to work on her. 

2) Frederick Wentworth
This poor young sailor proposes to the girl he loves, and who he knows loves him back. But alas, Anne Elliot lets her trusted mentor talk her out of accepting. All he can do is skulk off to sea heartbroken, but little does he know, she's been kicking herself for her foolishness for a decade. He's let a lot of bitterness and resentment strangle his romantic feelings throughout those years, but are his barriers up to the challenge of seeing her again? This is one of my favourite, 'maybe it's not too late,' stories.

3) Gilbert Blythe
He's loved Anne Shirley from the time he was a young boy, and when she rejects his marriage proposal and suggests they just remain friends, he knows the compromise will never work for him. But in this case, it turns out the heroine truly doesn't know her own mind. It seems to be a common failing with Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroines. Gilbert is wise not to latch onto any other admirer on the rebound, and I'd suggest that clueless Anne was luckier still that he didn't.

You may enjoy my Battle of the Book Boyfriends, where I pitted Darcy and Gilbert head to head. 

4) Konstantin Levin
What a shemozzle! This shy young farmer draws on every ounce of courage he has to propose to the girl he adores, but his timing is most unfortunate. Kitty Scherbatsky is deeply infatuated with another man, Alexei Vronsky, and tells Levin she can never possibly marry him. Eventually she wakes up to herself, especially when Vronsky jilts her for Anna Karenina. Kitty realises that Levin is indeed the man she truly loves. But our hero has retreated back to his country property with his tail between his legs, resolved never to stick his neck out again. The way in which she prevails on him to have another try makes one of my favourite romances. (See my review.)

5) Edward Beverley
He's the main character of one of my favourite YA classics, Children of the New Forest. Edward proposes to Patience Heatherstone, the daughter of his employer, and she refuses, thinking her father would hate to her marry below their station. However, Superintendent Heatherstone has sussed out his protege's noble birth, and helped orchestrate that proposal. Ooops, it backfires all round, especially for Patience, when Edward rushes off into the army to nurse his broken heart. She has to live up to her name for years, while he decides if he'll ever return to have another crack. (I've reviewed it here.)

6) Fred Vincy
Oh, his girlfriend Mary Garth loves him dearly, but she's far too sensible to accept his first proposal. Fred is an unreliable spendthrift with no desire to buckle down and work, so she's compelled to give him an ultimatum. 'This'll only happen if you shape up.' Fred is so set in his ways, it's tantamount to a refusal. The way in which he makes it happen, aided by Mr Featherstone, who's a sort of rival for Mary's affection, is a touching read. (See my review of Middlemarch.)

7) Gabriel Oak
This humble young shepherd loves his neighbour Bathsheba Everdene very much, but she values her independence and likes him too little to accept his proposal. It takes a disastrous marriage to the feckless Captain Troy, and unfortunate entanglement with intense Farmer Boldwood for her to reconsider her opinion of Gabriel. Only then does Bathsheba realise the value of steadiness and loyalty. It's a great example of hanging in there, and my favourite story by Thomas Hardy.

8) Robert Martin
Perhaps his proposal to Harriet Smith would have been accepted right off, if not for the influence of her friend, Emma Woodhouse. Snobby Emma has decided that no pal of hers will ever settle for a mere farmer, and Harriet is like putty in her hands. Only after a disastrous set-up and another dead-end crush does Harriet realise that her first choice was actually the best. At least the awkward mistakes help her to think for herself. (See my review of Emma.)

9) John Harmon
He's a bit sneaky, because he knows his father made a condition in his will for him to marry Bella Wilfer, and he wants to test her true feelings for him first. So he proposes to her in the guise of a poor man, and Bella instantly knocks him back. She is too familiar with the effects of privation and self-denial, thanks very much. It falls on John to figure out a way to work on her better nature without revealing his true wealth. I had my reservations about this plot thread, but loved the book. (See my review of Our Mutual Friend.)

10) Jem Wilson
Whoa, this is one instant when the heroine refuses a heartfelt proposal, then regrets it the second he steps out the door. Mary Barton faces the stark truth that of course she's in love with Jem, and not flirty Harry the mill owner's son she's been encouraging. Without wanting to admit her blooper outright, she tries more subtle methods to make him try again, but Jem has taken her statement, 'I'll never marry you,' as absolute truth. Shocking circumstances mean that Mary has to prove in a big, big way that she's in love with Jem. (See my review of Mary Barton.)

These are my ten favourite examples, but the list is surely not exhaustive. Are any of your favourites among them, and as always, can you suggest any others? 

Friday, February 7, 2020

'Hannah Coulter' by Wendell Berry

Hannah Coulter is Wendell Berry's seventh novel and his first to employ the voice of a woman character in its telling. Hannah, the now-elderly narrator, recounts the love she has for the land and for her community. She remembers each of her two husbands, and all places and community connections threatened by twentieth-century technologies. At risk is the whole culture of family farming, hope redeemed when her wayward and once lost grandson, Virgil, returns to his rural home place to work the farm.

I'd heard plenty of praise about Wendell Berry's pastoral novels set in the quiet American town of Port William, but it's hard to find copies in Australia. So when I came across a kindle version of Hannah Coulter on Amazon, I grabbed it.

I found it lived up to my expectations taken on board from other reviewers. It's a simple story told in flashbacks by an old lady who could easily represent any one of a million senior citizens. Not a lot happens in the way of storyline, yet there are pages of quotes any reader can take to heart from the lessons Hannah learns in the school of hard knocks, and just doing her duty.

The husband of her youth, Virgil Feltner, goes missing in action during World War 2, a matter of months before his baby is born. Hannah deals with her grief, then finds new love with another man. Nathan Coulter, a returned young veteran longing for home, is delighted to begin afresh with Hannah and her little girl, Margaret. Two boys are added to the family unit, as Hannah and Nathan work hard, watch their family grow, then try to support them through their own hard knocks, or deal with their unexpected choices. That's really all there is to it, but it's a dignified and strangely mystical read. 

The story presents many cameos of people who were probably similar to our own forebears, living the best they could before passing from this earth. There's Hannah's grandma, a hardworking lady who shaped her granddaughter's life without knowing how it would turn out. Hannah reflects about her early years in retrospect, 'It was a good enough life. After it was over I realised that it was happier than I had known.' It's possible for the perceptive reader to make similar connections about our own lives, while we're still living them.

Male authors who write in first person from female points of view aren't common, and Berry nails Hannah's womanly character. For example, there's this reflection when her daughter, Margaret, is born. 'To know that I was known by a new living being who had not existed until she was made in my body, by my desire, and brought forth in the world by my pain and strength. That changed me.'

It's a book to honour normal, everyday, non-celebrity people. In fact, I suspect celebrities and big-names might even miss the quiet rhythms and simple pleasures in lives such as Hannah's, and ours if we take notice. Because, 'members of Port William aren't trying to get someplace. They think they are someplace.'

Berry's satisfaction in a farming lifestyle is evident, since he's known to be a man of the land and conservationist himself. But my one gripe with the story is that Nathan and Hannah are so stuck in their ways, they're skirting close to regarding their sons as failures, just because they opt not to follow their farming footsteps. Yet Matthew (or Mattie) studies IT and becomes 'CEO of an info processing company whose name is made of letters that don't spell anything' and Caleb chooses to teach agriculture and farming rather than inherit the farm and practice it. I can understand the Coulters' sense of sadness, since they couldn't relate to the tangents their boys' lives took, but there's not much of a sense they were proud of them anyway. Hey, these two were no slouches! A big CEO and a Uni lecturer! I'd be thrilled to settle for that, if these two were my sons.

As I say, I get where Nathan and Hannah were coming from, but if Mattie and Caleb were to call them backwards, narrow-minded old hicks with no idea how the world ticks, well I'd understand where they were coming from too.

Overall, I'm glad I read it, to get the reinforcement that small, forgotten actions are often hugely heroic and big-hearted. Such as Hannah deciding to forgive the stepmother who made her life miserable, and Nathan taking Virgil's daughter Margaret to his heart as his very own, and caring for her so deeply.

By the end, if you're like me you'll have jotted down a patchwork quilt of quotes Hannah has figured out, which could surely just as easily be applied to the rest of us.

'I began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not be trusted to do that, but to give unforeseen goods and pleasures that I'd not thought to want.'

Here's one for homebodies. 'The house, its furnishings and surroundings, took on the appearance given it by my ways of work and my liking, and as our work shaped our workplaces, our workplaces shaped our days.' She's talking here about the satisfaction of keeping house, working in the garden and raising chickens.

I'll finish off with this tribute to her neighbours, Danny and Lyda Branch, a salt-of-the-earth type of couple with a big family, always there for the Coulters too. 'They plan and provide as much as they need and take little thought for the morrow. They aren't going places, they aren't getting ready to become anything but what they are, so their lives are not fretful and hankering.' I so want to adopt that as my philosophy, because often whenever I'm stressed and miserable, I can trace it back to some sort of ambition or dream of being different to what I am.

Overall, not an exciting read, but full of nuggets of wisdom for those who can stay awake long enough to look.