William Makepeace Thackeray – Vanity Fair

Having never read anything by Makepeace Thackeray beforehand and being only familiar with the name of the book, I did not know what to expect. The only idea that I could form in my mind about this book, aside from what I read in the blurb at the back was “is it something like Charles Dickens?” and although it might resemble Dickens’ books in length, subject wise it seemed to be a tad more serious and the novel definitely has less comical, grotesque characters as can be found in a Dickensian story.

The novel narrates the story of Amelia Osborn-Sedley and Becky Sharp who have just finished their studies at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Although both Amelia and Becky, or Rebecca, marry, become mothers, and struggle to navigate through society, their attitudes and fortunes differ greatly. Amelia is a very timid, gentle, and good-natured young woman, yet she is extremely passive and meek throughout the novel and is awfully gullible especially regarding her husband George Osborn, whom she believes to be faithful yet in reality has little regard for her and is more interested in Becky. Having been childhood sweethearts, after Mr. Sedley’s bankruptcy, George’s father opposes the long betrothal between Amelia and George and forbids George to marry her. He defies his father and marries her, yet continues to flirt with Becky, who despite being married herself, encourages this behaviour in all men in order to further her goal of becoming wealthy and esteemed in society. Amelia becomes pregnant and follows George to Brussels as he is suddenly deployed there to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He is killed in the fight and Amelia returns distraught and her son becomes all she lives for and raises him with her parents as George’s father refuses to acknowledge the boy. Becky, on the other hand, rises quickly in the world. She leaves the Sedley household after she realises that both George and Amelia’ brother Joseph do not succumb to her advances. Becky is a cunning and wily woman who knows exactly what she wants and get it through all means. She finds a position as a governess in the family of Sir Pit Crawley, but discovering that his younger brother is the favourite of their wealthy aunt she secretly marries him. The family is outraged by this secret marriage and Becky and Rawdon, her husband, escape to the continent where she bares him a son. Throughout the novel Becky uses her charm and cunning to further her family’s position. These actions affect her reputation and after being found in a compromising situation Rawdon leaves her and places their son in the care of his brother. Becky flees the country but is followed by her reputation in every city. Eventually Becky and Amelia find each other again in Germany, yet whereas Amelia is struggling with her relationship with her faithful friend Dobbin, who has been in love with her since the beginning of the novel, Becky is in a degraded and destitute position in society, drinking heavily and associating with con artists and other shady characters. This times around she succeeds in seducing Joseph, who soon dies and leaves her a portion of his money.

I will not spoil the ending for you, but as this ‘short’ summary demonstrates Vanity Fair is one of the denser and longer Victorian novels. Nevertheless I did enjoy reading this novel,. The relationship between and the juxtaposition of Becky and Amelia intrigued me. Although the Becky is the ‘morally degraded’ character, I immensely enjoyed her storyline as she differs from the more traditional virtuous angel in the house type of female character. Becky’s assertive and pragmatic nature disrupts the ideal image of women of the other characters. This makes her an immoral person in the eyes of multiple characters as the story evolves, but Amelia’s tendency to see the good in people, even of the depraved, makes her a long-time friend of Becky’s. Amelia’s credulousness at times becomes irritating, especially when she refuses to admit George’s unfaithfulness and neglect.  Whereas Amelia undergoes a learning curve developing an understanding that not everybody is as good as they seem, Becky, on the other hand, continues in her habits of conning and wiles despite being financially supported by her son.

The tension and differences between these two characters and how this affects their lives is highly enjoyable. I also loved how the immoral character in the novel is not punished in such a manner as the ‘evil’ characters in some other Victorian novels, such as in Oliver Twist. I admit that it is a dense and long book and it took me a fair time to finish reading it, but the storyline and the characters provided me with a lot of pleasure while reading.  

 

Little Dorrit

I must admit I quite like Charles Dickens. Somehow his fiction invokes a true Christmassy kind of feeling

Daniel F. Gerhartz (American, 1965-) ~ The Garden Window

Daniel F. Gerhartz (American, 1965-) ~ The Garden Window

and a general idea of hopefulness and coziness within me. Although Little Dorrit is one of his “loose baggy monsters” (as Henry James called long-winded Victorian novels) it didn’t affect my pleasure while reading this book. Little Dorrit seems to be a Victorian version of the rages-to-riches story and narrates the life of young Amy Dorrit who was born in the debtor’s prison as her father was incarcerated there for so long that all three of his children have grown up there. Yet through the help of Arthur Clennam the Dorrit family discovers that William Dorrit is the only heir to a large fortune. Although all are rejoiced by their new-found wealth, Little Dorrit is reluctant and wary of the changes that this new fortune brings to her family and their circumstances. Especially since she has fallen in love with Arthur, who now, according to her family, is below their standards. Arthur has, meanwhile, his own mystery to solve, namely the riddle his father told him on his deathbed by giving him a watch with the words “Your mother”. Despite their new-found wealth, the Dorrit family quickly looses it because of their involvement in fraudulent dealings by Amy’s sister’s  father-in-law. Arthur, by his inquiries into his families past discovers that his, so believed, mother is actually his step-mother and his biological mother has died of grief as a result of her separation of her son and husband, by her husband’s forceful uncle. Yet stricken with remorse this uncle creates a fund for the daughter of Arthur’s mother music-teacher, who turns out to be the childless Frederick Dorrit, which means that the fund goes to Amy Dorrit, Fredrick’s niece. Who as expected eventually is reunited with Arthur and lives happily ever after.

As expected of any Dickens novel the plot is vast and complex but eventually makes sense. I still haven’t described half of it, but I will leave that for yourself to find out while reading this book. I quite like Dickens’ long, dense novels once in a while, despite the usually obvious romantic connections and the obligatory impediments that they have to face and Little Dorrit is no exception to this. The only problem I have with the novel is that the main protagonists, in this case Arthur and Amy, are at times to good and virtuous to be true which gets on my nerves every once in a while. Still I throughly enjoyed reading this book, no the least because of the numerous comedic figures in this book. Dickens is well-known for the caricatures characters in his works and, personally, they make his books much more enjoyable.

Despite the caricatures and good ending, Little Dorrit is written as a satire on the shortcomings of government and society, especially regarding the socially outcast and the pretences of the higher society in which the Dorrit family finds themselves. I like this combination of comedy and socially commentary and it’s one of the reasons that I like Dickens’ novel. All in all, just as the other Dickens’ novels I’ve read I really like this one and will probably reread it somewhere in the future.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

I was looking forward to rereading The Hobbit after many years. I first read it when I finished Lord of the Rings,

Cover to the 1937 first edition, from a drawin...

Cover to the 1937 first edition, from a drawing by Tolkien

which sound odd but I did not have a version of the book before that and I had just seen the film adaptation of Return of the King. As a result of these films I was quite curious about this world and dearly wanted to find out more. I had to wait until my English was up to par in order to read Lord of the Rings, but it was worth it as I adored it from the start. Luckily around the same time I found a secondhand edition of The Hobbit at a book market which gave me the opportunity to read it directly after finishing Lord of the Rings.

I cannot remember clearly what I thought of The Hobbit while reading it for the first time, but I do remember being impressed by the detailed world Tolkien created for these books. I did enjoy reading The Hobbit especially after finishing the trilogy first, since it is much easier to read, it being a children’s book, and because it filled the gaps and questions I was left with after reading Lord of the RIngs.

Besides reading The Hobbit as part of my classic club reads, I wanted to revisit it because of the film trilogy appearing in cinemas over the course of three years. Having enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films immensely and the first part of the Hobbit as well, I was really eager to revisit the world of Tolkien.  Also because one of my ‘hobbies’ is screaming at a film adaptation’s inaccuracies and my younger brother expects me to be a walking encyclopaedia whenever anything remotely Tolkienish or literary is involved. ( To quote him “But you know everything”, which leads to one of my long lectures on how you can’t know everything)

Although it took my quite a long time to finish the book (due to my annoying and unabated habit of reading ten different things at once) I still had a blast reading this story again. One of the aspects I like in Tolkien’s stories are the mythological qualities all of them share. I always had a penchant for myths, legends and sagas in general and manner in which Tolkien incorporated them into the richness of Middle Earth astounds me. This was also why The Hobbit appealed to me so much. Although it appears to be a simple adventure story there is so much more hidden underneath that layer, as advice or commentary on the world Tolkien experienced.  This is best expressed through Thorin’s farewell speech to Bilbo;

 “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”  

And I feel that this quote actually reflects the ‘message’ of the story quite well. Throughout the book all the characters who interact with each other generally enjoy each others company and food, song and cheer, until the quest of reclaiming Erebor is mentioned and the atmosphere turns hostile. Exception to this in their encounter with the Woodelves of Mirkwood and their King Thranduil, but personally I believe that their confrontation is based upon miscommunication, stubbornness, and concern for their nation rather than an unwillingness to help. It is this greed for gold which leads to the division between dwarves, men, and elves. Although the elves seem reluctant to actually engage in a battle for gold, as the King states

“Long will I tarry ere I begin this war for gold” 

This emphasises the futility of starting a war on the mere account of gaining riches. Placing the lives of his kin and people above the gold and wealth, the Elvenking demonstrates what is truly important in the world. Thorin eventually realises this as well, but unfortunately for him, on his deathbed. For me this is one of the reasons why The Hobbit has such an everlasting appeal, besides from the fantasy, adventurous side of the tale, it is the message. And this moralistic and hopeful side of the story has me returning to Tolkien’s Middle Earth time and time again. Whether it are the films or books, they remain mesmerizing.

Aphra Behn – The Rover, or the Banished Cavaliers

English: Aphra Behn by Mary Beale.

English: Aphra Behn by Mary Beale. 

This play in particular I have read for at least four times if not more, since it was one of play I analysed for my Bachelor Thesis. Yet I must say that this play remained interesting and enjoyable every single time I reread it. The gist of the play is that two women set out to find a man who fit their attitude towards life. The setting of the play is carnival Napels, which gives the female characters the opportunity to challenge and subvert the patriarchal structure of this society in order to find this man.

I find the wittyness of some characters, most notably Willmore and Hellena, highly amusing, especially how they adopt it in order to subvert and challenge the normative culture of Catholic Napels. Willmore, as the English rake par excellence, does not heed or respect any of the conventions of Neapolitan culture, rather he uses the carnivalesque situation to his  advantage and uses the temporarily freedom created by the carnival to achieve his aim of finding a woman who is willing enough to be his mistress, albeit for one night. Yet he did not anticipate meeting his feminine counterpart, Hellena, who is as determined to free herself from the Neapolitan conventions and find herself a suitable husband. They both display a mastery and understanding of the carnivalesque situation and discourse, combined with the normative discourse that allows them to deviate from the bonds of society and shape their own destiny.

In contrast with these witty characters are the characters whose understanding of the temporarily changed society is flawed as they fail to recognise the dangers that this sexually subversive  society. The courtesan Angellica and Hellena’s sister Florinda who steadfastly adhere to the dictated gender patterns of regular Neapolitan society which eventually leads to endangering themselves. Although they act more freely and directly with their intended suitors, they continue to display themselves as the more vulnerable and virtuous women in contrast with Hellena’s rakish person.

All in all the play was a joy to read. The contrast between the characters who understand, and because of this understanding manipulate, society and those which fail to comprehend it is enjoyable and exploited by many characters. Willmore’s  and Hellena’s teasing and manipulation is highly entertaining and provides many awkward situations. This has become one of my favourite plays as a result of the banter, rakish behaviour and multiple awkward events. I highly recommend this play to anybody who enjoys Restoration Comedy!

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

English: William Faulkner, Nobel laureate in L...

English: William Faulkner, Nobel laureate in Literature 1949 

I was not quite sure what to expect from this novel. Although I have read books from this period and if I remember correctly a short story by Faulkner, I was completely unbiased when I started reading this book. The blurb on the book’s back made it sound interesting so I was looking forward to seeing what I new world I would find in this book.

Despite being an interesting story I found it difficult narrative to follow. Personally I think that the vernacular, as portrayed by Faulkner, was part of it. Since it took me at least 50 pages to get used to it and it kept throwing me off during the rest of the story. The general story was fascinating, especially to witness the tensions between the respective family members. This tension is so intense and palpable at given moments that it fuels your interest and you want to continue reading. I could sympathise with more or less every character besides Anse, the father of the family. I think it is indecisiveness and complete disregard for his children that made my blood boil which was quite a novel experience as I usually get not that quickly or easily infuriated by characters. Yet at times I wish that I was able to give Anse a good smack around his head as he kept getting more and more annoying. He is such a selfish and odd character in his own right that I did not know how to perceive him unless with utter disgust and contempt. I rarely experience such a strong feeling of disdain for a fictional character so I was quite surprised by the feelings Anse stirred up in me.

Although I was (and still am) disdainful about Anse’s actions and explanations, I could sympathize with the children and the relation between them. Despite their often strained and broken communication and complex feelings towards each other they do seem to care for each other to some degree, whether they admit it or not. Yet Vardaman with his comments as “My mother is a fish” completely threw me off at times, which made it difficult to follow the narrative.

Overall, I enjoyed the book to some degree, but I still retain the feeling that I did not understand it completely which I find a shame, because it seems to be an  interesting story. The difficulty I had with following the vernacular and Anse’s action which continuously irked me made the overall story less enjoyable.

 

 

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion

Despite having been quite a big Tolkien fan ever since I got my hand on a Lord of the Rings copy, I’d never

The title page, of the book "The Silmaril...

The title page, of the book “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited and published by his son Christopher Tolkien. 

read The Silmarillion until last month and in hindsight I do not know what kept me so long. (Probably the fact that I did own a copy) After many years I finally found a copy and quickly became emerged in the creation of Middle-Earth by Eru and the Valar and the History of the Silmarillion.

The sheer depth and magnitude of these heroic sagas blew me away. The detail with which Tolkien wrote these stories is amazing and it truly gave more depth to both The Hobbit as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For me it evoked the feeling as if I was listening to an elderly family member telling me all these stories about creation and battle and at times I had to remind myself that it is fiction and not an actual historical account of world history. Which saddens me slightly simply because Middle-Earth seems to be a marvelous world to inhabit.

The only aspect that confused me every once in a while was the amount of characters appearing and then dying in quick succession. It made the story slightly difficult to follow as I had to check and recheck the back of the book for the genealogies to remind myself of this character and how he/she is connected to the overall story. I’d also wish that there would be an opportunity to get more detailed account of the stories to read, because I’d really would like to find out more about this world and its customs and history. I do know there are more books about the history and people of Middle-Earth so I’m going to search for copies of those to read :).

All in all I loved The Silmarillion with its combination of tragedy, heartbreak and hope. I find it difficult to pinpoint one single favourite story in the book, because I feel I have to reread it at some point to get a better grasp of the overall story and its finer details. In the meanwhile I’d just continue with being awestruck by this intricate and spellbinding world of fiction

 

 

 

Elizabeth Gaskell – Cranford

English: Miss Matty and her brother Peter from...

English: Miss Matty and her brother Peter from Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I very much like Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction, although this is the second book by her that I’ve read. I like the comforting and Victorian feel her books emanate, but simultaneously she undercuts this feeling by subtly criticising Victorian standards on gender and the tension between countryside and industrious England.

In this book the story is told about the small country town of Cranford idyllically situated in rural England and where everything seems to be perpetually stuck in past. Especially since almost everybody in this town is wary of change and as a result they are all ruffled and shaken by the most minor changes in their society. Cranford is a town, as the narrator says, of Amazons there a few to none male inhabitants or relatives and if there are any they have left the town for many reasons. As a result the town knows a very hierarchical pecking order between the women with Miss Deborah Jenkins and after her death The Honourable Mr. Jamieson on top. This pecking order makes the women dependent on each other and creates a need for affirmation, yet it also gives them a possibility to change society and possibly the way they see the world.

This small pastoral town and the relationship between the ladies has something comedic over them, the way they act, the problems they encounter might seem minor blips or of no significance to a modern audience, but to them they are very real.  The fashion in which they try to solve their problems might be hilarious at times, but there is a strong undercurrent of tragedy in this book as well. The primary narrator of the story is Mary Smith who is not a native but a visitor of Miss Matty. As an outsider she is able to be more objective regarding the women’s behaviour and therefore more critical as well. This critical note highlights the tragic undercurrent in the story, namely that the town is an aging one where there are barely any young community members left. The way of live the ladies so desperately adhere to will eventually cease to exist in the ever-changing world and because there  is no next generation to teach.

This book, being the second book by Gaskell I’ve read, made me want to read her other books.