Sunday, November 29, 2020

Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments by Edmund Gosse

I had never heard of Edmund Gosse but I wanted to read his memoir Father and Son published 1907 when I learned a few weeks ago that it was a favorite book of one of my favorite writers, Vivian Gornick.  I decided therefore to go with it for the 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about a family.  

Father and Son tells the story of the English writer and critic Edmund Gosse's early life  growing up with his father the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.  Edmund's mother Emily Bowes Gosse was accomplished too, a painter and writer of Christian poetry. Edmund's  parents were members of a small religious community known as the Plymouth Brethren.  It was strict. The reading of novels was forbidden by Edmund's mother, no holiday celebrations and the bible was taken literally.  Despite all this, though, according to Edmund, it wasn't an unhappy childhood in the early years : 

"My Father and Mother lived so completely in the atmosphere of faith, and were so utterly convinced of their intercourse with God, that, so long as that intercourse was not clouded by sin they could afford to take the passing hour very lightly .. So long as I was a mere part of them, without individual existence, and swept on, a satellite, in their atmosphere, I was mirthful when they were mirthful and grave when they were grave ...the mere fact that I had no companions, no storybooks, no outside amusements ... did not make me discontented or fretful because I did not know of the existence of such entertainments"  

But then when Edmund was eight his mother died of cancer.  It was devastating.  His father decided that he and his son should move from London to the seaside town of Devon.  Philip continued his naturalist work and became a lay minister to his neighbors in the surrounding villages.  At first Edmund was the model son, believing his father in all things, but a big change occurred when Edmund was eleven and Philip decided to relax the ban on novels, for whatever reason, and handed his son a copy of Tom Cringle's Log by Michael Scott: 

"It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to someone who had never been weaned from a milk diet. .. the long adventures fighting and escapes sudden storms without, and mutinies within, drawn forth as they were, surely with great skill, upon the fiery blue of the boundless tropical ocean, produced on my inner mind  a sort of glimmering hope, very vaguely felt at first, slowly developing ... but always tending toward a belief that I should escape at last from the narrowness of the life we led at home".  

An even bigger change in Edmund's life came when his father remarried.  His new stepmother was a kind and pious woman but not overly puritanical.  She introduced Edmund to Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, encouraged his friendships with other children in the neighborhood and took Edmund to museums to admire painting and sculpture.  Edmund's father worried that his son would become too worldly and as Edmund grew up, began to read further, and think for himself about God and religion, that's exactly what happened.

Now having read Father and Son I can understand why it remains a classic in the memoir genre.  It's a rather sad book though in that Edmund Gosse's childhood was a lonely and difficult one.  His father Philip wanted the best for Edmund and felt that following the religious path of the Plymouth Brethren was the way to true happiness.  But his son could not follow in his father's footsteps and had to chart his own course, a timeless coming of age story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

At the beginning of the year I chose The Jungle by Upton Sinclair for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with nature in the title.  But this has been a tough year, as we all know, and with the year coming to a close I wanted a book that was fun and  entertaining and so I went with Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart published 1956

According to Mystery Scene Magazine, Mary Stewart along with Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney are the "Grandes Dames of modern romantic suspense".  They wrote hugely popular novels from the 1940's on through to the 1990's. and yet I had never read them. I decided to change that by giving Mary Stewart a try and I found Wildfire at Midnight to be a very enjoyable read.  I can see why fans continue to collect and treasure Stewart's  books.

And so when Wildfire at Midnight begins it is 1953 and the city of London is preparing for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  We are introduced to Gianetta Brooke, the young narrator at the center of this novel.  Gianetta lives in London and  works as a model for a fashion house.  She has an ex-husband Nicholas Drury who she still has feelings for but the marriage broke up three years prior due to Nicholas' affairs.  But, as Gianetta tells us, there were problems with their marriage from the start:

"I was wildly, madly, dumbly in love with him, of course, a silly little star-dazzled adolescent, plunged into a life completely strange and rather terrifying.  And Nicolas, it became very quickly apparent, wasn't on his own ground either. What he had meant to marry was a modern Gianetta Fox, a composed young sophisticate who could hold her own in the fast moving society to which he was accustomed; what he'd actually got was Gianetta Brooke, not long out of school, whose poise was a technique very recently acquired in Montfiore's salons and the Mayfair mannequin factory".  

Gianetta Fox was Gianetta's great grandmother who in 1858 arrived in London at age 17 and was "painted by every painter who mattered" and she led a scandalous life.  Gianetta is not the adventurous spirit her great grandmother was.  She is reserved and practical and with the hustle and bustle in London surrounding the coronation, she needs a break.

So Gianetta decides to spend a few weeks in Camasunary in the Isle of Skye, a beautuful mountainous region of Scotland where she can relax and think about her life.  But soon after she arrives in Camasunary, Gianetta discovers that her ex-husband Nicholas is staying at the same hotel and as if that weren't uncomfortable enough she also learns that two weeks prior to her arrival a young woman in the area was murdered.  The police suspect that the culprit is one of the guests staying at the hotel.  The guests suspect each other.  

As to why Gianetta upon hearing all of this doesn't get in her car and drive back to London or why the other guests remain at the hotel with a murderer on the loose, that does stretch credibility a bit.  But then agaiin Gianetta, like every amateur sleuth before her, is determined to solve the mystery.  The presence of her ex-husband Nicholas at the hotel who she still has feelings for might also be playing a part in her decision to stay.  

Wildfire at Midnight is probably more mystery than romantic suspense but the romance is there too and Gianetta is a heroine with depth, courage, intelligence and heart.  I also liked the chemistry between Gianetta and Nicholas.  Their marriage may have ended but they still, despite the anger and bitterness, belong together.  This is my first time reading Mary Stewart but it won't be my last.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker published 1897 is the ninth book I have read for this year's Back to the Classics Challenge - choose an abandoned classic.  It's a novel that I have made attempts to read over the years but this time I got all the way through and I found it to be a gripping and enjoyable read.  I also recommend the Oxford World Classics edition of Dracula due to the excellent introduction by Roger Luckhurst.  

Dracula takes place in the late 19th century and is set in London and Transylvania.  The novel is mapped out in the form of letters and journal entrys written by the major characters in the book.  Our story begins with Jonathan Harker's journal.  He is a young British solicitor who has been sent by his law firm to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula who lives in a castle high up in the Carpathian Mountains.  Dracula is planning to purchase an estate in London and Jonathan Harker will be staying at the castle to complete the paper work.  But shortly after he arrives in Transylvania it becomes clear that the villagers are terrified of the mysterious Count and they plead with Harker to return home and once Jonathan arrives at Dracula's estate it becomes clear that he has made a big mistake: 

"I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.  At first I could not believe my eyes.  I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking and it could be no delusion ... What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?  I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me ; I am in fear -- in awful fear -- and there is no escape for me". 

The novel then shifts to London where we meet Mina Murray who is Jonathan Harker's fiance and her best friend Lucy Westerna who is also engaged to be married.  Mina and Lucy are good hearted young woman and Lucy must be quite ravishing since she receives three proposals of marriage, one from Dr. John Seward who runs a hospital nearby, another from Quincy Morris a wealthy Texan, and finally from the Hon Arthur Holmwood whose proposal Lucy accepts.  

Lucy is not a flirt.  She has a tender heart and though she chooses Arthur Holmwood she feels terrible about hurting Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris.  Mina and Lucy are great friends but they are different.  Its been said by critics that Mina with her practicality, her job as a school mistress and her shorthand skills represents the new woman who was emerging in late Victorian England whereas Lucy with her innocence and sheltered knowledge of the world represents the young ladies of an earlier age.

And then Lucy becomes ill, growing more pale and sleeping all the time.  Mina is concerned.  She is also concerned about her fiance Jonathan Harker who she hasn't heard from recently.  Dr. Seward is called in to help Lucy.  Albert Holmwood and Quincey Morris are called in as well.  One would think that these three men who were rivals for Lucy's affection would be at each other's throats, so to speak, but their love for Lucy gives them a shared purpose and they become very good friends.  Dr. Seward stumped at what is wrong with Lucy calls in his old professor and mentor from Denmark, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing who is a brilliant diagnostician.  He begins to piece things together and realizes that something very old and evil is at work.

Meanwhile, Mina Harker and her husband Jonathan, who was able to escape Dracula's castle, are back in London and horrified to learn of what has happened to Lucy.  They  join forces with Dr Seward, Quincey Morris, Albert Holmwood and Van Helsing to track down Count Dracula, who after the start of the book doesn't appear in the novel as often as one might think.  Instead Dracula is the story of these six friends who consult each other's journals and letters to piece together Dracula's whereabouts and put an end to his plans to create an army of monsters like himself. 

Dracula is a classic of horror literature but what suprised me is that it's also a very good Victorian novel.  If you are a fan of the Vampire genre, this book is where it all began. I'm glad I read Dracula and I encourage others to give this book a try as well.