Thursday, October 27, 2022

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

"The dinner was a grand one, the servants were numerous, and every thing bespoke the Mistress’s inclination for show, and the Master’s ability to support it.  In spite of the improvements and additions which they were making to the Norland estate, and in spite of its owner having once been within some thousand pounds of being obliged to sell out at a loss, nothing gave any symptom of that indigence which he had tried to infer from it;—no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared—but there, the deficiency was considerable".

I have read Pride and Prejudice twice in my life and loved the novel both times and when I get around to reading it again I know I will be just as enthralled. That said, in recent years I have also read Jane Austen's Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.   I was underwhelmed and so I approached Sense and Sensibility with trepidation.

But I am pleased to say I really enjoyed this book. The writing as always with Jane Austen is excellent and there was humor and the relationship between the two sisters at the center of this novel for me was the highlight of the book.  Elinor Dashwood representing rationality, decorum and common sense and her younger sister Marianne Dashwood representing heart on her sleeve romantic feeling was a nice contrast.

And I think Austen was making a point in Sense and Sensibility that in matters of the heart common sense and decorum are important but the courage to express one's emotions, what one is really feeling, is also needed, maybe not to the extent that Marianne does it but keeping everything bottled up as Elinor does throughout most of the book can have its drawbacks as well.  

Of course this is Jane Austen so I don't think I am giving away much of the plot when I say that it all ends happily.  And though a part of me wishes that Austen would have taken more risks in her books,  I must remember the era in which she lived, the early 19th century.  Jane Austen died in 1817 and never lived to see the arrival of railroad travel or the industrialization age.  What she knew was the world of the landed gentry in Britain and the families just a rung or two below.  As Austen once wrote to her niece: "Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on". 

Sense and Sensibility (2011) is my choice for the 2022 Back to the Classics category -choose a classic by a woman author

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Night - A poem by Anne Bronte

I am continuing with my Victober Challenge.  I have read Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and also My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I recommend both.  We were also asked to read a poem from the Victorian Era.  I decided on Night by Anne Bronte which I like: 

Night by Anne Brone

I love the silent hour of night,

For blissful dreams may then arise,

Revealing to my charmed sight

What may not bless my waking eyes.

And then a voice may meet my ear,

That death has silenced long ago;

And hope and rapture may appear

Instead of solitude and woe.

Cold in the grave for years has lain

The form it was my bliss to see;

And only dreams can bring again,

The darling of my heart to me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell

I decided to go with MLady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell (1858) for this year's Victober category -  choose a Victorian novel where chronic illness or disability is represented.  I was nervous about this category.  What would it have been like to be disabled in the 19th century?  But I finished My Lady Ludlow in good spirits.  This is a sweet and uplifting story about the impact a good person can make in the lives of others. 

The narrator of My Lady Ludlow is Margaret Dawson and when the novel begins she is an elderly woman looking back to 1800 when at age 16 she was sent to live with a distant relative, the Countess Ludlow of Hanbury Court.  Margaret's parents with nine children to raise had no choice but to accept Lady Ludlow's offer to have Margaret stay with her. 

When Margaret arrives at  Hanbury Court n the Village of Hanbury she meets other young women of aristocratic background who have fallen on hard times.  Lady Ludlow is running a kind of boarding school where the young women learn the skills one needs to get on in the world.  

Lady Ludlow can be strict in terms of how she likes things done but she is a decent, kind person.  The girls think highly of her and for Margaret, who narrates the book, this is particularly true because a year after Margaret Dawson arrives at Hanbury Court she starts to have trouble walking.  The situation deteriorates and Margaret is left crippled. 

Lady Ludlow could have sent Margaret back home to her parents. She doesn't do that.  Instead without ever mentioning Margaret's disability Lady Ludlow invites her to the office one day, gets a comfortable chair for Margaret to sit in, and explains that she has been needing an assistant and would Margaret be willing to help her out.  

As the years go by Margaret becomes a friend to Lady Ludlow and is often the sounding board for Lady Ludlow's opinions and she has strict opiions about the class system and people knowing their place.   A new young pastor for example, Mr. Gray, arrives in Hanbury with all kinds of revolutionary new ideas as Lady Ludlow sees it and she is not amused, particularly on the subject of educating the lower classes.  As she tells Margaret: 

"It was a right word,” she continued, “that I used, when I called reading and writing ‘edge-tools.’  If our lower orders have these edge-tools given to them, we shall have the terrible scenes of the French Revolution acted over again in England ... When I was a girl, one never heard of the rights of men, one only heard of the duties" 

Lady Ludlow is not perfect but she has empathy maybe because her own life despite her wealth and privilege has not been easy.  She is a widow and she lost all her children but one, her son Rudolph who lives in London.   She is rather lonely and one senses that the town of Hanbury is her family.  She keeps abreast of the goings on in the town and if anyone needs help no matter what class she will be there to see what she can do and as the times change, Lady Ludlow changes with them, including her views on educating the working classes.

Elizabeth Gaskell's great novels are North and South, Cranford, Wives and Daughters, Mary Barton and so if you have never read her that is where you should begin.  But I found My Lady Ludlow a heartwarming novel and what I have discovered in the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell is that she bridges the gap in her books between Jane Austen where  the lower classes are firmly off stage and Charlotte Bronte where if a Lord or Lady does show up in the text it's probably not in a flattering way.   Elizabeth Gaskell was more interested in bridging the divide knowing that people are not that different no matter their classs and that the times were changing.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story Of A Man Of Character by Thomas Hardy

"Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” - The Mayor of Casterbridge

I have been meaning to read Thomas Hardy for some time now and I figured when I finally got around to it I would start with Tess of the Ubervilles.  But this month I am taking the Victober Challenge and the group-read is The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and for someone like me who had never read Hardy before this book was quite the introduction.  The writing is brilliant, the characters are so memorable and it's a gripping read as well.  But having said this I am not sure how quickly I want to jump into my next Thomas Hardy novel and I will discuss why a bit later but first the plot.

The Mayor of Casterbridge takes place in rural England in the early part of the 19th century and the novel centers around Michael Henchard who is the mayor of the fictional town of Casterbridge.  Michael is a very successful man but he harbors a dark secret.  When he was twenty-one and living in another town he sold his wife and daughter to another man at the country fair.  How this could happen is that Michael Henchard's wife Susan was fed up with her drunken husband offering to sell her and their infant daughter Elizabeth Jane and so she agrees to go with the young sailor.

Michael wakes up the next morning and is horrified at what he did in his drunken state.  He tries to find Susan and his daughter Elizabeth Jane but they are gone.  No trace of them.  Eighteen years go by and Michael is the respected Mayor and business owner in the rural community of Casterbridge but he has never forgotten what he did when he was young.  He has never remarried and has sworn off alcohol.  The town knows nothing about his past.  He has become a lonely man.

And then one day Susan and Elizabeth Jane arrive in Casterbridge looking for Michael.  Susan is recently widowed from her sailor husband Richard Newson and Elizabeth Jane has never been told the truth about who Michael is and what happened that night in the tavern.  She thinks Michael is simply a distant relative that her mother is seeking out for help.

Susan and Michael reunite and marry but not long after the wedding Susan dies and leaves Michael a letter which is quite a revelation and the contents of this letter greatly affects his relationship with Elizabeth Jane.  Two other characters are also featured prominently in the novel.  The first is Donald Farfrae who starts out as Michael's friend and business assistant but Michael through his jealousy and suspicion turns Donald into a rival.  There is also Lucetta Templeman who Michael thoughtlessly dumps when Susan and Elizabeth Jane walk back into his life. But now that Susan is gone Michael assumes he can pick up with Lucetta where they left off.  

As the novel progresses Michael Henchard's fortunes take a nosedive on a level that I have rarely seen in a novel. Michael is a flawed man and his pride and temper lead to his downfall.  His past continues to stalk him as well.  But he is also capable of good and so the bad luck and the humiliations that continue to befall him I found increasingly hard to take.  

And so I came away from The Mayor of Casterbridge awed by Thomas Hardy's brilliance but hoping to find a Hardy novel where the outcome for the main character is a bit more uplifting and not so incredibly bleak as it was for poor Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins published 2015 was a nice suprise and I say that because in the past few years I have had disappointing experiences with bestselling psychological thrillers:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn  The Dinner by Herman Koch, And Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell to name a few.

And so when I picked up The Girl On the Train I was cautious but I didn't need to be because though this is a book that takes twists and turns they are believable, the writing is first rate, particularly in the creation of Rachel Watson who narrates a major part of this novel.  The two other narrators are Anna Watson, who is the new wife of Rachel's ex-husband Tom and Megan Hipwell the beautiful young woman who lives with her husband Scott a few doors down from Anna and Tom.

But mainly this is Rachel's story and when we first meet Rachel her life has gone downhill.  She married her husband Tom a few years back but found out she was incapable of having children which she so wanted.    Rachel tried everything but it was not to be and she began drinking heavily, arguing with Tom and he began an affair with Anna, the woman who is now his new wife.  And so Rachel who is now a full blown alcoholic aimlessly rides the train each morning to London and rides it back home each evening because she has told her roomate Cathy that she still has a job when in reality she was fired a few months back.  

But the daily train ride for Rachel has become something she looks forward to, a source of excitement in her life because one of the train stops looks out on her old house where Tom now lives with Anna.  Rachel is obsessed not so much by Tom and Anna anymore but rather the attractive young couple who live a few doors down.  Rachel doesn't know them but she can see their patio from the train.  She has named them Jason and Jess and as Rachel tells us: : 

"Jess is often out there in the mornings, especially in the summer, drinking her coffee.  Sometimes, when I see her there, I feel as though she sees me, too.  I feel as though she looks right back at me, and I want to wave.  I'm too self-conscious. I don't see Jason quite as much, he's away alot with work. But even if they're not there, I think about what they might be up to.  Maybe this morning they've both got the day off and she's lying in bed while he makes breakfast, or may they've gone for a run together because that's the sort of thing they do".  

Rachel is not jealous of Jason and Jess.  Quite the contrary.  She is kind of in love with them and likes to think about the wonderful life they have planned.  But then one morning from her train window Rachel spots Jess on the patio in a romantic embrace with another man.  Rachel is devastated and hurt. How could Jess cheat on Jason ike this and she feels a kinship with Jason since she knows what being cheated on feels like.  And so Rachel decides to go to Jason and Jess' house on a Saturday evening when Jess is out and inform Jason about his wife's infidelity. 

It's a very bad idea of course and the next morning Rachel wakes up with an injury to her head, some blood on her clothes, and no memory of the Saturday night before since she was in an alcoholic blackout.  A day later Rachel is readiing the paper and learns the real name of Jess and Jason.  They are Scott and Megan Hipwell and the newspapers are reporting that Megan went missing the night Rachel went to Scott's house to warn him.  The police find Megan's body a few days later and it's now a homicide.  

So what happened?  Who killed Megan?  And will Rachel's memory of that night return to provide answers?   There is more than one suspect and I was kept guessing throughout the book and most important for me the ending was satisfying, even hopeful.   

I would say that how you feel about The Girl On the Train will hinge on how you feel about Rachel.  Some will be exasperated but I was drawn to her.  People suffer disappointments in life and sometimes they can't pull themselves together.  And in the case of Rachel to give herself something to look forward to she imagined an ideal life for a beautiful young couple only to discover she didn't know them at all.   I highly recommend The Girl On the Train 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Journey by Mary Oliver

Normally I don't read poetry but I have been thinking about taking the Ray Bradbury Challenge where you read a short story, a poem and an essay each day.  And so in searching for a poem to read I found The Journey by the award winning poet Mary Oliver and  I wanted to share: 

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-Mary Oliver,