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Back to the Classics #3 – North and South

North and South

A Classic Written by a Woman

‘Edith!’ said Margaret, gently, ‘Edith!’

But, as Margaret half suspected, Edith had fallen asleep. She lay curled up on the sofa in the back drawing-room in Harley Street, looking very lovely in her white muslin and blue ribbons. If Titania had ever been dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons, and had fallen asleep on a crimson damask sofa in a back drawing-room, Edith might have been taken for her. Margaret was struck afresh by her cousin’s beauty.

I was somewhat nervous to read this novel, but I suppose I have been with all of the books on this list so far – that’s why they’re on the list!  I had heard a lot of comparing and contrasting of this book with the work of Jane Austen (whom I adore!) and arguments for the various merits of both.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but what I got was extremely satisfying.

Margaret Hale is a young woman who has grown up living with her cousin and acting as a companion towards her.  When her cousin gets married, she must return to living with her parents.  Upon returning, her father, who is a minister, has a crisis of faith in the church – he disagrees with something (we’re never sure what) that the church is doing and believes it is contrary to his actual religious beliefs.  The family moves to a fictional industrial town (based on Manchester) in order to escape any reminder of their former way of life.  Here, Mr Hale becomes a tutor, and Margaret must come to terms with the change in her social class and surroundings, particularly when she becomes involved with the local people.  These include a poor family who live nearby, and the owner of one of the many factories, Mr Thornton.

This was an excellent study of social class at the time of writing.  Its very direct in its addressing these themes, unlike Austen, and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths about the way people like Margaret (and her extended family later in the book) look, not only at poor people, but at self-made business people.  I’m writing this on the day of the birth of another royal baby, and it is clear that this is a divide that still exists in British society, though in a much different way from Gaskell’s time.  It’s not just money, it’s how you make it. This aspect of the story can be a little heavy handed but overall I think it’s well addressed for the time, and while I obviously don’t agree with everything or even much of her conclusions, it’s definitely a lot more progressive than I would have expected for its time.

There is, unsurprisingly, a religious vein that runs through the core of this book.  I was less happy about this aspect of the book, not because I don’t believe, but because I felt it was extremely clunky and kept taking me out of my immersion in the story.  For example, the character of Beth, the pious, poverty-stricken, invalid, is not only a cliche (even for the time) but absolutely vomit inducing.  I get the idea Gaskell was going for, but she laid it on far too thickly and I think it could have been done in a more convincing and subtle way (not that much about this book is subtle, but that certainly was a standout!)  Margaret’s not-infrequent religious outbursts seemed unnatural and at odds with the otherwise less-than-pious aspects of her character – I thoroughly believed in her belief, as it were, but I didn’t believe in her suddenly, almost unbidden, making these religious pronouncements when that wasn’t even what the conversation was about in the first place.

Then there’s the love story.  That was definitely a successful aspect of the book for me.  I can see the flaws – she does rather seem to jump from being antagonistic towards Thornton to having more positive feelings about him, but I don’t really care.  I also liked that his “rival” wasn’t completely vile and repulsive, just clearly not the right person for Margaret – though I feel that he had the potential to be, which is much more realistic than some of the absolutely terrible potential suitors you find in 19th century literature.   The last 100 pages in particular were a joy to me, and I was so glad about the way they came together in the end.

There are a lot of tragic elements in this book.  It’s amazing just how many people seem to die around Margaret, to the extent that, if I were Thornton, I would be extremely worried about my mortality!  I thought that perhaps her mother’s death was a little long and drawn out; however, in retrospect, that does reflect the reality of having an illness like cancer, so perhaps I was being a little judgmental. Other things that happen later in the book seem perhaps a little convenient in terms of allowing the plot to converge at a certain point, but it’s hard to discuss without spoilers and ultimately it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the novel.

I’d certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys 19th century literature.  Ultimately, I think it’s only Austen-esque in that it was written by a woman and deals with social class issues in a not dissimilar time period.  The prose is great and while it does have some awkward and clunky moments, both thematically and in plot, I don’t see them getting in the way of the riches of character that this has to offer. I give North and South eight and a half out of ten.

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Back to the Classics #2 – East of Eden

East of Eden

A 20th Century Classic

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I was not expecting to love this as much as I did.

I always find it difficult to review the classics.  I partially feel like everything has been said that there is to say about them.  I also feel like my reviews aren’t “deep” or critical enough to really say anything of value.  But I’ll give it a go anyway.

I didn’t have a great impression of John Steinbeck going into this.  My mum had read Grapes of Wrath and absolutely loathed it,  which coloured my opinion of him somewhat.  Then I considered reading Of Mice and Men, admittedly because it’s short, but spoiled myself for it and was put off entirely, not because of the fact that I was spoiled, but because of the content of the spoilers – what happens in that book made me feel like he was writing misery for misery’s sake and I’m totally turned off by that.  However, Craig had read East of Eden and thought I would enjoy it, so I put it on my list of things to give a go this year.

I’m so glad I did.  If you don’t already know, East of Eden chronicles the lives of two families in a remote part of California (although one of them does not begin there) and how their lives unfold over the course of two or so generations.  As per the title, the book is chock full of biblical allegory, and the characters inner lives are often depicted in terms of a struggle between the good and evil inside them, and whether these qualities are inherent and indefatigable, or somewhat learned and malleable.

Something about this story won me over entirely.  It has its problems – the female characters are not as well drawn as the male.  Cathy, as much as I enjoyed her wickedness, is a complete caricature of a particular kind of evil woman that seems to be a trope in literature, especially that written by men.  I don’t really go into a lot of classic literature by men expecting to find realistic or fair depictions of women – and certainly the other women in this were better, despite being a little one-dimensional.  I’m glad Cathy was in the book, and I appreciate both some of the reasoning behind her actions, and the thematic role that she is intended to take in proceedings, I just wish she had been given even a touch more light and shade.

There are, however, some excellently drawn characters in here.  I was given a very clear picture of Sam Hamilton and his sprawling Irish family. I’m glad they were in the book – as someone from an Irish Catholic background they were a great “anchor” for me in a tale that largely takes place in a time and location with which I am not terribly familiar.  His story was so lovingly detailed, and I really felt invested in the direction that it takes.  The Trask family were sometimes harder to get along with, but I felt by the time Caleb and Aron were older their story really came into its own and the last hundred pages had me absolutely gripped.  I was an emotional mess by the end!

The thing you have to accept going into this book is that the actual events of the story are somewhat unrealistic, and there definitely is a slight feeling of Steinbeck writing his characters to fit the overarching theme of the narrative, but to my mind this doesn’t stop the reader becoming emotionally invested in this story.  I can imagine for some people it might spoil the enjoyment, but I felt that I once I acknowledged this was happening, I could concentrate on the other aspects of the novel with that sort of held in the back of my mind.

I would heartily recommend this book.  I can see myself revisiting it time and again, and I’ll definitely be trying some other Steinbeck on the basis of my enjoyment of this (though I’m still not going to read OMaM!)  I give East of Eden ten out of ten.

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I aten’t dead, part 2: still aten’t dead

So, some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been around in nearly three months.  There’s a couple of reasons for this.  I started work at a new job in the office where I’ll eventually begin the last stage of my legal training.  I’ll be working there until mid-June.  I also had a rather bad relapse of my anxiety.  This hasn’t finished – in fact, part of what is keeping me going is coming to accept that this is something I have to actively work to guard against as opposed to keeping saying in my head “la la la la everything will be fine and this will never happen again!!!”

So there’s that.

I also had a bit of a reading slump in February as you’ll see from my list on my Read in 2015 page.  I couldn’t get into any of the stuff I was reading, and I dnf-ed a couple of books that I had really expected to like, or even love.  After reading All the Bright Places I was in a pretty stinking mood.  Between all of that, and Terry Pratchett’s passing, there were about six really bad weeks from mid-February onwards, and I wasn’t in any mood to be blogging.

However, I’m now feeling a lot better and ready to be at least somewhat creative again!

I have draft reviews written for the three Official TBR Challenge books I’ve read, as well as the two Back to the Classics challenge books I’ve read on top of Emma.  I’m also 100 pages away from the end of Madame Bovary and should finish it tonight.  I’m on target with both of those challenges despite not posting! I’ll have those full reviews up over the course of this week and next week.

In terms of the Shelf Love challenge, I’m doing reasonably well.  I’ve only bought 4 paper books, and I’m (just) under my ebook spending challenge too! I’ve read 19/20 paper books (depending on how you count Gormenghast, as I’m not finished Titus Alone yet) and I’m on a good roll of reading through my unread paper books at the moment.  My plan is to only read paper books until I go on holiday on 15 June (to Berlin!).  I’ve also split this challenge down a bit, and have divided my paper books down in to those which belong to series, and those which don’t.  I’m reading through the non-series ones first, and it’s working really well.  I’ve been picking out five books at a time, and not picking the next five until I’ve either finished those or decided I can’t finish them.

So that’s where I’m at!  I’m going to go through my newsfeed now and also queue a couple of posts.  I’m hoping to be all caught up by the end of next week.  If anyone’s still reading this, thanks for sticking around.  I’m looking forward to book blogging hopefully from here on out!

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Review #2 – Emma (Back to the Classics – 19th Century Classic)

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Dates: 3 January – 23 January

TL,DR: Mr Knightley still > Mr Darcy.  Discuss.

Firstly, this is my first book that I have read for the Back to the Classics challenge: a 19th Century Novel.

Let me just get this out of the way:  I love Jane Austen.  I’ve read all of the major novels.  I’m not an expert or anything, and I haven’t read much in the way of the juvenalia or Sanditon or anything, but it’s telling that I would have a hard time ranking five of those six novels in any sort of sensible order.  This one, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are probably my favourites, but I don’t have an order in which I could sensibly put them.  Then Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey sort of bounce around somewhere below that – they both have things I mildly dislike but I don’t think I’d go so far as to find actual fault in them.  I loathe Mansfield Park but that’s down to me just plain (probably unreasonably) hating the main character.

But if I had to pick one heroine that I identify the most with, for worse and for better, it’s Emma.

I feel like she’s got a bit of that “only-child” syndrome (despite not actually being one).  She’s headstrong, and self-assured, and like a lot of people, definitely thinks she could run other people’s lives better than they could.  Unlike Emma, I’m not comfortably wealthy (or, at least, I wasn’t brought up wealthy).  So my machinations have mainly been contained to complaining archly to my boyfriend.  But, I don’t know, there’s just something about me that loves Emma’s silliness, loves how she really does think she’s doing the right thing, and how she learns to finally actually do it.

Her relationship with Mr Knightley can seem a little bit weird to a modern audience.  He’s a bit older than her, and he can tend to be a bit paternalistic towards her.  What I liked about their relationship, though, and why I tend to be forgiving towards it, is that it has a naturalness and, in particular, an honesty which I felt was refreshing.  Mr Knightley is never double-faced to Emma (or at least not intentionally.  It’s arguable that his jealousy of Frank led him to criticise him more strongly than was necessary to Emma, but I’d wager that was not consciously done, as such).  He tells her what he thinks because he respects her enough to know that she can handle it.  In a lot of ways, he does actually treat her as an equal – he knows the upstanding kind of person she can be and he expects her to live up to that.  Mr Knightley would never be rude or sullen in the mode of a Mr Darcy.

One thing I enjoyed even more this time around was the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.  Because I was properly watching out for it this time, I noted a lot more of the clues from before Mr Knightley airs his first suspicions of the truth.  I enjoy Frank’s enthusiasms, even though they don’t always come from a place of sense.  And I like Jane a lot more than I did previously.  Also, this book has some of Austen’s best side characters – Mrs Elton is a particular treat.  She’s so excruciating that I couldn’t help but cringe every time she opened her mouth.

Emma has had several modernisations recently, including the Austen Project one I mentioned earlier, but probably more notably the Emma Approved series brought to you by Pemberley Digital, the Youtube channel that created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  It’s not as good as LBD – the characterisation and cast weren’t quite as on point – but it’s definitely worth a watch if you enjoy Austen and like modernisations of her work.  In particular, the actors who play Emma, Mr Knightley, and Frank, are really interesting, fun interpretations of what the characters could be in a modern day setting.  Harriet is a bit one note, and I had a strong dislike for their characterisation of Jane Fairfax, but I think that was mainly due to the slight change to the nature of her relationship with Emma which I felt made it deeply inappropriate for her to behave as she did.

There’s very little for me to say about this book that hasn’t been said already.  I’d encourage anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice to go here next.  Emma is a deeply flawed heroine, but I think that’s why I love and identify with her so much – even the most flawed of us can come good.  Even the most flawed of us can be loved.

I give Emma ten out of ten.