Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented – Thomas Hardy (1874)

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I started this read thinking that I hadn’t read it before, but in actuality, I’ve now read it twice, once in school about thirty years ago (but I have no hope of ever remembering that), and once a few years ago when I blogged about it on JOMP.  However, despite my gappy memory, I still enjoyed this read this time around, picking up on different aspects as I went through it again.

Hardy is not typically thought of as a “happy” read, but Tess is not too tragic – at least in my opinion. It’s not happy, that’s true – but I think if you view the narrative arc through the lens of a Victorian reader (especially a female middle class Victorian reader), Tess is certainly one of the more flawed characters, having a checkered less-than-spotless past.

At the same time, she is such a good person that, with modern eyes and a modern sensibility, it’s hard to see the objections that some readers in the nineteenth century came up with. (Sorry – ending with a preposition there.)  

Not much to say that hasn’t been reported before, did find this little nugget for you from Goodreads:

The term cliffhanger is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. In the novel, Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.

Other Hardy reviews on JOMP are here:

Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy (1872)

Far From the Madding Crowd  Thomas Hardy (1874) (earlier review)

Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy (1891)

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The Nether World – George Gissing (1889)

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The Nether World is a Victorian perspective on the underground world of those mired in poverty and for whom there is little to no way out of their precarious situations. It’s not a happy read at all, and in fact, it’s rather hard to keep going at times as the sheer grind of hopelessness and filth never ever ends. However, I imagine that this is a more realistic depiction of how life was for the Victorian underclass of London and other large cities. Dickens also covered these lives of the unlucky masses, but at least he would tip the scales every now and then with some levity. Gissing – not so much.

It’s also a tale of intrigue covering, as it does, the possibility of inherited wealth from an elderly man, but as immediate wealth tends to do, it leads to unhappiness for many of those who believe that they may be in line to receive it. The world that Gissing’s characters inhabit is unrelenting in its tough life for each of the characters; there is no future to look forward to, just the day-to-day needs of food, water, and a roof over your head, and despite how grinding these descriptions were, I think it was actually these pictures that pulls you as the reader into the lives of these unfortunate people. Most of the characters have not done anything to deserve these hard lives – it was just an unlucky twist of birth and geography that seems to have thrown the majority of the people into these situations.

Still, despite the oppressiveness of this lack of resources, families still stick together (not always happily), and most people work and continue to live their lives even if they do end up living at the bottom of the financial pile with few options to escape out of their worlds.

Gissing was a naturalistic writer (i.e. didn’t sugar-coat things and has a strong sense of location), and this is demonstrated by the way that the entire book is set in this dark poor world. No one escapes to the world of money. People dream of doing so, but their dreams end up thwarted, and I imagine that this POV echoes reality of the time: how does someone born into poverty escape it without getting money for education, useful work experience, knowing the right people? (Not so different from nowadays, one could argue…)

As a rather long book for me (404 pages), this title clearly falls into the Scary Big Book category but as I have learned to read huge-page-count projects on my ancient Kindle (as opposed to a physical copy), it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it might have been. (I tend to get rather intimidated by large page numbers – not by the content, just the numbers. Nutty, I know.) If I’m honest though, I must admit that the middle bit was rather b-o-r-i-n-g and the number of characters was a bit confusing at times. Uncertain whether to blame the author or me about that!

So – a rather glum read overall. I’ve read other Gissing’s (New Grub Street and The Odd Women), but I think I might be done with him now…

Catch Up Time

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Just wanted to do a catch-up post so that I could mention some things that I’ve been reading. These are still good reads, but just didn’t merit a huge detailed review of the experience. As I mentioned, they’re still good (for the most part).

The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide (2014)book366

Slightly strange slight novel about a young couple who live in a house where a neighborhood cat drops by with some regularity. As the (glacial) pace of the narrative continues, the couple become fond of their guest cat, but the whole thing is written with such surgical distance that it was rather difficult for me to become glued to the story. I’m not sure if it was me or the book, but this was a toughie to enjoy.

Leaf – Daishu Ma (2015)

book367A wordless graphic novel that has a narrative that’s very open to interpretation. The arc follows a young person who lives in a rather stark black and white world (illustrations are great, btw) where the only color comes from a few blue lights that stand out in the darkness. And then one day, he finds a large yellow glowing leaf and the remainder of the narrative is focused on trying to find out more about the leaf.

It’s a fairly simple message and yet so open to interpretation that the meaning could be different from one reader to the next. I’m on the edge about books with a message this diluted: does that narrative have enough meaning in the end or is the author/artist expecting the reader to do much (too much?) of the heavy lifting? It’s an interesting thought to pursue.

I’m probably making much more of it than it’s intended, but it would be interesting to read this and then hear how others from very different backgrounds (socio-economic, cultural, heritage, age) may interpret it. Is it a message similar to The Lorax (Seuss) or is it something else?

book363And I really enjoyed Oliver Twist, but didn’t have enough time in the end to get a proper post about it. However, don’t let that deter you. It’s a brick of a book (go me!) and is worth every page. I just adore Dickens’ writing and sense of humor.

And now I’m back at work which is a mixed bag of blessings: I enjoy it and yet it’s hard to beat three weeks of total messing around. But you know – at least I have a job I enjoy so if I do need to spend a lot of my time doing something, this ain’t too bad. 🙂

Aurora Floyd – M. E. Braddon (1863)

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Mary Elizabeth (M. E.) Braddon was a prolific writer (approx. 90 (!) books between 1860 and 1915) and her output consisted of plays, poetry, essays, novels and a number of literary magazines. She had also been an actress in her earlier days, an experience which is said to have helped with her sensation novels published later. (Both Lady Audley’s Secret [1862] and Aurora Floyd [1863] were wildly popular, so much so that certain groups were threatened by her writing and she was criticized as a “purveyor of immoral fiction.”)

Sensation novels were a literary trend in Victorian times usually characterized by mystery, strong passions and opinions (unseemly at the Victorian time) and intricate plotting, all of which are there in large quantities during Aurora Floyd. (See here for a review of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.) If you know to expect over-the-top everything going in, it’s a great ride for the reader. It’s a roller coaster ride which speeds along and then ambles in places, but it’s always enjoyable.

The novel spins its tale of murder, intrigue and family over three volumes (at least in my Kindle copy) – this sounds long, but it’s a fast experience as a reader. It’s a fun tale of Gothic romance, incredible coincidences and massive amounts of overwriting, but it worked.

The plot involves the titular Aurora Floyd, the young beautiful daughter of a rich widower in northern England who married a ne’er-do-well husband in her early years, a decision that comes back to haunt her and that involves blackmail, secret-keeping, and loads of money. (You can just feel the frisson that was felt by well-bred Victorian ladies reading this behind their fans in the drawing room on a rainy Monday while their husbands checked the Stock Exchange numbers.)

Typical of sensation novels, Braddon runs a lot of different lines of plot throughout this read, but as each string is added one after another and then linked back, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (“Dickensian” was the way that I’d describe this although this was much more Mills and Boon without delving into the hard-hitting social issues quite so much at all.)

ME Braddon in her younger years

I enjoyed it also as a look into the world of domestic life slap in the middle of Victorian times, for a look at rural vs city life, and also to see how slow and difficult murder investigations must have been before the inventions of cars, telephones, forensic evidence and the internet.*

It’s a fun read, and one that I kept returning to before, during, and after vacation, so it obviously kept my attention and interest. If you’re in the mood for anything Gothic, murder, fainting heroines, black mail, and dastardly husbands, you would probably enjoy this. It’s nothing too deep, but it’s a fun read and I recommend it.

(*Slightly relevant historical side note: The concept of professional police (as opposed to private paying for whoever was willing to do it) was officially introduced in England by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. His work led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 which established a full-time professional and centrally-organized police force for greater London are known as Metropolitan Police. By the 1850’s, police forces were established nationally across England, Scotland and Wales.

Peel had this philosophy based on “The police are the public and the public are police” (or “policing by consent” as it’s known in UK circles). These “Peelian Principles”, as they are known and upon which an ethical police force are based, are as follows:

  • Every police officer should be issued an identification number to assure accountability for his/her actions
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount (thus the idea of “policing through consent”)

(Interesting aside #1: UK police used to have a height requirement for all applicants: at least 5 ft. 10 inches until 1960. [Ah-ha: That’s why Dixon of Dock Green was so imposing…] This was not removed until 1990 when minimum height requirements were dropped. The shortest recorded UK police officer is PC Sue Day of Wiltshire Police at 4 ft. 10 inches.)

Well then. Now you know these things….

(One more slightly interesting aside #2, this time related to the book: There is a 1912 American silent movie of Aurora Floyd which was quickly followed by another US version in 1915. And if you were alive in 1863, you could have seen a stage version in London whilst BBC Radio 4 did a radio version with Colin Firth called A Cold Embrace in 2009 if anyone caught that. Luckily, no one has attempted to do a version only doing mime just yet.)

DixonofDockGreen (Above) This is Dixon, of the TV show “Dixon on Dock Green” which was on the BBC from 1955-1976 and featured the daily life at a London police station.

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these type of posts, and it’s high time for another one and a good tidy up all around, don’t you think?

So – been working. (Still pretty demanding, but I enjoy it.) Been working out. Been reading some and “falling asleep whilst I’m reading” some. (This is a new skill that I’m crafting, but it’s just because I’m pretty busy at the moment.)

book351Finished off a fun quick read of Agatha Christie’s “Sad Cypress” – I am thinking that it’s hard to go wrong with a Christie especially when you’re looking for a read where everything gets nice and tidied up at the end with a lovely cup of tea. I’m starting to see the attraction of the Cozy Mystery genre now.

book342I’ve been mentioning my read of “Saddlebags for Suitcases” by Mary Bosanquet (1942) for ages without actually reviewing it. Sorry about that, but here it is. This was an equine travelogue (who knew there was a sub-genre for that?) which was written just before the outbreak of WWII and from the perspective of a young privileged woman who decides to ride across Canada on horseback. She’s able to do this through her parents’ generosity, combined with the generosity and hospitality of people she meets along the way. It seems that, back in the 1930’s, no one had written about riding across this huge (and wild in places) country from a female perspective, and so Bosanquet wanted to change that. She also really didn’t have anything else to do: she had finished up school, she wasn’t married, she was already out in the social circuit with not a lot going on, no job or responsibilities, her parents could financially support her… So why not?

I started this read thinking it was going to be the Paris Hilton of female adventuring but ended up being pleasantly surprised that this author had a good sense of humor, understood her privilege and appreciated it. This really was a pretty hard journey to make at that period of time so it’s not anything to sneeze at.

The tale takes us from west to east and takes more than a year to complete (as she lay over in the winter months at a friendly home on her way), and she embraces her hardships and joys along the way.

It was more of a lark than a serious trekking project, and so this attitude is reflected in how she really doesn’t seem to worry that much if things go a bit awry. Her parents would have been able to financially rescue her should she have needed that, a fact that doesn’t take away from her accomplishment of being the first female (white) horse-rider to record her journey, but it does rather remove the element of fear from it. And you know, thinking about it, I’m pretty sure the First Peoples in Canada had done the trek before, but just hadn’t written it down for a book publication deal. Sigh.

This was ok, started well but then went on a bit. I think you may need to be really into horses to appreciate this one, but I’m glad I read it as I was looking, as previously mentioned, for a female adventure memoir of some kind.

book356 In the meantime, I’m reading a fun sensation novel by Victorian novelist M. (Mary) E. (Elizabeth) Braddon called “Aurora Floyd”. Braddon was the author of “Lady Audley’s Secret” which was another sensation novel, but good one, and it’s the same in this case as well. “Aurora Floyd” involves a beautiful women with a mysterious background and history, more horses, rigid class division, and overwriting the likes of which is hard to find. (Very typical of sensation novels of the time, and if you take it with a grain of salt, pretty entertaining.) It’s also running into three volumes which is a surprise to me, but that’s ok. It’s still good reading.

Braddon is also one of the most literary writers I have ever read (apart from the current read detailed below). She mentions lashings of literary references, most of which I’m not familiar with and therefore probably don’t see the clever links between the plot and the refs, perhaps. However, she is fairly light-handed with these refs and to be honest, it does fit in with the over-writing of the time.

book355 The other book I’m reading (and almost finished) is the more recent “Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine, the story set in Lebanon and from the view point of an old and rather crusty woman who has worked in a bookstore in Beirut for years and now is struggling to live her life with as few obligations, familial and otherwise, as she can. Her years in the bookshop mean that she is also chockfull of literary references (mostly obscure to me, I’m afraid, but interesting all the same). I did feel massively under-read at times, but goodness gracious me – who would know all these refs off the top of your head (apart from the author)? Don’t let that put you off though. This is a thoughtful and literate read.

So — I’m reading away and enjoying life. Can’t really ask for more than that, can you?

American Notes for General Circulation – Charles Dickens (1842)

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This volume does not seem as well-known as Dickens’ other works, but despite its low profile, this was one of the funniest and most enjoyable reads that I’ve had this summer (and certainly from amongst my reads of other Dickens’ titles). (Not that I am a Dickens scholar of any kind…)

Dickens had already become a publishing sensation when he arrived on American shores, having successfully published The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickelby, and then immediately upon his return to England, the release of A Christmas Carol. And so, in terms of the times, Dickens was a publisher’s dream and somewhat of a superstar. His trip was not going to be unnoticed by any means, despite what he writes in the pages of American Notes. (There is extremely little mention of crowds or readings or any of the other trappings of a celebrity visit, although in other sources, he does mention getting tired of the crowds around him at times and not being able to blend in when he travels.)

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

So – to the trip. It was Dickens’ first trip to America and he travels across the Atlantic by boat (along with his wife and probably some unmentioned servants). As the sea goes by, Dickens writes some of the most entertaining descriptions of the other passengers and the significant travail it was to remain in good spirits during this slow progress. (Brownie Guide’s honor: His writing is as entertaining as Bill Bryson during this step of the voyage.) (Compare this to his description of the ship journey on the way home at the end of the trip: likes horses heading back to the stables, my friend.)

Once reaching land, Dickens and his entourage embarked at Boston to large crowds and then traveled mostly down the East Coast with an occasional foray into the Great Lakes area of both the U.S. and Canada. (Dickens adored Niagara Falls, btw, calling it (poor paraphrase here) the closest place on Earth to heaven. Along the way, he made a point of visiting public institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals, and hospitals for the disabled (including the Perkins Institute where Helen Keller went later on).

Due to Dickens’ hard childhood, he was passionate about the underclass and was continually on the hunt for any institutions that were effective and kind (such as the Perkins Institute above). However, for the majority of his visits, he found the prisons and mental hospitals to be inhuman, filthy and cruel. Additionally, he was very critical of how absolutely filthy many of the large cities were, and gives an extremely entertaining description of Washington D.C.:

As Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.

Americannotes-title_pageHis description of the U.S. Congress meeting that he attended (and the numerous other gatherings) where the gentlemen in the building were spitting their tobacco juices (right word?) all over the floor whether there was a lovely carpet down there or a spittoon available two inches away, was both very funny and disgusting (perhaps because people still do this to an extent in Texas and other places and it’s still vile.)

However, it’s not all fun and games as Dickens writes seriously at times about the issues that he cares about – the justice system, slavery, poverty et al. Although some of these more serious chapters may be pretty heavy-handed, that was the Victorian way and Dickens was slap in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. (According to Wiki, the young Queen Victoria apparently stayed up until midnight reading Oliver Twist and then kept some of her staff up as she wanted to discuss it further with someone! Just an FYI for ya.)

The book ends with a passionate call against slavery, and includes heart-rending excerpts from various American newspapers that Dickens had gathered on his travels, all detailing some of the horrible ways that slaves had been (and were treated). This trip to the U.S. was slap in the middle of slavery (especially in the lower states). The slave literature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave was published just a few years before whilst The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was released only a few years later, so Dickens was hitting the cause right as it was building up in the U.S.. (U.K. abolished slavery in 1833 whilst America sort of dragged its feet and didn’t do any real anti-slavery legislation until 1863 (with the Emancipation Proclamation) and 1865 with the 13th Amendment ending slavery in the U.S..) So — it would be a several decades until substantial legal change would be made for those who were victims of the slave trade.

What Dickens saw was the real thing with regard to slavery and he hated it. This last chapter is so full of passion to what something that Dickens sees as incredibly wrong that by the time you get to the end, you feel the power of his anger as well.

What was slightly weird was that the chapter before this one was a nice gentle round-up of his boat journey arriving back at Liverpool and how happy he was to see England again. I was all English summer roses and green rolling hills, and then BAM! There is a final chapter detailing quite a few reports of the heinous that individual slaves had suffered. So this anti-slavery chapter rather took me by surprise as I had thought the book was finished. Very powerful chapter though.

So this was a really good read and I found it to be an honest but respectful description of a fairly young nation and the people who lived in it. (It’s not all complimentary, but after having lived here for oodles of years, I would say that some of both the good and the bad still ring true in some cases and places — as they would anywhere, really.)

I enjoyed this travelogue immensely. It was also pretty interesting that I’d only just finished the 1939 book Saddlebags to Suitcases by Mary Bosanquet, also a travelogue by a Brit who travels across Canada on horseback. (More to come in the future on that one.) Both pretty funny looks at this side of the ocean and the Dickens especially is highly recommended. Truly funny.

Swabbing the Decks…

 

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Life has been a bit busy, and so, in an effort to get up to date, I’ve put together a few mini-reviews of what I’ve been reading – all good titles, but for one reason or another (usually time-related), I haven’t put together a long in-depth post for each of them.

book338Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (2010)

A fun reread piggybacked on to my read of Chris Hadfield’s astronaut guide (and in fact, Roach referred to Hadfield every now and then which I thought was interesting.) Roach’s was a good read as she delves into such random details about the space program and which NASA probably doesn’t want to address in any formal way.

Mars is 400M miles away so it takes years of packing and planning and training for any successful trip, and Roach dives down the different rabbit holes that come up during the course of that preparation. From what to eat in space to how your body changes in long-term assignments at the International Space Station, it’s all here. What do you do when you are in such close quarters with your other team members and there is no getting away when they’re bugging you to an extreme? How do you go to the bathroom when you’re up there? What is it like to be back on Earth and facing gravity after six months of floating around without? All each disparate topic seems to flow naturally from one to the next due to Roach’s careful structural writing.

Worf from Star Trek - an homage?

Worf from Star Trek – an homage?

One random note that I made concerned Star Trek and Worf (played by Michael Dorn), one of the Romulan characters on that show. Roach mentions that there really was a space food scientist called D. L. Worf. Nice guy if a bit nutty (he suggested that astronauts could eat specially treated paper for nutrition.) Additionally, he suggested using edible materials to make parts of the space shuttle (e.g. using sugar for the windows) and then astronauts would not have to worry about taking food to space with them, but could merely snap off a bit of the space shuttle for a nibble every now and then. (Worf was more about the nutritional content than the taste and texture, methinks.)

And I think that the Star Trek writers were doing a quick homage to earlier space researchers when they used the name Worf for this character. Hmm. Makes you wonder what else you’re missing in the series, doesn’t it?

Roach is insatiably curious and as tenacious as a bulldog in following a topic through to its resolution. And yet she seems so charming and I would love to know her in real life. (We saw her give a talk on campus one year – she was fascinating and very approachable.) So – basically, I am one of Mary Roach’s biggest fans and thoroughly enjoyed this read.

book337The Victorian Hospital – Lavinia Mitton (2002)

This was bought when we visited London’s Hunterian Museum (a medical museum linked with the Royal College of Surgeons), except this slim volume focused on various aspects of hospital and medical history during the Victorian era. I found it very interesting and took loads of notes, but reading over them now, I think they are fascinating only to a very small audience so I won’t force you to read them. Suffice to say that hospitals have come a long way since they were called “Gateways to Death.”

 

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (1986) book331

This was more of an experimental novel (more a novella) which describes in excruciating (but strangely fascinating) detail what the protagonist is thinking about as he returns from his lunch break and rides the escalator back to his office. The entire book occurs between him entering the office building after lunch and getting on the bottom of the moving staircase, and ends when he reaches his office desk on the second floor. Loaded with footnotes that get lengthier as the book proceeds, this is not a book for the faint-hearted (experimental-wise). However, I enjoyed it. I looked into Baker’s backlist, but it seems that he veered into the XXX-rated side of stories after this one. Maybe I’ll just stay with this title. 🙂

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)

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“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’—why my diary should not be interesting.”

Although this was a reread, it was a reread from A Long Time Ago and so it ended up being more or less a New Read in the end. And this was fine, as I loved this book. I know it was written in the late Victorian era, but it was so funny that I burst out laughing at times which led to some strange looks when I was on the elliptical at the gym. I couldn’t help myself though, and TBH, it was that funny to me that I can neither confirm nor deny that snorting out loud did occur in public.

Laurels House - the home of the Pooter family.

Laurels House – the home of the Pooter family.

This is a fictional diary of a lower middle-class man living on the outskirts of London, married with a grown-up son and a wife who loves him despite his flaws. (He doesn’t acknowledge these flaws though…) Charles Pooter is the diarist, and he lives a modest existence as a city clerk in an office where he’s been working for the past 20 years without much professional recognition, and he begins journaling as he secretly thinks that someone somewhere will publish his diary for its literary worth. He’s a nice guy, basically, but has some insufferable snobbish airs which stem only from his own personal social insecurity and not from malice.

Adult son William (and then later called Lupin) is rather a gadabout creature who drinks, gambles and makes somewhat brash decisions, but who receives the general adoration from his parents (which becomes somewhat tempered after Lupin movies in to his childhood home due to losing his job). Wife Carrie is portrayed as a sweet Victorian wife, but readers can see (through Mr. Pooter’s diary descriptions) that perhaps she is not quite as quiet and adoring of her husband as he writes. It’s all very farcical, but done in such a way that it’s fresh and still very very funny in parts.

Mr. Pooter’s diary chronicles about 15 months of his life and details his thinking about his life in London as a clerk and the sometimes hilarious social misfortunes that occur to him, typical things that happen to anyone but which, when they happen to Mr. Pooter, can completely shape his day and how he sees it. It’s a little bit like reading Basil Fawlty’s diary (if you remember that TV series). He does his best, but things consistently go wrong for him. Despite this, his family still loves him all the same.

(L-R) George and Weedom Grossmith, authors.

(L-R) George and Weedon Grossmith, authors.

Written by brothers and stage performers, Weedon and George Grossmith, this book was first published as a series of excerpts in Punch, and was popular precisely it skewered most of the typical routines of its audience and the increasing social expectations of a booming lower-middle and middle class. However, it wasn’t an instant hit, but its popularity grew over time and since it was first published, this title has never been out of print. It’s also been the influence of other fictional diaries that have since been published: Diary of Adrian Mole series (by Sue Townsend), Bridget Jones’ Diary series (by Helen Fielding) and in other media forms, there’s a clear influence of Mr. Pooter’s ilk on TV shows such as Fawlty Towers. Interestingly enough, Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) was given rave reviews for his time as Mr. Pooter in a 2007 BBC dramatization on BBC Four. I wonder if that’s available on-line somewhere… I’ll check in the future.

Suffice to say, this was a very fun read and I’m really glad that I picked it off the TBR shelf. Highly recommended. This will be added to my Epistolary Novels post for certain.

Random note: Speaking of Hugh Bonneville, anyone going to see the new Paddington movie?

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The Cricket on the Hearth and Other Christmas Stories – Charles Dickens (mid-1800’s)

book320I’d been interested in reading some Dickens for quite some time, but wanted to give “A Christmas Carol” a break. (Don’t want it to lose its special with too many readings.) So, wandering around the library shelves, I came across a small collection of three Christmas novellas that Dickens wrote in the mid-1800’s, all of which were originally published as books (not as a serial in a magazine, as I had thought before.) So – it was a cold night the other day and I snuggled in with Cowboy and a fire playing on the DVD player – one does what needs to be done to make it nice for oneself, yes?

cricket_playI have not read Dickens for quite some time, but I do enjoy his works. I just hadn’t heard of these stories before (apart from reading in a shopping catalogue that “all English homes have crickets on the hearth” when they were trying to pitch a small metal cricket in its wares.) They were really nice tales and very Dickensian full of characters with names like Mr. Peerybingle and Tilly Slowboy.

The first one, The Cricket on the Hearth, was written in six weeks and similar to “A Christmas Carol” in that it’s pretty domestic and divided into several small parts (these called “chirrups” instead of “staves”). “A Christmas Carol’ had been published two years before, and was the first of Dickens’ Christmas books (or so says Wiki), so there are some similarities. One notable difference between the two is that The Cricket… remains light and domestic, avoiding any mention of difficult or disturbing social issues. It’s also been argued this work is less Christian that his other Christmas books… (When this book was adapted for a play and played in Russia, Lenin reportedly walked out of the play calling it “too sentimental” (which is a valid criticism, but that’s what Victorians loved at the time so his contemporary audience would have been happy.)

One interesting note is that The Cricket… features a sight-impaired young woman at one point. In Victorian society, disabilities were believed to be inherited, and thus it was not generally socially acceptable for people with disabilities to marry anyone. Writers of the time tended to utilize disabled characters as tools to build tension in a narrative arc as it was assumed that they must be kept from falling in love and then getting married. This character is also thought to have been based on a true life girl that Dickens met in the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, MA, and who is mentioned in his American Notes work. (Just out of curiosity, has anyone read this? What did you think?

Christmas card from the 1880’s.

Christmas card from the 1880’s.

The next novella in the collection was called The Holly-Tree and is a fairly straight-forward narrative of what happens when one character is stuck at an inn when he is traveling from London to Liverpool one winter – a long way in those days. (This is a very snuggly tale if you’re looking for one.) Nothing too deep and meaningful (the usual redemption model), but very well written and just fun to read.

(An aside here that I dug up on-line was in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a group of restaurants called the Holly Tree Inns which operated as non-profits, serving meals (but not liquor – the drink of the devil!) and focused on reaching working women who wanted “substantial food at cost prices” – all funded by the wife of a large Boston publisher who, it is thought, heard Dickens read The Holly-Tree story and was touched by the “warm relationships that cross class divisions”.)

And then the final novella in this collection was The Haunted House (1859) which has an interesting history behind it. It’s called a portmanteau story (and thus, in this case, refers to a story with multiple parts), and for this one, Dickens wrote the starting and the ending chapters (stories, really) with other stories by other authors in between (authors such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell); however, only the Dickens’ authored stories were in this collection that I read. So – basically, this is a Victorian haunted house set up. A small group of friends all stay there for a while to find out if it’s really haunted or not (very similar to a Scooby Doo episode), and at the end, they all get together on Twelfth Night to share their experiences.

Again, a pretty easy going straightforward narrative, but still fun to read if you’re in a Dickens mood. (And, in case you’re interested, “The Haunted House of 1859” is/was? one of the attractions at Dickens World in Chatham, Kent. Does anyone know if this place is still open? I heard that they went into bankruptcy earlier this year… Or even better – has anyone ever been??

Credit unknown (but if anyone does know, just let me know and I’m happy to fix that.)

Credit unknown (but if anyone does know, just let me know and I’m happy to fix that.)

Catch-Up Time…

catch_up

This is one of those general catch-all blog posts to round up all the other parts of my life which have been happening at the same time as my reading. (And some of this will be reading-related, but I’m afraid it’s been a bit slow going lately.)

I’m reading a Victorian read – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – which I am loving and seems perfect for this time of year. Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the characters, and some of them are hilarious in how awful they are. (Not the actual writing itself, but how the characters each present themselves through telling their story.)

It all revolves around the disappearance of a huge diamond (the Moonstone of the title), and Collins has done a really good job of presenting those involved as they give their version of events. I think this could count as an epistolary novel in some ways, but whether it does or not, I am really enjoying it. Just a bit dense and not a book to fly through. It’s also 528 pages (which I’ve only just found out), but as I’m reading it on-line, I’m not too freaked out by that. (I have a history of slightly freaking out at large page numbers in books. See Scary Big Books (SBB) for details of a project that tried to address that.)

Tea in the garden circa 1905

Tea in the garden in some tropical clime. (Source: ??)

I’ve also been reading a coffee table non-fiction book called “Out in the Noonday Sun” by Valerie Pakenham. Having a title taken from the old Kipling verse – “Mad dogs and English men out in the noon day sun” – this book is a readable delve into the lives of those Edwardians (mostly men of course) who chose (or were forced) to join the diplomatic and other services to support and move forward the ongoing territorial “Scramble” for Africa, India and the East. (I say “were forced” to go because some of these men had done some bad behavior at their school or home (like debts, drinking, etc.) and their families pushed them into the foreign service to get rid of them mostly. If their hijinks continued, at least it wouldn’t make the London papers.)

So, again, this book is another slow reader, but mostly interesting. (It’s hard to understand how entitled a lot of these people were, but them were the times, I suppose.)

Outside reading, life has been very damp and wet which is remarkably unusual for this semi-arid region. It was cool and rainy for about three weeks and probably rained almost every day. People were calling our region the “Seattle of the South” because there was so much rain, and I really enjoyed the change from the summer heat. We even had a mushroom growing in the garden. (That wet.)

Credit: KCBD-TV.

Flooding in Lubbock, TX, recently. Credit: KCBD-TV.

Having been born and raised in England, I love rain, and so got to thinking about how the rain in UK and the rain here in Texas compare. I boiled it down to the idea that the rain in England is much more “polite” – it’s a gentle rain (with a bit of heavy in between) and sort of coughs and says “Excuse me, I’m going to rain all day if that’s all right with you…” Here in Texas, the rain is much more “rude”, if you will. It comes down hard (flooding is pretty common), it comes down loudly (hard and big rain drops), and it’s very in-your-face for the (mostly) short time that it’s falling. It seems quite rare that Texas gets a nice polite steady gentle rainfall compared to England. (Now the rain might be quite different in other parts of the state, but around here, I think this metaphor is pretty accurate.)

balloon-fiestaSpeaking of weather, I’m getting ready for a trip to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival taking my English mum along with me for the ride.  Looking forward to some lovely times and some fantastic photo-taking of the balloons. The colors can be fantastic in the mornings when the balloons first take off and at dusk when the balloons glow.

And, music-wise, I’m counting down to the upcoming Cher concert! I know – Cher’s old, blah blah blah – I get it. However, Cher is a consummate concert-giver and the last concert I saw her is definitely in my Top Five Favorite Concerts Ever. Her costumes (and the number of different ones) are amazing. Plus her voice is still spectacular. Looking forward to it.

cherpix