Howl’s Moving Castle & Possession

Firstly (yes I have been avoiding book blogging despite living in a cosy half-snowed in cottage with nothing to do but read and play with my kitten and husband — I wanted to get more reading in and have even started a bit of writing again! A Victorian Woman in White and Jane Eyre inspired story…)

Ahem, secondly: (yes, I’ve now finished Jane Eyre from last year and ended up loving it again. Phew. For a while I wasn’t sure about Mr. Rochester there, but he and Jane did bring a tear to my eye in the end and Charlotte Bronte is allowed back on my list of favourite authors, in fact I’m becoming quite taken with her and managed to acquire, from a grocery store no less since there is no decent bookshop in the nearest town, A Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, a historical novel about the Brontes! Move over, Jane Austen.)

So now it’s thirdly: just read Diana Wynne Jones already, you at the back who have not yet done so. I finally finally got around to Howl’s Moving Castle yesterday and hand on my heart, what a treat. I must of course thank Jenny enormously for the book recommendation, that got the book off the library shelf and into my hands a few weeks ago and yesterday into my brain, heart and many smiles too. It reminds me most of The Princess Bride (my favourite movie as a teenager), a funny fantasy with romance and wonderful adventures along the way. I loved the camaraderie of all the characters living in the castle together, Calcifer the talking fire demon, Michael the wizard’s apprentice, Howl the vain wizard himself (he’s in his bathroom several hours a day and always comes out smelling of flowers) and of course Sophie, who’s been bewitched to look like an old woman. I may have pulled a different Diana Wynne Jones book off the shelf at random last year and thought it a bit silly and odd too, but from the first sentence of this I was hooked:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

I’m also the oldest (of four luckily, one sister and then two brothers) and as a not-domineering oldest (honestly! My mother wouldn’t let me be!), I could so relate to Sophie and loved her journey of learning to have confidence in herself.

I’ve also reread Possession by A.S. Byatt, my first book of the year and finally got through all the pseudo-Victorian poetry that I only skimmed last time and while I enjoyed each part of the book, all the letters and biographies cramming lives of the mind from past and present together, I so wanted the present day story of the two scholars discovering a surprising literary secret about the poets they study to keep unfolding, that all the other stuff, the poems and so forth, were sometimes an unwelcome obstacle. The framing story of the scholars is written as a mystery and I love to fly through mysteries but then there was all this other stuff, invented primary sources about her two invented Victorian poets, that I had to stop for and wade and ponder through, before being able to get back to the flying Roland and Maud parts (I still like them better for reasons below, despite the more heightened romance of the older story). It was a bit annoying, even though I learned to appreciate the poems — really an amazing achievement of Byatt’s — this time around.

There’s so much to think about in Possession that I definitely took my time over it, as I say, the (err, sometimes long-winded?) primary sources out of the past, the diaries, letters and poems of her poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash and their friends and then all the fascinating secondary sources, bits of biographies and literary theories that now overlay them from the scholars’ perspective, seeing these Victorians through Freud, Lacan and lots of liberated sex.

Just in case, primary and secondary sources were terms used in my history classes to denote the material that’s actually from the past versus scholarly speculation about it since then, that builds up over time. You can see the difference between a novel of Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, actually written in the Victorian era versus a historical novel written about that time now, like Possession or The Crimson Petal and the White, which may be well researched but has a different feel, a more modern sensibility about the past. Then there’s also Charlotte Bronte’s poems and novels and letters versus Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her, which was still written in the Victorian time period, but is also a secondary source, with the necessary speculation and reputation boosting, about Bronte. But perhaps a primary source about Gaskell, hmm… Perhaps this is just a nerdy side-progression here, but I love how Byatt has used both forms to tell her story, creating a distinct voice for her Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash through his letters and poems and also creating another voice for his obsessively lost in the details biographer, instead of just telling it all in streamlined single authoritative point of view as most historical fiction does. It really shows how academics have to work, picking between the original writing of the person they’re studying and everything that’s been written about them since, gradually covering them in a plaster mold that hardens over time into certain unquestioned stereotypes — Jane Austen the fussy old maid, the Brontes wildly bounding over the moors. Byatt shows her Victorian characters fresh and alive in the moment and also stiff and stuffed inside the cultural labels they are later given, their literary remains slowly dissected or decaying. She reminds us that all these acclaimed biographies and theories are still only just speculation next to the real life once breathed.

I also liked the section of Christabel’s feminist fairy tale poem about Melusine, a fairy fish or serpent thing somewhat like a mermaid and who actually exists in mythology and wanted to be able to read more of Ash’s epic poem Ragnarök (inspired by Norse mythology, as were Lewis and Tolkien) as well. Even though it doesn’t exist outside of the sections A.S. Byatt wrote for him.

And I loved the echoes of Victorian fairy tales that continue to bounce around in the scholars’ world and the quieter love that develops between the modern day couple, in contrast to the passion of the past. I could so relate to Roland and Maud feeling absolutely overwhelmed by all of the sex that surrounds every aspect of our culture, even literature, and wanting to find a simpler connection with someone, that is meaningful but also gives them privacy, respect and calm without it being drenched in the cultural layers of passionate demands and analysis. She implies that our being so aware of sex and everything it can mean, every moment, can stiffen and mold us into mere sexual stereotypes as we are still living, we can become lost in analysis of every sort instead of creating art, something new and original, out of the mess of the subconscious. Byatt wonderfully juxtaposes the imaginary poets wanting to break free of society’s restraints to find passion with the modern academics who want to break free of society’s sexual madness to find something more personal.

They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language… They were theoretically knowing…

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a bench, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Bliss. I don’t have a white bed, but I do have a white view as the snow continues to come down in thick flakes.

Bits and bobs, as they say

Just a quick post this evening of a few bookish internet things, one I’ve been meaning to mention and another I just discovered today.

Along with various blogs devouted to Jane Austen and the Brontes, I was beginning to think there needed to be one for Elizabeth Gaskell. Well, Katherine of November’s Autumn (who also writes insightfully about Jane Austen) has already started one! So check out the Elizabeth Gaskell Blog, there’s information about her life and times with pictures of Victorian fashions and there’s a Cranford read-along starting soon too. I’ve already read Cranford this year, but if you haven’t, it is high time to do so as it’s absolutely adorable!

And today at a library staff meeting, I learned about a website called Which Book, which lets you pick a book based on the kind of experience you’re looking for: happy/sad, beautiful/disgusting, easy/demanding, etc and the books that come up are recent, but not excessively well known. I found a nice little list of new titles that I hadn’t heard of before and it’s fun to change the settings around to see what comes up next. You can also search for books by country, plot and character. I love learning about new books from book bloggers, but sometimes there starts to be a bit of repetition going on, so this site is definitely a breath of bookish fresh air.

I’ve been jumping around a lot with books this month and not finishing anything since reading The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman all in one evening a few weeks ago. I don’t tend to read a lot of new books, but it was comforting and interesting and had a great bookshop in it and a sweet romance and old books and a slight Jane Austen vibe mixed with some sensual moments, I quite enjoyed it and have since been longing to find something like it, that’s recent and somewhat literary, yet also not difficult, something that’s truly a joy to read. I keep bringing home various books from the library, tonight it’s Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, I don’t even know if I’ll try it or The Woman in Black by Susan Hill which various people have been mentioning lately as a great Halloween read or if I’ll even bother with an official Halloween read at all! It’s not really my favourite holiday so I never got around to signing up for the R.I.P. reading challenge and although I do like a good cosy mystery, I haven’t been in the mood for those lately either.

I’ve picked up Jane Eyre again despite my reservations and while it is gothic enough for the current season and I have enjoyed Mr. Rochester’s humour in a few places and I like Bronte’s writing, I’m not flying through it. Maybe it’s the old cheap edition I have, I try to read it in the bath so I can accidentally get it wet and justify getting a nicer copy (the edition I’d like to have is displayed on my sidebar) but so far my cheap self is not buying that…! I wanted to reread a few old favourites this fall as a comfort, but now I think I’m wanting the excitement of something new (and also something that’s not excessively dark or challenging to read).

My recent excitement over the Persephone Secret Santa gift exchange (I actually got a lump in my throat on thinking about all of us, without having met in most cases, still sharing this gift of beautiful books together) is making me wonder if I might have more success with Christmas themed reading and I’ve actually been thinking of perhaps hosting a small Christmas reading event/challenge. Would anyone be interested in such an idea? Is there one already? Maybe it’s a little early, but I already have books on Christmas baking and decorating out from the library and have begun complying a reading list to go along! Clearly it’s my preferred holiday.

Also, my husband has mostly recovered from his surgery now and is about to return to work soon. (He manages a bookstore at the Calgary Airport, if you’re ever passing through, and has even more books than me!) The other stress over the summer and fall was that we were planning to move by the end of the year, once he was well enough. Thankfully, we’ve decided to stay in Calgary. I tend to move around a lot, so it’s hard but also good for me to learn how to settle down in one place for a while. I’ve also been debating going back to university to get a Master’s degree in English (specializing in Victorian novels of course!) or whether to become a school teacher. Or for now I can take a university course here and there and continue working at the library, book blogging and reading in peace and maybe someday writing a novel.

Ok, so I rarely manage ‘just a quick post’ but these are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. If you have any recommendations for good new books that are cosy and well written, let me know! And I’d love to know what you think about a Christmas reading challenge or something like that.

Mr. Thornton vs. Mr. Rochester

My wrists are still somewhat sore (and yes, my left wrist started hurting too after having to do all the work while the right wrist took a vacation… it’s been a rather sorry time and then my heel started hurting again, as I broke a small bone in it this spring… I’ve been hobbling to my job at the library, however, hoping to find something to do that didn’t involve too much walking or too much moving of books or too much typing or too much eye strain since my eyes also are sensitive…. at least my internal organs are still all in good working condition!) but I am spilling over with book news nonetheless.

First off, I have developed a belated crush on those Penguin hardcover clothbound classics everyone has been raving about for a while. I’ve especially been eyeing the copy of Sense & Sensibility since I’m rereading it right now and my copy is getting quite ratty and this one has a blue background with pink flowers. I usually never (ever) like hardcovers, but these ones feel right somehow. And they also have an edition of Cranford! Also, the copy of Sense & Sensibility has two really interesting essays (or introductions or whatever) in the front and back of the book and you can read them, in their entirety, on Amazon with that whole handy click-to-look-inside feature. The essay at the end of the book is all about secrecy and sickness in the novel and it makes me want to read more commentary (or criticism) on Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve mostly avoided that in the ten plus years I’ve been loving her books because I wanted to have my own experience with them. I’ve avoided her biography too and most of her unfinished work and letters but that could change. It’s nice to have something still new by or about a favourite author.

Also Claire of The Captive Reader is perhaps influencing me? I finally read Wives & Daughters this year after hearing how much she loved it and eventually went on to more Elizabeth Gaskell, all of which I’ve enjoyed (I just finished North & South on the first of October, more of that in a bit).

She also told me she’s never liked Jane Eyre. I loved that book in my early 20s, so was rather shocked that it could be disliked, but then, dear reader. I started rereading it myself this year. First I found Jane’s childhood too depressing and had to stop for some pick-me-up Victorian mill worker strikes and romance and a ridiculous number of sudden deaths in the north of England (ie, North & South). Then I found… oh gosh. I found I didn’t like Mr. Rochester anymore. I was so looking forward to reading Jane’s romance (especially after putting myself through Villette earlier this year), but soon became very put out by the way Rochester manipulates Jane. They say they have a ‘natural sympathy’ with each other, fine they’re becoming friends, etc and then he flirts with another woman (uh spoiler?) to get Jane to care for him more, he hopes so much that she won’t care what the consequences are. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Jane Austen steadily (and yes, as a kind of moral guide in life) while only giving the Brontes the occasional nod, but I’m really not into that kind of thing anymore. This article in The Millions gives a pretty good run-down on why yes, Mr. Rochester is a Creep. (Although the crossdressing part doesn’t really bug me. Just the ‘romantic’ manipulation.) So that’s why I’ve left Thornfield Hall and gone back yet again to Barton Cottage and those sensitive, sensible Miss Dashwoods.

In comparison to Mr. Rochester, Mr. Thornton of North & South, although both are considered byronic heroes, is a much more admirable chap. He’s honest about his feelings, rough as they often are. He shows vulnerability, compassion, he wants to learn more about great literature, he gets mad and jealous, he’s determined as a bulldog… I really like all the feelings he shows, even if they are ‘negative’ feelings, he openly acknowledges having them. It’s very refreshing. Mr. Darcy, another one of those byronic types, is a little flat in comparison. And while Mr. Rochester shrouds himself in mysterious self pity, he is definitely not honest. Mr. Thornton has risen from an even more potentially crippling past and he’s not complaining. I also like that Mr. Thornton acknowledges Margaret as his social better and looks up to her. Both Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are much poorer than their romantic partners, they are the social inferiors, much as they claim the right to human equality. I have this theory that Elizabeth Gaskell’s heroes (and George Eliot’s come to that) may just be more well-rounded than Austen’s or Bronte’s (in my opinion obviously, I don’t want to start wars here) because she was married, she had a more realistic view of men. Just a thought.

I also loved the realistic portrayal of Margaret having to deal with stressful family situations in North & South. I could relate, as my husband is still home recovering from surgery while I’m off (as already mentioned) hobbling in to work. I found it comforting to find a fictional character going through something similar. So there’s a few thoughts on the satisfying goodness of North & South. It’s growing on me and I’m sure I’ll return to it often.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is that I don’t really like writing reviews with plot descriptions and a catchy hook so you’ll read it with a few neat and descriptive adjectives thrown in and all that, especially if it’s a classic book. I just like sharing a few thoughts or quotes. What I’d really prefer even more than that though, is an essay style free-for-all, with no worries about spoilers. I’d rather discuss the interesting parts of the book, hopefully with others who’ve already read it, instead of trying to sell it to someone new. How do I make that work on a blog outside of the classroom though? (This is part of the reason I’m thinking of going back to university for more English classes in January!)

Review: Sayers, Dexter, Towers, Bronte, Gaskell…

Since I’m rather behind on reviewing a few books I’ve read recently and since my husband is having his surgery on Monday (after which he’ll be in hospital for a week and then I’ll be off work for a week, tending to him), I won’t be around much for a while. Hence, I present a handful of mini-reviews!

First, I’ve just finished Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, after deciding that soothing old fashioned British mysteries were just the kind of hospital waiting room reading I needed, only I’ve already rushed through one in my pre-surgery worry phase. I read Whose Body?, the first in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, a few years ago and wasn’t that impressed with it, but this second one has hooked me and it’s nice to know there’s more cosy little mysteries to indulge in beyond Miss Marple. The golden age of detective fiction is really my favourite, with Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (as a history student, I was fascinated by its reinterpretation of who really killed the princes in the Tower) and Malice Aforethought and The Poisoned Chocolates Case, both by the same author but published under different names (Frances Iles and Anthony Berkley). Many of these stories are innovative in the mystery genre (Malice Aforethought was one of the first to have the murderer as the protagonist) without being grisly and have the added advantage of much delightful Britishness. Dorothy Sayers has all this and she’s also quite clever (one of the first women to get a degree at Oxford and she later translated almost all of Dante), with a plot point resting on the French classic Manon Lescaut and amusing literary references like this:

He set down his towels, soap, sponge, loofah, bath-brush, and other belongings, and quietly lifted the lid of the chest.

Whether, like the heroine of Northanger Abbey, he expected to find anything gruesome inside was not apparent. It is certain that, like her, he beheld nothing more startling than certain sheets and counterpanes neatly folded at the bottom…

This indulgence in mystery novels was set off by picking up Colin Dexter’s first Inspector Morse mystery, Last Bus to Woodstock, which I started reading when I was only 25 pages away from finishing Villette! (More on that in a bit, but basically, it was too sad.) I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis on Masterpiece Mystery lately and enjoying the Oxford setting and academic and literary themed plots and when I found out it was a sequel to the Inspector Morse tv show and books (Lewis was the sidekick originally and has now become the main detective) and remembered further that I had bought the first book in the series at Oxford on my honeymoon (what bliss was that bookstore!), I hunted it out of the closet and read it. It’s a bit sexist and racist and the identity of the murderer is more than a little improbable in my opinion, but my fondness for decent family man Sergent Lewis (I’m not too fond of Morse yet, he’s too busy winking and leering at girls half his age in short skirts) and I suppose, my fondness for most British mysteries in general, quickly brought me through. Even if I have the time, I can’t read a big thick classic like Villette all at once, so it’s delightful to sometimes be able to gulp down a quick and exciting mystery, reading pleasantly for hours in bed. This has inspired me to get books from all the ‘Queens of Crime’ (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham), plus some P.D. James and go on a mystery binge while I’m waiting around at the hospital.

And now… Tea With Mr. Rochester was an utter delight and I don’t know how to do it justice. I even took to carrying it around with me at work in the library during one particularly stressful day, just to stroke its soft, smooth dove-grey cover whenever I needed calming down. Then on my break I devoured two of the short stories, rushing through to see what happened (and I hardly ever rush through beautiful writing like that), even crying in the staff break room! The writing is romantic and old fashioned, like a grown up version of L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott. I’ve heard these stories called ‘samey’ but when I adore the style and subject matter, I don’t care. Most of the main characters are in the ‘literary daughter’ type (my favourite kind of type, personally), young girls full of imagination and notions from reading Jane Eyre, feeling a bit misunderstand by the more clever beautiful people, but eventually proving themselves in their own way, just as Jane Eyre herself does. Frances Towers also reminds me of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, she didn’t write enough to reach her maturity as a writer as they did, but she has similar (although I would say more romantic) sensibilities. I’ve already reread some of the stories, individually some of them wouldn’t appeal to me, but altogether they are beautiful and celebrate the poetry of ordinary life, the beauty in small things. Here’s the beginning of ‘Strings in Hollow Shells’:

‘It’s divine to be here again,’ Sandra said, tossing her pill-box of a hat onto a table and burying her face in a bowl of roses. She seemed to be eating them up with her greedy carmine lips.

Sandra plays the part of city sophisticate, but her idea of living artistically is to “play the gramophone all day in the garden and read poetry”, instead of drinking ten cups of black coffee and smoking cigarettes. I much prefer the more Edwardian style of “soak[ing] myself in the view.” Here’s music being discussed in ‘Don Juan and the Lily’:

‘I mean Bach,’ he said, ‘and Beethoven… or Mozart. What’s he like? Like the conversation of tea-roses, or the bees in the lime-blossom?’

‘I think he sounds like witty people in the eighteenth century saying lovely things in a formal garden,’ I said, not knowing that such a thought was in my mind.

Altogether Tea With Mr. Rochester has got to be my favourite book of the year so far (with Miss Buncle’s Book not far behind) and I’m so pleased that Persephone Books has republished them and that other wonderful book bloggers have written about them, so that I could find the kind of innocent and beautiful books I so treasure.

So Villette may have to wait another day, although to quickly sum up: it was sad, it was long, it was rich and deep and I cried near the end and also was annoyed with the love story for not being the main focus of the story and there’s this great scene where someone gives Lucy Snowe an opiate to make her sleep, but instead she gets up and wanders about town at midnight and comes upon this big party in a park and wafts about, seeing various people she used to know, all as if it were a dream. That was unexpected, even from Bronte, and quite a nice touch. My edition also had a great introduction by A.S. Byatt, comparing it on some points to Mansfield Park, which I think is rather apt, I was already thinking it is to Jane Eyre what Mansfield is to Pride and Prejudice, obviously written by the same author, but in a more mature and melancholy mood. She also makes the excellent point that while Jane Eyre has a crazy alter ego / double in the attic, Lucy Snowe is both crazy and sane all together, in one person. This is Bronte’s last finished novel and her most matured work, written in extreme loneliness, but with extreme strength of will. It makes Jane Eyre seem rather tame, actually!

And finally for Wives and Daughters (almost done!), it’s less of a romance and more of an insightful and sweet family story. It analyzes a father and his two sons opposite a stepmother with one step and one real daughter. Most of the events are ordinary, even the romantic hero isn’t a brooding Byronic like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester or even Mr. Thorton, but a practical man of science and yet it has its moments beyond the light and amusing. Mrs. Hyacinth Clare Kirkpatrick Gibson is certainly the most subtly manipulative stepmother I’ve ever read — in the miniseries she was grating but in the book actually funny, while Cynthia her daughter in the miniseries was quite charming while in the book you come to see her true shallow colours underneath much better. Molly the stepdaughter was too naive in the miniseries, but in the book her innocence becomes endearing, something you want to protect against all her stepmother’s machinations to treat her just like Cynthia so that no one will say she’s favouring her own daughter, when Molly only wants to be herself. The book describes parents over-valuing their beautiful, talented children and under-appreciating the ‘plodders’, the steady, faithful, loyal ones. The book also shows how Molly grows up, through some distress caused by her stepmother and sister, to become more mature and poised than the slightly silly and sheltered village women she’s grown up around.

Whew. Now it’s time to pick a new book to start!

Tea With Charlotte Bronte…

I’ve found a lovely pairing of books here. I’m half way through Villette by Charlotte Bronte, which is dark and rich and I don’t know why more people haven’t read it, when last night I just had to start reading my first true dove-grey birthday Persephone and it was… Tea With Mr. Rochester! And the second short story in the collection is the title story, so I had the delight of a lighthearted and insightful account of discovering the glories of reading Jane Eyre for the first time at 14, where love is “the most thrilling, glorious, and beautiful thing in the world.” Sigh. I’m definitely looking forward to savouring the rest of this collection of stories.

As for Villette, it’s making me admire Charlotte Bronte all the more. I could relate to Jane Eyre, but still thought Jane Austen was the better writer. Now there seems no point comparing them, Jane Austen is a lovely sunny tea party and Charlotte Bronte is a frighteningly beautiful thunderstorm, so it just depends what you’re in the mood for. In Villette, she really captures what it’s like to be dreadfully lonely and religiously morbid as the heroine Lucy Snowe (introverted with a strong will a la Jane Eyre) travels alone from England to the city of Villette in Europe (based on Belgium) and finds work as a school teacher in a girls school. Her time spending the holidays alone in the school when everyone else goes away on holidays and she eventually becomes sick with a nervous fever very much reminded me of a summer living alone in university, with all my roommates gone and I was so lonely, any human contact, even with a friendly grocery clerk, was longed for. Jane Austen may show the intricacies of social interactions better than anyone else, but Charlotte Bronte captures the heart’s desperation and determination. I want to race through it to find out what’s going to happen next with Dr. John and Lucy and M. Paul (a tiny bossy French Mr. Rochester!), but at the same time it is rich and heartbreaking, hard to read and yet beautiful.

The difference between her and me might be figured by that between the stately ship, cruising safe on smooth seas, with its full complement of crew, a captain gay and brave, and venturous and provident; and the life-boat, which most days of the year lies dry and solitary in an old, dark boathouse, only putting to sea when the billows run high in rough weather, when cloud encounters water, when danger and death divide between them the rule of the great deep. No, the Louisa Bretton never was out of harbour on such a night, and in such a scene: her crew could not conceive it; so the half-drowned life-boat man keeps his own counsel, and spins no yarns.

I dearly liked to think my own thoughts; I had great pleasure in reading a few books, but not many: preferring always those in whose style or sentiment the writer’s individual nature was plainly stamped; flagging inevitably over characterless books, however clever and meritorious…

First Lines

I’ve decided to post the answers to my little identify the first lines of my favourite books quiz today and write a few reasons about why I like each book so much.

I’ll start with the ones that were identified first…

2. ______, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

This is Emma by Jane Austen (the blanked out words are of course ‘Emma Woodhouse’), as correctly guessed by Atla at Book to Book and Nicola at Vintage Reads.

I can’t seem to quite decide if I like Emma or Persuasion more, but that day it was Emma! Which is I think the cosiest of Austen’s novels and always gives me warm family feelings. As Atla recently wrote, the books you read three times or more do become a part of you and all of Jane Austen is definitely in that category for me.

4. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, as guessed by Atla and Nicola again.

I don’t think I’ve read Jane Eyre in years and now I’m wondering if I’ve even read it three times, but it has impacted me and I’m so glad I read it at 20. The example of someone shy and yet so strong willed and determined to be her own person and value love over religion made it for a while more of a personal favourite even over Jane Austen!

5. _____ had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Middlemarch by George Eliot, as guessed by Helen at She Reads Novels, with the blanked out words being ‘Miss Brooke’.

I read Middlemarch in my last year of university, after thinking it must be terribly dull and musty (a bad experience with Silas Marner in junior high is the only excuse I can give!) Instead, I found so much to relate to. Dorothea Brooke is excessively idealistic and almost ruins her life trying to pursue a great and worthy cause. In the end, she finds happiness in a more simple life that is balanced with love and shows how living a good and regular life is as important as becoming famous for some great and noble deed. It also shows how a good or a bad influence in life, can turn a person in a direction they didn’t originally set out to go in, for good or bad. I’ve never managed to quite reread it all the way through (there’s so many other characters) but I highly highly recommend it, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte (and Wilkie Collins!) are by far my preferred Victorian authors (over ahem, Charles Dickens…)

7. I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, as guessed by Nymeth at things mean a lot.

I only discovered this small nostalgic gem of a book a few years ago, but on rereading it this year, I’ve deemed it one of my comfort books and will likely be returning to it in the future. For starters, it’s much better and slightly more bittersweet than the movie. Also it is so short, a one sit read! I can relate to Holly’s ‘lopsided romantic’ mode of life, it’s somewhat how I lived parts of my 20s (with sadly less glamour) and something I still long to go back to somedays. It definitely speaks to the nostalgic romantic in me.

8. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, as guessed yet again by Atla.

I love the drama of this book. It’s not really my idea of the perfect romance (I prefer slightly less conflict on that front), but for characters caught in emotional conflict, it can’t be beat. I’m not such a fan of Tolstoy’s earnestly good alter ego Levin, but everything to do with Anna was such great reading. There are so many great scenes too, the ball, the train in the snow storm, the horse race…. I kept making furious notes throughout on each new development. The first time I read it I was driving down a highway, having just taken it out from the library and being too intrigued to stop reading! (Uh, I don’t usually do that, ever…) I loved the Constance Garnett translation and for years looked for it, being unable to enjoy any other version (Modern Library publishes it), but I’m sure others prefer more modern versions of it.

9. ‘The Signora had no business to do it,’ said Miss ____, ‘no business at all.’

This is A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, again as guessed by Nymeth. The blanked out name is Bartlett.

This book is pretty short and was again a comfort reread this year. I’m sure my enjoyment of it is coloured by the wonderful Merchant Ivory film of it, but that’s no bad thing since it introduced me to Forster and Howards End too. More than the scenes in Italy, I like the cosy Honeychurch home and family at Windy Corners and the happy innocent side of Edwardian life it portrays, while encouraging people to take risks on what really matters in life, true love over convention.

And now… I think I will wait one more day to reveal the unguessed other four opening lines! Here are a few hints though…

1. For a long time, I went to bed early.

This is a surprisingly quick start to what is one of the longest books in world literature (in fact maybe the longest book in French literature, period). It also has ridiculously long sentences, which sometimes meander daydreamily over memory, the past, nature, sexual jealousy and high society and are sometimes quite comic in their portrayal of a wide varying of characters. This author is not literally a neuroscientist, but he may change your life.

3. What can I say about love?

By a lesser known Canadian author, this book (with a title bearing close allusions to Frances Hodgon Burnett’s most famous children’s classic) is about a London girl going to work on a British country estate in WW2 to help the Women’s Land Army grow potatoes and dig for victory. It’s a very poetic portrayal of a woman who’s long lived without love and what happens when she thinks she’s found it, along with a garden that’s been hidden perhaps since the last war… Absolutely gorgeous and I wish more people read it!

Here’s a further quote, just because:

Can words go straight to the heart? Is this possible? Can words be as direct as the scent of roses?

I only discovered this book five years ago (it was released in 2002) and have reread it at least four times since and already the pages are starting to come loose at the bottom! Another short gem.

6. That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.

(Oh dear, yet another of my long posts!) This book is by a lesser known Anglo-Irish early 20th century female author (and I have already reviewed one of her books and mentioned this book in the review), who was friends with Virginia Woolf. This book is about a naive girl going to live with her step-brother and the cracks that come when no one knows how to deal with her, or worse yet, are falsely charming to her.

10. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

Lastly, a late 19th century classic by another author who is famously overfond of long and difficult sentences, although he is an American writing from Europe, about imaginary Americans being taken advantage of by those wily and so much more experienced Europeans… There are a lot of beautiful scenes in this book, from the opening with tea on the lawn of an English country house to a charming and worrisome Roman villa with roses in the garden. As well as writing dense and often impenetrable novels, this author has also written various novellas, including a famous ghost story, but this novel is one of his most accessible, being written in his ‘Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary stage’, as one reviewer put it.

That’s it! [Edited for one final hint: 3 of these books are shown in the photo header of my blog as well… ;)]

(ps: I’ve often found that if I write about what I’m currently reading I jinx it and lose interest. Does anyone else ever feel that way or am I just strange here?)