Literary Heroines, Round 2

Okay, here’s the next five in my top ten favourite female characters:

6. Miss Matty in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. I adore this sweet old lady who seems at first like she’s wasted her life as a spinster, living under her bossy older sister. But throughout the book Miss Matty comes into her own and shows how the simple love and friendship she shares with the other people of Cranford is something to cherish. I wish I had a Miss Matty in my life. (The closest I’ve ever come is an English teacher in junior high who I gave a hug to every day.)

7. Elinor Carlisle in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. Elinor is quietly passionate but the guy she’s in love with prefers ice queens, so she hides who she really is for him (they discuss the Wars of the Roses, she’s always liked the red rose of Lancaster side, while he likes the white of York and I really had no idea who had what colour flowers until I wikipediaed it just now, but it’s nice imagery to show their differing styles of romantic attraction). Later when he likes another girl and then that girl ends up dead, Elinor fears that somehow she’s killed her (with a set of bad fish paste sandwiches for tea). I can relate to that whole hiding who I really am to impress people thing and the excessive guilt thing and Elinor’s red roses have always stayed in my mind since I first read it at 18.

8. Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Mary is a lonely little brat when she first comes to Misselthwaite Manor, but as she begins to take long walks in the gardens and relish in the fresh moor air, she becomes healthier and happier and learns how to make friends and enjoy life. I read this again this year, just longing to be transformed like Mary from my sometimes grumpy self by a little robin and a secret garden.

9. Ginny Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I feel slightly silly about this one, but I really like how despite Ginny’s crush on Harry, she learns to be herself around him. And she’s funny and brave and good at sports and her patronus is a horse. And that’s as far into fan talk as I’m going. 😉

10. Nancy Drew. The Nancy Drew yellow hardcovers are some of the first books I picked out to read for myself, before that my sister and I were given nice good little pre-approved boxsets of books for good old fashioned girls (I’m not saying I don’t like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie and Chronicles of Narnia, I’m just saying I didn’t chose them for myself.) Nancy Drew was not a child, she had adventures as a single woman and was smarter than everyone else and also more resourceful. The mystery genre has since been a comfort that I periodically return to (with Miss Marple being another favourite heroine), partly because of Nancy showing me that a girl only needs brains and bravery to get in on all the action.

Who are your favourite literary heroines? Anything good I’m missing out on?

In other bookish news, I’m sort of wanting to join in on the Madame Bovary read-along that’s happening right now. I read it just last year and while I found its realism to be a refreshing antidote to the excessive sugary romance in certain books and movies (and in plenty of cultural expectations shoved at women that life is always full of pink fluffy things), I also found it pretty depressing. And I figured now was not a good time for that. But the first round of posts about it are up and I’m so intrigued with all the insights everyone is writing about it that I missed last year! Plus it’s an absolutely gorgeous new edition that I actually held in my hands at a bookstore the other day (and sounds like a great translation too), but didn’t want to spend on the hardcover. Woe.

And then I’m also sort of wanting to join in on the War & Peace year long read-along too… I read 400 pages of it last year, hoping it would be just like Anna Karenina. It isn’t, quite, there’s more war than romance, perhaps not surprisingly. Still, classic literature calls to me! I’ve been unpacking several boxes of books I’d packed up (which was how I sprained my wrist in the first place, which is now obviously getting better enough to type with again) in order to find my copies of Swann’s Way (translated by Lydia Davis, who’s also just done Madame Bovary) and The Red & the Black by Stendhal. I don’t know if I’ll read any of the books I’ve just mentioned right now (I’m currently enjoying Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, one of Jane Austen’s precursors filled with lots of late 18th century London high life), but I like to think and talk about them.

Next up, my top ten literary heroes (or do I need to do some rereading before I can really commit to all ten?) or maybe something else, like my top ten literary settings. Really, I have a list.

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!)

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

So yet again I have reasons for not blogging or replying to comments… I have now sprained my wrist and can only do some kind of one handed typing shuffle. So this will be brief, but I just wanted to say, Elizabeth Gaskell is my new favourite author of the year. I absolutely adored Cranford, which I finished about a week ago. It starts off slowly, with even a few sad bits and more of a comic, gentle vignette feel than a strong narrative, but by the end a plot has arrived, involving the misfortunes of one of the sweet gossipy ladies of the small town of Cranford and the way everyone gathers together to help was very touching. (I cried, more than once.) The story is simple and the characters fuss over appearing genteel on very limited budgets (‘elegant economy’ they phrase it) and are rather gullible, but they also show such kindness and goodness of heart. I’ve rarely been so touched, it was the perfect balm for the stressful times I’ve been going through lately. (My husband is healing up quite well, but now with both of us half out of commission it is proving rather difficult to get the chores done!)

I’ve since picked up Mary Barton but first I am rereading North and South, which is even better than I’d remembered. It’s so wonderful to find a new classic author that I want to rush out and read all in one year! This hasn’t really happened since… well, since Jane Austen. And as one commenter said here earlier this year, Gaskell is the closest thing to a Victorian Jane Austen.

Now back to Mr. Thorton and Margaret, where I can imagine the wonderful theme music from the mini-series playing in the background as I read it!

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!

Bunny’s Got Books

So I’ve been back from my holiday in Manitoba for a few days and it’s time to share my lovely holiday purchases!

1. A used copy of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey!!!! I have been wanting to read this Persephone book for a while now and kept checking my library catalogue, hoping somehow they’d get their act together! But instead I found my own copy in a little secondhand bookstore in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba called Poor Michael’s (there’s a photo below of the cosy interior). You never know (and how important to scour every inch of the fiction section!)

2. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith and Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding. I don’t think I’ve ever read any 18th century novels, but sometimes I get curious about the novels Jane Austen and co. must have read that inspired them to write. Plus Oliver Goldsmith was mentioned in the notes for Wives and Daughters as influencing various aspects of Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing and the opening sentences had the same homey feeling as hers.

3. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I’m wanting to read more Victorian novels and this was recommended by Nicola at Vintage Reads. I also read a play based on it for a theatre history paper on Victorian melodrama — most plays from the Victorians (besides Oscar Wilde) aren’t studied anymore for good reason (check out Wilkie Collins’ adaptation of his own novel The Woman in White if you don’t believe me), but they are good good fun to read!

4. Jean Santeuil by Marcel Proust. This is an early unfinished novel of Proust’s and of course, I couldn’t pass it up. He writes more about lilacs!

5. Finally, The Victorian House by Judith Flanders. We drove into Winnipeg one day on our holidays (just to go to a bigger bookstore there) but none of the books in fiction were impressing me too much, so I skipped on over to history. Most history books aren’t in bookstores very long, so getting what interests me when I can is the way to go. I bought a copy of The Victorians by A.N. Wilson years ago and afterwards often asked myself why I got that instead of something fun and easier to read, but now years later, I’m reading it and glad to have a copy.

6. The bunny. I accidentally left some things behind at my in-law’s cottage and needed something to cheer me up! (Interestingly, I seem to write about bunnies whenever I go on holidays!)

Of course, after bringing a whole bag of books with me and buying more on the way, I only read Wives and Daughters all week. It’s a lovely holiday book, engrossing, light, funny and touching. I’ll review it soon.