Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Manybooks.net, Miles Franklin, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin

My-Brilliant-Career

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 252 pages; 2004.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was an Australian feminist and writer. If her name sounds familiar it’s because she bequeathed her estate to set up the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is given to a novel of  “the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” every year.

Her novel, My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901, is widely regarded as a fully fledged Australian classic.

Headstrong teenager

The book tells the story of a headstrong teenage girl, Sybylla Melvyn, growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. She shuns the conventions of her time and strives to become a woman of independent means. Her greatest dream is to become a writer, but not everything goes her way.

The eldest child of a large family struggling to make ends meet, she is sent away to live with her aunt and maternal grandmother. It is here that she first meets Harold Beecham, a wealthy young pastoralist, who proposes to her. But Sybilla, who believes she is ugly and undeserving of a man’s attentions, is reluctant to accept his hand in marriage.

Then life takes a turn for the worst, when she is sent away to work as a governess in order to pay off one of her father’s gambling debts. She finds this life exceedingly dull and monotonous, and falls into a serious depression. When Harold reappears on the scene, Sybilla is confronted with a dilemma: marry him and live a life of comfort, or fulfil her “fixed determination to write a book — nothing less than a book”.

Hiding her brains

Reading My Brilliant Career, I was struck by how angry I became on Sybilla’s behalf, forced to live her life as second fiddle to a man simply because of her gender. She is clearly intelligent and full of potential, but feels she has to hide her brains for fear of being misunderstood and shunned by society. Even her mother denies her the chance to pursue a career of her own, telling her she’s “a very useless girl for your age”.

And her grandmother, who is more kindly and more forgiving of Sybilla’s tom-boyish ways, believes her only goal is to get married:

My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife–not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

While Sybilla clearly understand’s society’s double standards (she makes reference to men being allowed to sow their wild oats while women must remain chaste and “proper”), there’s not much she can do about it except be true to her own self: determined to find happiness in work and a career rather than in someone of the opposite sex.

A romantic tale

Despite this emphasis on feminist values, the book does read very much like a classic romance — will she or won’t she agree to marry Beecham, will he or won’t he find her too difficult and pursue someone else? (Think an Australian version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)

And it’s written in an over-wrought style, mirroring the scattered, often unformed, thoughts of a rebellious teenager, who is quick to anger and make judgements on her seniors. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and “flabby”, and Sybilla isn’t always easy to like, but it provides an important insight into the boom-and-bust lifestyle of life on the land and the ways in which women were expected to fall into line.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will find a lot to like here. Like that classic English novel, My Brilliant Career celebrates the idea that everyone should be valued for simply who they are, not what they are or how much money they have in the bank. It’s highly emotive, frank and forthright. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, but as a glimpse of life in the bush — where danger and beauty often go hand-in-hand — it’s a hugely evocative read.

1001 books, Author, Book review, E.M. Forster, England, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting

‘A Room with a View’ by E.M. Forster

A-room-wth-a-view

Fiction – Kindle edition; ManyBooks.net; 191 pages; 1908.

A Room with a View was E.M. Forster’s third novel. It is set during the Edwardian era and is about a young woman trying to escape the social conventions of the time to lead the kind of life she wants to lead.

An Italian setting

It opens in Florence, where Lucy Honeychurch is on vacation with her older cousin Charlotte Bartlett. (I have to say that the names in this novel are wonderful.)

Both women are disappointed that their rooms in the Pension Bertolini do not have views over the river. But when a fellow called Mr Emerson, who is staying at the hotel with his son George, offers to swap rooms, instead of thanking him for the kind offer, the women consider him impudent and ill-bred. (Those silly Edwardian manners, eh?)

This one act of generosity by Mr Emerson sets off a whole chain of events — including a murder — in which Lucy (and Charlotte) are ever-entwined with both the father and son, not only in Italy, but back in England, too.

When the action shifts to Lucy’s childhood home — Windy Corner in Surrey, England — the reader must forgive one or two grating coincidences, because the Emersons move into a local cottage and suddenly there they are, just as they were in Florence, continually putting their foot in it and upsetting everyone’s sense of propriety.

Travel versus marriage

For most of the novel, Lucy struggles with working out what she wants from her rather cosseted life. Should she continue to travel and seek out adventure, or should she settle down and get married? When she finally accepts Cecil Vyse’s proposal of marriage (she refuses twice), her future looks mapped out for her. But it’s clear the match is not a good one.

Cecil, for a start, is probably the most pompous and snobbish character I have ever come across in a novel. (Honestly, he’s vile.) He’s described as “the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things — books, pictures — but kill when they come to people”. And his views on women suggest that he is going to have trouble keeping Lucy’s independent streak in check:

He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own.

Lucy might not be educated but she has an enquiring mind broadened by travel — and she is set on being “a rebel who desired, not a wider dwelling-room, but equality beside the man she loved”.

By contrasting the repression of Edwardian society with the apparent freedom — and sunshine — of Italy, Forster gives Lucy a striking dilemma, because whichever path she chooses to follow will have negative consequences.

While A Room with a View is a kind of treatise about a woman’s right to be independent, it’s actually quite a light-hearted book filled with comic moments. Forster seems particularly scathing of tourists and there’s some delicious references to the writing profession — ” ‘All modern books are bad,’ said Cecil, who was annoyed at her inattention, and vented his annoyance on literature. ‘Everyone writes for money these days.’ ”

Charm, wit and intelligence

As much as I appreciated the charm, wit and intelligence of this novel, I struggled to enjoy it.

I don’t think it helped that all the characters come across as frightful snobs (yes, I know that’s the point). Every time Cecil appeared on the page I just wanted to smack him (I’m not a violent person, honestly), and even Lucy, whom we’re supposed to cheer on, annoyed me because she failed to recognise that she was lucky to have the choice to either marry or travel — most women of that time would have had to succumb to the traditional route.

My views, however, are by the by: this book has been made into countless films, including an award-winning one by Merchant Ivory in 1985 which I’ve not seen, and constantly makes the cut in all those “1001 books you must read before you die” type lists. I suspect there are loads of you out there that absolutely love it, but for me, it was a lukewarm read…

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Manybooks.net, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting, Thomas Hardy

‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy

Mayor-of-Casterbridge

Fiction – Kindle edition; Public Domain Books; 400 pages; 1994.

When it comes to pre-20th century classics, Thomas Hardy is my man. Years before I started this blog I read and loved Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. More recently I very much enjoyed A Mere Interlude, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves collection. Now I can safely add The Mayor of Casterbridge to my list of affections.

The novel, first published in 1886, is a sweeping drama about the life and death of a poor hay trusser, Michael Henchard, who rises to become a rich grain merchant and well respected mayor in the fictional town of Casterbridge before falling into poverty once again.

Henchard is a fascinating character, deeply flawed, who looks at the world in a glass-half-full kind of way. He’s besieged by petty jealousies and makes terribly rash decisions, which ultimately bring about his downfall. He also has a foul temper that he finds difficult to control.

The book’s opening gives us a pretty good picture of what this character is really like. He gets drunk and then sells his wife, Susan, and their young daughter to a passing sailor. Once they are gone and he sobers up, Henchard realises the horrible deed he has done. Full of remorse, he takes himself to the nearest church and makes a personal oath that he will never touch a drop of alcohol for 21 years, which is as many years as he has lived.

The story then jumps ahead by 19 years, and when we meet Henchard again he has reinvented himself as a grain merchant with a strong work ethic and financial acumen. Indeed, he’s rolling in money and is so busy that he hires a manager, a young Scotsman called Donald Farfrae, to help strengthen and build up his empire.

Henchard is also mayor of the town, and while he’s generally not well liked, the locals do respect him for the hard work he does on their behalf. What they don’t realise is his secret history, and they simply assume he is a widower. Henchard never clarifies the situation — and why should he? Life is going swimmingly and he’s learnt from his mistake — or has he?

When his wife and grown daughter reappear on the scene you know there is trouble up ahead. And when Henchard’s vow of sobriety comes to an end, you also know that his reacquaintence with alcohol is not going to go down well.

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot, except it’s a jolly good one, full of ups and downs and family feuds, business rivalries and romantic heartache. The characterisation is, as usual, superb, and despite Henchard’s incredible selfishness and mean-spirited nature, you can’t help but feel for him. Much of the time I wanted to reach into the pages of this book, grab him by the scruff of the neck and tell him to stop being so bloody stupid and impulsive!

At 400 pages, this is not a short book. But its epic scope and its fast-paced narrative makes it a real page turner. And it has certainly confirmed Thomas Hardy as my favourite 19th Century writer.