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.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Charlotte Brontë, England, Fiction, literary fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë

Jane-Eyre

Fiction – Kindle edition; Optimized for Kindle; 624 pages; 2009.

I might have read hundreds of modern and contemporary novels in my time, but when it comes to pre-20th century classics I am woefully un-educated.

Which is why I was slightly wary about reading Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre. Surely anything published in 1847 was going to be too over-written for my modern eyes  and at more than 600 pages a real test of my endurance? Oh, how wrong one can be!

I should have known it would be a super read. So many people have recommended it to me in the past, and Simon Savidge’s review last year made me pop it on the wishlist straight away. But I didn’t get around to reading it until Christmas, when looking for something substantial to read I downloaded a 77-pence version for my Kindle.

I devoured the entire book in just two days! Turns out Miss Brontë does a mean line in cliff-hangers at the end of chapters, which meant I kept turning the pages (or clicking the turn button on my e-reader) to see what happened next. Before I knew it I had read 20 per cent of the novel and I’d only meant to read a few pages to see if I liked the style!

For those who haven’t read Jane Eyre (are there any of you out there?), it’s billed as a kind of romance, but it is really much, much more than that.

Essentially it’s the story of one woman’s life, from the age of 10 to the time of her marriage nine years later. The narrative is told through Jane’s eyes, which means you get to experience a first-hand account of her many privations and heartaches. And this also means you want to cheer her on, help her through the rough patches and give her the strength to carry on against the odds.

When the story opens, Jane is an orphan living in the care of her cruel aunt. She is being constantly bullied by her older cousin, John, and life is miserable.

Eventually she is sent away to commence her education at Lowood School, a boarding school for poor girls. Here she is forgotten — or should I say abandoned — by her family, but in the long run it doesn’t matter: Jane learns to stand on her own two feet.

She then takes a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she instructs a French-born orphan in the care of the landlord Edward Rochester, an ugly man with a mysterious past and a penchant for travel. When Jane finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to Rochester, you wonder where all this is going to lead… (Please, don’t let me down with a traditional romance, I kept thinking!)

But, to cut an awfully long story short, Jane’s life takes an unexpected twist and by the last page you feel as if she’s continuing to live her life on her own terms without compromising her values or beliefs.

In its depiction of a Cinderella-like rags to riches rise, Jane Eyre has the feel and flavour of a much-loved fairytale. Ditto for the morality at its heart, in which good always overcomes evil.

But as a “morality tale” Jane Eyre is slightly more sophisticated than that. Indeed, it seems to be a story before its time, because it is a remarkable account of one woman’s fight (and right) to be seen on equal terms with men, to live the kind of life she wishes to lead and not what society deems is “correct”. How I wished I’d read this book as a teenager; it might have made me feel less self-conscious about forging my own path and daring to be different.

And while there were times when the prose felt too verbose and I wanted to tighten up some of the chapters, I got so lost in the story I turned off my editor’s brain and just went with the flow. I can’t remember the last time I got so caught up in a good old-fashioned epic like this one!

Jane Eyre is a story about recognising and appreciating value in the individual, regardless of gender or circumstance. No wonder it has attained classic status and remains such a much-loved novel more than 150 years since it was first published.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Choderlos de Laclos, Fiction, France, Penguin Classic

‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Choderlos de Laclos

DangerousLiasions

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 418 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by Helen Constantine.

I have a problematic relationship with French fiction (it often feels too cold, too distant), and, similarly, I don’t always get on with pre-20th Century fiction either, so how would I cope with a French book first published in 1782?

There’s no doubt that Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I read it purely on the basis that it had been selected for my face-to-face book group, and while my heart sank when I was told that this was February’s read, I figured it was a good opportunity to try something I wouldn’t normally choose to read myself.

Most people will be familiar with the 1988 film starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, but, philistine that I am, I have never seen it. This meant I approached the book completely “blind”, with no preconceptions (other than, help, it’s French and help, it’s an 18th Century classic) and no knowledge whatsoever of the storyline.

I was heartened to see that this 418-page door-stopper is an epistolary novel, because I find that reading letters between characters makes any book much more, well, readable. (I wasn’t aware of this, but, according to the introduction to this book by its translator, Helen Constantine, the epistolary novel “was by far the most popular kind of fiction in the eighteenth century”.) It can also help you see characters from other people’s points of view, and in the case of Dangerous Liaisons it was the perfect vehicle to highlight how certain characters showed different faces, or facets of their personality, to different people.

The book, which is broken up into four very large chunks, tells the story of two French aristocrats, the widow Marquis de Merteuil and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, as they play a series of Machiavellian games designed to entertain themselves while quietly ruining the lives and reputation of other people. Yes, these two are a right old pair of dastardly devious schemers.

Vicomte de Valmont, who I quickly took a very strong dislike to, is on a mission to seduce a highly respected and religious woman, Presidente de Tourvel, for no other reason than to cause a scandal. He woos her through a succession of purple-prosed letters (even though, at times, they are resident in the same house) until she finally succumbs to his advances. He then unceremoniously and very cruelly dumps her.

Meanwhile the Marquis de Merteuil, a very forthright, fiesty woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, plots the ruin of a 15-year-old bride-to-be, Cecile Volanges (the sweetest character in the whole book, it has to be said), as a way of getting back at Cecile’s future husband, Comte de Gercourt. The Marquis encourages Valmont to help her in this quest. Together they play match-maker, as they aid and abet a forbidden romance between Cecile and her piano teacher, Chevalier Danceny.

Somewhere along the line, the schemes between these two cunning characters go off on unexpected tangents, and Valmont, unable to help himself, seduces pretty much anything that comes his way. Similarly, even the Marquis is not immune from having her way with certain men.

Dangerous Liaisons caused a sensation when it was first published, and I’m not surprised. Even by today’s standards, some of the scenes in this book are shocking and immoral. In fact, I have to agree with KevinfromCanada, who recently wrote a comment on this blog which said: “Dangerous Liaisons is one of the best explorations of evil that exists in literature.”

I found myself wanting to throw the book against the wall on more than one occasion and at one time I actually called Valmont an evil bastard out loud. That the story provoked such a strong reaction in me suggests that it was worth reading, even though I found much of it dragged and I thought the language terribly over-written (understandably a product of its time, not helped by my editor’s brain which lives by the motto “why use a long word when a short word will do”).

I found it helped to read the book in large chunks, including a three-hour marathon reading session on Saturday, because whenever I put it down I just did not want to pick it up again. But the last 100-page section sped by, and I found the ending completely unexpected, way too abrupt (I had to read it over, in case I’d missed anything) and just a smidgen sad. Above all, I was relieved to have survived my first foray into French classic fiction, although I don’t plan to return any time soon.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Katherine Mansfield, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, short stories

‘Something Childish But Very Natural’ by Katherine Mansfield

SomethingVeryChildish

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 110 pages; 2007.

I’m not a great fan of the short story, but knowing that New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is widely regarded as one of the best short story writers of her generation, I was keen to read some of her work.

This collection, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves series, seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with her writings. Each of the eight tales revolves around the theme that “love can be innocent” and features one of her more famous short stories, “Something Childish But Very Natural”, which was written in 1914 but published after her death.

In this sweet story we meet Harry, a young man (“nearly eighteen”) who falls in love with a girl (“over sixteen”) on a train, and begins a relationship with her. Unfortunately Edna is very distant with him and shies from his touch. “I feel that if once we did that — you know — held each other’s hands and kissed, it would all be changed,” she tells Harry. “And I feel we wouldn’t be free like we are — we’d be doing something secret. We wouldn’t be children any more…silly, isn’t it?”

This characterises the rest of their friendship: Edna wants to keep it purely platonic, but Harry, patient and caring, is desperate to take it to the next level. He must always keep his feelings in check, despite the fact he is desperately in love with Edna “with the marigold hair and strange dreamy smile that filled him up to the brim”.

One day the pair stumble upon a lovely little cottage in the countryside and fantasise about living in it together. When Harry, in his eagerness to move in immediately, says,  “I have a feeling that it’s dangerous to wait for things — that if you wait for things they only go further and further away” you get the impression he’s not just talking about the house.

I won’t reveal how the story ends, but the course of true love does not run smoothly!

The other short stories in this slim volume are: “Feuille d’Album”, “Mr and Mrs Dove”, “Marriage à la Mode”, “Bliss”, “Honeymoon”, “Dill Pickle” and “Widowed”.

They are all quite similiar in showing how love can be one-sided and that even in the strongest of relationships there is always one person who loves his or her partner more than is reciprocated.

I particularly enjoyed “Bliss”, about a 30-something mother who believes her life in London is completely perfect, until she hosts a dinner party for a small collection of haughty friends and unwittingly discovers that her husband is cheating on her with one of the guests. When she comes to realise what is going on beneath her nose, the reality of the situation is like a strong blow to the stomach. I thought it was a pitch-perfect story and I think I might have actually gasped out loud when I got to the denouement.

All in all, I enjoyed this brief introduction to Mansfield’s work, but it hasn’t made me rush out to read everything else she’s ever written. I’m afraid my bias towards novels is too strong for that.

You can find out more about Katherine Mansfield here and here.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Bram Stoker, England, Fiction, horror, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker

Dracula
Fiction – paperback; Wordsworth Classics; 352 pages; 2003.

The horror genre isn’t my normal genre of choice. I spent my teenage years working my way through Stephen King’s (then existing) back catalogue, dabbled with some Dean R Koontz and a little James Herbert, before giving Anne Rice a shot. I read Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned and that’s about the sum total of my exposure to horror/vampire fiction.

But Dracula was always one of those books I intended to read at some point, if only because I wanted to understand how one nineteenth century novel could have such an influence on the popularity of vampires in modern day literature and films. I put it off for years and years, but during a visit to Whitby, on the north east coast of England earlier this year, I finally decided it was time to read the book. I had been to Whitby before, but this time around its connection with Dracula seemed to resonate more, perhaps because I’d seen a BBC TV production and recognised the Abbey and the Yorkshire coastline on the screen. (In truth, during my first visit in 1998, I was more interested in the “Australian connection” — Whitby is where Captain James Cook embarked on his famous Pacific voyages.)

Whitby is, of course, the fishing village where Bram Stoker sets some parts of the novel — where one of the main characters, Lucy, meets Dracula for the first time, in fact. But it’s also the place where Stoker began taking notes for the book while on holiday in 1890. It is a beautiful village nestled by the River Esk — and Stoker’s description, told through the eyes of Mina Murray, remains unchanged more than a century later:

This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, though which the view seems, somehow, further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green and is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town — the side away from us — are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes […] It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.

The story is told as a series of diary entries and letters from a divergent cast of characters — and there’s a few “news clippings” thrown in for good measure. The result is a well-rounded and fast-moving narrative that feels incredibly modern, almost as if the book had been penned in recent times and not in 1897.

The storyline is a familiar one, but for those who don’t know it it begins with Johnathan Harker, a young English solicitor, travelling to Transylvania to meet a client — Count Dracula —  about a property sale he wishes to undertake in England. Despite Dracula acting as a gracious host, Harker soon discovers he is being kept prisoner in Dracula’s remote castle and makes plans for escape.

Some time after a Russian ship runs aground on the Whitby coast, but all on deck — save for a dog, which leaps onshore never to be seen again — are presumed dead. The ship’s log reveals some uncanny experiences on board during the journey, and the hull is found to be carrying a strange cargo of earth from Transylvania.

Harker’s fiance, Mina, and her friend, Lucy, are in Whitby at the time. Lucy is a sleep walker and during one of her nocturnal strolls meets a strange man —Dracula — on the cliffs overlooking the town. Shortly after she mysteriously begins to waste away.

Dr John Seward, who has proposed marriage to Lucy, is very concerned by her deteriorating health. He calls in  in his old teacher, Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam who begins administering blood transfusions — all to no avail.

Eventually — and I don’t think this is much of a plot spoiler — Lucy becomes a vampire, and the finger of blame is being pointed in Count Dracula’s direction.

The action then moves to London, where the Count has been seen out and about. It turns out — by a strange twist of fate — that his house, on Picadilly, is right next door to Dr Seward’s. A band of vampire hunters is then brought together, including Harker, Mina, Seward and Van Helsing among others, to put Dracula’s rampage across London and England to an end…

The story of Dracula was a familiar one to me, but genuinely thrilling in places. Some of Stoker’s descriptions were also incredibly vivid and chilling, such as this scene in which Harker, trapped in Dracula’s remote castle, sees the Count’s head coming out of a window:

I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards and with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

The book also poses some interesting questions about science and faith, religion and folklore, topics that were been debated at the time in which it was written. Interestingly, the role of women in society is another theme, with Lucy representing the “traditional” weak-willed woman who succumbs to Dracula’s charms, and Mina, who is strong enough to fight him off and plays a pivotal role in his eventual destruction, representing the “new” female.

On the whole, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Dracula. The prose style was easy-to-read and apart from some clunky elements — Stoker’s inconsistent depiction of Van Helsing’s Dutch vernacular, for instance, was woeful  — felt incredibly contemporary. And there was plenty of suspense to keep me turning the pages long into the night. A truly great read and one I’d recommend, even if your tastes don’t normally venture into classic literature or the horror genre.

Author, Book review, England, Everyman's Library, Fiction, literary fiction, PG Wodehouse, Publisher, Setting

‘Something Fresh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

SomethingFresh

Fiction – hardcover; Everyman; 260 pages; 2005.

Looking for something lighthearted and fun to read? Then look no further than P.G. Wodehouse’s Something Fresh, the first in his Blandings Castle series.

First published in 1915, it captures an England from a different era, where maids and butlers and valets looked after the bumbling upper classes with aplomb and where single women who worked for a living were frowned upon. But despite this, the book doesn’t feel particularly dated, perhaps because there’s a lightness of touch that makes it so effortless and enjoyable to read.

The plot revolves around an incredibly rare and valuable scarab — that’s the funny bug-like thing pictured on the front cover — which Lord Emsworth absent-mindedly pockets during an inspection of a collection put together by a retired American millionaire, Mr Peters. When Mr Peters discovers the scarab is missing he knows who has taken it but is unable to confront “the darned old sneak-thief” because his daughter is about to marry Lord Emsworth’s son in a lavish wedding at Blandings Castle.

What follows is a kind of farce in which Mr Peters tries to get his scarab back. He offers a substantial reward to anyone who can retrieve it for him, and it is here that two rivals — Ashe Marson, a poorly paid writer of  detective stories, and  Joan Valentine, a magazine correspondent, both from London — clash swords.

Throw in an overweight private detective, a rich “idiot child”, a fussy butler and an efficient private secretary, among others, and the comic world of P.G. Wodehouse comes truly alive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. And while I didn’t find it as hugely funny as I’d been lead to expect, I tittered quite a bit, mainly at the clever word play, and I emitted a lot of loud gaffaws when I came across the book’s very funny climax. More please.