The Summer Before The War, Helen Simonson: DNF

The stone terrace already looked older than the house, softened to a pleasant mossy gray under the relentless dripping of English rain, its stone balusters pressed by fat shrubs and draped in twisting vines of honeysuckle, wisteria, and the teacup-sized pale green flowers of a clematis. White roses climbed up the house from beds filled with brilliant blue agapanthus. Beatrice stooped to cup in her hands a waxy blue flower head as large as a hat and to wonder if plants ever sensed how far they were from home . . . Beyond the terrace, a croquet lawn fell away on its farthest edge to a lower terrace of rolling grass . . . Below, the stacked red roofs of Rye poked up from its flat skirt of marshes, and beyond, the sea formed a broad, glittering swath under the wide blue bowl of the sky.

I definitely did NOT think that I would be DNF-ing The Summer Before The War. So certain was I of this that I kept reading, and persisting, and pushing through till I ended up finishing 267 of the 473 pages. It was at this point that I realized I had way too many other books that I actually looked forward to picking up!

I’m not completely sure why I’m DNF-ing this. I remember enjoying Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and have been thinking about re-reading it at some point. This one has a small town as its setting, and has the kind of microscopic focus that I generally enjoy—lives of ordinary people with all its complexities, and ordinariness. This is also a kind-of-coming-into-her-own story of a 23-year-old female who chooses independence over marriage in Edwardian England.

That Beatrice, the 23-year-old, is going to fall in love with Hugh, and he with her, is obvious from the start. That Daniel, Hugh’s cousin is gay, and will most likely meet some sort of heartache is also obvious. I don’t have a problem with predictability. If anything, I like knowing the lay of the land. But in this case, the predictability made the story boring.

The Summer Before The WarAgatha Kent is Hugh’s and Daniel’s aunt, and is along with Beatrice, Hugh, and Daniel, one of the epicenters of the story. She’s the one who gets Beatrice appointed as the Latin teacher in the local school amidst much uproar. She’s a progressive but is not given to crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. She’s also a veteran at navigating the waters of social niceties and its inherent politics and power struggles.

Hugh is a nice young man, and Daniel is a temperamental poet. Agatha’s characterization is compelling but she’s flat as a character. She has the potential to be interesting as when she is “forced to consider whether her sympathetic interest in her staff’s families might have more to do with appearing generous than any willingness to be inconvenienced by their actual problems,” but such bursts of realizations are few and far between.

Beatrice’s character shows promise, and one can see the way she is evolving through the course of the story. Her uneasy alliance with Mr. Poot who’s a sort-of-adversary, and in fact the revelation of Mr. Poot as not just a character inserted for the purposes of foiling Beatrice’s appointment as a teacher, but as one who while sort of flailing around, is also a person in his own right, caught my attention. However, Beatrice gets only a part of the limelight. (And Mr. Poot is there in just a scene or two).

Writing this, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I could not find myself sufficiently engrossed in The Summer Before The War is because of what-felt-to-me the lack of any development in three of the four major characters. They remain at Page 267 pretty much as they were at page 1.

I do want to point that there’s some good stuff in there too. Simonson’s especially skilled at capturing both the rhythms of a small town life, and at evoking the Englishness of her setting. There’s also bits and pieces about war and its paraphernalia that provide some food for thought (and that may perhaps increase in the second half of the book, now that the stage’s been set). Nonetheless, I’m happy with my decision to DNF this, and instead proceed with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Middlemarch and maybe also All The Birds In The Sky!

Middlemarch Book 2: “Old and Young”

Valancy’s review of Book 2: Middlemarch: Book II, Old and Young (Or, not everything is coming up roses…)
Laila’s review of Book 2: Thoughts on Middlemarch Book Two: Old and Young

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I continue to fall more deeply in love with Middlemarch and George Eliot. She’s perspicacious in ways that is both funny, and sublime. The way she articulates these sentiments and structures them into sentences feels new to me, different from anything I’ve read before. I like that she doesn’t write in staccato bursts but instead meanders, goes-around, and sometimes draws out a single sentence into a full paragraph:

For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.

She’s obviously erudite and her story reflects her knowledge of the advances in arts, science, and politics of her time.

Part of what makes me giddy with delight is the scope of Eliot’s story. There’s a large number of people in Middlemarch, and all of then belong to this story. They are such a balance of unique individuality and universal humanity that I can’t help feeling as if this is an account of real people rather than characters who’ve been drawn up to tell a story.

The first book chiefly concerned Dorothea Brooke. In the second, we are introduced to more of the citizenry, the chief amongst whom seems to be Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a newly arrived doctor in Middlemarch and is one of the “young” of the title. He reminded me of Dorothea in pretty much every way. He’s high on idealism but without a clue on how to translate that idealism into ordinary, everyday practice. Like Dorothea, he’s not particularly self-aware. It’s yet to be seen if his first brush with conflict will result in any realizations about the disconnection between his notions and the reality of “social conditions, and their frustrating complexity.” He’s intellectually passionate and rigorous about his chosen field of study and profession:

bringing a much more testing vision of details and relations into this pathological study than he had ever thought it necessary to apply to the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversations of men.

Like Dorothea, he looks to be on the brink of an unpropitious match—both Lydgate, and Rosamond, who’s sure to rope him in soon enough despite his plan to not marry for another five years, are ambitious. But, on the face of it at least, their ambitions seem to be incompatible. Rosamond feels like someone who can turn out to be pretty catty but we’ll have to wait and see.

We don’t get to know a lot about Mary Garth. She’s treated like dirt by Mr. Featherstone to whom she’s a companion, and is much admired by Fred Vincy. However, she sees Fred for the wastrel he is and refuses to be impressed by him, even though one gets the sense that she’s not completely immune to him.

At the end of book 1 Fred Vincy appealed to his father to intercede on his behalf with Mr. Bulstrode, his uncle. The intercession leads to the revelation of Mr. Bulstrode as being a man whose chief motive would appear to be to “further the glory of God,” and of Mr. Vincy as a shilly-shally kind of man. Bulstrode is further revealed to be someone who wields considerable power over his neighbors by virtue of his “charities.”

There’s also Reverend Camden Farebrother, the Vicar of St Botolph, (who’s also the cause of the conflict that Lydate faces), and for whom I can’t help but feel a soft spot. He’s just SO. NICE.:

The Vicar of St Botolph . . . by dint of admitting to himself that he was too much as other men were, had become remarkably unlike them in this—that he could excuse others for thinking slightly of him, and could judge impartially of their conduct even when it told against him.

Dorothea, and Casaubon make an appearance in the last third of the book. They’re in Rome on their honeymoon, and Dorothea’s disillusionment has begun. Casaubon treats “what to her were the most stirring thoughts” in a “matter-of-course” manner, and in a “tone of dismissal.” Given Dorothea’s earnestness, that’s almost like kicking an enthusiastic little puppy. And yet, it’s very difficult to cast Casaubon as an outright villain. Partly, it’s because Casaubon did not force this marriage on Dorothea, and partly it’s because we see just enough of his vulnerabilities to see him as a really stupid, and vain old man—one who married Dorothea to possibly get a new lease of life but who’s only now realizing that he’s too ossified for even that—than a contemptible one. (Though I’m a little puzzled by his aversion to physical touch—whenever there’s a mention of Dorothea touching him in some way, he seems to become uneasy). As for Dorothea, you can’t help feeling for her—made as she is, to feel, as if there’s something fundamentally wrong in being the creature of feeling and passion that she is.

Into this morass wades Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s cousin whom we met in Book 1. He’s the antithesis of Casaubon and doesn’t see “the world’s ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connections.” He’s enchanted by Dorothea, and in sharp contrast to Casaubon, “discussed what she said, as if her sentiment were an item to be considered in the final judgment even of the Madonna di Foligno or the Laocoon.” As the epigraph in the last chapter foreshadows, he proceeds to fall in love with her. On her part, Dorothea, whose “heart. . . had always been giving out ardour and had never been fed with much from the living beings around her,” feels a “new sense of gratitude” for Ladislaw.

I love the thoughts that Eliot conveys on art, and history in the last third of the book. Here’s a thought on art:

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing.

And another one on enjoying art:

“I supposed I am dull about many things,” said Dorothea simply. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”

“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else.”

And here’s one which reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s hivers in A Hat Full of Sky (I don’t have the book on hand, else I’d have juxtaposed this with the hiver quote):

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

The third book is titled “Waiting for Death.” Has to be Casaubon, right? OR! Oh No! Is it going to be some metaphorical horror inflicted on Dorothea? Or Mary Garth? Or Rev. Farebrother? Or Will Ladislaw? Argh. What are you up to George Eliot?

P.S. You can find all the links related to the Middlemarch Readalong on the upper right hand corner of this page.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is set in the same world as Pride and Prejudice but the story it tells is a very different one. We get to know the “downstairs” in Longbourn but this is not just a “downstairs” story. Longbourn is a story about another side of Pride and Prejudice—another side of Longbourn, another side of Mr. Bennet, another side of the sisters, Hill the housekeeper, and even another side of Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Collins. There’s a sense of the characters being fleshed out more fully, and of Jo Baker bringing to light another dimension of these well-known characters.

longbourn jo bakerSarah is the heroine in our narrative and is one of the two house maids in the Bennet’s employ. She wonders why anyone would want another human being to be satisfied with the emptying of the chamber pot and the washing of other peoples’ underthings. She wants another life for herself, a life where she wasn’t “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” She doesn’t want a life that’s a facsimile of those she serves; her dreams, her thoughts, her desires are all her own.

Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, is the other star around which Longbourn revolves. She is the one who keeps everything running smoothly. That she has far more sense than Mrs. Bennet is obvious. Contrast Mrs. Bennet’s joy at seeing Lydia married to Mrs. Hill’s reaction: “Mrs. Hill felt at once desperate for her, and furious: what a poor, poor bargain she had made of herself.” Life has given her a short shrift, and yet she finds it within her to be more forgiving of Mrs. Bennet than anyone else perhaps:

She was a wearying, anxious being, was Mrs. B.; she was always so eager to solicit interest in her sufferings. But if her husband had loved her as a husband should—contentedly, generously, and without reserve—would she then have found it necessary to keep on seeking proofs of love, only to keep on being disappointed?

Baker takes Austen’s characters and looks beyond the surface of who they are.

And so, Mr. Collins, instead of being a pompous fool, is shown to be just another nervous young man who’s eager to impress:

Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances natures and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure.

Baker does this again, and again. She shifts her perspective of the characters ever so slightly that it seems to be in keeping with who they are, and yet, it also presents them in an all new light—some appear more mellow than they originally had, while others make you wince at their casual thoughtlessness (Looking at you Jane, and Lizzie!). This was one of my favorite parts about Longbourn and it really drove home the point that perspective matters a lot in story-telling—change the lens and you might be telling an all together different story.

Longbourn details the drudgery of the life of the servants in the 19th century, and yet at no point did this make for a dismal read. One reason for this is the writing which is really lovely. Baker is a perfect example of a writer who believes in showing rather than telling, and nowhere is this more evident than in Mrs. Hill’s reveries which though emotionally sparse are brimming with meaning.

Here’s another example of what I mean—I love that anger makes Sarah “rearrange” herself:

Sarah was bristling now; she rolled her shoulders, planted her feet, rearranging herself.

And here is James’s discovery of being in love with Sarah (he’s a footman hired by the Bennets, and is the “hero”):

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes—Netherfield’s being shut up, Ptolemy Bingley’s departure for London—and then bundled into a downhill helter-skelter, through the chances of her happiness, fears for her safety, the dangers of the world beyond, her ignorance of them; and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the room—to arrive at the shock of a full stop: he loved her.

And here’s a description of a noisy metropolis:

Despite her tiredeness, she could not sleep: the noise—the sheer depth of it, layer after layer of sound—cabs rattling along the street in front, drays rumbling down to the docks, cats fighting or mating in the alleyways, the creak of rope from the wharves, a dog barking, a clock, and another clock, and another still more distant clock chiming out hour after hour of the night, into the darkness, as the Gardiners’ housemaid snored oblivious in her bed, and Sarah twisted and turned and tangled herself up in blankets that smelt of someone else.

Last one, of Mrs. Bennet:

Mrs. Bennet was not one to tiptoe around the edges of disaster, with one eye to the abyss and another to her own comportment: she plunged headlong in, and as she fell, took pains to enumerate of the discomfort and the inconveniences of the fall.

Jo Baker’s tale overlaps with Austen’s account of the Bennets but in Baker’s own words, “it inhabits a very different world.” I’m glad that this rendition of that account exists as well.

Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse

So let me begin by saying what did NOT work for me—namely, a few of the Christian themes that are integral to the structure of The Little White Horse, plus a couple of other philosophical ideas that underpin the book:

(i) The idea that a “sin” committed by an ancestor continues to have repercussions for each successive generation till somebody “atones” for it

(ii) The very idea of “sin”

(iii) That curiousity in a female is bad (though to be fair to Elizabeth Goudge, it seemed that Maria paid little attention to this one)

(iv) That for a relationship/marriage to thrive one must never quarrel (as italicized in the book). Though this became more understandable in context of what’s revealed later in the story, it still wielded a weight that makes me put it up here in this list.

Elizabeth Goudge The Little White HorseI’m pointing these things out not to debate their rightness or wrongness or to discuss whether they’re an accurate representation of Christianity (I’ve no idea); I’m mentioning them because it was difficult for me to look past these notions and continue enjoying the story. (Also, that Maria gets married at age 14/15—maybe this was in keeping with the times (1840s) that the story is set in, and also the fact that The Little White Horse is a bit fantasy-ish but in the wake of the other things that I mentioned above, this last seemingly trivial bit just made me want the story to finish already! And if the book hadn’t been an Inter Library Loan, I doubt I’d have bothered to finish it at all)

When we begin, Maria is a 13-year-old orphan who’s on her way to Moonacre Manor in the village of Silverydew. Let me pause to reflect on these names because firstly, they are lovely, and secondly it becomes clear very early on that “silver” is of some significance in the story. Maria is accompanied by her companion Miss Heliotrope who’s looked after her and loved her since she was a baby. There’s also Wiggins, a spaniel, who’s equally lovely and vain.

They meet up with Maria’s only living relative, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, who’s genial, sharp-eyed, and exactly the kind of guardian that Maria could have wished for. Rounding off Sir Benjamin’s household are a dog-who’s-the-most-unlikely-looking-dog there ever was, a cat who communicates by drawing in the ashes, and a cook who happens to be a dwarf. We don’t get to meet these characters all at once. Instead, Goudge reveals them to us one at a time, drawing us deeper into the mystery that surrounds Moonacre Manor. All this I lapped up without batting an eyelash. Goudge is simply superb at creating a highly atmospheric setting—one can feel the hint of sinisterness lurking beneath the unabashed joy of the Moonacre Valley and the Silverydew village.

And this brings me to the aspect of The Little White Horse that I loved the most—the descriptions! I adore an author who gives a free rein to their words, letting it all tumble out, with no eye to restraint. Goudge’s descriptions are lush, detailed, and awash in colors. She fills in her scenes with such texture and dimensionality that you can’t but see the whole thing in your mind’s eye. This is true for all of her food scenes as well! I LOVE food, and I love that Goudge is so persnickety when it comes to laying out and describing all the food items that Maria consumes in the book.

But when she looked again there was nothing to be seen except the tangled briars and all the lovely little birds with their rainbow-coloured wings. They were singing gloriously this morning, twittering and chirping and caroling and shouting and fluting and humming in praise of spring, until it was a wonder they did not burst their throats.

Another example to illustrate what I mean—a description of the place where all the food is prepared! It was a toss-up between this and Maria’s room, both places that I would love to live in!

Maria, in the kitchen, once more stood and gazed. The kitchen was glorious, flagged with great stone flags scrubbed to the whiteness of snow, and nearly as big as the hall. Its ceiling was crossed by great oak beams from which hung flitches of bacon and bunches of onions and herbs. It had two open fireplaces, one for boiling stews, and cooking pies, and another, with a spit, for roasting. There were two oval bread-ovens set in the thickness of the wall, and pans, so well polished that they reflected the light like mirrors. There was a large wash-tub in one corner, and against the wall an enormous oak dresser where pretty china stood in neat rows; and an oak table stood in the center of the room. There were several doors which Maria guessed led to the larders and the dairy. The windows looked out over the stable-yard, so that the morning sun filled the room, and the whole place was merry and bright and warm and scrupulously clean. There were no chairs, but a wooden bench against the wall, and several three-legged wooden stools. One of these stools had been pulled up to the table, and standing upon it, facing Maria as she came in, was a little hunchbacked dwarf making pastry.

Throughout the book, Goudge invokes the moon and the sun as two types of Merryweather personalities. Balance between the two is important for a happy life in Goudge’s world. I don’t have a quarrel with that. Balance is important in all our lives, I agree. But Goudge’s frequent use of the silver-gold motif (especially the silver) left me feeling a little worn out. I wonder if this motif/mythology has any real world significance as well. Anyone know?

Also, as a counterpoint to things I mentioned at the start, here’s a bit of of Goudge’s representation of Christianity that did work for me:

Maria had never heard anyone pray like this Old Parson, and the way that he did it made her tremble all over with awe and joy. For he talked to God as if he were not only up in heaven, but standing beside him in the pulpit. And not only standing beside him but beside every man, woman, and child in the church—God came alive for Maria as he prayed, and she was so excited and happy that she could hardly draw her breath.

I’m pretty sure I read some of Goudge’s children’s books as a kid but for some reason I have absolutely no recollection of their overtly Christian themes. Maybe it just went right over my head? I still have Goudge’s Dean’s Watch that I got from a second-hand bookshop. I think I might give it a shot (for all those descriptions!) and see how it goes!

Middlemarch Book One: Miss Brooke, George Eliot

My cohort’s thoughts on Book One:

Laila’s Review: Thoughts on Middlemarch (Book One: Miss Brooke)
Valancy’s Review: Classic Review: Middlemarch, George Eliot (or venturing into provincial life…)

And here’s my own. . .

Till almost the half-way mark I couldn’t figure out how much of Dorothea’s foolishness stemmed from her creator’s influence and how much of it was a result of the society she lived in, a society where:

Women were expected to have weak opinions; [and] the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.

Of the three young women Eliot introduces in Book One—Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy, and Mary Garth—it is Dorothea who blazes with an intensity that I imagine would be uncomfortable to live with. (To be fair, Mary Garth might be equally intense with no outlet for that intensity given that she’s wholly dependent on others for food, clothing and a roof over her head).

Dorothea’s thirst for knowledge much beyond what is allowed to her sex makes her a sympathetic character:

She, hardly more than a budding woman, but yet with an active conscience and a great mental need, not to be satisfied by a girlish instruction comparable to the nibblings and judgments of a discursive mouse.

And yet she’s quite tiresome too:

She was enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.

It’s easy to see why Casaubon holds such attraction for Dorothea despite being a middle-aged, doddering old prosy. He’s knowledgeable about matters close to Dorothea’s heart and more importantly indulges Dorothea in her interests. Whether he indulges those interests out of a genuine concern for Dorothea’s well-being or merely as an opportunity to exhibit and impress with his Great Knowledge is anybody’s guess. It doesn’t occur to Dorothea to make this distinction either. She wants to be married to someone who can subsume her within him—someone of a much greater intellectual stature, someone who can “help [her] see which opinions had the best foundation:”

She was not in the least teaching Mr Casaubon to ask if he were good enough for her, but merely asking herself anxiously how she could be good enough for Mr Casaubon.

It doesn’t strike her that she is too much of a doer to sit passively and let life happen to her. In this, Mary Garth has an edge over Dorothea—she has a level of self-awareness that Dorothea displays nowhere in Book One.

By this point, more than being annoyed at her relentless righteousness, I feel sorry for Dorothea. But I also take comfort from something Eliot says earlier in Book One:

Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and coloured by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zig-zags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be.

So perhaps, Dorothea’s marriage to Casuabon is just the first of the many “loops and zig-zags” that will take her “where [she] ought to be.” (I like how Eliot switches from third person plural to first person plural by the end of the paragraph.)

What of Casaubon? He comes off as such a complete and utter stick-in-the-mud that I started chortling when I read of his expectations to feel “the force of masculine passion!” Eliot does seem to be having some fun at his expense:

[He’s been working on the Complete Compendium of Something or the Other for as long as anyone can remember]

His very name carried an impressiveness hardly to be measured without a precise chronology of scholarship.

Eliot surprised me even more by talking about Casaubon’s expectations for happiness. HAPPINESS?! Casaubon? Really?! “Masculine passion” had me chortling, but Casaubon’s expectations for happiness made me shiver. Why are we being made to look at Casaubon in an all new light at this juncture? The way Eliot paints Casaubon through so much of Book One—as a character in Dorothea’s story—makes it easy to forget that he also has a life (and probably desires) of his own.

Then there’s Celia, Dorothea’s sister, whose common-sense allows her “to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation.” She calls Dorothea Dodo which I think is a ridiculous nickname for someone as earnest as Dorothea. But maybe that’s the point? I like Celia’s even-temperedness and wish that Eliot hadn’t portrayed it as dimwittedness:

[Here’s Celia’s argument to convince Dorothea (who disdains of such fripperies) that it’s a good idea to spend time looking at their mother’s jewelry, and dividing it between the two of them.]

“I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mamma’s memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And,” she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, “necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poinçon, who was stricter in some things than even you are, used to wear ornaments. And Christians generally—surely there are women in heaven now who wore jewels.” Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she really applied herself to argument.

My note beside this says, “Strength of what? An ant?”

I’m a little puzzled at why Eliot has set up Dorothea’s cleverness in opposition to Celia’s common-sense. Wouldn’t the two go hand-in-hand? Their differing temperaments notwithstanding, the sisters seem to have an affection for each other.

I’m not sure what to make of Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s and Celia’s uncle. So far, he seems to be mostly bluster and no substance. Towards the end, a flurry of characters makes their appearance. Rosamond Vincy seems to be a thoroughly selfish and unlikable character and I wonder if Eliot will endow her with any redeeming qualities like she did with Dorothea. I do want to read more about Mary Garth. As I mentioned above, she seems to be more self-aware than Dorothea, an awareness that might lead her to faring better than Miss Brooke perhaps?

Throughout the story Eliot gives us glimpses of the society in which our characters move.

On marriage, especially the woman’s role in it,  and how woefully unprepared Dorothea is for her own (because even though we can’t be sure of what Casaubon expects from his marriage, I suspect it would cleave more to the first part of this paragraph than the latter):

Let but Pumpkin have a figure which would sustain the disadvantages of the short-waisted swallow-tail, and everybody felt it not only natural but necessary to the perfection of womanhood, that a sweet girl should be at once convinced of his virtue, his exceptional ability, and above all, his perfect sincerity. But perhaps no persons then living—certainly none in the neighbourhood of Tipton—would have had a sympathetic understanding for the dreams of a girl whose notions about marriage took their colour entirely from an exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life, an enthusiasm which was lit chiefly by its own fire, and included neither the niceties of the trousseau, the pattern of plate, nor even the honors and sweet joys of the blooming matron.

A hint of the winds of change to come and the Old Guards’ reaction to it:

You’d sooner offend me than Bulstrode. And what’s he?—he’s got no land hereabout that ever I heard of. A speckilating fellow! He may come down any day, when the devil leaves off backing him. And that’s what his religion means: he wants God A’mighty to come in. That’s nonsense! There’s one thing I made out pretty clear when I used to go to church—and it’s this: God A’mighty sticks to the land. He promises land, and He gives land, and He makes chaps rich with corn and cattle. But you take the other side. You like Bulstrode and speckilation better than Featherstone and land.

And that such changes have always been a part of the societal fabric:

Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement: had not only its striking downfalls, its brilliant young professional dandies who ended by living up an entry with a drab and six children for their establishment, but also those less marked vicissitudes which are constantly shifting the boundaries of social intercourse, and begetting new consciousness of interdependence. Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirants, gained wealth, and fastidious gentlemen stood for boroughs; some were caught in political currents, some in ecclesiastical, and perhaps found themselves surprisingly grouped in consequence; while a few personages or families that stood with rock firmness amid all this fluctuation, were slowly presenting new aspects in spite of solidity, and altering with the double change of self and beholder. Municipal town and rural parish gradually made fresh threads of connection—gradually, as the old stocking gave way to the savings-bank, and the worship of the solar guinea became extinct, while squires and baronets, and even lords who had once lived blamelessly afar from the civic mind, gathered the faultiness of closer acquaintanceship. Settlers too, came from distant counties, some with an alarming novelty of skill, others with an offensive advantage in cunning. In fact, much the same sort of movement and mixture went on in old England as we find in older Herodotus.

I like that what Eliot says about the changing nature of society is as true today as it was when she wrote this.

I like her wit and her descriptions. I like her epigraphs. I like that her characters are of such a varying degree. I like that she seems to be suggesting that these characters are as much a product of their times as their own inclinations. I like how there seem to be so many moving parts in this story. I REALLY like the sprawling nature of this novel! And can’t wait to read Book Two!

Mini-Sort-of-Review: Courtney Milan, Once Upon A Marquess

I had so much fun reading Courtney Milan’s Once Upon A Marquess that I now want to go back and finish Trade Me and The Suffragate Scandal, and also The Countess Conspiracy which I suspect I will love!

I’m just going to list all the things that made me like this one:

  • That it’s Christian who’s obviously in love with Judith at the start of the story
  • That Christian’s Marquess-ness plays absolutely no part in the story!
  • That Christian is odd in a way that’s definitely odd rather than being cute
  • That Christian and Judith communicate with each other, openly and honestly, throughout the book
  • That Judith’s relationship with her brother and sister gets the same air time as her relationship with Christian which fleshes out her character and gives coherence to her choices
  • That Theresa and Benedict, the sister and brother, are also decidedly odd in a rather non plot-moppet way!
  • That the story unfolds against the aftermath of the Opium Wars—which makes me want to re-read Sea of Poppies and finish-up the rest of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy!
  • That Christian and Judith banter as two gay geese! And that this bantering reveals, like nothing else could have, how finely attuned they are to each other
  • That you can get really, really angry with your loved ones and wish them to Hades and still love them
  • That Christian’s accusations of treason against Anthony, Judith’s elder brother, did not turn out to be a namby-pamby decoy-ishy plot device

I can’t wait to read the rest of this series!

What about you? Have you read Once Upon A Marquess?

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

If in The Wee Free Men Tiffany decides to be a witch, then in A Hat Full of Sky she discovers what being a witch means. A Hat Full of Sky is the perfect continuation of the story begun in The Wee Free Men.

At the start of the story Tiffany is apprenticed to Miss Level whose chief skill, it appears to Tiffany, is her ability to co-exist in two bodies simultaneously. Miss Level’s idea of witchcraft is not Tiffany’s for it seems to her that all Miss Level does is tend to the sick and help out with the odds and ends about the village. Dissatisfied with the notion that “witchcraft is mostly about doing quite ordinary things,” restlessness skims along just underneath the surface of Tiffany’s life.

A Hat Full of SkyWhat happens next cements my love for Terry Pratchett. Pratchett conceives of a foe whose vanquishing demands that Tiffany acknowledge the darkest of her thoughts and bring to light those parts of herself that she’d rather wish away. ALL of Tiffany is powerful, especially the parts that she would rather did not exist. It is only by making those parts visible that she can gain control over them, and begin to understand her enemy. It’s a clever, and deeply satisfying construct to watch unfold.

This integration of a bit of philosophy, a bit of metaphysics into the plot is one of my favorite things about A Hat Full of Sky. It is something that Pratchett apparently excels at and that puts me in awe of the breadth of his imagination and the depth of his writing skills.

There’s of course Nac Mac Feegle aplenty. There’s something utterly unsquashable about them! Just like they did in The Wee Free Men, the Nac Mac Feegle enliven A Hat Full of Sky, balancing its profundity with hearty humor and at times bringing to the humor that runs rampant in Pratchett’s stories a smidge of profundity. They’re Tiffany’s cheerleaders and staunch allies, going with her to places nobody else would dare.

Tiffany also gains other witchy friends, some her own age, some much older than she is—yes, I’m talking about Granny Weatherwax. There’s a scene between them which could be called a staring contest, only it’s not a contest, and is so much more than the two of them simply staring at each other. Their locked gazes create the impression of a ritual in which the older and the younger witch take a measure of each other. It is a ritual in which the two acknowledge each other, an acknowledgment that is oblivious of the world that’s swirling around them. It’s a scene that thrilled me to my core for within a page the reader knows that this is a relationship that is going to be one of the “soul and center” of this series, and of Tiffany’s life.

Another thread that runs through A Hat Full of Sky that resonated with me was the idea that we make sense of the things that happen to us by weaving them into narratives. Stories, Granny Weatherwax suggests, can “get things done.” They have the power to re-cast the unknown in terms that cause the unknown to become slightly more relatable, and in becoming more relatable, less mysterious. Does that mean that the “truth” loses its tarnish along the way? Possibly. But what good is the truth if nobody can understand it, or act on it is Granny Weatherwax’s (and Pratchett’s) point.

You have to tell people a story they can understand. Right now I reckon you’d have to change quite a lot of the world, and maybe bang Mr. Raddle’s stupid fat head against the wall a few times, before he’d believe that you can be sickened by drinking tiny invisible beasts [referring to microbes]. And while you’re doing that, those kids of theirs will get sicker. But goblins, now, they make sense today. A story gets things done.

The trouble in this story starts with Tiffany trying to see the hat that Granny Weatherwax had given her. A hat marks a witch, brands her as one with power and when her newfound friends tell Tiffany that she doesn’t really have one, it triggers a series of events that Tiffany couldn’t have foreseen. So it’s apropos that in the last chapter things come a full circle and Tiffany realizes that

The only hat worth wearing was the one you made for yourself, not one you bought, not one you were given. Your own hat, for your own head. Your own future, not someone else’s.

She hurled the hat up as high as she could. The wind there caught it neatly. It tumbled for a moment and then was lifted by a gust and, swooping and spinning, sailed away across the downs and vanished forever.

Then Tiffany made a hat out of the sky and sat on the old pot-bellied stove, listening to the wind around the horizons while the sun went down. . . .

The sun set, which is everyday magic, and warm night came.

The hat filled up with stars. . . .

Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon

In the world of regency romance, a guy has to be a duke-in-waiting or at the very least a 19th-century-equivalent-of-a-self-made-millionaire to merit status as a hero. Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon turns this convention on its head by having a gentleman’s gentleman for its hero and a maid-of-all-work as its heroine.

John Toogood has been made redundant recently and Sukey Grimes is turned out without a job. The only position open requires a married couple and so the two enter a marriage of convenience that’s made easier by the fact that they’re obviously attracted to each other. The attraction however does nothing to alleviate the insecurities that they each suffer—Toogood about his age (this is a May-December romance) and Sukey about her unworthiness for someone as grand as Toogood. That the challenges in their relationship exist despite the attraction is something I really appreciated. It drives me bonkers when authors attempt to paper over the problems in a relationship with combustible attraction.

listen to the moon

Lerner draws a richly detailed world of the early 19th century serving class, laying bare the circumscribed nature of their existence. She shows that people are people no matter their class, and that this too is a world that brims with love and longing. While the class distinctions are clear and well-defined, there’s no romanticizing of one over the other. Everyone has a story, Lerner seems to be saying. Like the man and the mistress that they used to serve, Toogood and Sukey too harbor ambition, and cope with their fears as best as they can. Yet neither Sukey nor Toogood “reach above themselves.”

It’s not that they’re not cognizant of the lot that they have been dealt with. They are. “A servant’s home was her world,” Sukey thinks to herself at one point and “John wished, not for the first time, that employers felt obligated to be as tactful and carefully distant as servants did.” But not once does Lerner even hint at the world of title-dom for her characters. She knows that sowing seeds of such ambition would completely derail the story that she is telling.

Lerner’s decision to eschew the glitter of title-dom for a story with characters who face many more practical limitations about what they can and cannot do makes for a more interesting romance-reading experience. I loved that the following perspective. . .

She’d see him fussing with Mr. Summer’s nightshirt and banyan and slippers and nightcap: Were they warm? Were they hanging too near the fire? Were the coals in the warming pan still hot, and should it be moved to another part of the bed?

Hours of work for a half-second less of chill, and would Mr. Summers even notice the difference? And John had worn himself out, nothing left for his wife.

. . . is juxtaposed with this one:

He didn’t know how to explain that it mattered to him, that these skills he’d acquired for pride and coin could comfort her. It sanctified something temporal and mundane.

I had a lot of fun seeing Sukey and Toogood lay their demons to rest. However, I did think that the story dragged quite a lot. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been tighter and shorter. I am looking forward to Mrs. Khaleel’s story though! (And yes, Listen to the Moon has made me think about Jo Baker’s Longbourn—has anyone read it?).

Maybe generosity wasn’t about giving or receiving. Maybe it was just about the sharing. In joy and care, whichever happened to be in the offing.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

Of all the children’s books that I’ve read in recent years it’s Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy that takes me back to the stories of my childhood. There is an ineffable something about Birdsall’s chronicle that goes beyond the words that she uses to tell it.

The four Penderwick sisters range from age 4 to 12. Rosalind is the the eldest of the motherless brood and it’s obvious that she’s the eldest, protective as she is of her sisters, and attuned as she is to the vagaries of their moods and personalities. Batty is “the littlest,” and the shyest of the lot who never goes anywhere without her orange and black butterfly wings. The closet between her room and Rosalind’s is to her a “secret passage.” Skye, the second eldest, is orderly, organized, and also hot-tempered. Jane is the dreamer and the writer with a flair for the dramatic.

Now, if Rosalind had been the first to discover that tunnel, she would have noticed that it was too neatly trimmed and prickle-free to be there by mistake, and she would have figured that someone used it often and that someone probably wasn’t Mrs. Tifton. If Jane had been the first, she, too, would have realized that natural forces hadn’t formed that tunnel. Her explanation for it would have been nonsense—an escape route for convicts on the run or talking badgers—but at least she would have thought about it. But this was Skye. She only thought, I need a way through the hedge, and here it is. And then she plunged.

the penderwicks book 1There’s also a cottage with “a front porch, pink climbing roses, and lots of trees for shade,” a dog called Hound, a cook called Churchie who bakes gingerbread that makes everyone “forget that they had [just] eaten breakfast,” and a boy called Jeffrey who the four sisters befriend. The sisters and Jeffrey get into all kinds of scrapes. Their hijinks involve a bull, two rabbits, and also a soccer ball (unfortunately, not all at the same time). At the same time the adults in the story know their proper place and lie low till they are truly needed. In short, this is the sort of story you wish you had lived through.

While there is an overarching plot that involves everyone, each of the children also have their own mini adventure that is easily absorbed in the narrative whole. These individual storylines firm up the reader’s sense of the characters and the world that these characters occupy.

Birdsall gets children and understands their dynamics with one another. (I can’t shake off the feeling that there really is a bunch of Penderwicks out there). The sisters love one another and find strength in each other but there’s also a bit of chafing at being part of a sisterhood.

Here’s Skye and Batty, who’ve always been a little uneasy around one another, walking back home, after a particularly nasty exchange with Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey’s mother:

“I have a question.” Batty was peering up from under the brim of her rain hat.

“What?”

“Am I odd? Is there something wrong with me, like Mrs. Tifton said?”

Skye knelt down on the wet grass and looked right into Batty’s eyes. “No, you stupid idiot, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect. Mrs. Tifton doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely positive.”

“Oh,” said Batty.

“Do you have any more questions?”

“Not right now.”

“Then let’s get you home to Daddy.” Skye took hold of Batty’s hand and held it all the way back to the cottage.

The resolution of the central conflict is so in keeping with the spirit of the tale. No precociousness or sudden burst of brilliance, just a little courage and muddling through the best you can (with some help from Mr. Penderwick). The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy is kind, funny and has a good old-fashioned warmth to it that will linger on long after you’re done reading it.

A MOOPS was a Meeting Of Older Penderwick Sisters. Rosalind, Skye, and Jane called it MOOPS to keep Mr. Penderwick from knowing what they were talking about. Batty wasn’t supposed to know either, but she knew about MOPS, which was a Meeting of Penderwick Sisters, because she was always invited to them.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy

Before I begin I should warn you, dear reader, that Ancillary Mercy is the last book in the Imperial Radch trilogy and what follows may contain spoilerishy things for the first two books in case you plan to read them!

Ancillary Mercy takes up right where Ancillary Sword left off: Breq’s revelations leave her crew reeling with shock; there’s the question of the ghost gate and the mysterious occupants beyond it; Anaander Mianaai is still AWOL; and to complicate matters further a new Presger translator arrives on the scene, just a few pages into the book. The scene is set and everyone’s on tenterhooks!

Ancillary Mercy is a fast paced, gripping read. And yet despite being a page-turner the thing that strikes me the most about this book, and in fact this trilogy as a whole, is its meditative quality. (Is there a category called ‘meditative thriller?’ ‘Cus Ann Leckie would definitely belong there!) I think this is partly because of the way Leckie structures her story. Scenes of nail-biting action alternate with details of ordinary existence. You might be annihilated any second but till that happens you still need to eat and you still need to—pardon my crudeness—poop. It’s this juxtaposition of extremities that often brings what matters into a startling focus.

Against the background of an uncertain intergalactic war, Leckie explores the invisible nature of privilege. While Seivarden’s character makes the “peculiar benefits” of privilege pretty obvious, Breq’s realizations sneak up on her and the reader. That this happens to wise, omniscient Breq who sees to the heart of the matter is a masterstroke on Leckie’s part. It really brings home how easy it is to overlook one’s own position of privilege and the power imbalances that can result in one’s relationships because of this.

ancillary mercyAll this doesn’t take into account the details that make the Imperial Radch world feel so alive. My particular favorite is the layers of meaning that Leckie vests glove-wearing with—in Leckie’s world not wearing gloves would cause greater mortification than being naked. I’ve never really thought about the things that we take for granted as social mores but this trilogy has made me wonder at their arbitrariness and how the very same thing that causes ridicule in one culture might be valued in another.

Then there is the gentle menace of the Presgers who are unable to distinguish one human from another. The translator in particular often provides comic relief accompanied by a swift feeling of disorientation in the scenes where she (he? it?) is present. The question of what it means to be human—Is it having a body? Feelings? Awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings? Consciousness? Sentience? All of the above? A combination of some?—crops up again and again through the course of the story (and the trilogy) and is central to resolving one of the conflicts in the book. This resolution might come across as gimmicky to some readers but it seemed like a logical next step in the story that Leckie has been telling.

Leckie has mentioned that while Breq’s story is done with she WILL be writing more novels set in this universe. I can’t wait! I’m hoping to see some more of the Presgers in future books. I’ll end with a bit that’s poignantly funny:

I turned my head at a splash from across the courtyard. Translator Zeiat stood upright now, one leg still in water, one arm soaked and dripping. A small orange fish wriggled desparately in her grip. As I watched she tilted her head back and held the fish over her mouth. “Translator!” I said, loud and sharp, as she turned her head toward me. “Please don’t do that. Please put the fish back in the water.”

“But it’s a fish.” Her expression was frankly perplexed. “Aren’t fish for eating?” The district magistrate stood at the top of the steps into the courtyard, staring at the translator.

“Some fish are for eating.” I went over to where the translator stood half in and out of the water. “Not this one.” I cupped my hands, held them out. With a little scowl, Translator Zeiat dropped the fish into my outstretched hands, and I quickly tipped it into the basin before it could flip out onto the ground. “These fish are for looking at.”

“Are you not supposed to look at the fish you eat?” Translator Zeiat asked. “And how do you tell the difference?”