Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.

 

RebeccaWhen I put Rebecca on my Classics Club list, I didn’t know anything about it. I put it on my list with the same intention I put many classics on it: I wanted to read well-known or important classics, and knew this was one of them.

But when I started book blogging, I soon discovered how many readers include Rebecca on their top 10 favorites list. That in itself was intriguing, yet there were so many other classics I knew about that I wanted to read first.

Now I am initiated. Now I understand.

(Caveat: For those not initiated, you will see often in this post ‘the second Mrs. de Winter,’ this is because her name is never mentioned).

There is so much tension built into this book, which begins in the first pages where an unnamed narrator is recounting a dream. It is a beautiful descriptive dream of a house, its grounds and its secrets and an ominous statement that it is no more.

The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.

When the young second Mrs. de Winter comes to Manderley, her background has not prepared her to take up the responsibilities of caring for a show place like Manderley. Her shyness and reticence in the presence of the household staff and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, does not instill confidence and she is constantly questioning herself and her marriage to Maxim. In her mind she concocts rich fantasies about what the staff really thinks of her, although reality is never as bad as her thoughts. But there is another facet of this experience she has no control over. She is living with the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca and her secrets, that permeate every aspect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s life.

No one will talk about Rebecca, which only adds to the second Mrs. de Winter’s rich fantasy life. Though many characters are introduced including Beatrice, Maxim’s sister and kind-hearted Frank Crawley, Maxim’s business associate, who genuinely like and accept her their refusal to talk about Rebecca and her death hangs over Mrs. de Winter’s ability to feel comfortable in the house.

That is until Mrs. Danvers, who it turns out was not just the housekeeper, but Rebecca’s confidante confronts Mrs. de Winter when she catches her in Rebecca’s suite and is only too happy to talk. Danvers is the classic dead mistress-obsessed housekeeper who refuses to let go of the past. She cleans and dusts this suite every day. She lays out Rebecca’s clothes as if she is only gone for the day. du Maurier writes this scene so well. It is easy to share de Winter’s panic as Danvers speaks.

It’s not only this room it’s in many rooms in the house…I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?”…Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evenings in the old days, looking down at the hall below and calling to the dogs. I can fancy her there now from time to time. It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.” She pauses. She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now? Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

I swallowed. I dug my nails into my hands.

Sometimes I wonder,” she whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.”

When a ship capsizes in the bay and Rebecca’s small boat is discovered with her dead body still inside Maxim has no choice but to reveal the truth about how she died. It is a shocking revelation, but in my opinion, less shocking than the reasons he did it. As she listens to the truth about their marriage, as she hears the details about who Rebecca really was and as the investigation and inquest unfold, she is transformed. She is determined to support her husband, will hear all he is accused of, will stay by his side. In this regard she grows up and is changed overnight. Even Maxim acknowledges her transformation, dismayed that it is his fault.

But you. I can’t forget what it has done to you. I was looking at you, thinking of nothing else all through lunch. It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca. It’s gone, in twenty-four hours. You are so much older…

And then he says her name. He doesn’t, of course, but in my head it would have made so much sense for him to say it here.

Du Maurier’s writing style is quite amazing in this book. How many passages are worth quoting her way with words? How detailed she gives to the narrative whether in describing a person, Manderley and its grounds, or an event, but the narrative never feels bogged down in the details.

Yet, it is the details that infuse, propel and wrap up the story. I spent the last quarter of the book on a roller coaster as one revelation proves Maxim’s guilt while another one covers it up, while still another could go either way. I have never been very good at guessing outcomes in books, so I was not prepared for the very end. While it explains the dream of the first few pages and why the narrator is estranged from her home, I was still shocked. With eyes as big as saucers I closed the book…“What???”

I have heard people say and I have said it too about books that really touched me; I wish I could forget I read this book so I can read it again for the first time. I think I will always think that about Rebecca.

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My Edition
Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publisher: Avon
Device: Paperback
Year: 1938
Pages: 380
Full plot summary

Challenges: Roofbeam Reader TBR, Classics Club

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Margery Sharp Day – The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948)

For a moment he was left suspended between past and present, and well he knew which way his heart yearned. What he longed to return to was an orderly world. No one, in Mr. Brocken’s opinion, had tasted the sweetness of life who had not lived before 1914. What years those were for solid comfort!

 

22074996Recently widowed, fifty-five year old Isabel Massey Brocken has come back to her childhood home, Chipping Lodge. Nearby is the war-damaged remains of the much larger, Chipping Priory, where the Brocken family lived with their two sons, Simon and Mark. Ruth, Isabel’s sister, married and moved to New Zealand, while Isabel eventually married Mark. They had a long happy marriage and though childless, Isabel is close to Ruth’s son Humphrey who was educated in England, served in the war and is now staying with Isabel. Simon is also staying at Chipping Lodge while his war-damaged home is renovated. Completing this collection of family members and employees is Jacqueline Brown Isabel’s companion and Mrs. Poole and her 14-year old daughter, Greta, who Simon hired on as caretakers and cooks.

Humphrey and Jacky have struck up a relationship and value the peacefulness of Chipping Lodge after the chaos and stress of the war. As does Simon who hopes he can get through the next several months with his sister-in-law and the rest of the occupants of the house in peace and quiet. The Poole mother and daughter only want to do their jobs and be left alone. Order and respect permeate Chipping Lodge, though Sharp’s writing suggests a sense of unease.

We soon find Isabel holds a secret that will disrupt the balance of power at Chipping Lodge, a secret she has harbored since girlhood concerning a great wrong she committed against her cousin, Tilly Cuff. She has invited Miss Cuff to visit indefinitely and plans to make whatever amends she can. Simon remembers Tilly, but does not remember a special affection between her and Isabel and fears the disruption of a new person, a feeling shared by Humphrey. Both men have also observed that Isabel seems distracted and under some strain; a normally a patient woman, her temper has become thin and her tongue sharp.

When Isabel finally unburdens herself and what she hopes to do about it Simon and Humphrey are shocked and angry: Isabel wants to give all her money to Tilly out of guilt because of a childish misdeed she believes changed her life for the worse and deprived her of a home and family. It wasn’t until but a few weeks before that a half-heard phrase at church woke this guilt and the remedy to assuage it. She tells Simon what the preacher said,

It was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. “He meant, don’t you see, that because a thing happened a long time ago, it doesn’t make it any less base if it was base at the time.”

The sleeping guilt of the act has risen up inside her so that her only remedy is to confess to Tilly the deed and to give her all of her inheritance, including the house, which would go to Humphrey if she didn’t want it.

Once Tilly arrives, however, her abrasive and dictatorial behavior sets everyone on edge. Isabel promises Simon she won’t tell Tilly of her plans until she settles in, but even she sees how loathsome and impossible to bear Tilly has become. Simon tries to talk her out of her plans and though Isabel is aware of her disruption and admits she is very unlikable, that is still no reason to withhold what should come to her.

As time goes by, Tilly has encroached and wrestled her way into the personal and professional life of every person at Chipping Lodge and all is chaos and bad feelings. The Pooles have given notice, Jacky and Humphrey have separated, Simon stays late at the office and leaves early and Isabel has retreated into her own mind.

Something must give before all is lost, so Isabel plucks up the courage and tells Tilly that on the morning after one of their teenage parties, a certain Mr. Macgregor who was interested her wrote her a letter offering marriage. Isabel found it, read it and kept it from her, because she was in love with him herself. She knows this selfish act deprived Tilly of a future of happiness and security that she could never get back. But Isabel could make her future better by offering her money and a home.

It took Tilly three days to emerge from her bedroom and when she does she stuns them all by refusing Isabel’s offer. What she wants instead is for Isabel to keep everything and to give the house to Humphrey; she only wants a life with Isabel. Together they would live out their days in Bath, which Isabel loves, or anywhere else. After all of her years in service, where she went from one job to the next she only wants the stability of friendship and the security of a place to live in her old age. What Tilly is proposing surprises Isabel, since she expected, and was frankly looking forward to, a little suffering as penance. She questions Tilly until she is satisfied that Tilly’s need for stability is the best gift she can give her at this time in her life.

Jacky and Humphrey are horrified for Isabel, until a childhood friend of hers spells it out for them,

Isabel and Tilly have lived their lives for better or worse, “They’ll do very well together, and when Tilly upsets people, Isabel will calm them; and if Isabel is sick, Tilly will nurse her–and of course Isabel will nurse Tilly. I shouldn’t be surprised if they grew to be a very devoted pair.”

As Jacky, Humphrey, Isabel and Tilly make their separate ways out of the house, Simon is left with the Pooles, who continue to do their jobs quietly and unobtrusively. Simon is left with the ghosts of his past until Humphrey, if ever, returns and “could look forward to a period of perfect peace.”

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the setting. Almost every scene takes place in one location, Chipping Lodge. The characters develop, interact with each other, rant and rave and come to terms with their fate all in the same place. The character journey is really the thing here and it’s as if they are forced to face themselves in a locked room until they each find a way out.

This was a satisfying read and one that does make one question wrongs done in the past and how or should they be rectified. To bring up old wounds or not when starting anew might be a better step? While Tilly claims she was not in love with Macgregor, which satisfies Simon, Isabel knows a marriage proposal from anyone decent would have been better in her situation than the life she was eventually forced into.

I am happy to have been introduced to this author and look forward to reading more about her today.

If you are interested in other neglected women writers, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock has created a wonderful post called, A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors that lists the dates of birth of 16 women writers in which to read, read about or celebrate. This makes the prospects of 2018 much better, in my opinion!

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My Edition
Title: The Foolish Gentlewoman
Author: Margery Sharp
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Library binding
Year: 1948
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

The Witches of New York, Ami McKay (2017)

Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shopgirl.
Must be well versed in sums, etiquette, tea making, and the language of flowers.
Room and board provided.
Those averse to magic need not apply.

 

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It is 1880 and New York City tea shop owners Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom are doing a brisk business at their shop, Tea and Sympathy. Eleanor, a hereditary witch with a sympathetic ear makes potions, curative teas and spells that give comfort and insight to the women who come to her for advice. Adelaide, whose past includes sideshow huckster, develops a genuine gift for fortune telling after a devastating acid attack scars her face and causes the loss of her right eye.

 

A shepherdess sees to the care and feeding of her flock, a seamstress sees to the cut of a lady’s dress. Witches see to things best sorted by magic: sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh. This is what we do. That is who you are. Madame Delphine St. Clair

Though she won’t admit it, Eleanor is feeling the stress of their success with overwork and sleepless nights. Adelaide is concerned, but when she brings up the matter Eleanor cuts her off. So without asking, Adelaide puts an ad in the paper hoping a suitable assistant will appear whom Eleanor won’t refuse. In her small town north of the city, Beatrice Dunn sees the ad and hopes this will be her ticket to a new life. From the moment she enters the city her latent magical abilities emerge. And to Adelaide’s relief, Eleanor takes her ‘gift’ under her wing and Beatrice’s talents blossom. Overseeing the young women is the magnificent raven, Perdu, who sits on his perch high above the actions of the shop. An old, literally talkative soul who belonged to Eleanor’s mother, he sees all and protects the women as best he can.

They meet Dr. Quinn Brody through one of their clients, Judith Dashley, who with her husband, own a well-known hotel. Dr. Brody is an alienist, but has become interested in the after life and communication with the dead. He is anxious to test a device left to him by his father, which he simply called a spiritoscope and though his father’s only experience with the machine was in exposing frauds, Quinn hopes to find a true spiritual medium. When Beatrice admits she can see the dead son of Judith Dashley, Adelaide believes she is the perfect subject for Dr. Brody’s machine and Beatrice agrees. After preliminary tests it is clear the machine through Beatrice is picking up something. They arrange a public demonstration of Beatrice’s abilities at a hall in the Dashley’s hotel, but just before she is scheduled to appear, she goes outside looking for Eleanor, who she can’t find in the audience. A hand closes over her mouth and she is whisked away.

Beatrice is not the only woman disappearing from the streets. A push back against anyone deemed progressive, different, antireligious is in full force. Independent women, especially have been targets of accusations of immorality and witchcraft. Reverend Townsend, a preacher whose demented mind has twisted scripture to construct a one-man army of God against suspected witches in particular has taken it upon himself to bring these women to repentance. He walks the streets in search of prey and tortures the women into admitting their “wrongs.” If they die, it is better that they are off the streets.

His fiery sermons against the immorality of the times has affected one of his flock who is certain evil is going on at Tea and Sympathy and writes to a Mr. Comstock, whose Society for the Suppression of Vice is aimed at cleaning up what goes through the mail as well as what goes on in the streets. People like Sister Piddock write in about their neighbors, shop owners, or anyone they believe are “engaged in questionable activities.”  When agents of the Commission investigate the shop nothing untoward is found, but the women are still on the Piddock radar.

It is Townsend who has taken Beatrice and for days she is suffering his torture in his basement cell. Eleanor and Adelaide are frantic to find her and enlist the authorities as well as people from the neighborhood to help find her. By magic and the visitation of the ghost of one of Townsend’s previous victims, she is able to escape.

Ami McKay has created a very suspenseful story in the way she uses historical details as a foundation for many of the events that effect the characters. In the late 19th century, contact with the dead through private séances and public demonstrations interested many who were grieving over friends and family members. The Comstock Laws of 1873 initially attacked material sent through the mail that had to do with preventing conception, but went on to attack any material or behavior that was considered lewd or lascivious.

Women who needed to prevent pregnancy or end it, could not do so openly. Eleanor and women like her had the recipes, the tinctures, the experience to help in these situations, but their discovery to authorities could prove tragic. It wasn’t uncommon for people to take these laws into their own hands to attack neighbors or others on the streets. McKay populates the book with a range of character types that give the novel a depth of atmosphere. Some are so vulnerable and exposed due to circumstance you fear for their safety against those who want to clean up the streets. Yet, some are so bold that they protect the weak against the hypocrisy of the so-called do-gooders.

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Cleopatra’s Needle encased in a massive box crossing train tracks into Manhattan, 1880

When Beatrice boards the train to New York City to apply for the job at Tea and Sympathy, it stops suddenly to make way for a massive box that has stopped on the rails. She is told it contains a great obelisk called, Cleopatra’s Needle and it is making its way from Egypt to Central Park. She has her first mystical experience when she gets off the train to inspect it.

The obelisk is real and its journey to the city in 1880 elicited great excitement. Erected in Egypt in 1450 BC it was sold to the US with specific instructions that it would go to New York City. New Yorkers were enraptured by Egyptomania as merchants and entrepreneurs created specialty foods, costumes and accessories with an Egyptian theme.

Finally, one of the greatest strengths of this novel for me is the friendship between Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice. Their support and encouragement of each other’s gifts and purpose even when they have differences in approach is what makes their friendship successful. When Tea and Sympathy is targeted and Beatrice goes missing, it is the good will that the three women have created between themselves and among their friends, the community and even the street people who ultimately come to their defense.

This book affected me in all the right areas: I love its attention to, as well as, bending the historical record; personally, I am on the lookout for a 21st century Tea and Sympathy; and, culturally, I am encouraged by its depiction of community support when any of its members are in trouble.

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Read more about:

Cleopatra’s Needle, its history and journey to New York City

The Comstock Laws

How, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Spiritualism rose to its apex in the late 19th century:
The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud and Photography, and the man who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, by Peter Manseau.

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My Edition
Title: The Witches of New York
Author: Ami McKay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Device: Paperback
Year: 2017
Pages: 527
Full plot summary

Challenges: Historical Fiction

‘Slow Reading’

Slow reading is the intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension or pleasure. The concept appears to have originated in the study of philosophy and literature as a technique to more fully comprehend and appreciate a complex text. More recently, there has been increased interest in slow reading as a result of the slow movement and its focus on decelerating the pace of modern life.

 

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Nicki at The Bliss of Solitude, wrote a wonderful piece on her year-long reading of Thoreau’s Walden and how the effect of reading two pages per day changed her as she walked familiar paths and trails. She says, “it was the slow seeping in of Thoreau, his tireless and minute observations of Walden Pond, Walden Woods, and his awareness and sensitivity to the sights and sounds within that redirected my attention to observation and contemplation.”

Something resonated for me on this practice of slow reading, although Nicki’s profound experience rather intimidated me!  Nevertheless, I decided to choose my own year-long project.

When I participated in The Emerald City Book Review’s WitchWeek last November, it was with scanty knowledge of King Arthur and the stories connected with him. I chose to write a piece on one small aspect of the legends, The Round Table, which was not only enjoyable to research, but piqued my interest to read more. But where to start?

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I chose Sir Thomas Malory’s, Le Morte D’Arthur, because it has been a foundational work on King Arthur and the various people and legends of Camelot and the Holy Grail for writers and artists throughout the centuries and its size lends itself to a purpose such as this. Reading 3 pages a day from my Modern Library Classics edition means I should finish shortly before the end of the year.

My pattern has been to walk after reading the 3 pages contemplating a theme or two and then making a few notes in a journal. I find I am retaining what I learn day to day. So far so good!

 

Have you heard of the Slow Movement in general or the Slow Read in particular? Have you tried it?

And if you are curious, it’s still January and still time to choose your own book!

The Bostonians, Henry James (1886)

 

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Of course, I only speak to women—to my own dear sisters; I don’t speak to men, for I don’t expect them to like what I say. They pretend to admire us very much, but I should like them to admire us a little less and to trust us a little more…When I see the dreadful misery of mankind and think of the suffering of which at any hour, at any moment, the world is full, I say that if this is the best they can do by themselves, they had better let us come in a little and see what we can do. Verena Tarrant

…you ought to know that your connexion with all these rantings and ravings is the most unreal, accidental, illusory thing in the world. You think you care about them, but you don’t at all. They were imposed upon you by circumstances, by unfortunate associations, and you accepted them as you would have accepted any other burden, on account of the sweetness of your nature. Basil Ransom

Boston in the 1880s was one of the national hotbeds for the first wave of feminism. The early supporters of suffrage and equal rights for women were former abolitionists, reformers and liberal Christians who advocated for the poor, had harbored runaway slaves before the War and exposed the inequality of the classes. Lectures in homes and in public halls abounded as women took to the stage to voice the long history of the injustices perpetrated against them and to defend the right to full participation in every facet of public and private life.

This is the city in which Olive Chancellor lives and imagines a better world for women. A young, wealthy feminist she has given her life to the cause of suffrage and women’s emancipation. But an error in judgment occurs when her sentiments get the best of her and she invites a distant cousin from Mississippi to visit. Believing her mother would have wanted to make contact with their Southern relatives, she has taken up that mantle after her death. Basil Ransom, who shows up at her door one evening could not be more traditionally Southern in his demeanor or his views on women. Somewhat older than Olive he fought for the South, an act that places him squarely at odds with his Northern cousin and the milieu in which he finds himself.

At her suggestion, which she later regrets, she tells him she is going to hear a well-known speaker on women’s rights and he is free to join her if he wishes. This tragic invitation, for Olive at least, is worse than the one that invited him to meet her in the first place. It is at this gathering both become entranced by young Verena Tarrant, a dynamic speaker who is on the verge of becoming this generation’s speaking authority for women. At least this is what Olive believes when she invites Verena to live with her so that they can learn and study together and prepare Verena for her mission in life.

But from the beginning of his first vision of “that charming creature,” Ransom never believes Verena’s sincerity to the Cause. He is convinced she doesn’t believe what she says and as the months progress he mocks and ridicules her to her face and to those around her. Olive cautions her:

There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to stop your mouth by kissing you! If you become dangerous some day to their selfishness, to their vested interests, to their immorality—as I pray to heaven every day, my dear friend, that you may!—it will be a grand thing for one of them if he can persuade you that he loves you.

Which is exactly what Basil Ransom sets out do as he and Olive battle for heart and mind of Verena. Though Olive tries in many different ways and at several times to physically remove Verena from Ransom’s insinuating presence in their life, he is unrelenting in his desire to take her from this false view of womanhood and bring her to her senses, which is home, husband and children. And yet, for all her protestations against his mockery and her heartfelt pledges of devotion to Olive and their work, Verena is susceptible to his charms and is pulled to him then to Olive, back and forth as she struggles under their force.

What Henry James weaves here is a finely crafted war of wills between these three and the very well-defined supporting characters. Ransom, the die-hard son of the Confederacy, who is often introduced or described as ‘The Mississippian,’ whose traditional Southern values are anathema to his Northern hosts is truly a fish out of water in Boston. While I wrote in my notes that “he is such a pig,” and his views and actions toward Verena are contemptible, I also have sympathy for him. He is a product of his region and culture fighting to preserve it and it is not in his DNA to think women really want to be free of the restrictions men have placed on them, to have their own opinions, to vote, to be treated equally. This is not an excuse for his behavior and he is free to change, yet these sensibilities are very useful for James in giving a clue to his underlying motivations for Verena: “The South may have lost the War, but I captured a Yank.” If it is this deep resentment of the North that motivates him it is personified in Olive who he will rise up against.

I have never thought very hard about interactions between Northerners and Southerners—‘brother against brother’—at the War’s end. How DID people of such opposing political, national and personal beliefs deal and work with each other? How did they become friends or fall in love or enter into all manner of relationships? If, as Olive worried at the lecture over how to introduce Ransom to her abolitionist friends, because not everyone would “care to know a person who had borne such a part in the Southern disloyalty,” how did people heal from this?

Before Verena is set to make her big public lecture debut, she and Olive have secreted themselves away for months to practice and rehearse her speech. Ransom is unable to discover her whereabouts until the event. On the night of the debut, Verena takes one look at him and her resolutions weaken. The lecture is delayed and the audience, who paid good money to see this new speaker, is becoming anxious. Olive sees him as well and sees what it is doing to Verena. As Ransom gets a physical hold of her he whisks her out the door.

Whatever motivates Verena to leave her great work for someone who mocks her, who openly ridicules the women she surrounds herself with and the work she wants to do in the world, is unclear to me. Though she tells Olive at one point that Ransom loves her, he never actually says it; not once does he say to himself that he loves her nor does he tell anyone else. He is only motivated by revenge for the South’s lost cause and vengeance against Olive for her treatment of him.

And whatever Olive’s feelings are toward Verena, in the end she lets her go. Olive knows that if she presses her to state her loyalty to the cause they have worked so hard for, to pledge faithfulness to Olive and the friends they work with she would do it, but “the magic would have passed out of her spirit for ever, the sweetness out of their friendship, the efficacy out of their work.” If Olive and Verena have what is called a Boston marriage in the end, Olive is the bigger person and Basil Ransom is the plunderer.

Poor Verena, caught in the middle, is never really allowed to know herself and to understand what she wants. And for me that is the biggest mystery of all. As she is forced out of the hall by Ransom, she says, “Ah now I am glad!” when she hears Olive stepping up to the stage to give the lecture herself, something she has always refused to do. Does Ransom interpret these words as a victory for him? Or are they in support of her dear friend? And why is she in tears?

“It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.

A Personal Note

This is my first Henry James, so I can only speak of his writing style from this book, which is dense and explanatory. In the notes to my edition I was reminded his brother is William James, the celebrated American psychologist and philosopher and I do not know what effect, if any, that had on James or this particular book. Because part of the denseness of the writing comes from the mental conflicts James describes in depth, we know more about the characters’ psychological state than what they look like.

This compelled me to read the book in two days. I really needed to know what was going to happen to everyone! And then I wanted to get these preliminary thoughts down. I am a little disappointed in my rapid reading of the novel and don’t advise it for others. I hope to read this again in a few years, because I know there is a richness and profundity that was missed.

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My Edition
Title: The Bostonians
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1984
Pages: 433
Full plot summary

RBR TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Looking Toward 2018

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I don’t have a great desire to do a recap of 2017. I want to look forward. But I do want to mention two things that were important to me this year:

  1. Favorite books of 2017: I am making myself choose only four, three classics and one historical novel, even though it is an impossible task! Dracula, Northanger Abbey, House of Mirth, and Radio Girls.
  2. “Enriched by reading the reviews” of other bloggers’ books is one of the ways I would characterize this year as well as reading your comments on mine.

Number 2 brings me to my plans for 2018. I am going to concentrate on what I would call the foundational classics I have not yet read, like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and books by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde. I want to read Rebecca and find out why it is on so many top ten list of favorites. And maybe I’ll tackle a Woolf.

And I want to read some American foundational classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby Dick and books by Willa Cather and Henry James. Maybe do some traveling with Charley. Louisa May Alcott wrote so many other books besides Little Women…time to dust some off? And I want to find out more about Sarah Orne Jewett whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I so enjoyed in 2016.

 

 

In order to help with these deficiencies, I am taking part in a number of (overlapping) challenges, including Roof Beam Reader’s TBR, Back to the Classics and the Victorian Reading Challenge. These will also help me with my Classics Club list.

Since I can’t deny my attraction to the 19th century, I am also going to read more historical fiction that takes place in that time period, so I have signed up for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The second emphasis for the year is to expand my awareness outside the UK and US by concentrating on Reading all Around the World that I neglected last year,  participate in the European Reading Challenge and Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Challenge. I can’t promise I will stay out of the 19th and early 20th centuries with these challenges, however, but more history and different perspectives and experiences is always a good thing!

I am also doing a personal challenge on the American Civil War with thanks to Jillian who helped me craft the categories.

Good gracious, this is a lot! And I know there will be readalongs and other events throughout the year that I will participate in…well, a good way to stay out of trouble!

I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte (1847) Classics Club Spin #16

I was the only person in the house, who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty; and this I say, not of course in commendation of myself, but to show the unfortunate state of the family to which my services were, for the present devoted….she [Rosalie] had never been perfectly taught the distinction between right from wrong; she had, like her brothers and sisters, been suffered from infancy, to tyrannize over nurses, governesses, and servants; she had not been taught to moderate her desires, to control her temper or bridle her will, or to sacrifice her own pleasure for the good of others…

 

agnesgrey

On the one hand, Agnes Grey is a simple story about a daughter wanting to help her family when her father’s finances go wrong. Taking a position as a governess, Agnes reasons, will allow her to send money home. On the other hand, I found the book to be a complex account of the clashing of classes, in what constitutes love and marriage and the raising of children, and what makes a moral person.

When 18-year old Agnes leaves home to become a governess, she is leaving a loving, safe environment. She is naïve of the world outside her small village and is full of idealized fantasies that her new life will bring which will be full of good little children and her power to mold them.

But the reality is a shock to her system. The young Bloomfields run wild and have no use for her. To complicate matters, Mrs. Bloomfield has given her strict instructions that she must not discipline them in any way either through strong words or physical punishment. Agnes must do the best she can with the children without parental interest in their instruction or in her as someone they must respect. When the father does take an interest in his children it is through harsh punishment which makes Tom, the oldest boy, fear his father, which he takes this out on his sisters and to Agnes’s horror, small animals. She has no authority to chastise him and when she realizes his father condones this sadistic behavior it is a lost cause. In the classroom, Agnes spends more time chasing the children into their chairs, trying to interest them in anything remotely having to do with studies and generally throwing her hands up as they run out the schoolroom door.

It comes as no surprise to Agnes that she is finally dismissed because ‘she is not giving the children what they need,’ as though parental neglect and a refusal to see their children as they truly are had nothing to do with Agnes’s difficulty with them.

Agnes next finds employment at the wealthier Murray estate. Soon after her arrival the sons are sent to boarding school, so her main charges are 14-year old Matilda, the tomboy, who would rather be helping out at the stables or hunting with the dogs and 16-year old Rosalie who is almost ‘finished.’ Agnes’s instructions with the girls are similar to the ones she was given at the Bloomfields regarding punishment, with the added,

“only to render them as superficially attractive, and showlily accomplished, as they could possibly be made without present trouble or discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly—to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine….And make them as happy as you can….”

One of the striking aspects of this book seems to me is a commentary on the upper classes and their frivolity and selfishness, their lack of discipline and moral standards in contrast to the upholding of the working classes as the real bedrock of Christian morality and virtue. Agnes grew up a clergyman’s daughter and her mother modeled for her and her sister all the important values missing in the homes of the upper classes at which she works.

When the Murray daughters visit the cottagers on their estate they do so with irresponsible condescension and the mocking of the sick and poor to their faces. When they break their promises to return to read or visit with them, Agnes takes on this role. The girls did not learn from their parents what their status obliges them to do toward the poor and how to show sincere kindness to others. It is left to Agnes to be the example for them, though it seems to have no effect over the superficialities that take precedence over their lives.

This superficiality is never more striking than in the way Rosalie approaches marriage. She will, of course, marry for wealth and position as her parents see fit. Love is not a factor, nor is Rosalie’s own choice. Agnes watches with grave concern as Rosalie, in acts of rebellion, flirts mercilessly and leads men on, even toward a marriage proposal. It is almost as if she must prove to herself that though the choice of a husband is made for her, she herself could attract any man she wanted. She is mean with her selected prey, almost torturous and not concerned about the devastating hurt she is causing even after Agnes’s warnings.

This book, by the youngest Bronte sister, is often panned or looked upon as a more juvenile effort than her sisters’ books. But there is a wealth of commentary to be gleaned from Agnes’s thoughts and experiences about the intimate life of the upper classes. It is an eye-opening look at the snobbery, the self-importance and dysfunction of that class of family life. Children are left to their own devices by parents who give them over to governesses and nurses who have no power to truly educate or form them. For these twice on Sunday church goers, it is all for show.

Through Agnes’s selfless actions and comforting words with the cottagers and in the cottagers deeds to each other, the reader sees it is the middle and working classes who demonstrate the true teachings of the church, who come to each other’s assistance regardless of what little they have themselves. It is they who make excuses for the bad behavior of the upper class girls. It is in the morality of these classes that fidelity is shown to their husbands and wives, and children toward their parents and in the mutual aid of the cottagers toward one another.

The novel contains more plot lines than I have discussed here, including a happy romantic ending for Agnes and for her widowed mother with whom they both open a school for girls that becomes successful. But it is the issues above that captured my attention in this first reading of Agnes Grey.

__________________

My Edition
Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 2005
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club Spin #16, Classics Club List, Mount TBR, Library Love

My Life in Books (2017)

 

 

Adam, at RoofBeamReader.com, just posted a fun end of the year round-up. Called, ‘My Life in Books,’ you answer a set of questions using one of the titles you’ve read this year.

I hope you’ll join in. I’d love to see what you come up with! Here’s mine:

 

1. In high school I was: (one of the) Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford

2. People might be surprised: (that) Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles

3. I will never be: Dracula, Bram Stoker

4. My fantasy job is: Being a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz

5. At the end of a long day I need: A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith

6. I hate it when: (there is) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson

7. Wish I had: The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare

8. My family reunions are: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

9. At a party you’d find me with: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War, Pamela D. Toler

10. I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

11. A happy day includes: The Nature Principal, Richard Louv

12. Motto I live by: Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

13. On my bucket list is: The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene

14. In my next life, I want to have: Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

 

Roxana, Daniel Defoe (1724)

Roxana

 

If you have any Regard to your future Happiness; any View of living comfortably with a Husband; any Hope of preserving your Fortunes, or restoring them after any Disaster; Never, Ladies, marry a Fool; any Husband rather than a Fool…

 

So begins Roxana’s life of woe, written as a cautionary tale “to my Fellow-creatures, the Young Ladies of this country,” that any life is better than marriage with a Fool “nay be any thing, be even an Old Maid, the worst of Nature’s Curses, rather than take up with a Fool.”

Because, Fool she marries, has 5 children by him, suffers through her brother’s financial folly and thereby hers when he is given her portion of their father’s inheritance which he spends and then the folly of her husband’s financial losses. To add to this latest injury, her husband leaves her and their five children to find his fortune elsewhere, with no provision for food, bills or a roof over their head.

Though he has threatened to leave in the past, Roxana never believed he would do it and expects to hear from him or to at least receive something for her livelihood, but as the weeks and months drag on there is no word from him and she begins selling furniture, clothing and jewelry to feed the household. As the situation deteriorates, she knows she must give up her children and hopes the sister of her husband will oblige, so she sends her devoted maid Amy, who has been working without wages, to take the children to their aunt.

The landlord, who has given Roxana a year’s free rent to sort out her situation, begins to insinuate himself in her financial affairs with food and other necessities, which Roxana believes are without strings. However, it becomes clear that if Roxana is interested in staying in the house, he will want to share it with her, cohabit, as if they are a married couple. This is the predicament Roxana will find herself in throughout her life as no word from her husband either for a divorce or by a death certificate will allow her to legally marry. She will be forced to survive in cohabitation, as a mistress, a concubine, a whore.

After the landlord dies, she continues in this manner with successive men, in various situations, acknowledging she is at least lucky that her beauty can still attract rich men, even after so many children and the wear and tear of the guilt she suffers over the choices she has had to make since her husband left. She is given beautiful clothes, jewelry and homes to live in and money to keep up her lifestyle. One of her greatest fears as the years pass in this way, is over the control of this fortune, which she would have to give up if ever she could legally marry. Marriage would mean her husband would control her estate to do with it what he would and as past circumstances have shown her, she could once again find herself unprotected and defenseless. This terrifies her even after she hears her husband has died and she is free to marry legally.

Roxana is never morally accepting of the choices she has made and is often ashamed at her sinful life. The fate of her children haunt her and she wants to make restitution although the difficulty here is admitting to them how she has come by her wealth. With Amy as her “agent,” she makes some financial amends, but this ends up in disaster later on.

The subject matter of this 18th century novel made me wonder how it was received in its day. I discovered the book was popular, though throughout many early editions, the ending was changed by whoever published it as was common at the time. Most had Roxana on her deathbed confessing her sins and crying out her repentance giving her a measure of goodness and assurance of a Christian burial. In some of the endings when she reveals the truth to her children they forgive her and the book ends happily.

However, the real text as Defoe writes it ends with Roxana and Amy’s world collapsing once again into destitution, “the Blast of Heaven seem’d to follow the Injury…and I was brought so low again, that my Repentance seem’d to be only the Consequence of my Misery, as my Misery was of my Crime.


Note on the Text

My edition preserves the original format of the text keeping the unique spellings and word usage, the capitalization of words within sentences and the seemingly (to me, anyway) random italicization of words. But it was not difficult to read. Though at times dense, Defoe’s writing is descriptive and absorbing as if Roxana is telling her story live, in front of a spellbound audience.

A Personal Note

If not for a reading challenge that called for a book with an ‘x’ in the title, I am not sure I would have chosen this book. I scoured myriad lists to find a title and though I knew of Defoe, having read A Journal of the Plague Year  many years ago, I had never heard of this title, so I was happy to acquaint myself with another one of his works. Though I am not always successful in completing book challenges, I can honestly say they have enriched my life!

_______________________

My Edition
Title: Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress
or, a History of the
Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of
Mademoiselle de Beleau, afterwards called
the Countess de Wintselsheim
in Germany
Being the Person know by
the Name of the Lady Roxana
in the time of Charles II

Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1724
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, What’s in a Name?, Mount TBR

Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)

fever

 

I didn’t run from the redcoats, and I won’t run from a dockside miasma. What is wrong with people…We suffered all kinds of disease in our youth, but folks were sensible. They didn’t squall like children and hide in the woods. Captain William Farnsworth Cook, Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment.

Fever 1793, is a compelling historical novel based on the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia during the stifling hot summer of 1793. The story centers on 13-year old Mattie Cook, who watches helplessly as her beloved city grapples with the fear and devastation the epidemic wreaks.

Mattie’s parents own Cook’s Coffeehouse, a hub for politicians and merchants located two blocks from President Washington’s house. Philadelphia is the nation’s first capital city and Mattie is proud to live here. Since her father died, she helps her mother run the business along with Polly, the serving girl and her childhood friend, and Eliza, a free black who has been cooking up the special fare Cook’s is known for since it opened. As the city has prospered, so has Cook’s.

But August has brought fever—just a few cases to start, but enough to worry Mattie’s mother, Lucille, who forbids her daughter from doing any errands or getting provisions down at the docks. Some people are certain the refugees from Barbados have brought the illness and want them quarantined. Though others remind them there is always a sickness during the height of summer heat. Still, there are more cases as August progresses and there have been deaths. Lucille puts more restrictions on Mattie, who is frustrated at being so confined. When Polly does not come to work one day and it is learned she died of the fever, Lucille is adamant that Mattie be sent out of the city to friends out of town.

When it is declared the illness is in fact yellow fever, Philadelphia quickly empties as the wealthy leave for their homes in the country and others write to friends and family outside the city hoping they will take them in. Ships stop docking making food and other supplies scarce forcing businesses to close. Many who can’t get out hoard as much food as they can and close up their homes hunkering down inside for the duration. Amidst protest, Mattie is sent away with her grandfather.

And so begins Mattie’s harrowing journey to the family she never gets to, to the fever that almost kills her and the hospital stay where she recovers. Though weak and with Philadelphia still in the grip of the fever, her age precludes her being released with no place to go. There is no word of her mother’s fate and her aged grandfather cannot take full responsibility for her. Her only option is an orphan house for children who lost their parents and who have no other family to care for them.

But Mattie refuses. She wants to find her mother and go back home. Her determination cannot be matched, so she and her grandfather return to the coffeehouse only to find it has been plundered. After a few days of cleaning up, the coffeehouse is again broken into and her grandfather is killed. Mattie is now afraid to stay by herself.

Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation. Charles Brockden Brown (Memoirs of the Year 1793)

One of the very engaging aspects of the book are the historical quotes that begin each chapter adding to the reality of this frightening time. The real epidemic killed an astonishingly 5,000 people during the summer and early fall of 1793 until the first frost in October brought it to an end.

Anderson incorporates into the novel several contentious issues the epidemic sparked, including the controversial use of bloodletting to “release the poisons” from the blood; the argument between doctors who believed the fever spread through a “miasma” in the air, therefore confining patients to rooms with no access to fresh air versus those doctors who believed fresh air was healthy and part of the cure; the overwhelming number of children orphaned by the epidemic who needed to be housed; how the fever transformed some relationships between blacks and whites who worked together to help the city; and how this catastrophe brought out the best and worst in people as they fought for their lives.

There is great distress in the city for want of cash. Friendship is nearly entirely banished from our city. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

Not for the The Free African Society, however. Founded in 1787 to aid widows, the infirm and out of work Africans, during the epidemic it offered to help all citizens of Philadelphia. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones co-founders of the Society put advertisements in the papers: “We set out to see where we could be useful—the black people were looked to. We then offered our services in the public papers, by advertising that we would remove the dead and procure nurses.”

And in fact, this is how Mattie found Eliza. After her grandfather was killed, Mattie knew she couldn’t stay in the coffeehouse and set out looking for news of her mother. She stumbled upon Eliza in the streets and found she was caring for and feeding the sick wherever she was needed. Eliza was able to fill Mattie in on all that had transpired since she was sent away. Mattie learned that her mother had gone to the family she was sent to, so what could she think when she found that Mattie had never arrived? But for the moment it was decided that without her grandfather and with the business too dangerous to stay in alone, Mattie would stay with Eliza’s family and would go out with her and nurse the sick.

Blessed be God for the change in the weather. The disease visibly and universally declines. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

For weeks the city was caught in the grip of fever, death carts piled high as they rumbled down the streets. Finally, one blessed night a frost sets in and in a little more than a day or two the epidemic is over. Almost immediately the ships begin to dock bringing food and supplies to the beleaguered city and those who went to the country come back. George Washington makes his way back to Philadelphia and the whole city comes alive.

But Mattie has an uncertain future ahead of her. It is suggested she go into an orphan house until she reaches maturity. If she sells the coffeehouse, she can use the money for a dowry. Maturity? Hasn’t she seen and done enough in the last few months as any adult? No, she thinks. The coffeehouse is hers and it is a good respectful business. She will reopen it. But she knows she can’t do it alone and there is only one person she can trust who also has the experience to make the coffeehouse successful again. Though it is unconventional, she asks Eliza to go into partnership. She does not have to be asked twice.

A very satisfying book in which I learned about an event in American history I did not know before.

__________

My Edition
Title: Fever 1793
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2000
Pages: 252
Full plot summary