Daisy Miller: A Study, Henry James (1878)

“What has she been doing?”
“Everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night.”

 

Daisymiller

Published in 1878, Daisy Miller is one of Henry James’s early works. It foreshadows his reputation as a chronicler of the exploits of late 19th century American expatriates in Europe. For a novella, it is bursting with action and the detailed thought processes of his characters that distinguish his longer works. I am reading several James this year along with his friend and contemporary Edith Wharton, both of whom have given me a new appreciation of the novella.

Daisy Miller is a young American woman traveling abroad in Europe with her younger brother and mother. The first stop for the Miller family is Switzerland where one day Miss Miller, who is looking for her brother throughout their hotel, runs into the young Mr. Winterbourne. He is visiting his aunt and is immediately attracted to her unconventional manner. He finds her refreshingly honest and forthright, when for example, she speaks to him right away without being formally introduced by a third party suggesting he accompany her on an outing. Recounting this meeting with his aunt she tells him Daisy Miller is “common” and warns him to stay away.

daisymiller2
A Spring Evening, G. A. Sartorio. Rome, 1902

This criticism of Daisy’s behavior characterizes much of the story and leads to her estrangement from the rest of the expat community, both in Switzerland and Rome where the Millers travel next. But Winterbourne is smitten even though his association with her is a threat to his own good reputation, and though she is hot and cold to his advances which confuses him he cannot let her go.

Their outings are unchaperoned and Daisy does not seem to understand this great faux pas. When she tells Winterbourne her mother is moving the family to Rome and demands he visit her, he gladly tells her his aunt has taken a house there, but business in Geneva will keep him awhile. When he arrives he finds Daisy the talk of the Roman expat community for similar “offenses” as in Switzerland. She not only openly goes out with several Italian men, she often goes alone with a Mr. Giovanelli in what seems to be a serious relationship.

Daisy is an interesting character because she is not particularly likable throughout most of the novel. She flirts shamelessly with her gaggle of men only to discard them all to favor one—yet, she still wants to see Winterbourne, while everyone can see she is seeing Mr. Giovanelli exclusively. Daisy’s mother is weak and unable to advise her and when her female friends try to counsel her she shuts them down. Their concern is that she is too young and naive to understand that her future in this very conventional society is at stake. Toward the end, however, I saw a young woman who is consciously bucking a system that she finds unfair. Why shouldn’t she spend time with people she likes? And what of it, if those people she likes are men?

As the weeks in Rome go by, Daisy is shunned and her reputation in tatters. The American women of the expat community are quick to point out to the vacationing European contingent who themselves are uncomfortable with her conduct, that “her behavior was not representative—was regarded by her compatriots as abnormal.”

Winterbourne is scolded by his friends for continuing to see her; though he does wrestle with his observations of her actions questioning whether she is really so innocent as to not understand how she is perceived or does she just not care? And is his willingness to excuse her behavior due to his honest attraction or is it just his “free-spun gallantry?” When he tries his own hand at counseling her what is at stake:

“I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”


Conclusion
daisymiller1
Colosseum, Ellis. Rome, 19th-century

Daisy continues to disregard any criticism her behavior, walking with ‘the Italians’ in the evenings despite being warned of the dangers of Roman fever—malaria—at that time of day. Her friend Mr. Giovanelli a native of Rome and aware of this danger for non-Romans takes her to the Colosseum one evening, because she wants “to see it in the moonlight.” Sadly, it is not long before the fever’s devastating effects do their work.

What did Daisy Miller want with her life that the conventions of the day made impossible for her? It isn’t really a girl’s actions in such a strict society that gets her in trouble, but the wagging of the matriarchs’ tongues, I think. Affected by Daisy Miller’s life and her untimely passing Winterbourne thinks of her often and one day realizes that she only wanted respect.

One day he spoke of her to his aunt—….She [Daisy] sent me a message before her death which I didn’t understand at the time. But I have understood it since. She would have appreciated one’s esteem.”

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Title: Daisy Miller: A Study
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 52

Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola (1867), #ZolAddiction2019

This life of alternating excitement and calm went on for eight months. The lovers lived in perfect bliss. Thérèse was no longer bored, and had nothing left to wish for; Laurent sated, coddled, heavier than ever, had only one fear, that this delectable existence might come to an end.

 

raquinThe premise of Émile Zola’s, Thérèse Raquin is simple: a man and a woman fall in love, but the woman’s husband is hampering their future plans, so they kill him, guilt ensues and they don’t live happily ever after. A rather common premise. But the way Zola tells it as he gets into the minds of Laurent and Thérèse and describes what lives there results in a thrilling narrative of lies, deceit and descent into depravity.

Thérèse was brought to her aunt when she was an infant by her father after her mother died. She grew up with her cousin, Camille, the only child of Madame Raquin. She has brought him up as a weak and sickly boy who she must always have near her. She decided early on that when the two grew up they would marry. Camille fights for some autonomy from his mother at the beginning of his marriage and decides he wants to move to Paris to find a career.

Madame Raquin uses the proceeds from the sale of her home to buy a haberdashery in what turned out to be a dark and dismal throughway in Paris, called Passage du Pont-Neuf, that she and Thérèse can work in to support the little family and to tide them over until Camille finds a job, which he does at the Orleans Railway Company. Thérèse, who at this point, does not seem to have a mind of her own accepts the fate of a life working in a dingy shop and a passionless marriage. Her outlook changes when Camille brings home his co-worker Laurent and he and Thérèse begin a fanatical love affair. In their overwhelming desire to be together, Thérèse and Laurent think murdering Camille will solve their problem.

One day while boating in the Seine Laurent strangles and pushes Camille out of the boat where it is presumed he has died. Laurent haunts the morgue for weeks hoping to find Camille’s body. When it finally shows up, Laurent realizes the sight of the bloated slimy body will always haunt him. For Thérèse, too, the murder of her husband did not have the effect she had hoped for and her nightmares and wracked nerves give her no peace.

Laurent and Thérèse finally marry, but the fervor that characterized the early weeks of their relationship is gone, because both find the presence of Camille filtering into their waking and sleeping life. In fact, they can’t even sleep together as both feel Camille between them in the bed.

The memory of Camille, his presence, his haunting their days and nights, the murder itself has the opposite effect of allowing their relationship to flourish as the shock and guilt of the crime has ruined any chance of a future together.

Laurent must work and Thérèse must tend to the shop, and neither are happy when together. When Laurent quits his job and rents a garret to further his interest in painting he finds no matter the sex or age of the figures he paints, they all take on the features of Camille; even the dogs and cats he paints reflect him. Thérèse, who is stuck in the shop with her mother-in-law can only go through the motions of serving customers.

When Madame Raquin suffers a physically paralyzing stroke Thérèse must take on her care as well as continuing the work in the shop. A second stroke renders her mute. And as the strain and toll of Camille’s murder wears on Laurent and Thérèse, they stop guarding their tongue in front of the old woman making it apparent they killed her son.

Unable to speak, Madame Raquin tries in the company of some friends to accuse the two and in a suspenseful scene struggles laboriously to lift one finger and begins to air-write the names of Laurent and Thérèse in front of her. But her friends think she means to thank them for their care of her. She is devastated that the murderers will go unpunished and that she is powerless to bring Camille justice. On top of her frustration, Thérèse has taken to making lengthy declarations of remorseful pleas of apology while she sits helplessly in her chair.

The telling of the story is riveting because of the way Zola lets the reader in on the thought processes of the characters. We are lead into the nooks and crannies of the minds of Thérèse and Laurent, but not in a heavy-handed manner. This is not a psychological study into what motivates murderers, even though Zola meticulously describes the phases of their mental state after the murder. These phases are quite damaging and wretched to Thérèse and Laurent as individuals as well as how they treat each other. But Zola describes their unfolding insanity as part of the narrative rather than discussing it as a treatise into the ‘mind of a murderer;’ the difference between a police report vs a psychiatric analysis. For me it is a chilling (and very effective) way to tell a story like this, where emotion is described, but not psychoanalyzed.

At first Thérèse is on top of the world after killing Camille. She spends more time out in the world, has an affair with a younger man, sits at cafes meeting people and starts reading novels which give her a window into adult relationships that she did not grow up with. She understands how her friend Suzanne, like the women in these novels, can accept the difficulties of living in a passionless marriage and still be kind to her husband. In other words, these novels showed her, “it was possible to be happy without killing your husband.”

Weeks and months go by proving to Thérèse and Laurent that getting rid of Camille isn’t giving them their hoped for ‘happily ever after.’ Their once demanding and insatiable drive for each other now fills them with a loathing. Murder is the bucket of cold water against desire.

The lovers made no further attempt to see each other alone. They never arranged a single meeting or even exchanged a furtive kiss. For the time being murder had cooled the voluptuous fevers of their flesh, and by killing Camille they had succeeded in slaking the wild and unquenchable desires which they had failed to satisfy even when crushed in each other’s arms. Crime seemed an acute enjoyment that made their embraces boring and sickening.

The slow deterioration of the couple makes it obvious they cannot go on together haunted as they are both mentally and physically by Camille.

As I turned the pages I could not for the life of me figure out how this was all going to end. If Madame Raquin died and the two were left alone together without her as a buffer or confessor, I couldn’t see how they could stay together without going insane. Maybe the ending is obvious to some, but it left me stunned.

Murder, which came to their minds, seemed natural and inevitable, the logical outcome of the murder of Camille. They did not even weigh the pros and cons, but accepted the idea as the only means of salvation.

But who murdered whom and who got the final vindication is yours to discover if you so choose to read the book?!

Personal Thoughts

I read this in conjunction with #ZolAddiction2019 a reading event of the life and work of Émile Zola hosted by Fanda at Klasikfanda. Thérèse Raquin was written early in his career and the matter of fact way he narrates this murder mystery really worked for me. I responded to his simplicity of describing the complicated descent into insanity, instead of creating a more complicated narrative delving into early life experiences, negative parental influences or traumatic events.

Another point I admire is the fairly self-contained space of the action which is mostly in the shop and the living quarters above it. Except for the scenes in Laurent’s garret and the river where Camille is killed, the characters are confined to these two settings. And if murder is a dirty business, Zola makes the setting fit the atmosphere. His depiction of the little shop Madame Raquin bought that Thérèse is supposed to turn into a money-maker is so viscerally descriptive as a prelude for the moral and physical decay of Thérèse’s future, that you know as a reader, things are not going to go well in any aspect of her life.

As Thérèse entered the shop that from now on was to be her home, she felt as though she were going down into a newly-dug grave. A sort of nausea seized her in the throat and she shuddered. She looked at the dingy, damp arcade, went over the shop, went upstairs, went round each room, and these bare unfurnished rooms were terrifying in their solitude and decay. She could not move or utter a word, but was chilled through and through. When her aunt and husband had gone downstairs again she sat on a trunk. Her hands were numbed and her breast was bursting with sobs but she could not cry.

Thank you to Fanda and to all the ZolAddicts for opening my eyes to a new author!

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My Edition
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Penguin
Device: Paperback
Year: 1867
Pages: 256

#ZolAddiction2019

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950)

None of the children knew who Aslan was. At [his name] each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

lionwitchOne of my commitments this year is to read the complete Narnia series. I started with The Magician’s Nephew (some would argue that is actually the 6th book). But this one gets into the heart of the matter—the struggle between good and evil in the Land of Narnia and the ethics of choosing sides. I love the layers with which you can understand this book; how you can see a Christian allegory or “just” a magical adventure. Like many fantasies Narnia is a land where animals talk, Witches are cruel, quests are taken and bravery against evil is the key to survival.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensies are siblings who have been sent out of London for the duration of the war to the country home of an old professor. During one rainy day Lucy discovers that the back of the big wardrobe in a mostly empty room is actually a gateway to a magical land called Narnia. After her first adventure she returns home to tell her brothers and sister, but they do not believe her, especially after investigating the wardrobe themselves and finding nothing but old coats.

Lucy is distraught that her sanity has been called into question, even after Edmund finds his way into the Land. Finally, in one last effort to quell Lucy’s insistence her siblings try again and successfully find themselves in the cold snowy winter of Narnia. They soon realize they are caught in a battle for rulership of Narnia between the wicked White Witch who wants to subjugate the population and Aslan the Lion who wants all beings to be free. The children learn they are part of the prophecy of Narnia, which they hear from the first friends they meet, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver:

…down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life, and that is why we had to be so cautious as we came along, for if she knew about you four, your lives wouldn’t be worth a shake of my whiskers.

The children readily give themselves up to the cause and the tasks Aslan asks them to complete. The ultimate cruelty for the Witch in order to gain Narnia for herself is to kill Aslan, who willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good. His resurrection, though, is not part of her plan.

As an adult, I found some of the writing simplistic compared to the writing in The Magician’s Nephew, which was written years later. Especially at the beginning I felt like my hand was being held throughout the action. Once all of the children get into Narnia, however, the book reads like any adventure story with complex characterizations and the challenge of making moral choices. When Aslan makes his moral choice Lewis is at his writerly best when after the shock of Aslan’s murder by the Witch and her minions, he explains to the children why he cannot really die:

…that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.

Aslan and the children and the rest of the animals in Aslan’s service go to the Witch’s castle in the last battle for Narnia. Her courtyard is full of statues, her enemies she turned to stone and as Aslan breathes on each one animating them back to life they join his cause. She is killed and Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy sit on their thrones, taking their rightful place as the Kings and Queens of Narnia.

But they are not meant to stay and in the course of trying to capture the White Stag, come upon the lamppost that got them to and from Narnia. Leaving their friends, they scramble back through the wardrobe, where they decide they need to tell the Professor everything. A wise man who had an adventure himself, he assures the children they will return to Narnia but not by the wardrobe. How will they know when it’s time? “Keep your eyes open.”

I am not sure what to expect next if Narnia has been saved and Aslan triumphs. Mr. Beaver tells the children about Aslan, “He’ll be coming and going….One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” Will I see these “other countries” and Aslan again? Will these children return to Narnia or go elsewhere? Will other children take their place in the stories to come?

I guess I’ll find out! And no spoilers, please 🙂

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My Edition
Title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Author: C. S. Lewis
Publisher: HarperCollins
Device: Paperback
Year: 1950
Pages: 206

Challenges: Personal 2019 Challenge, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

The Grey King, Susan Cooper (1975): Wales Readathon 2019

“It is because you are not properly human, but one of the Old Ones of the Light put here to hold back the terrible power of the Dark. You are the last of that circle to be born on earth. And I have been waiting for you.”

 

greykingOne of the bonuses of joining the book blogging community is participating in special months or readalongs that expose me to new authors. In this case, I can honestly say I would probably not have read Susan Cooper’s, The Grey King had the Wales reading event, The Dewithon 2019, not come along.

Though this book is number four in a series I have not read, this did not seem to affect my reading experience: I read it in two sittings wholly drawn in by the storytelling. And though I may have missed some elements by not having read the previous books, especially regarding the eleven year-old protagonist Will Stanton and how he realized he was an Old One on his first full quest to overcome the rising Dark, the book worked fine as a stand alone title for me. For a full summary of the book, I recommend the Kirkus Review.

I choose this book for two reasons: one, the Wales setting, of course; and two, I wanted something fantasy-related as I thought I needed a little “light” reading at the moment. Ha! Let’s just say quests to overcome the Dark are far from light and I should have known!

Will Stanton comes to his relatives in Wales to convalesce after a bout with hepatitis. During his illness he was plagued by a delirium that filled his head with words and images he didn’t understand and now that he is well, can’t let go of them or a feeling of foreboding and something he is supposed to do about it. Once in Wales he awakens to the meaning of these signs and realizes he is on a mission, the details of which are not always obvious until he is in danger.

What makes the novel compelling is how gradually it is revealed to Will that many of those in the family he is staying with and their friends also have a part to play against this rising Dark. Yet, they as well do not know the extent of their role until called upon. So, the reader is carried along with the story, not knowing who is who until the final pages.

The book is based on Welsh legends that the people of the village have grown up with and talked about all of their lives. From the hills and mountains to the lakes, rock outcroppings, to magical beasts and fabled people the story is steeped in the mythology of this distinct place. And as Will goes about gaining strength it is obvious that his presence with these particular relatives is no coincidence; that he had to be here, in this place, at this time.

Will’s memory is gradually activated to specific tasks, to words of ancient spells in the Old Language and to the people around him and to what they mean for the quest. He senses the power of the Grey King, the rising Dark and how to fight it, the identity of the three-robed Old Ones, to the evil neighbor Caradog Prichard, the kindness of John Rowland and his deep knowledge of all the legends and tales of the land and to the final revelation of his friend and ally, Bran, and his true identity.

And as far as this final revelation of the whole quest and success of it, I have only three words: What. An. Ending….

A spoiler, of course, so I won’t say. But as I sat reading the last pages surprised and shocked, I thought, “Of COURSE, King Arthur would have a place in this story…of course!

A final note on Susan Cooper’s writing—which at times is wonderfully poetic and lyrical—the narrative is so beautifully constructed due to her superb knowledge of the old legends and stories that make even the setting itself feel alive with its magic.

I am not sure if I will read the other books in this series, because I can’t imagine I would enjoy them as much as this one. But who knows, I may have to find out….

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My Edition
Title: The Grey King
Author: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Atheneum
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1977
Pages: 208

Challenges: Library Love, Dewithon19

Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics

Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from—home, I was going to say, but I had no home—from England, then, who would weep?

 

villetteJane Eyre is one of my very favorite books. As such it has cast a spell over any desire to read Charlotte’s other novels. But I broke that spell with Villette and while it didn’t knock down my favorite it was a wonderful reading experience.

But it is an odd book. The narrative is filled with the supernatural, with sounds and ghosts real and imagined, madness, creepy streets and gardens, a heroine who not only talks to herself but answers back. And it abounds with coincidence, serendipity or the saving grace of Divine Providence, however one might want to call it.

Lucy Snowe is like Jane, an orphan cast off and adrift in the world, although Lucy is a young woman, not a child, when she is forced by circumstances out of her godmother’s care and left to her own devices to find her way. Through a series of the aforementioned coincidences she is saved by acquaintances, old school chums, being in the wrong place at the right time to finally finding love and security.

Snowe is often convinced she will die when yet another position as a companion or as a teacher goes awry. Through inner dialog she is ready to meet her fate with a philosophic resolve. Her many conversations with Reason are quite profound.

Often has Reason turned me out by night, in midwinter, on cold snow, flinging for sustenance the gnawed bone dogs had forsaken: sternly as she vowed her stores held nothing more for me–harshly denied my right to ask better things…Then, looking up, have I seen in the sky a head amidst circling stars, of which the midmost and the brightest lent a ray sympathetic and attent. A spirit, softer and better than Human Reason, has descended with quiet flight to the waste—bringing all round her a sphere of air borrowed of eternal summer, bringing perfume of flowers which cannot fade—fragrance of trees whose fruit is life, bringing breezes pure from a world whose day needs no sun to lighten it.

Lucy fights with Reason and Divine Providence often, each whispering opinions to her weary mind. She has been made mad by them, but they have also healed her.

A little reading about the reception of Villette in Bronte’s time is fascinating. As a reader of this book in the 21st century, I see it as an honest portrait of a woman who has no family—male relatives—to support or protect her, she is like many in Bronte’s time. Snowe’s life is in her own hands to be made of what she can and at times it isn’t pretty. Bronte’s contemporary, Matthew Arnold, had a decidedly bitter experience with the journey of Lucy Snowe, calling the novel, “hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted…one of the most utterly disagreeable I have ever read. Her mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage. Which the only response can be, “Exactly!” He did not understand that he proved Bronte’s point about women in Lucy Snowe’s situation.

If the novel was only about the Ginevra Fanshawe and Polly Home type, the lovely young girls of status and wealth, that would have made a “pretty novel,” but not a very interesting one. Bronte chose honesty over superficiality giving Lucy Snowe strength, instead of helplessness modeling a heroine that speaks to and gives hope not only to women in Bronte’s time, but to the situation of many women today.

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My Edition
Title: Villette
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1853
Pages: 474
Summary

Challenges: Back to the Classics, 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics Club

The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia), C.S. Lewis (1955)

“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” Aslan

And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring….And when the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.

magiciansnephewI read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) a few years ago. I liked it and knew I would read the other books in the series. I didn’t know there is, what we would call a prequel, until I struck up a conversation with a woman in a bookstore who is an avid Narnia fan. Apparently, after Lewis published the LWW a friend asked him about the lamppost that appeared out of nowhere and in order to clear that up he wrote The Magician’s Nephew (MN). So does this mean the MN is really the first book? When I looked this up, I found Lewis scholars from the 1950s with various opinions that plague newer scholars and fans alike to this day. Chronological order (Lewis’s preference) puts the MN first. Published order puts it 6th or before the Last Battle the last released title. Being that the MN shows not only the origin of the lamppost, but the creation of Narnia by Aslan and how evil enters the Kingdom of Narnia, I believe chronological order is best. But I am only two books in; not the best authority.

I have to admit though, half way through I was very disappointed in the story. I found it dull, the magic not particularly, well, magical. Digory and Polly, neighbor children who are thrust into the void by the power of the magic rings invented by Digory’s Uncle Andrew land in a world made up of innumerable ponds and woods. Even the world that unleashes the Witch and the evil brought to Narnia did not hold my interest. Only the desire that I read all the titles forced me to continue. And then suddenly, Aslan appears and the book takes a most promising turn.

This world has a hopefulness the other worlds did not. It is a new world without flora or fauna, but that changes as a magnificent and glorious sound pierces the air and the children realize Creation is being sung into being before their very eyes!

There were no words. There was hardly even a tune….It was so beautiful he [Digory] could hardly bear it…Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count….The second wonder was that the blackness overhead all at once, was blazing with stars….a thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world….If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing….The Voice rose and rose till all the air was shaking with it; the sun rose. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up….the earth was of many colors; they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else. It was a Lion and stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song….

These passages and the ones that speak about the creation of the animals and other two-legged beings, are the kinds of magic that moves me. Creation being formed out of Song and love and beauty by a Lion who is at once Creator and Sacrifice (LWW). Because, yes, one cannot but help to see that connection. Aslan is birthing the world through the sound of his Voice, bringing forth the first plants, the new starry heavens, the sun and wind and all the animals, birds and beings that will populate this new world.

Out of the trees wild people stepped forth, gods and goddesses of the wood; with them came Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs. Out of the river rose the river god with his Naiad daughters. And all these and all the beasts and birds in their different voices, low or high or thick or clear, replied. “Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.

Aslan tells the animals and other sacred beings to guard and protect the land because evil has been let loose. The Witch followed Digory and Polly into Narnia, but for now she is headed for lands far away and won’t trouble Narnia for hundreds of years. In the meantime Narnia must be made strong. Aslan sends the children on a journey to find the fruit of a special apple tree that once planted in Narnia will reign over it against all evil. When they return Aslan tells Digory to throw the apple a certain distance and it settles into the soft mud. In the morning the tree is big and filled with fruit. Digory is certain an apple from this tree will help his mother’s cancer and Aslan gives him one to take home.

When Digory and Polly return to London, Digory’s mother eats the apple and is cured. Digory plants the core and a tree grows again overnight. As the years pass and the children grow up so does the tree which has a symbiotic relationship with the one of its origin: it wiggles a bit on days when it is windy in Narnia, even when there is no wind in London. But its shaking has weakened its roots, and one wind-filled day in London the tree topples over. Now middle aged and with unfaded memories of Aslan and Narnia and all he saw there, Digory cannot just chop up the tree for fire wood. So he takes part of the tree and builds a wardrobe which he puts in his house in the country….

The passages of Narnia’s creation, vocalizing it into Being, the animals talking to one another and back and forth with the children tick many of my fantasy-girl and spirituality boxes. I am so glad I stuck with this book. And I further learned I wasn’t so far off the mark when I wanted to set the book aside, because the arguments of Lewis scholars who say the books should be read as released, instead of chronologically with MN to be read first, stems partly from the fact that this IS a dull book up until Aslan’s entrance and children (and adults?) might be turned off by the dull first half and not want to read any further.

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My Edition
Title: The Magician’s Nephew
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1955
Pages: 221
Summary

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)

“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

 

xmascarolI have seen multiple film versions of A Christmas Carol, but have never read the book. I now see how easily I got caught up in the visual drama of the spectacle with little understanding of the morality in the story. How easily I have been misled by costumes, sets and the bleak feeling of black and white film that the true message of this book never completely sunk in.

The basics of the story concern Ebenezer Scrooge a cold miserly man, who is hated and feared by all who know him. One of the richest men in town, he doesn’t want to pay for anything more than he has to and keeps the wages of his assistant Bob Cratchit as low as possible forcing him to sit in an office that Scrooge will not heat regardless of the biting chill. Scrooge rebuffs solicitations that would help the poor, no matter that it’s Christmas Eve. He ‘bah humbugs’ his nephew who visits and asks him to Christmas dinner. At this point Dickens shows us nothing that could possibly redeem this spiritless old man. On his way home, no one greets him to inquire after his health or to wish him a Merry Christmas; they are put off by his perennial cold stare, loathsome words and air of negativity. Averted in the streets, he is talked about behind his back.

He has a strange encounter with his door knocker as he slips his key in the door: it turns into the face of his long dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Disturbed, once inside he checks all the rooms before locking himself in his bedroom. But the door knocker was a portent of things to come and by night’s end he will be forced to confront every injustice he ever thought or committed. Jacob Marley’s ghost has come to give him one last chance to mend his ways or he will end up like Marley, roaming the afterlife weighed down in the chains that weighed him down in his mortal life. Scrooge is in for the ride of his life as three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come barge into his room in order to show him the error of his ways and the damage he has done not only to the people in his life and to himself, but essentially to the purpose to which he was created. He will see how he has hurt employees, family members, people on the street and lost his only chance of romantic love by withholding his material wealth and by the meanness of his words and actions.

With each ghostly experience he watches as scenes from his life appear before him and force him to bear witness of his cruelty to others. Surprisingly, some of the coldness in his heart melts and he has moments of conscience about various acts he wishes he could change like giving a caroler at his door “something” or that he should have had a kinder word for Bob Cratchit; being shown his death bed he is appalled to see how people are treating both his wealth and memory. He is finally able to understand life’s joys and the importance of compassion, kindness and generosity of purse and spirit.

I was surprised by my reaction to this story and how personal it felt and how it alerted me to look at my own life. I never had this awareness in the films or that this felt like my journey, too and was left with an uncomfortable feeling that a little self-reflection might be a good idea! Many were the scenes of material poverty of families with little food or sailors away from their loved ones who nonetheless celebrated the joy of the season and the shared love of one another, no matter their circumstance. There is a lesson for me here.

In the end old Scrooge is redeemed by the three spirits who did their job in showing him how his despicable earthly ways would only lead to a terrifying afterlife. As the night ends he feels a different, more lightheartedness in himself. With a chance to change the meanness with which he has treated those around him, he joyously gives Bob Cratchit a raise with a promise to help his family, including his young disabled son, Tiny Tim and allows him all the coal he needs to warm the office. He heals the relationship with his nephew and becomes a generous kindly man at last.

“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total-Abstinence Principle ever afterwards; and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Oh good, there is hope for me, yet!

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My Edition
Title: A Christmas Carol
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: J. B.  Lippincott Company
Device: Kindle
Year: 1915 (1843)
Pages: 147
Summary

The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating, Howard Williams (1883)

“Do vegetarians eat meat by night?”

“What on earth do you live on?”

“The animals were ‘sent’ to humans for food.”

“What would otherwise become of the animals?”

 

ethicsofdietEvery modern-day vegan or vegetarian has been asked these questions by meat-eating friends or family members incredulous that it is even possible “to survive without meat and so we must be cheating somewhere, at some time.” And then we, in whatever way that is comfortable to us, defend ourselves. But what makes these questions particularly remarkable is that they are the questions swirling around 1877 London challenging those vegetarians to come up with a defense against their choice not to consume animal flesh.

Howard Williams, a five-year vegetarian, professor of history and the well-known biographer of Pope and Swift railed against the ignorance and mockery of these flesh-eating tormentors and decided to remedy the absence of knowledge about the long tradition of flesh abstention. He would write the history of vegetarianism from the point of view of well-known nonflesh-eaters of the past.

The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating was published in 1883. Arranged in a historical timeline beginning with Hesiod and ending with Schopenhaur, Williams provides 50 sources made up of well-known philosophers, scientists, religious and literary figures who provide the reader with a historical record of their treatises, poems, discourses, biographies and literary works that speak of animal rights, human health, the morality against eating animals, the economics of taking up land for animals and not people and the meat-centered diet of the rich. Before each entry Williams gives a brief biographical sketch and summation of their thoughts. For many of these famous individuals their beliefs came from considering the perfect society or advanced civilizations where flesh eating made no sense. Some had personal experiences that triggered thoughtful examination of what their culture termed the normal treatment of animals for food that led them to see things differently.

I find this collection to be terribly important as a foundation against the so-called mockery and disdain of my own times. Vegetarianism has a long history practiced by the great and the humble for all kinds of economic, moral, philosophical and religious reasons. There is also a sense of camaraderie in knowing that famous vegetarians have been asked the same questions I have! Their arguments, thoughts and pleadings in defense of animals from so long ago is hopeful. Defending animals against the belief they are commodities or inferior life forms to be treated without regard has always had their champions and with this book there is the weight of Pythagoras and Voltaire, Seneca and Shelley.

No matter our diet, the question—must we eat meat or not—is as old as the hills with both sides bearing a long tradition of discourse.

Excerpts

Ovid (43 BC-18 AD), quoting Pythagoras (c570BC-c470BC)

Pythagoras was the first to forbid animals to be served up at the table and he was first to open his lips to say….”Forbear O mortals! to pollute your bodies with such abominable food…there are the fruits which bear down the branches with their weight, and there are the grapes swelling on the vines; the lavish earth heaps up her riches and her gentle foods, and offers you dainties without blood and without slaughter…It is not enough that such wickedness is committed by men. They have involved the gods themselves in this abomination, that they believe this deity in the heavens can rejoice in the slaughter of the laborious and useful ox. The spotless victim, excelling in the beauty of its form, decked out with garlands with gold is placed before their altars, and the fruits which it cultivated placed on its head between its horns and struck down, with its life-blood it dyes the sacrificial knife…”

Clement of Alexandria (c150BC-c215BC) Essay on Man

“Pythagoras seems to me to have derived his mildness towards irrational animals from the Law [Jewish Law]. For instance, he interdicted the employment of the young of sheep and goats and cows for some time after their birth; not even on the pretext of sacrifice allowing it, on account both of the young ones and of the mother; training men to gentleness by their conduct toward those beneath them. ‘Resign,’ he says, ‘the young one to the mother for the proper time’. For if nothing takes place without a cause, and milk is produced in large quantity in parturition for the sustenance of the progeny, he who tears way the young one from the supply of the milk and the breast of the mother, dishonors Nature.”

“The Law, too, expressly prohibits the slaying of such animals as are pregnant till they have brought forth, remotely restraining the proneness of men to do wrong to men; and thus also it has extended its clemency to the irrational animals, that by the exercise of humanity to beings of different races we may practise amongst those of the same species a larger abundance of it.

Rousseau (1712-1778)

“One of the proofs that the taste of flesh is not natural to man is the indifference which children exhibit for that sort of meat, and the preference they all give to vegetable foods, such as milk-porridge, pastry, fruits, etc. It is of the last importance not to denaturalize them of this primitive taste and not to render them carnivorous, if not for health reasons, at least for the sake of their character. For, however the experience may be explained, it is certain that great eaters of flesh are, in general, more cruel and ferocious than other men.

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My Edition
Title: The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating
Author: Howard Williams
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2003 (1883)
Pages: 394

The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”

 

 

razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.

________________

My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary