Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (1895)

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds’ thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them…They took upon them more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. “Poor little dears! You shall have some dinner—Eat, then, my dear little birdies, and make a good meal.” A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

Jude Hawley is a heart-breaking character. As the titular protagonist he has been trying to fulfill a dream since his youth, but is thwarted at every turn by a personal moral code that forces him to do the right thing while watching his dream fade until its fulfillment is impossible. That this is also a novel about love and living out an unconventional relationship, it incurred such nasty criticism against Hardy, he abandoned fiction writing after his next novel, The Well-Beloved.


When the novel opens we meet young Jude who has just been left with an elderly aunt, because his parents have given him up. She does not hide her disdain at having to take him in. The pain of feeling unwanted will affect Jude for the rest of his life as he extends the sensitivity to his own pain to that of others forcing him into decisions that will ruin the onward focus of his life. Even now, at the beginning of his life, this sensitivity expands to the animal kingdom, in this case the birds he is tasked with “clackering” out of a farmer’s fields so they don’t eat his grain. Feeling their hunger he lets them eat and upon discovery is severely beaten.

Walking one day he goes on the top of a roof and notices the lights of a city in the distance. A mystical vision takes hold of him.

He had heard that breezes traveled at the rate of ten miles per hour, and the fact now came into his mind. He parted his lips as he faced the north-east, and drew in the wind as if it were a sweet liquor,“You,” he said, addressing the breeze caressingly, “were in Christminster city between one and two hours ago, floating along the streets, pulling round the weather-cocks,…and now you are here, breathed by me—you, the very same.

Suddenly there came along this wind something towards him—a message from the place—from some soul residing there, it seemed. Surely it was the sound of bells, the voice of the city, faint and musical, calling to him, “We are happy here!”

Christminster becomes the goal out of his miserable life as a chance meeting with a stranger tells him what the university town has to offer. Jude decides to study theology and begins a years-long study. For the rest of his childhood and throughout adolescence and young adulthood, he spends hours in the evenings laboring through Greek, Latin and the Church Fathers.

Jude grows into a decent, but naive young man, who is taken advantage of by women for whom marriage is the only endgame in this rural town. First, is Arabella, who raises and slaughters pigs and fakes a pregnancy thereby forcing his better nature into marrying her. Even after she tells him there is no child he continues in the relationship foregoing his studies to concentrate on the marriage, but there is no love here and Arabella leaves him without divorcing him, which will cause problems later.

Jude has been told of a cousin, Sue, living in the vicinity and when he discovers her, though he doesn’t speak to her at first, falls in love. Once he reveals himself he finds her views on marriage and relationships very out of the ordinary. She does not want to marry, wanting instead to live with him as a married couple. However, she succumbs to the stability offered by an older, professionally stable man leaving Jude heartbroken.

Jude’s life becomes more and more complicated and his dreams of studying at Christminster fade as Sue leaves her husband and goes back to Jude where the years pass and three children are born. Then Arabella resurfaces asking Jude to take her young son so she can go back to work. Jude takes on all these responsibilities willingly, but there is finally the realization that all his studying is for naught; life throws cogs into his every wheel and the vision of a life in Christminster will never become a reality.

There is no way to brighten up this picture and the ending is most pathetic and sad. However, this novel portrays a good man, whose moral code is based on kindness and sensitivity no matter how cruel the manipulation and lies of others. One of the best books I read last year, though it was painful, I highly recommend this journey with Jude.

A note on Jude and Sue’s relationship—living together as husband and wife, but not actually married—was so controversial at the time that the criticism Hardy received ended his novel-writing career. In fact, the criticism came to the US even before the book was published here, emphasizing disgust at the relationship, instead of recognizing the major ark of Jude’s story as a moral man of failed dreams. The book was even burned by a few bishops. Jude the Obscure gradually found sympathetic readers, but the damage was done and Hardy soon turned full time to writing poetry, for which he is also well-known.

After Sue leaves her husband, he says to a friend,


“Yes….I would have died for her; but I wouldn’t be cruel to her in the name of the law. She is, as I understand, going to join her lover. What they are going to do I cannot say. Whatever it may be she has my full consent to.” Says the friend, “Some men would have stopped at an agreement to separate.”
I’ve gone into all that, and don’t wish to argue it. I was, and am, the most old-fashioned man in the world on the question of marriage—in fact I had never thought critically about its ethics at all. But certain facts stared me in the face, and I couldn’t go against them.”

Sue on marriage:

Fewer women like marriage than you suppose, only they enter into it for the dignity it is assumed to confer, and the social advantages it gains them sometimes—a dignity and an advantage that I am quite willing to do without.

…I feel just the same about it now as I have done all along. I have the same dread lest an iron contract should extinguish your tenderness for me, and mine for you, as it did between our unfortunate parents…I think I should begin to be afraid of you, Jude, the moment you had contracted to cherish me under a Government stamp, and I was licensed to be loved on the premises by you—Ugh, how horrible and sordid! Although, as you are, free, I trust you more than any other man in the world.


Title: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Date: 1895, 1912
Device: Trade paperback
Pages: 418

Challenges: Mount TBR

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (1934)

Neatly folded on the top of the case was a thin scarlet silk kimono embroidered with dragons.
“So,” he murmured. “It is like that. A defiance. Very well. I take it up.”

This is my first Agatha Christie and my introduction to the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. As a novice Christie reader and one who doesn’t read crime fiction all I can say is…the ending! Was it obvious to more seasoned readers? It took me by surprise even after it was revealed the passengers knew each other and the further revelation they were connected due to a celebrated murder case in the States. Such is my inability to ever figure out, “whodunit.”


The story takes place aboard the luxury train Orient Express which is departing Istanbul, destination London. In the first class section we are introduced to an international cast of people whose actions, glances, presence seem suspicious or at least that’s the perspective of M. Poirot, the famed international detective, that oddly from my perspective, a name everyone seems to know. Once the murder is committed he looks at everyone as a subject. Is this a trait of his profession or is it because everyone IS a suspect? Most of the passengers pertinent to the story are stereotypes of culture and country including, a loud wealthy American woman, the prim and proper female missionary, an English governess, a Russian princess and her devoted maid, a suspicious Italian, a count and countess and a private investigator. Among the other passengers is the murdered man’s secretary and translator, and his valet.

When the passengers awake on the first morning of the journey, they find the train is not moving having come to a standstill in the middle of the night due to do a snowstorm. Coincidentally, it is discovered one of the passengers has been murdered, American tycoon Samuel Ratchett. He had come to Poirot the night before asking him to investigate the threatening letters he’d been receiving, but Poirot refused the case. Now, he’s declared himself in charge of Ratchett’s murder investigation. Examining the victim’s body he finds 12 stab wounds and looking through his cabin among other evidence he sees the window is open, a pipe cleaner and a fragment of a handkerchief are on the floor as well as a bit of burned paper with the name ‘Armstrong’ still visible. A detail to come later is the brief sighting of a woman in a scarlet kimono flitting down a corridor that some of the passengers noticed…or did they, though no one saw the face?

As the suspects are interviewed, Poirot weighs and measures their alibis that seem plausible and honest, until he finally pieces together how each is connected to one another and to the murdered man…..


This is basically a police procedural and it was interesting to see the French detective’s investigative skills. But to be honest, I had some trouble keeping the many characters’ accounts straight and was certain this would prevent my understanding the outcome. But the process of Poirot’s deductive methods drew me as did the variety of characters and their stories that kept the narrative moving. I read on anxious to find out the killer. And boy, I did not see that coming!


From the 2017 Kenneth Branagh

Title: Murder on the Orient Express
Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: 1934
Device: Trade paperback
Pages: 265

Challenge: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Mount TBR

Emma, Jane Austen (1815)

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

I have now read all of Jane Austen’s major novels. I think Northanger Abbey will always be my favorite, because the story is just so much fun to read. But I think Emma is a close second. I like the development of the titular heroine from a kind-hearted busybody, who thinks she knows what is best for everyone else to humbled match-maker to woman in love; it is very well done.


Emma Woodhouse is 21 and popular in her small village. Her mother died long ago and her older sister Isabella lives in London with her husband and children. Emma lives with her father, but trying to keep him happy is a challenge as the poor man is afraid of everything from changes in the weather, the addition of more than 10 people at the dinner table and absolutely any deviation in his tightly controlled daily routine. The pair are about to lose an important buffer and housemate in Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess turned close friend, who is to marry Mr. Weston.

Emma is the kind of person who needs ‘projects’ and in this case, her projects are people, in particular, matchmaking. She has taken a young woman, Harriet Smith, under her wing and plans to find her a husband, regardless of the fact that Harriet and the farmer Robert Martin are already interested in each other.

But, oh no, that will not do and Emma puts her foot down, explaining to Harriet:

A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a credible appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families….But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as below it.

Since Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma feels certain she is ‘above’ people like Robert Martin. When Robert proposes, Emma talks Harriet out of it.

A long-time Woodhouse family visitor, Mr. Knightley, who incidentally is the brother of Isabella’s husband John, takes Emma to task for thwarting this relationship that in his opinion is a good match and may be as good as Harriet would ever get. Emma is convinced Robert is not Harriet’s equal and Knightley explodes:

Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you. What are Harriet Smith’s claims, either of birth, nature, or education to any connection higher than Robert Martin? She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations. She is known only as a parlour-boarder at a common school….She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself.

Emma’s respect for Knightley makes his tirade against her a little uncomfortable, but not enough to repent at what she’d done.

Emma moves on to try and match Harriet to another man, Mr. Elton, who seems very interested, but this also ends in disaster when it is revealed his interest is actually in Emma. Harriet is now left with little prospects, due to Emma’s interference.

Emma is an interesting character, because while she sincerely wants the best for Harriet and for everyone she tries to help, she can only see them through herself. She sees what is best in someone else’s situation by what would be right for her not through the lens of the wants and desires of the other person.

Emma is used to being the one people turn to, the one who plans events, who organizes outings. But when she meets the woman Mr. Elton eventually marries, she is put out by Mrs. Elton’s forceful personality and the usurpation of Emma’s party-planning career. Against her will, the outwardly kind and well-mannered Emma Woodhouse develops envious, mean-spirited judgmental thoughts against Mrs. Elton and a jealousy she can barely control. Some of the best writing in the novel are the barbs she mentally slings at her nemesis as she tries to “keep herself together.”

But Emma feels her grasp is loosening on the people she feels close to as her mental control begins to fray and manifest outwardly. It comes to a head when she is unable to check her tongue and mocks the sad life of the simple-natured neighbor and village favorite, Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley confronts her and is shocked that she doesn’t see the harm she has done. Knightley reminds her of her status in the community and the responsibility that entails. Miss Bates is old, poor “Sunk from the comforts she was born to…You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour—to have you now…laugh at her, humble her—and before others, many of whom would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.” When she is alone Emma feels the enormity of the situation and completely breaks down.

Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcible struck. The truth of his representation there was not denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!…As she reflected more, she seemed to feel it more. She never had been so depressed…the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home….

Emma is shaken up enough to know she must apologize to Miss Bates, but the chaos at her house at that moment renders the apology more as understood than unspoken. Knightley, made aware of Emma’s act of contrition, is overcome. It is a turning point in his regard for her.

The novel contains a fair share of romantic drama and intrigued. When Jane Fairfax comes on the scene, she rebuffs Emma. Jane, it seems, doesn’t want to know her and Emma can’t engage her, influence her or give her advice as she is used to. Some of the lighter moments in the book happen as Emma tries to work out in her head why she isn’t making any headway toward getting to know Jane.

Finally as all and sundry are wrapped up, the final piece of the narrative arrives as Emma realizes she is in love with…..and it is mutual. Well, it might be obvious, but that’s too big a spoiler to reveal.

Austen’s flair for the comedic is very evident in this book with several characters written over the top, especially Mrs. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse and some of the scenes with the Bates’s and Frank Churchill’s scene with Emma at the picnic. I have noticed that Emma is not a favorite with some readers; that they find it too long and boring. I can see that if you can’t get into the characters. But I found the them engaging, even the ones who got on my nerves—cue Mrs. Elton and dear old dad—and they are important components not only in the story, but in showing us more about Emma. I think this is a work with depth and the growth of a person’s integrity. I can see a reread of this at some point.


Title: Emma
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Date: 1815
Device: Trade paperback
Pages: 544

Challenge: Classics Club

My Second Classics Club List

I’m back with a new list of over 50 books to read in 5 years!

I am trying something new this time around. Every book on this list is a book I own either on my shelves or on my Kindle (except for the Anthony Trollope 2021 Readalong). Like book lovers everywhere I love buying books and I am not saying I am taking 5 years off buying them, but these really need to get read. I have owned some of them for many years and I need to know if they are keepers or to donate to make room for more. Caveat: I reserve the right to dnf any title here and substitute something else 🙂

Some of my favorite books read during the last five years came from list one. What books on this list will become favorites, I wonder?

Fiction

Louisa May Alcott
An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)

Enid Bagnold
The Loved and Envied (1951)

Carol Ryrie Brink
Mademoiselle Misfortune (1937)

Fanny Burney
Evelina (1778)

Willa Cather
My Antonia (1918)

Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

Charles Dickens
David Copperfield (1850)
Hard Times (1854)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Theodore Dreiser
Sister Carrie (1900)

George Eliot
Middlemarch (1871)
Daniel Deronda (1876)

Alice Tisdale Hobart
The Cleft Rock (1948)

Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary (1856)

Elizabeth Gaskell
Mary Barton (1848)
North and South (1854)
Cranford (1853)

George Gissing
The Odd Women (1893) K

Oliver Goldsmith
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)

Thomas Hardy
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873)
Far From the Madding Crowd
(1874)
The Hand of Ethelberta
(1876)

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1863) K

Aldus Huxley
Brave New World (1932)

Henry James
The Golden Bowl (1904)
Three Novellas:
Pandora (1884)
The Patagonia (1888)
Four Meetings (1877)

C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
Perelandra
(1943)
That Hideous Strength
(1945)

W. Somerset Maugham
The Magician (1908) K

George Meredith
The Egoist (1879)

L.M. Montgomery
Emily of New Moon (1923)

Thomas Love Peacock
Maid Marian (novella, (1822)
Crotchet Castle (1831)
Headlong Hall (novella, 1816)
Nightmare Abbey
(novella, 1818)

Sir Walter Scott
Ivanhoe (1819)

Gertrude Stein
Three Lives (1909)

G.B. Stern
The Matriarch (1924)

Robert Louis Stevenson
The Master of Ballantrae (1889)

William Thackeray
Vanity Fair (1847)

Anthony Trollope
(Barsetshire Chronicles Readalong)
The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1860)
The Small House at Allington (1862)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

Jules Verne
Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) K

Edith Wharton
Old New York (1924)
Glimpses of the Moon (1922)

Virginia Woolf
The Voyage Out (1915) K
The the Lighthouse (1927)
The Years (1937)

Harold Bell Wright
The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911)

Emile Zola
Nana (1880)
Ladies Paradise
(1883)

Nonfiction

Johanna Brandt
The Grape Cure (1928)

Le Baron Russell Briggs
To College Girls (1911)

Vera Brittain
Testament of Youth (1933) K

Sarah Josepha Hale
The Good Housekeeper (1841)

Emily Post
The Personality of a House (1930)

Cornelia Otis Skinner & Emily Kimbrough
Our Hearts were Young and Gay (1942)

Edith Wharton
A Backward Glance (1934)

Glibert White
The Natural History of Selborne (1789)

Plays

Oscar Wilde
A Woman of No Importance (first performed, April 19, 1893) K
The Importance of Being Ernest (first performed, February 14, 1895)