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.

____________

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!

_______________________

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

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

Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman)

artdeath

 

Quickly she knelt and asked the dead beyond the door to forgive her for handling their remains. She asked to be reminded not to forget the respect she owed them. “Permit your flesh and bone to tell me what your voices cannot.”

 

It is the year 1170. The city of Cambridge is tense. Four young children have been tortured to death. The people of the town have accused the Jewish community of blood libel and the perpetrators of the murders, causing them to flee their homes for protection in the castle. Henry II is angry and concerned. Imprisoned, the Jews are unable to pay the heavy taxes by which the king finances his realm. Henry does not believe the murders are the work of the Jews and must find a way to exonerate them. Henry writes to his cousin, the King of Sicily, who presides over the world renowned medical school in Salerno asking him to send his best “investigator of death.”

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the Mistress of the Art of Death, a combination modern day coroner and police detective. When she arrives with her Arab assistant Mansur and fellow investigator Simon of Naples, a Jew she must hide her true vocation. Though the cultural, religious and gender diversity of Salerno allows women in the medical college, Adelia’s specialty conflicts with the Church’s teachings on both women and dissection, so she is used to passing off her findings to her foster father. While in England Mansur becomes the doctor and she his assistant. At least at the beginning. From enlightened city to crude backwater, the trio of friends reluctantly make the journey. The moment they arrive in Cambridge, however, they are besieged with a multitude of illnesses and accidents untreatable before now. But the bodies of the children need to be examined and with some restrictions on her gender, the investigation begins.

The stabbing around the pelvis had left distinctive marks; she had seen knife wounds before, but none like these. The blade of the instrument that had caused them appeared to be much faceted. She would have liked to remove the pelvis for leisurely examination in better light, but she had promised Prior Geoffrey to do no dissection.

It is fascinating to watch how Adelia studies the bodies of the children and how she deduces their killers. It is like watching a Medieval version of a CSI episode. Body by body and clue by clue culminating in a frightful incident where Adelia almost meets her own end. But she succeeds in discovering the culprits responsible.

I was incredibly drawn to this story as it ticked many of the boxes I enjoyed studying in college. As the ‘king’s persons” Jews were England’s bank account being taxed to unbelievable degrees financing everything from the building of castles and cathedrals, the bankrolling of crusades to the general running of the realm. Thus, the king’s castle was their safety zone when attacked. They were an easy target when anything abnormal occurred. Leaving their homes and fleeing to the castle for the protection of the king was often a precarious situation. As illustrated in this story, anti-Jewish sentiment is so high with the townspeople, even when it is pointed out the Jews have been in the castle for a year and children have been killed during this time. The townspeople cook up an elaborate fantasy that the Jews leave by night and return to the castle early in the morning to commit the crimes. Never mind there are townspeople stationed at every entrance day and night which would make escape impossible.

Franklin also describes the diversity of students and teachers that peopled the medical school of Salerno, which included Arabs, Jews, Africans and others from across Europe, as well as women. The medical training here surpassed the other schools on the continent. Adelia, who was orphaned and fostered by a couple from the medical school, acknowledged her intellect from a young age and encouraged her studies. Adelia’s skills come from her training and investigative experience, which included time spent at the pig farm, a medieval version of the modern-day body farm.

Adelia was forcing herself to see a pig [not a child]. Pigs were what she’d learned on. Pigs—the nearest approximation in the animal world to human flesh and bone. Up in the hills behind a high wall, Gordinus had kept dead pigs for his students, some buried, some exposed to the air, some in a wooden hut, others in a stone byre…Most of the students introduced to the his death farm had been revolted by the flies and stench and had fallen away; only Adelia saw the wonder of the process that reduced a cadaver to nothing.

One of the strengths of this historically dense novel is constructing a story with a protagonist who is foreign and unfamiliar with the culture in which she is thrust. The reader learns along with Adelia, Mansur and Simon, so prior knowledge of the period is unnecessary and Franklin’s narrative makes it easy to follow the story. And to further this point, Franklin uses the British to further our knowledge. Though most of the townspeople are portrayed as suspicious and ignorant of foreigners, the novel opens with a band of pilgrims and crusaders having just returned from the Holy Land. Several of the knights are familiar with the customs and culture of both the Arab and Jewish worlds and of Europeans in general. Franklin uses their knowledge in usually positive, but sometimes humorous ways to make points about the cultural and dietary habits of Mansur, Simon and Adelia.

A Personal Observation

I have missed out on many richly drawn historical novels. Early in Medieval studies it was drummed into our heads that we couldn’t take fictionalized accounts of historical events seriously and were discouraged from books and other historical “reconstructions.” “This could never have happened.” “That is just historically inaccurate.” I can remember classmates mocked for their interest in the King Arthur mythos or those students who participated in the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only contemporary Medieval fiction we were encouraged to read was Josephine Tey’s, The Daughter of Time, because it was about research. It has taken me a long time to reject those voices critical of historical fiction. And that’s too bad. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In this regard, if those professors of mine were still alive I would make them read this book! While obviously some license has to be taken in the way a story like this is told in order for a modern person to understand it, historical accuracy does not have to suffer.

The novel is a page turner, a fascinating mystery and manages to dispel ignorance about the Middle Ages many people may have.

____________
Challenges: RIPXIII, RBRTBR

 

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

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

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)

mansfieldpark

 

The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech you and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins…Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last….

 

Fanny Price is taken from her working class family to live with her more affluent aunt and uncle. Lady Bertram is her mother’s sister and it is suggested by her mother’s other sister, Mrs. Norris that taking Fanny in would relieve their sister of the burden and expense of raising another child. Fanny is 9 years old and a quiet and frightened child when she comes to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their four children at Mansfield Park. For the next decade, while she is given everything material she could need, she lives a liminal life, sometimes included in the activities of her cousins and sometimes treated like a servant; decisions are made for her without her consent and criticisms of her thoughts and behavior are discussed by her aunts and uncle as if she isn’t there. Edmund, the younger of the two brothers, is her constant champion amidst the crassness and criticism of her Aunt Norris, who regularly reminds her of her humble place, regardless of how the Bertrams treat her or what they give to her.

Most of the action takes place through Fanny’s eyes and especially through her moral compass. Her cousins, the neighbors in the parsonage next door, are seen through her world view, which is exacting, unsentimental and harsh.

A Rigid Social Structure or is it just Fanny?

I don’t quite know what to make of Fanny Price. She has an unrelenting moral code that is so rigid and unforgiving it impedes her social interactions. With her delicate constitution she is forced to sit on the sidelines of many of life’s events, so she becomes the observer, the critic and the conscience-filter through which the motivation of each of her family and friends is measured. They ‘commit,’ what seem to me, infractions of the slightest intent or the folly of teenagers, yet to Fanny they are so grievous she cannot forgive.

I think there are subtleties of right and wrong, of etiquette and behavior during this period I am just not familiar. For instance, Fanny’s discomfort with Mary Crawford, which feels like plain old jealousy (over Edmund), yet I think even if she had not been Fanny’s rival, she would have found fault. Each person Fanny comes into contact with—Maria and Julia, her aunts, the Grants—can never live up to her impossibly high standards.

Who is Fanny, Anyway?

Edmund, from her first days at Mansfield Park, shows an almost 6th sense to Fanny’s material and emotional needs and comfort. He makes sure she is given a horse to ride every morning for her health, gives her a chain for the necklace her brother William gave her so she can wear it to the ball. Sir Thomas as well shows immense kindness to Fanny, especially once he returns from his business abroad. She accepts all of this with the appropriate gratitude, embarrassment and deference. But after the downfall of Maria and Julia, the break-up of Edmund and Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford’s demise and finally, her triumph in winning Edmund, her quietude and deferential demeanor become something else. I see her as a conniver, who bides her time until she gets what she wants. Am I just mean, jaded or am I missing the point entirely?

I think there is a subtlety in this world that is foreign to me. For example, as loathsome as Mrs. Norris is to Fanny and everyone else at Mansfield Park, she is the least subtle and feels the most familiar. Her meanness comes from her own liminal life as a widow without a purpose or a place. She is a busy-body and treats Fanny abominably and tries to force the rest of the family to do her bidding often with disastrous results. She unnerves the Bertrams who want her gone from Mansfield Park; at Maria’s downfall, they get their wish. Yet, she is obvious in her brutishness; no one would expect anything different.

Austen 101

I would love to understand the details of this society; those minute cues and subtle looks that set Fanny off. If there is such a book that would explain it all to me, please let me know!

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My Edition
Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1814
Pages: 427
Full plot summary

Challenges: #AustenInAugustRBR, Classics Club, Mount TRB