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

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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!

___________________

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

Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver (2016)

upstream

 

I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.

 

I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.

 

Childhood

In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,

As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.

and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

 

Whitman

As a Young Adult

In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’

Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with  which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.

I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.

Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.

That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.

Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.

 

Close Encounters

In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the spideynatural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”

Poet and Literary Critic

As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:

hornedowlBut the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.

She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive. 

Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

*****************

My Edition:
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

efrome
This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
____________________

My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR

Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster (1905)

My Edition:angelstread
Title: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Dover
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 117
Full plot summary


“Remember, that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gimignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.”

 

What a soap opera and angst-ridden tale this is and packed into only 117 pages! The above quotation turns out to be the death knell for the Herriton family. If ever a family had a bad day…or span of years, it would be them. The ruptures and tragedies that plague them, however, are surprising and come out of the blue, making the novel read like a great international mystery/adventure story.

Lilia Herriton was widowed young and left with a daughter. From the beginning of her marriage, according to her in-laws, Lilia was wild and ill-mannered. After her husband’s death, she is forced to move near her mother-in-law for the sake of young Irma. But Lilia is still full of life and finds it difficult to play the conventional role of widow. When Caroline Abbot asks Lilia to be her companion on a trip to Italy the Herritons hope the responsibility will help to quell her untamed ways.

A cable is received from Lilia that she has settled down in the town of Monteriano and is going to marry Gino, the son of a dentist. Phillip, the brother of Lilia’s husband is sent to stop it and bring her back to England. But he arrives too late as she and Gino are already married. He tells her he has come to rescue her and will break up the marriage, but Lilia is defiant and with the past injustices from his family overcoming her and she defends her actions:

For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone…For twelve years you’ve trained  me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I never felt?..When I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me,…and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me…And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again.

With such passion, the reader pulls so hard for Lilia and this new life she has created far from the criticism of her family. Alas, she dies in childbirth. And while that is shocking enough, the real shocker is how badly the Herritons now feel about the way they treated her and this guilt leads them to plot to get the child away from Gino and raised as their own. Once more, Philip is dispatched to Monteriano with his sister Harriet to make a bargain with Gino. When Gino turns down the offer, Harriet steals the baby as she rushes to catch the carriage taking them to the ship to go home. But when the carriage turns over on a wet road, the baby is killed.

No one is really happy in this novel. The Herritons and Caroline Abbott are all trying to live a life that is socially acceptable as members of the middle class, no individuality allowed. Lilia, who hoped her marriage would free her from English conventional norms found herself caught in similar conventions as an Italian wife.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster’s first novel. His later works are more well-known, including A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India. What drives his novels, in my opinion, is his gift for finding the vulnerable places of his characters as motives for their life choices and in the case of this novel one character’s choice from that place drives the vulnerabilities of the entire cast.

_______________________
Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

My Edition:treebrooklyn
Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Publisher: The Blakiston Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1943
Pages: 376
Plot summary: Goodreads

Johnny: Anybody can ride in one of those hansom cabs, provided they got the money. So you can see what a free country we got here…In the old countries, certain people aren’t free to ride in them, even if they have the money.

Francie: Wouldn’t it be more of a free country if we could ride in them for free?

Johnny: No, because that would be Socialism and we don’t want that here.

About a year and a half ago I heard a program on NPR about the publishing industry and World War II; that publishers put out specially formatted books with thin paper and in a particular size to fit easily into the pocket of a soldier’s uniform. They published classics as well as light reading and were passed from soldier to soldier throughout the fields of battle. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the most requested titles, because it reminded the soldiers of the values they were fighting for.

The Story

It is a Saturday during the summer of 1912 when we meet 11 year-old Francie Nolan. She lives with her brother Neeley and her parents, Katie and Johnny, both born in the United States, from Austrian and Irish backgrounds respectively. They live in a third-story walk up on a street with other immigrant Irish. Johnny is a singing waiter beloved by his friends and family, but alcohol has taken over him so his work is sporadic. Katie has become the breadwinner of the family and works as a ‘janitress’ cleaning homes and offices.

Francie and Neeley are always hungry, their clothes are not thick enough to protect them from the biting cold of winter and their home is not always heated. But they themselves are breadwinners as collectors of bits and bobs that they sell to the junkmen for pennies which will buy stale bread. Saturday afternoon being the most important day of the week, the kids scheme against each other for the best deals at the storefronts where they trade their stashes of rags and bits of metal and anything they can find to sell. With that money they buy food for the family, saving a penny for a sweet or two.

The book is told through budding writer Francie as she watches and observes the people and conditions around her. The narrative is a simple one as Francie grows from an 11 year-old to 17: her father dies of alcoholism, her mother takes on more work, she reads voraciously and realizes there is more to the world than Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York; she falls in love, is jilted, she fears her brother, who likes to sing, will end up like her father; she must give up her education so her work can support her mother and brother, but the desire for education burns so hard she takes college classes at night and during the summer and is able to skip high school altogether and is accepted to a college in Michigan. Her mother remarries and the family moves out of poverty.

Through Francie, Smith writes with such detail about early 20th century Williamsburg and the crushing and demeaning poverty of its inhabitants. She writes with a meticulous hand the strategies the children employ that will get them the most for the items they have collected throughout the week: which stores will pay them the most, whether this shop owner likes girls better than their brothers or that shop owner will give more to the boys, and the pride the children feel contributing to the family bank (a can nailed to the closet floor). When Katie asks Francie to shop for food she is given instructions on what to say and how to approach the butcher, the breadmaker and so on, in order to get the best deal.

My Thoughts

Yet, the story is not just the narrative, but the characters that people Francie’s life: the teacher who at first encouraged her writing until she started writing the truth about her hard life, who then told her writing is supposed to be full of beauty; her aunt Sissy, the ‘floozie’ who married three times, had 10 children that died at birth, yet is the family member everyone turns to in times of crisis; the Jewish and German shop keepers with whom Francie deals, who can be gruff and mean to the poor children one minute only to give them something extra the next; her father Johnny who she is so close to, yet for all his patriotism about freedom, is never able free himself from his addiction; Katie, who wanted to make a different world for her children, took her mother’s advice to read from the Bible and Shakespeare,

“…every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.

And the titular tree that grows tall throughout Williamsburg like an umbrella, because “it likes poor people” has the tenacity to succeed like the human inhabitants because when it is cut down, will find a break in the cement, push through it and grow again.

The book was published in 1943 when, although the soldiers didn’t know it, was right in the middle of the war. They were not that far removed from their own immigrant past, the tales of the ‘old country’ that were still real for their parents and grandparents. So, it is fair to say that this novel is really a story of immigrant America, how each generation built it up from the succeeding one.

And which may be why the book was so heavily traded among soldiers who saw in the pages their own mother and sister who kept the family together, whose fathers worked any job they could get, a little brother they missed; the same immigrant neighbors, who regardless of their poverty, knew America could give their children freedom, the ability to determine their own destiny which set America a part from the enemies they were fighting.

_____________

Classics Club, Mount TBR