A perfect event for a first blog post after being away for so long!
I am not sure why these Spins are so exciting. Like the lottery, maybe? Whatever the reason they give me both the push I need to get myself reading from my list and to feel like part of the CC community. Once the Spin Gods choose the number it is so much fun to go to other blogs to see who got what.
If you have never heard of the Classics Club it is basically a blog and community of bloggers who want to read more classic literature. We make up a list of at least 50 books we want to read in five years, then blog or use some other form of social media for our reviews and enjoy the comments and discussions with the folks who stop by. A few times a year, we separately list out 20 books from our main list and the Spin Gods chose a number. The book that corresponds to that number is our Spin book. It is not too late to sign up both for this Spin or the Club itself. Here is all the information you need.
With all that said, here is my list. I have decided to list from the bottom up, instead of starting at the top. I am a dare devil, I am. I will stop back on Wednesday and announce my Spin book. Good luck, All!
ETA: And the Spin number is 9. I will be reading Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott. This has been on my shelf for a long time and frankly, I don’t even know what it is about! THIS is one of the reasons this event can be fun as well as meaningful.
Elizabeth Gaskell 1. North and South (1854)
George Gissing 2. The Odd Women (1893)
Aldous Huxley 3. Brave New World (1932)
Henry James 4. Portrait of a Lady (1881) 5. The Ambassadors (1903)
Sinclair Lewis 6. Main Street (1920)
George Meredith 7. The Egoist (1879)
8. Diana of the Crossways (1885)
Sir Walter Scott 9. Rob Roy (1817) 10. Ivanhoe (1820)
Mary Shelley 11. Frankenstein (1818)
Robert Louis Stevenson 12. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers. Oh Reader! If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering of ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience. Acton Bell, Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The story of Helen Huntingdon is intense. We meet her as a mystery woman new to the neighborhood who appears to all as aloof and disinterested in society. “She doesn’t even go to church,” the gossips exclaim! She is misunderstood and a target of slander from the beginning and though she refuses to reveal the truth about herself none of the townspeople ever ask her outright. Her only trustworthy friend is also very attracted to her and he believes the worst about her until she is finally able to show him her journal, documenting the horrible life of abuse she experienced by her husband and the daring escape with her young son. This is the reason for secrecy and reticence in order not to be discovered by her husband.
Two Aspects of this Book are very Modern: Reading Classics in the 21st Century and Bullying Behavior
I had been book blogging for several months when I reviewed, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The House of the Seven Gables. After I published it on my blog I found a discussion about it on another blog on why is this still an assigned classic in school–it is so densely written and boring it should be tossed into the dustbin of literary history. I was fascinated, because all the criticisms the commenters were making were exactly why I liked it! The writing hadn’t seemed dense to me, because I love Hawthorne’s description of every little detail of a character’s thoughts, the minute details of the house and street it was located on.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the journal Helen gives Gilbert tells the story of her abusive marriage. It is achingly repetitive. The book itself is over 500 pages in my edition and the journal takes up at least ¾ of it and frankly it could have benefited from serious editing, the same criticism of The House of the Seven Gables. Even so, my interest was held through Arthur Huntingdon’s perpetual meanness, psychological abuse, leaving to carouse in London, adultery, drinking, the coming home and then doing it all over again. Throughout the journal, even before she marries him, Helen’s friends and family warn her repeatedly about his bad habits and immoral behavior, until it is so obvious she should not do it. And yet, she marries him and this repetition continues leaving the reader to wonder how long will Arthur’s abuse go on and how long will Helen accept it as her duty?
Does the so-called ‘boringness’ of these books for some call into question their relevancy? Do we find them boring because we have a smaller attention span now? Is it hard for teenagers in the 21st century to sit down and read a 500 page book? I suppose this means CliffsNotes will always be in demand.
The second aspect of this book that is very modern manifests in the way Helen bears the consequences of gossip and bullying, the way she believes her husband will change after they are married, the toll it takes in the way Arthur abuses, cheats on and neglects her and the vulnerability she experiences when Arthur’s friends see her as fair game because Arthur is reckless in his affections for other women and ignores her.
Helen has no recourse for this sham of a marriage since only her husband can enact divorce and though the church might take pity on her if she were able to admit and document how bad things are, most people, like her Aunt would still say she has a duty to the marriage and should go back to her husband. And Helen will say she has a duty, too.
Whatever I ought to have done, my duty, now, is plainly to love him and to cleave to him; and this just tallies with my inclination.
Today, there are a fair amount of churches that believe women are locked into the bonds of marriage no matter how harsh the treatment by their husband and continue to counsel against separation or divorce with dire consequences.
In another modern aspect, Helen is subjected to gossip and bullying behavior by the townspeople that remind me how exacerbated this would have become on Twitter, for instance, which would have a field day in blaming the victim, when their ‘evidence’ for Helen’s illicit relationship is only a ‘feeling.’
“Why mother, you said you didn’t believe these tales,” said Fergus.
“No more I do, my dear; but then, you know, there must be some foundation.”
“The foundation is in the wickedness and falsehood of the world and in the fact that Mr. Lawrence has been seen to go that way once or twice of an evening — and the village gossips say he goes to pay his addresses to the strange lady, and the scandalmongers have greedily seized the rumour, to make it the basis of their own infernal structure,” said I.
“Well, but Gilbert, there must be something in her manner to countenance such reports.”
“Did you see anything in her manner?”
“No, certainly; but then, you know, I always said there was something strange about her.”
In the Preface to the second edition of the book, published in 1848, Anne Bronte (writing as Acton Bell) addresses the critics who find the story coarse and brutal for depicting such negative scenes of married life. She answers that truth is better than falsehood and “to represent a bad thing in its least offensive light” is the least honest or safe for a writer. Characters like Arthur Huntingdon do exist and her purpose in telling this story is to warn both young men and women of the pitfalls of a marriage when you see it only through rose colored glasses–you must get to know the person.
So I answer my own question about the relevancy of classics with a resounding YES! Reading books written more than a hundred years ago with characters who are experiencing the same issues we are connects us to the past by opening our eyes to, in this case, perennial injustices in which we have evolved somewhat, but still have a long way to go. We may see ourselves in these characters and learn from their mistakes and triumphs. And what a way to respect the past than by heeding Bronte’s advice and her characters who lived exactly 170 years ago.
Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 511 Full plot summary
Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge
Several times a year, the Classics Club (CC) Spin gives me a boost to get on with reading from my CC List. The last two times I have needed that boost, and even though I am glad to say I don’t need it now, these Spins are fun. I enjoy seeing what is on the lists of other Classic Clubbers and the experience helps me to feel part of the community.
The rules are simple: I go to my CC List and choose 20 books I haven’t read, list them 1-20 and wait until Friday, March 9th when the Spin Goddess chooses a number. Voila! The corresponding number on my list is the book I will read and blog about by April 30th.
If you want to read more classics and think a community of bloggers doing that very thing will spur you on, join the Club first and you can participate in the Spin.
1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
4. Shirley (1849)
5. Wuthering Heights (1847)
6. Evelina (1778)
7. O Pioneers! (1913)
8. My Antonia (1918)
9. Robinson Crusoe (1719)
10. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
11. Sister Carrie (1900)
12. Mill on the Floss (1860)
13. Silas Marner (1861)
14. Daniel Deronda (1876)
15. Mary Barton (1848)
16. Cranford (1851)
17. North and South (1854)
18. Wives and Daughters (1864)
19. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
20. The Ambassadors (1903)
Some Clubbers do a theme with their Spins, for example, “books I am afraid to read,” “books by women,” but I decided to choose the first 20 on my list minus the ones I’ve already read or don’t have in my physical possession. Check out #ccspin on Twitter to find Spin lists by CC members.
I will be back on the 9th with an update. Psst, Spin Goddess, the Brontes or Gaskell, please 🙂
ETA: The Spin Goddess has chosen #3 and I got my Bronte! I will be reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 🙂
I think this has come at a good time. My energy is flagging a bit and I feel the pressure of unfinished challenges before the year ends. Yes, this is self-inflicted pressure, but I sign up for these specific challenges because I LIKE them and the books they involve.
These Spins always bump up my enthusiasm and even though I don’t always finish on time, I usually do finish at some point. (Case in point: the last Spin, #15, was to be posted on May 1st. The Spin Goddess chose #12 which was Dracula. That post went up October 10th)!
If you are a Classics Clubber and have never done this I encourage you to try. It’s fun and you feel like part of the community.
It’s easy and simple to participate. From the website:
What is the spin?
It’s easy. At your blog, before next Friday, November 17th, create a post to list your choice of any twenty books that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list.
This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the year (details to follow). Try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, re-reads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
On Friday, November 17th, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 31, 2017. We’ll check in here in January to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!
Here is my list of 20 beginning from the top of my list of books I already have on my shelves. All the classics here would be first reads. I know, I know Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights…where have I been?!!
ETA: And the Spin chose #4, Agnes Grey!
Jane Austen 1.Pride and Prejudice (1813) 2.Persuasion (1817)
Richard Doddridge Blackmore 3.Lorna Doone (1869)
Anne Bronte 4.Agnes Grey (1847)
5.The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
Emily Bronte 6.Wuthering Heights (1847)
Willa Cather 7.O Pioneers! (1913)
Daniel Defoe 8.Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Theodore Dreiser 9.Sister Carrie (1900)
Daphne Du Maurier 10.Rebecca (1938)
George Eliot 11.Silas Marner (1861) 12.Daniel Deronda (1876)
Elizabeth Gaskell 13.Mary Barton (1848)
14.Cranford (1851) 15.North and South (1854)
16.Wives and Daughters (1864)
George Gissing 17.The Odd Women (1893)
Radclyffe Hall 18.TheWell of Loneliness (1928)
Henry James 19.Portrait of a Lady (1881) 20.The Bostonians (1886)
Just a brief mention of August, because I really enjoyed Austen in August put on by Roof Beam Reader. I made a doable plan for reading and watching some film adaptations and actually completed it. The highlights for me were reading Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, both for the first time and watching a film adaptation of Persuasion. I also watched for probably the 4th time, since I own it, the Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which I love. I read a lot of blog posts from the many Austen in August participants adding more books to my Austen tbr.
Library of Congress, The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures (nonfiction)
Before library catalogs were online there was the card catalog. The publishing office of the LOC showcases some of their holdings with the actual card catalog and the bits of librarian notes that don’t show up in the Internet sources.
L.M. Montgomery, The Emily Novels (fiction)
Some of the nature and fantasy elements of this lesser known series by Montgomery.
#Blogging the Spirit
For this month’s post I shared about practicing Reiki.
King Arthur’s Round Table – I am writing a guest post for WitchWeek that Lory from Emerald City Book Review hosts each year. This year the theme is Dreams of Arthur, and the Round Table has proven a provocative subject!
Other Books Read
Once Upon a Time in the North, by Philip Pullman, 2008
I was alerted to this book by Chris of Calmgrove. If you are familiar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials you will remember Lee Scoresby the aeronaut and the great armored bear Iorek Byrnison (one of my favorite characters). This is the back story of how they met and how they bonded together against a common enemy.
Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson, 2000
During the spring of 1793, Philadelphia was hit with a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The book centers on 13 year-old Matilda Cook and her family who own a coffee house in the city. The historical outbreak killed five thousand people turning Philadelphia, at that time the nation’s capital, into a ghost town as those who could fled to the countryside.
The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, Carolyne Larrington, 2017
The telling of the myths and legends from the old Norse sources, history, archaeology, literature. I saw this in the library and had to check it out after just having read Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. This book is for the more historically, primary-source minded, but it is not dry or academic.
The Nature Principal, Richard Louv, 2011
Modern men and women, attached as we are to our technology, have forgotten that we need to move, to get outside, that is the real world. “unplug, boot it down, get off line, get outdoors, breathe again, become real in a real world.”
Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, Alexandra Horowitz, 2016
This was such a fun book. Not just about dogs and their incredible nose, but ours, too. And why some humans have better smellers than others, like perfumers and sommeliers.
Looking forward to October
Blogging the Spirit
Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon
August and September held some difficult moments for me. As you know, my dad died in April, but his celebration of life was delayed until August 5th. I now understand why that kind of marker is important as it left my mother, sister and myself without a formal closure. But the reason for the delay was a happy one. My dad volunteered at a local animal shelter for many years and upon his passing they decided to name the dog building after him and they needed time to plan the ceremony and commission a plaque. But it was worth the wait. How lucky am I that my dad’s life lives on for such a good cause?
September has been a health-challenging month as it brought me two more skin cancer procedures for basal cell carcinoma, my 5th and 6th, so I have another scar on my forehead and a chunk taken out of my right ear. Both are healing nicely, but kept me from many of the physical activities I enjoy. It is hard sitting still for so many weeks. But there is more to come when my face goes through a procedure called photodynamic light therapy next month. Trying to find some humor in all of this, I noticed from the pictures I have seen, it will make me look like some undead creature for a few weeks, without special effects make up. Maybe I can make some extra money for Halloween!
….there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them….
Catherine Morland is seventeen when she accompanies her wealthy neighbor Mrs. Allen to Bath where her husband has been ordered to take in the healing waters for his gout. Catherine has lived a happy, physically active, carefree, but insulated life with her large family; her imagination developed through the mostly Gothic books she reads. She has never had a suitor, “never seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility,” never “having inspired one real passion….” On her first excursion away from her family and the familiarity of village life, Bath exposes her to the complex society of her peers and widens her perspective on friendship and romance, with comical, frustrating and finally, joyful, results.
I really enjoyed reading this book, although it often had me on the edge of my seat. Austen puts poor Catherine through the ringer with her gullibility and worldly inexperience. She is completely unprepared morally to doubt the sincerity of Isabella Thorpe, the first ‘friend’ she meets at Bath and was not only goaded and duped several times by Isabella and her brother John, even her brother James took advantage of her naiveté. Catherine makes all kinds of gaffes in her friendship with Henry and Eleanor Tilney and could not stand up for herself in other situations and yet, I felt myself pulling for her after each blunder and felt relieved when she found the strength of character to make her own decisions. It is a good thing this is a short novel because it was all I could do to keep from going to the back pages and skimming the end!
One of the more interesting aspects of this book for me concerned Bath as a destination, not for healing, but for socializing during ‘the season.’ When I visited Bath and toured the Roman Baths, I do not remember this aspect of its history being told to us, just that it was an important example of Roman architecture and culture that capitalized on the therapeutic properties of the water. In Northanger Abbey, I do not recall the mention of anyone beside Mr. Allen in Catherine’s sphere who went for that reason. The young people met in the Pump Room, the Upper and Lower Rooms at the “fashionable hours” for tea, for meals, to socialize and to plan trips to the theater and outings throughout the countryside. That Austen herself lived for a time in Bath explains how she created the atmosphere and the details of the variety of people who would have spent time here.
Another aspect of the book I enjoyed is the intensity with which Catherine becomes obsessed with a well-known Gothic novel, called The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe to the extent she cannot put it down eschewing social engagements and asking her friends if they have read it. Of course, they had and Isabella recites a list of other ‘horrid novels’ Catherine will enjoy after she finishes Udolpho. “…but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”* Catherine is hooked.
Austen uses the haunted house aspect of The Mysteries of Udolpho as the lens through which Catherine imagines Henry Tilney’s home. After she befriends Henry’s sister, Eleanor, and is invited to their home for an extended stay, Catherine’s obsession becomes fodder for a great bit of teasing by Henry when it is mentioned they live in an abbey. Catherine is excited to think “it is a fine old place, just like what one reads about.” Henry asks her if she has a stout heart and “nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” She is not concerned since the home has never been uninhabited for years with the family coming back unawares and without giving notice “as generally happens.” Henry leads her on with a definitive description of a haunted house:
…you must be aware that when a young lady is introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the home, she is formally conducted by Dorothy the ancient housekeeper up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you, when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance?
How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment!—And what will you discern?—Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fire-place the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call.
(This passage goes on, reminding me of the Haunting of Hill House and just about any horror book or movie with a haunted house I have ever seen. It can’t be a coincidence)?
Henry continues highlighting every stereotypical element of a haunted house, forcing Catherine to insist she is not afraid. And so with this conversation fresh in her mind and her obsession firmly implanted into her imagination, she is lead to her room. Where, of course, she experiences almost everything Henry just described.
However, the days pass and most of what originally scared her finds a reasonable explanation in the light of day. Though many angst-filled events conspire to keep Henry and Catherine apart, it was a relief to finally end the book knowing they would be together.
*As I was doing a little research about this novel, I came across some discussions of that list of ‘horrid novels’ Isabella mentioned above. It was thought Austen made up the titles until they were rediscovered in the early 20th century. Valancourt Books is publishing them all in affordable new editions.
Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year: 1817, 1972
Pages: 252 Full plot summary
Title: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author: E.M. Forster
Device: Trade paperback
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
My first Classics Club Spin! This will help me as I organize my reading for the next few months, and I need that, because, oh my, I get distracted with all that’s out there and not on my 5 year list!
The deal: Choose twenty books from your aforementioned list, number them 1-20 and put them in categories of your (or their) own choosing (optional). On Monday, December 7th, they will choose a number and that is the one you must read by February 1, 2016.
If you are not familiar with the Classics Club and you want to be, go HERE!
Five I can’t wait to read:
1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
2. Betty A. Smith, Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
3. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847)
4. Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)
5. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Five whose authors I know, but don’t know this work:
6. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
7. Wilkie Collins, Woman in White (1859)
8. William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)
9. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
10. Benjamin Disraeli, Coninigsby (1844)
Five I am embarrassed to realize I never read:
11. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936)
12. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
13. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
14. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)
15. Virginia Woolf, The Years (1937)
Five I am dreading or feel obligated to read:
16. Charles Kingsley, Hypatia or New Foes with an Old Face (1853)
17. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
18. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
19. H. G. Wells, TheWar of the Worlds (1898)
20. Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820)
Title: The House of the Seven Gables
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year: 1981, text of the original 1851 edition
For a plot summary.
“Shall we never, never get rid of this Past? It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word!”[i]
A family curse that follows each succeeding generation. A beautiful house filled with the history of death, to which a penniless spinster barely hangs on and is finally redeemed by the presence of youth and love. I thoroughly enjoyed this book dated, thick, wordy prose and all!
Halfway down a bystreet of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon elm.[ii]
If I could sum up in one word my overall impression of The House of the Seven Gables, I would use the word dense. All the actions that make up this second of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s more well-known books are dense: the characters, the house, the individual storylines and general narrative of the novel are filled with minute, detailed, descriptions that sprawl over the page in thick paragraphs. But this is an observation, not a criticism, because I enjoyed the novel for precisely this reason. If I were to find myself transported to this little village, I think I would see, hear and smell everything!
Hawthorne introduces us to the sensibility of the book in his Preface, telling us pointedly how we are to approach the story:
The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romanic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure, may either disregard, or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect. The narrative, it may be, is woven of so humble a texture as to require this advantage, and at the same time, to render it the more difficult of attainment.[iii]
Favorite scenes, passages and quotes:
When Hepzibah is first introduced she is Romanticism as Hawthorne defined above, a symbol of this “bygone time.”
It still lacked a half an hour of sunrise, when Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon—we will not say awoke, it being doubtful whether the poor lady had so much as closed her eyes during the brief night of midsummer—but, at all events, arose from her solitary pillow, and began what it would be a mockery to term the adornment of her person….The Old Maid was alone in the old house….Inaudible, were poor Miss Hepzibah’s gusty sighs. Inaudible the creaking joints of her stiffened knees, as she knelt down by the bedside. And inaudible, too, by mortal ear, but heard with all-comprehending love and pity in the farthest heaven, that almost agony of prayer—now whispered, now a groan, now a struggling silence—wherewith she besought the Divine assistance through the day![iv]
I like this passage that describes Phoebe’s first breakfast in the house, so meticulously illustrated, that our eyes and nostrils are intimately knowledgeable about what we can expect to eat and experience.
Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly arranged and well-provisioned breakfast table….Hepzibah’s small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs, and covered with a cloth of the richest damask, looked worthy to be the scene and center of one of the cheerfulest of parties. The vapor of the broiled fish arose like incense from the shrine of a barbarian idol, while the fragrance of the Mocha might have gratified the nostrils of a tutelary Lar, or whatever power has scope over a modern breakfast table. Phoebe’s Indian cakes were the sweetest offering of all—in their hue befitting the rustic altars of the innocent and golden age…The butter must not be forgotten—butter which Phoebe herself had churned, in her own rural home—smelling of clover blossoms, and diffusing the charm of pastoral scenery through the dark-paneled parlor.[v]
One of the more curious chapters in the book was told as a story by Hargrove, the daguerreotypist and Hepzibah’s boarder, to Phoebe her young cousin who comes to live at the house. Hargrove is both an artist and a writer and as he became familiar with the history of the house and family has written an account of a missing document that would grant the present owner of the house the empty land that borders the house on the east.
In the story, young Matthew Maule, grandson of the original owner of the land who was hanged on the charge of witchcraft so that the first Pyncheon, the Old Colonel could have the land to build the seven-gabled house, is summoned by the present Pyncheon to see if he has any knowledge of this land document. Matthew is aware of its existence, but claims he doesn’t know its location. He decides to trick Pyncheon by a display of mesmerism, the rage of the day, with Pyncheon’s daughter Alice as she is “a clear, crystal medium of a pure and virgin intelligence.”[vi] In short, while Pyncheon is otherwise distracted, Maule hypnotizes her in order find the document.
It appears to have been his object to concert the mind of Alice in to a kind of telescopic medium, through which Mr. Pyncheon and himself might obtain a glimpse into the spiritual world. He succeeded, accordingly, in holding an imperfect sort of intercourse, at one remove, with the departed personages in whose custody the so much valued secret had been carried beyond the precincts of earth.[vii]
In Alice’s vision, she sees three departed souls with knowledge of the document and one turns to the front to present it, but is over-taken by the remaining men, who are so loud in their jeering and mocking of Pyncheon that he could hear them! But alas for poor Alice, Maule never completely removes the spell and she becomes his slave, at his beck and call for the rest of her short life.
Maule had but to wave his hand; and, wherever the proud lady chanced to be—whether in her chamber, or entertaining her father’s stately guests, or worshiping at church—whatever her place of occupation, her spirit passed from beneath her own control, and bowed itself to Maule, “Alice, laugh!” [he] would say;… “Alice, be sad!” and, at the instant, down would come her tears,…. “Alice, dance!” and dance she would.[viii]
This story could stand alone in a short story collection. It was really fascinating and fun to read. And I am sure it would have gone over well during Hawthorne’s times when mesmerism, spiritualism and mediums of all stripes made their entrance in parlors and seances all over New England!
The house itself is really a main character as the origin of the curse that has infected each generation living under its precisely placed gables; the symbol of all the evils of the family because it was obtained through murder and deception. Hawthorne uses Hargrove and Clifford, Hepzibah’s brother, as critics of the sins that generational wealth leaves on succeeding family members.
But we shall live to see the day, I trust, when no man shall build his house for posterity…If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices—our capitols, state houses, courthouses, city hall, and churches—ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once in twenty years, or thereabouts as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.[ix]
It is clear to me as sunshine…that the greatest possible stumbling blocks in the path of human happiness and improvements are these heaps of bricks and stones consolidated with mortar, or hewn timber, fastened together with spike nails, which men painfully contrive for their own torment and call them house and home! The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousandfold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of households. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.[x]
Ouch. Family drama symbolized by physical inheritance as well as what comes down the genetic pike and how one can break free of the past. This seems a rather modern bit of psychological insight. Who would have thought, (not me!) that beneath a not so original story of a family curse would have within its depth a societal rallying of the corruptness of wealth and family privilege?
But this makes me want to know more about Nathaniel Hawthorne, because I think there is more here than just a good, old-fashioned story.