Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;…perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
Mary Shelley

“Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery…”
Victor Frankenstein

 

frankensteinThe catalyst for Frankenstein Mary Shelley explains, is that she and her husband Percy were visiting the home of Lord Byron one dark and stormy night, when Byron laid down the challenge that each must tell a ghost story. Byron and Percy were able to create a story on the spot, but it took Mary a few days. In fact, she dreamed it. The result is one of the world’s most well-known classic tales of necromancy and Gothic story-telling.

As often happens when I read a classic novel that has seen countless film adaptations, I was very surprised that the book tackles far more than just the ‘monster parts.’  Shelley proposes thoughtful and deep topics and asks questions about personal responsibility, the quest for life’s purpose and leaves me wondering whether a monster has a soul?

Frankenstein is told as a story within a story by Robert Walton who is at sea and is corresponding with his sister, Margaret. But when the ship gets stuck in the ice floes of the Arctic, in the span of a few hours two very odd things happen. First, the crew spots a huge human-like creature driving a sledge with a pack of dogs passing at a distance. The next morning, they find another man, but more normal-looking, who is also driving a sledge, floating near them on the ice. He is near dead. The crew rescues him, revives him and while recuperating tells Walton how he came to be floundering on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic. Walton records the tale for his sister in a journal. Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, youthful scientist and budding necromancer whose interest in natural philosophy takes a turn from the traditional path of changing lead into gold to the perilous route toward creating life from death.

At university, Victor studies physiology, anatomy, the life process and the progression of death; he visits charnel houses and sees how the body corrupts and wastes away after the bloom of life.

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter….It was already one in the morning….I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

After two years of working toward this goal of animating life from death Frankenstein succeeds. But instead of celebrating the work, he is horrified. He has created a creature, a monster. He cannot sleep for the nightmares that consume his waking and sleeping hours and falls into a many-month illness. From the very beginning that sparked the life of the monster, Victor is unable to accept responsibility for what he has created or the repercussions of the monster’s actions. This weakness in character will hound him for the rest of this life.

Meanwhile, the monster flees the town. He is a fully formed human-like man and as he roams the countryside coming into contact with people he not only sees, but feels their fear and disgust. He shows up near Victor’s home and kills his younger brother. Victor is still at university when he hears William has been murdered; he knows it is the monster. Unable to confess to the authorities what he knows for fear of being branded insane, he keeps quiet. An investigation and trial is held for the murder and through circumstantial evidence Justine, a trusted family servant of the Frankenstein’s is convicted of the crime and hanged. “The first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts.”

The monster is desperate for a place of refuge and finds it in an abandoned hovel near a cottage. The cottage is occupied by a brother, sister and their father. Through watching the interactions of the siblings as they care for their blind father he learns how they take care of one another, how they speak in kindness toward each other and what it means to be part of a family. Aware of his physical deformities he knows to keep out of sight, but he takes a chance on the father when the children are away during the day and forms a friendship with him. But the day comes when the children see him and the family flees the cottage. Brokenhearted, the monster understands his kindness or concern for others will always be outweighed by his physical appearance. There is no place on earth for him.

Where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses;…From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?

The monster finally confronts Frankenstein and describes his life, how he came to speak, to think, to understand society by watching this family. And now, by bitter experience he will never be able to live as they do, in a family or as a common man.

Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably  excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

He pleads with Frankenstein to make him a companion like himself, so he can live as he sees others doing.

You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being….I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realized

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself….we shall be monsters…Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.

The monster compels Frankenstein to this task and promises to live in secret, perpetrating no violence to any animal and away from any human contact.

Victor Frankenstein indeed created a monster, but what is amazing about this one is his heart, soul and intelligence. He has the potential to be every bit as kind and compassionate, moral and honest as any other man, yet he will never be accepted because of his physical appearance. No matter his good works or heroic deeds, his physical presentation will always negate his integrity.

My Thoughts

Victor Frankenstein turns his back on what he created. He abandons him on the first night, but once he hears his story, it is obvious this is a feeling, thinking human-type being, deserving of assistance, mercy and companionship. Would someone who created life really reject it like he did? The monster may be hideous to look at, but inside he is made like any other human being with the full capacity of feelings and outlook on life.

Would you reject a “nonperfect” child and would you expect it to fend for itself? Or is this something entirely different? Because the monster is not a helpless baby, but came into the world fully formed, who learned to speak, to cultivate his intelligence, to live in the world through observation, because he was made with wisdom already intact. Does he have a soul? He acts like it. He quickly becomes Victor’s intellectual equal. And Victor is given ample opportunity to make things right for him, instead he gives into fear.

Hounded for years by the being he created, Victor dies on the ship still unrepentant and without accepting any responsibility toward the monster; even as he lay dying he just wants the wretch dead.

The fate of the monster is sealed at Frankenstein’s death. Walton hears noises coming from the room where Frankenstein has died. He sees that it is the monster lamenting his existence that there will now never be redress against the man who created him.

Frankenstein forced him to a life of misery and neglect and now he will end his own on a “funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames….my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace….”Frankenstein1818.jepg

Shelley goes through such pains to tell the monster’s story and she imbues the creature with humanity and sympathy as with any other human being. She shows his compassion, his intelligence; he is creative, hard-working and capable of contributing positively to society. He develops the full capacity of feelings, agency and responsibility for others and this is to me the tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster.

Because the monster is a victim. And it is easy to interpret Frankenstein as a warning for these modern times as science advances toward cloning and other forms of creating genetically modified life. Can we use Frankenstein as a forewarning to illustrate imagination gone wrong, to get us to think about the results of such experimentation and to ask how and what we are responsible for when we take these steps? Is creation and human life about outward appearances as we go about creating perfect people? What do we owe to them when they turn out to be not so perfect?

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion….When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.

___________________

 

Title: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1818
Pages: 185

Challenges: RIPXIV, Classics Club, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge

Classics Club Spin #21

CCspin21.jepg

The Classics Club is community of readers sharing our love for classic literature. Participants create a list of 50 or more classic lit titles that we agree to read within 5 years. A “Spin” is to take 20 titles you have not read from that list and number them 1-20. When the Spin gods choose a number your corresponding title is the book you will read and post about. For Spin #21 we are encouraged to post by October 31st.

The Classics Club is a wonderful way to meet like-mined classics lovers and have some fun. Yes….classic lit and fun CAN be in the same sentence 🙂

From the Classics Club website where you can get the full scoop on the Club and the Spin:

This is meant to be a fun, social way to read another book from your classics club list. We’re very relaxed about how you set it up, we simply want you to read more classics!

This Spin I am happy to say is a special one as I am only a few titles away from finishing my list, so I have chosen to repeat the titles I have not read on my list, instead of choosing any from my book shelf (can you say Frankenstein)?

Ok Spin gods…pick the monster, please 🙂

George Eliot
1. Middlemarch (1874)

E.M. Forster
2. Room with a View (1908)

Elizabeth Gaskell
3. Mary Barton (1848)
4. Wives and Daughters
(1866)

Henry James
5. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
6. The Ambassadors (1903)

Mary Shelley
7. Frankenstein (1818)

H. G. Wells
8. First Men in the Moon (1901)
9. The Invisible Man (1897)

Virginia Woolf
10. To the Lighthouse (1927)

11. Frankenstein

12. Wives and Daughters

13. Frankenstein

14. First Men in the Moon

15. Frankenstein

16. Portrait of a Lady

17. Frankenstein

18. Middlemarch

19. Frankenstein

20. Room with a View

 

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde none could come near me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde was pure evil.

 

drjekyllWhat a convoluted story! This door, that alleyway….Robert Louis Stevenson’s prose is almost as confusing as the story itself. And as a visual reader all the scenes look dark as if all of the action takes place at night, even the inside scenes.

While the first ¾ of this novella is hard to follow, the last quarter is quite profound and made me think of my own morality.

 

While I knew the basics of the story–a scientist creates a potion that turns him into an evil man–I was surprised that in the actual reading of the book that scientist was Dr. Jekyll. What I mean by that is having heard the story and seen the films, in reading the the actual book it was not immediately understood to me to be him. So, I liked that aspect of the mystery.

The story unfolds as a Mr. Utterson, a lawyer and close friend of Dr. Jekyll, first comes drjinto contract with Mr. Hyde while walking home one night. He witnesses a man and young girl collide in the street; he tramples her and continues on. Utterson goes after him, catches him and then forces him to make financial restitution to the girl and her family for her injuries. To make sure, he goes with the man to his home, waits there until he writes the check and waits at the back to make sure the check is good.  Mr. Hyde, who Utterson can see is deformed, stays curious about this mysterious man each time he passes his door.

Meanwhile Dr. Jekyll is becoming a recluse giving concern to Utterson who is used to seeing him often for dinner or drinks. As the keeper of Jekyll’s will he is worried at this odd behavior. His suspicions are heightened when, Poole, Jekyll’s long-time servant shows up at Uttersons’s home one night in great fear for his master. He says Dr. Jekyll is ill and spends all his time in the laboratory, but there is something else that has put all the servants in fear and would he please come immediately to the house? When he enters the home, the servants are convinced that although they only get a glimpse of Dr. Jekyll in his laboratory the man they see isn’t him. Although Utterson finds this unbelievable they are clearly in a panic and he is convinced to break down the door. Rushing in he sees a body on the floor. It is Mr. Hyde in his last gasp of life.

Dr. Jekyll Creates a Method of Dissociation

drj3As Utterson tries to process what he sees, he notices an envelope on the desk with this name on it. Inside are instructions from Dr. Jekyll dated that very day and state that Utterson must read the two letters enclosed before he does or thinks anything else. The first letter is from a mutual friend of Utterson’s and Jekyll, who writes about witnessing Dr. Jekyll’s change to Mr. Hyde. The second is Dr. Jekyll’s account of his life and his struggles at an early age with the duality of good and evil within himself and the experiments that culminated in the successful separation of the two and the creation of Mr. Hyde.

If each could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way…and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path…no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil….that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.

By finding the right combination of powders Dr. Jekyll had begun experimenting on himself until late one night as the nausea and aching subsided he sensed something strange and new. He felt younger, happier, more vital. He was Mr. Hyde.

“I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked…and the thought delighted me.”

A reverse mixture brings him back to Dr. Jekyll, but as time passes, he finds it harder to come back to his original self. He is horrified to realize he is becoming Mr. Hyde without taking the potion as if his evil nature is overpowering the good. As the influence of Hyde grows, Dr. Jekyll’s physical body declines. When Hyde beats a man to death, it becomes clear to Jekyll that there is only one way to stop Hyde–and therefore himself. This is the act by which he is discovered by Utterson.

My Thoughts

When I was a child, like many children, I had a “fall guy” or in this case two fall girls who I blamed for the bad things I did. Peggy and Shelly existed as my imaginary friends and though I talked to them and went on elaborate escapades with them I knew our association and my experience with them was in my mind and not in the real world. And although it sounded good at the time, it never worked to blame them for what I did. I grew out of a need for them at some point.

Whatever Stevenson is describing here with Dr. Jekyll’s dual nature might be more pathological than just some mean thoughts about the perceived unfair people or circumstances in life or an inability to take responsibility for our actions. I never wrestled with the kind of evil Jekyll does, but I hear every so often of a woman paying someone off to kill her husband or a man hiring someone to ‘get back’ at a person who wronged him. Most of us don’t ever go that far and are able to deal more responsibility with the negative parts of our nature.

And so I wonder about this story of Stevenson’s and what he is describing or warning us about? Is his Mr. Hyde living out a universal deep, dark fantasy over situations we believe we have no control? Is he describing the mind of a serial murderer or the mad scientist whose experiment has gone far beyond what he thought he was creating?

But is this also a cautionary tale about how one man deals with his negative passions, the dark thoughts that consume him and instead of facing whatever they are he acts them out not in a healthy way, but literally? Or maybe Dr. Jekyll is just plain crazy and Stevenson has illustrated the workings an insane mind.

Even if this is only a good fireside scary story, it sure made me think!

_________________

Title: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1886
Pages: 114

Challenges: #RIPXIV

Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (1919)

You come and see me among flowers and pictures, and think me mysterious, romantic, and all the rest of it. Being yourself very inexperienced and very emotional, you go home and invent a story about me, and now you can’t separate me from the person you’ve imagined me to be. You call that, I suppose, being in love; as a matter of fact it’s being in delusion…I won’t have you do it about me.

 

nightday

If I were to sum up Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day I could easily do it in one sentence: It is about a group of young men and women contemplating marriage, but illusions about love are a stumbling block: if true love does not come is compatibility the better alternative? But the book clocks in at 450 pages, so there must be more to it than that. The difficulty with this review is that though there is a narrative, so much of it is contained in the thoughts and conversations of the characters. And as shall be explained below, they followed a multi-lane winding road.

Katharine Hilbery lives with her parents in the Chelsea area of London where she spends her days assisting her mother with the biography of her grandfather, the well-known poet Richard Alardyce. Katharine is bored with her life, and her impending marriage to William Rodney, himself a writer and poet, does not give her peace. She is not in love with him, but has consented to the marriage and it is understood by all they are a couple, which adds to her discomfort. William has been invited to the apartment of Mary Datchet a suffragette who opens her apartment to young writers to showcase their work. Katharine accompanies William on this particular evening and it is here she sees Ralph Denham, a young lawyer who writes for her father and whom she met recently at a tea given by her mother. Katharine feigns interest in him, but Ralph’s feelings are strong. Mary has known Ralph through her job and is in love with him, but he sees her only as a friend. When Cassandra, Katharine’s younger cousin comes to visit, she and William find themselves in love with each other.

These attachments and attractions to and for each character form the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their inner lives are melodramatic as their thoughts twist and turn. And when they converse they are never honest, speaking of marriage when they are not in love or declaring friendship when they really mean they are in love. They are both false and brutally honest with each other forcing confusion and turmoil into their relationships.

I did say I would marry you, but it was wrong, for I don’t love you William; you’ve noticed it, every one’s noticed it; why should we go on pretending? When I told you I loved you, I was wrong. I said what I knew to be untrue.

Indecision impairs each with an uncertainty as to their future. Do you marry for love or friendship? For romance or compatibility? Can Katharine Hilbery marry William Rodney because she loves, but is not in love with him? Should Ralph Denham ask Mary Datchet to marry him because he only likes her very much and should she say yes, even though she is in love with him?

strolling2When not ruminating in their individual heads one of the great features of this novel is the quality of the conversations. In fact, there is a certain irony in the fact that the main characters speak so often to each other about their feelings, yet the words are never honest so there is a continual confusion over where each stands. And even when they have come to a decision and know what they feel, they do the opposite. This is never more startling as when Ralph, who is mad for Katharine, proposes to Mary anyway telling her his relationship with Katharine has been a fantasy he made up in his mind. Mary, however, wants a marriage based on love. Answers Ralph:

But love—don’t we talk a great deal of nonsense about it?…It’s only a story one makes up in one’s mind about another person and one knows all the time it isn’t true. Of course one knows; why, one’s always taking care not to destroy the illusion. One takes care not to see them too often, or to be alone with them for too long together. It’s a pleasant illusion, but if you’re thinking of the risks of marriage, it seems to me that the risk of marrying a person you’re in love with is something colossal.

It is easy to become exasperated with the continual indecision of the characters, but there is a certain humorous quality about a group of well-liked intelligent young people who can’t make up their minds, who are unable to tell anyone the truth of their feelings, to be gossiped about being seen alone with someone they tell people they only ‘like,’ yet everyone can see they are actually in love with them!

The characters do have rich inner worlds that Woolf plumbs and dissects. And there is a plot and a sense of the narrative, but it is wide-ranging and convoluted. If you skip a page or skim a conversation, you will miss something important, because Woolf relishes the intimate details that make up a person. Katharine’s mother, for example, floats in and out of the novel and though is often lost in the world of her father’s biography comes up with gems. Surprising Katharine, who has finally declared to her that she is in love with Ralph Denham and not William Rodney, she tells her, “Do not marry unless you are in love!…Who knows where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find—who knows anything, except that love is our faith—love.”

Or in Mary Datchet’s world love is her work. While Katharine and Ralph and William and Cassandra pair up, Mary’s partner will be her work. Mary is a character I wish Woolf gave more attention. She is put-upon by the other characters who treat her like a cross between a Mother Confessor and an ill-used personal assistant. Katharine shows up at her apartment at any time of night or day when her thoughts are too much to handle suff2alone. Ralph, too, depends on Mary to make his fears of commitment to Katharine bearable, yet Mary is in love with Ralph and they both know it. I wanted from Mary more fight, more push against this meanness and sadly Woolf uses her strength to keep her alone, but in love with her work failing, in my opinion, that she can’t have both.

Work…I’ve only found out myself quite lately. But it’s the thing that saves one—I’m sure of that…—Where should I be now if I hadn’t got to go to my office every day? Thousands of people would tell you the same thing—thousands of women. I tell you, work is the only thing that saved me, Ralph…It’s all turned out splendidly for me. It will for you, too. I’m sure of that. Because, after all, Katharine is worth it.

The ending was no surprise and in fact, quite a relief after all the angst and push pull of feelings, rumination and the endless talking; honesty triumphed, decisions were made and proposals accepted.

Conclusion

If I would dare criticize Woolf, I would beg for some heavy editing. But I also have to admit I enjoyed what I am criticizing, because the writing, especially the myriad conversations, are so well done. Still, the repetition…I suppose I just wanted to reach into the book to shake up Katharine and the rest and ask, “don’t you know the definition of insanity is doing (in this case, thinking) the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?” Ah well, in a few years I may do a reread after I’ve read more Woolf and maybe I will understand the point of Night and Day a little better.

__________________

Title: Night and Day
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Device: Paperback
Year: 1919
Pages: 442

CCSpin, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

 

WorldsEndDistillery

Welch Ale Brewery, Kings Road, Chelsea. Absolutely irrelevant to this post and sadly, no relation 🙂 But a girl can dream!

 

 

 

 

 

Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

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

Under the Greewood Tree or The Mellstock Quire, Thomas Hardy (1872)

This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians,…is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand of the personages, ways and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago….One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical bandsmen…by installing a single artist….Under the old plan, from half a dozen to ten full-grown players and singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined musical taste of the congregation. Thomas Hardy, Introduction

 

greenwoodUnder the Greenwood Tree concerns the fate of a group of church musicians, the Mellstock parish choir, who have been informed by the vicar of their parish, Mr Maybold, that he intends to replace them with a single organist, Fancy Day, who is also the new school teacher. The vicar wants the small village to keep up with the times, which means changing the traditional musical accompaniment to Sunday services with the more modern barrel organ. This is devastating to the musicians, some of whom come from families who have been church musicians for generations. In a last ditch effort to plead their case, they descend upon the vicar to negotiate, but the organ has been purchased and modernity has descended upon the little village.

Times have changed from the times they used to be…People don’t care much about us nowserpent! I’ve been thinking we must be almost the last left in the county of the old string players? Barrel-organs and the things next door to ‘em that you blow wi’ your foot, have come in terrible of late years….They should have stuck to strings as we did, and kept out of clarinets, and done away with serpents. If you’d thrive in musical religion, stick to strings…Strings be safe soul-lifters….

The story unfolds on Christmas Eve as the quire makes the many-hour trek through the night to the church. Hardy introduces us to a wonderful cast of characters including cantankerous old Reuben Dewy, frail young Thomas Leaf and Dewy’s grandson, Dick. When the group reaches the schoolyard near the church their playing rouses Fancy who comes to a window. This vision sparks the interest of Dick, who is quickly smitten. As the days turn into weeks he is in constant rumination on the details of her dress, her thoughts, aching over snippets of conversations, essentially embodying the hopes and fears of young romance.

Fancy’s interest in him grows, but her father is not impressed with the working class Dewy and forbids their marriage. Enter the iconic single woman of the town who people call a witch, whom Fancy visits for advice. She gives Fancy instructions on how to change her father’s mind and with success. The book ends with their marriage.

This is a wonderful pastoral tale of tradition versus progress, yet the fight is not so passionate, as the men of the quire understand they will lose in the end. Bargaining with the vicar to finish out the year before the organ takes over, he gives them only until Michaelmas. During this time they feel the changes coming on and know their days as musicians are numbered. And as Fancy gets to know the musicians and especially as her affection for Dick grows, she assures them she will NOT play the organ. But she can’t thwart progress either and the day comes for her debut.

The old choir, with humbled hearts, no longer took their seats in the gallery as heretofore, but were scattered about with their wives in different parts of the church. Having nothing to do with conducting the service for almost the first time in their lives, they all felt awkward, out of place, abashed, and inconvenienced by their hands.

Progress always has a human toll and while I ached for these musicians having to face a changing world, I was also impressed by their acceptance of the that reality.

Hardy’s prose in this early work is not without lengthy detailed descriptive passages that are unnecessary to the narrative. But there are other aspects of Hardy’s writing that I find quite beautiful and creative. In fact, in his opening paragraph where he describes the land surrounding the village he cleverly infuses his description of nature with musical description, being obviously a main point of the novel. This beginning paragraph will remain a favorite of mine for a long time.

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

________________

My Edition
Title: Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., Limited
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1872
Pages: 273
Full plot summary

Classics Club Spin #17: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (1848)

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

 

tenantThe 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.

 

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My Edition
Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1848
Pages: 511
Full plot summary

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