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

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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.

 

_______________________________

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

Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge

Classics Club Spin #17

classicsclub

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.

My list:

Jane Austen
1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Anne Bronte
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Charlotte Bronte
4. Shirley (1849)

Emily Bronte
5. Wuthering Heights (1847)

Fanny Burney
6. Evelina (1778)

Willa Cather
7. O Pioneers! (1913)
8. My Antonia (1918)

Daniel Defoe
9. Robinson Crusoe (1719)
10. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Theodore Dreiser
11. Sister Carrie (1900)

George Eliot
12. Mill on the Floss (1860)
13. Silas Marner (1861)
14. Daniel Deronda (1876)

Elizabeth Gaskell
15. Mary Barton (1848)
16. Cranford (1851)
17. North and South (1854)
18. Wives and Daughters (1864)

Henry James
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. 🙂

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.

 

RebeccaWhen I put Rebecca on my Classics Club list, I didn’t know anything about it. I put it on my list with the same intention I put many classics on it: I want to read well-known or important classics, and knew this was one of them.

When I started book blogging, I discovered how many readers include Rebecca on their top 10 favorites list. That in itself was intriguing, yet there were so many other classics I knew about that I wanted to read first.

Now I am initiated. Now I understand.

(Caveat: For those not initiated, you will see often in this post ‘the second Mrs. de Winter,’ this is because her name is never mentioned).

There is so much tension built into this book, which begins in the first pages where an unnamed narrator is recounting a dream. It is a beautiful descriptive dream of a house, its grounds and its secrets and an ominous statement that it is no more.

The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.

When the young second Mrs. de Winter comes to Manderley, her background has not prepared her to take up the responsibilities of caring for a show place like Manderley. Her shyness and reticence in the presence of the household staff and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, does not instill confidence and she is constantly questioning herself and her marriage to Maxim. In her mind she concocts rich fantasies about what the staff really thinks of her, although reality is never as bad as her thoughts. But there is another facet of this experience she has no control over. She is living with the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca and her secrets, that permeate every aspect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s life.

No one will talk about Rebecca, which only adds to the second Mrs. de Winter’s rich fantasy life. Though many characters are introduced including Beatrice, Maxim’s sister and kind-hearted Frank Crawley, Maxim’s business associate, who genuinely like and accept her their refusal to talk about Rebecca and her death hangs over Mrs. de Winter’s ability to feel comfortable in the house.

That is until Mrs. Danvers, who it turns out was not just the housekeeper, but Rebecca’s confidante confronts Mrs. de Winter when she catches her in Rebecca’s suite and is only too happy to talk. Danvers is the classic dead mistress-obsessed housekeeper who refuses to let go of the past. She cleans and dusts this suite every day. She lays out Rebecca’s clothes as if she is only gone for the day. du Maurier writes this scene so well. It is easy to share de Winter’s panic as Danvers speaks.

It’s not only this room it’s in many rooms in the house…I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?”…Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evenings in the old days, looking down at the hall below and calling to the dogs. I can fancy her there now from time to time. It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.” She pauses. She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now? Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

I swallowed. I dug my nails into my hands.

Sometimes I wonder,” she whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.”

When a ship capsizes in the bay and Rebecca’s small boat is discovered with her dead body still inside Maxim has no choice but to reveal the truth about how she died. It is a shocking revelation, but in my opinion, less shocking than the reasons he did it. As she listens to the truth about their marriage, as she hears the details about who Rebecca really was and as the investigation and inquest unfold, she is transformed. She is determined to support her husband, will hear all he is accused of, will stay by his side. In this regard she grows up and is changed overnight. Even Maxim acknowledges her transformation, dismayed that it is his fault.

But you. I can’t forget what it has done to you. I was looking at you, thinking of nothing else all through lunch. It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca. It’s gone, in twenty-four hours. You are so much older…

And then he says her name. He doesn’t, of course, but in my head it would have made so much sense for him to say it here.

Du Maurier’s writing style is quite amazing in this book. How many passages are worth quoting her way with words? How detailed she gives to the narrative whether in describing a person, Manderley and its grounds, or an event, but the narrative never feels bogged down in the details.

Yet, it is the details that infuse, propel and wrap up the story. I spent the last quarter of the book on a roller coaster as one revelation proves Maxim’s guilt while another one covers it up, while still another could go either way. I have never been very good at guessing outcomes in books, so I was not prepared for the very end. While it explains the dream of the first few pages and why the narrator is estranged from her home, I was still shocked. With eyes as big as saucers I closed the book…“What???”

I have heard people say and I have said it too about books that really touched me; I wish I could forget I read this book so I can read it again for the first time.

*********

My Edition
Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publisher: Avon
Device: Paperback
Year: 1938
Pages: 380
Full plot summary

Challenges: Roofbeam Reader TBR, Classics Club

Looking Toward 2018

bikebook

 

I don’t have a great desire to do a recap of 2017. I want to look forward. But I do want to mention two things that were important to me this year:

  1. Favorite books of 2017: I am making myself choose only four, three classics and one historical novel, even though it is an impossible task! Dracula, Northanger Abbey, House of Mirth, and Radio Girls.
  2. “Enriched by reading the reviews” of other bloggers’ books is one of the ways I would characterize this year as well as reading your comments on mine.

Number 2 brings me to my plans for 2018. I am going to concentrate on what I would call the foundational classics I have not yet read, like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and books by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde. I want to read Rebecca and find out why it is on so many top ten list of favorites. And maybe I’ll tackle a Woolf.

And I want to read some American foundational classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby Dick and books by Willa Cather and Henry James. Maybe do some traveling with Charley. Louisa May Alcott wrote so many other books besides Little Women…time to dust some off? And I want to find out more about Sarah Orne Jewett whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I so enjoyed in 2016.

 

 

In order to help with these deficiencies, I am taking part in a number of (overlapping) challenges, including Roof Beam Reader’s TBR, Back to the Classics and the Victorian Reading Challenge. These will also help me with my Classics Club list.

Since I can’t deny my attraction to the 19th century, I am also going to read more historical fiction that takes place in that time period, so I have signed up for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The second emphasis for the year is to expand my awareness outside the UK and US by concentrating on Reading all Around the World that I neglected last year,  participate in the European Reading Challenge and Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Challenge. I can’t promise I will stay out of the 19th and early 20th centuries with these challenges, however, but more history and different perspectives and experiences is always a good thing!

I am also doing a personal challenge on the American Civil War with thanks to Jillian who helped me craft the categories.

Good gracious, this is a lot! And I know there will be readalongs and other events throughout the year that I will participate in…well, a good way to stay out of trouble!

I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

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

My Life in Books (2017)

 

 

Adam, at RoofBeamReader.com, just posted a fun end of the year round-up. Called, ‘My Life in Books,’ you answer a set of questions using one of the titles you’ve read this year.

I hope you’ll join in. I’d love to see what you come up with! Here’s mine:

 

1. In high school I was: (one of the) Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford

2. People might be surprised: (that) Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles

3. I will never be: Dracula, Bram Stoker

4. My fantasy job is: Being a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz

5. At the end of a long day I need: A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith

6. I hate it when: (there is) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson

7. Wish I had: The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare

8. My family reunions are: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

9. At a party you’d find me with: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War, Pamela D. Toler

10. I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

11. A happy day includes: The Nature Principal, Richard Louv

12. Motto I live by: Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

13. On my bucket list is: The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene

14. In my next life, I want to have: Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

 

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

dracula

“We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”

 

Reading Dracula was like reading Little Women. Steeped in the film versions, I thought I knew what I would find in the books. Both were a surprise, even though I know films always change things and leave out a lot. When will I learn not to judge a book by a film?

Dracula is told entirely through the journals of four of the six principal players: Mina Murray, whose best friend Lucy Westenra has become mysteriously sick; Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé then husband; the psychiatrist Dr. Seward, who runs a mental institute and Professor Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Seward’s former professor who is an “obscure diseases” specialist. Lucy’s two suitors, Arthur Holmwood, later Lord Godalming and the American Quincey Morris, make up the final six.

There is literally no straight narrative in the structure of the book. Stoker uses detailed journal entries, newspaper clippings, letters, bills of lading to tell the story. I found this to be extremely effective, because by keeping things in the first person, the story has immediacy and suspense as one ‘scene’ cuts away to another and we see how each experience is seen and interpreted in multiple ways. While this device is sometimes distracting or hard to follow here, each character has a distinct and unique voice, which makes it easy to know which character is writing.

Because I am used to film and popular culture portrayals of Dracula I was shocked at how little Count Dracula personally features in the book. In addition to his human persona he shape-shifts into various creatures, but is mostly absent. The book is really about the quest to find and kill him. It is the lore around vampires, the ancient curse that shows up in the superstitious townspeople, the effect of vampire bites on Lucy and Mina and the knowledge Professor Van Helsing has that forms the story.

In film versions, the suave and charming Count is afforded lots of screen time with special effects liberally showcasing his pointed teeth, lips dripping with blood, the (Bela Lugosi’s) famous accent, the bat persona and the abundance of mist whenever he is about to appear. While in these versions he is sometimes portrayed as a sympathetic character in the book he is an evil creature without any redeeming qualities living only to satisfy his evil desires without regard to the human cost.

I was struck by the technological inventions Stoker makes use of that existed at the end of the 19th century.  They remind me of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and seem to fit right in with today’s Steampunk subculture.

  1. Blood transfusions are given to Lucy as Dracula’s fatal bite causes her body to waste away. Dr. Seward transfuses her with Arthur, Quincey, Van Helsing and himself (without knowledge of blood type?) with limited results.
  2. The typewriter: When it is discovered that Mina is an expert typist, she types up everyone’s journal, in copies, so as to give a cohesive structure as to what each is experiencing; she also types up the notes of their planning meetings.
  3. The dictaphone: Dr. Seward speaks his journal into this machine that records on a record player, which Mina types up.
  4. The London Underground and train schedules: Mina is obsessed with the train schedules of the Underground and suburban/cross country trains and has their timetables memorized.
  5. Hypnotism: In an effort to find the whereabouts of Dracula Professor Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina frequently at sunrise and sunset.

When Dracula flees London for his hometown in Romania, the six follow him knowing they must ritually kill him by stabbing him through the heart and cutting off his head. This is the only way to stop a vampiric future and to save Mina, who although has not ‘changed’ yet, is exhibiting some debilitating symptoms.

As they plan and prepare for their journey in Dr. Seward’s living room, Mina makes a disturbing, but necessary request, of which they all must swear. If she becomes so changed that she poses a threat to herself or to them, they must “drive a stake through me and cut off my head.” And in a scene reminiscent of something out of a Medieval romance where knights on a quest pledge their honor to their lady, the men faithfully drop to their knees one by one and swear, as (“Lady”) Mina asks, to kill her if they are unable to ritually rid the world of Dracula so her soul may rest.

Quincey was the first…He knelt down before her and taking her hand in his said solemnly, “ I am only a rough fellow…but I swear to you by all that I hold sacred and dear that, should the time ever come, I shall not flinch from the duty that you have set us.” And each in turn makes the same vow.

Mention should be made here of Mina. She disparages the ‘New Woman,’ of their independence, their call to buck social convention. Yet, she herself is the prime example of such a woman: smart, intelligent, technologically savvy whose work is key in organizing and pursuing the search for Dracula. It is Mina whose facility with a typewriter and organizational skills, her intelligence and coping mechanism in the face of the horror that is happening to her, her obsession with train schedules that basically saves the day. And apparently, she is also an expert on the the criminal mind through the work of Max Nordau, which Stoker, in a bizarre “show and tell” scene, has her recite his philosophy about criminals in reference to Dracula’s own criminality. The irony of this anti-New Woman aspect about Mina is probably not lost on most readers, so it is curious.

The last quarter of the book does feel to me like knights on a sacred quest to rid the world of evil like Arthur and his knights, or Harry, Ron and Hermione against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and of all the films and books where ordinary people band together against the darkness that would overcome humanity.

Sadly, unlike the notoriety of these epic stories, this particular one will forever stay with the six, because it is too fantastical. No one would ever believe them.

When we got home we got to talking of the old time—which we could all look back upon without despair… I took the papers from the safe where they have been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing, except the later notebooks of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.

I didn’t find Dracula scary. I found it hopeful and encouraging. And nothing like the films….

_____________

My Edition
Title: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1897
Pages: 400
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, #RIPXII

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1817) #AustenInAugustRBR

northabbey2

….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 throughnorthabbey 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.

My Edition
Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1817, 1972
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, #AusteninAugustRBR, TBR