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

Advertisements

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

#WitchWeekECBR-The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (1959)

This post is a contribution to Witch Week hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review celebrating witchy, ghosty and fantasy works by American authors, culminating in a readalong of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. For more information on the week go here and find tweets on Twitter with the hashtag

My Edition:haunting
Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: The Stephen King Horror Library, Viking Penguin
Device: Hard cover
Year: 1959
Pages: 246
For a plot summary

… the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness  from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.[i]

Four people have gathered at the suspected haunted and remotely located Hill House to take part in an experiment developed by university professor Dr. Montague who hopes to find scientific evidence for the existence of psychic phenomena. Professor Montague has had a life-long interest in the manifestation of psychic experiences and believes he has found the perfect house to run the experiment. To assist him, he has selected two individuals, Theodora (Theo), a telepath and Eleanor Vance, who experienced psychic phenomena as a child. The fourth house guest is Luke Sanderson representing the owners of the house and is the house’s heir. He is also the group’s skeptic.

…This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern…reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.[ii]

Hill House is the quintessential haunted house: a Gothic maze of rooms laid out to confuse, sculptures that move when you turn your head, cold spots on the floor, unseen voices laughing and crying, doors that close by themselves, bedroom doors pounding in the middle of the night and the requisite husband and wife caretakers, who scare the guests with their suspicious demeanor and the fact that they leave the house at 6pm, “So there won’t be anyone around if you need help…in the night…in the dark.”[iii]

The house has dubious beginnings and a bizarre, sad history. It was built by Hugh Crain for his wife and two daughters in the late 1880s, but on the day they were to move in Mrs. Crain’s carriage crashed on the long driveway and she died. Mr. Crain brought his daughters in to live, but any chance of happiness or lightheartedness died with Mrs. Crain. The sisters grew up and the younger one married and moved away, while the older one continued to live in the house, but throughout the decades they constantly argued over the house’s inheritance. One night during a medical emergency the older sister died while calling out for her young caretaker, who had snuck out in the night to meet a man. She continued to live in the house, as the older sister named her heir, but she never recovered from her negligence and the younger sister’s attempts to get the house back and she died, a suspected suicide. The house has become uninhabitable. Tenants, who lease the house for months, scurry out in three days never to be heard from again.

Against this backdrop, Shirley Jackson skillfully sets up the story to be told from Eleanor’s point of view, whose last 11 years as caretaker of an ungrateful and selfish mother has left her broken and tortured. She survives by living in a fantasy world where she is the star, the princess, the lost child welcomed home, a woman who is loved. By the time she arrives at Hill House her inner life is rich with imagination and a narcissism fostered by years of isolation and humiliation. It is a few months after her mother has died and she is ecstatic that she was invited on this adventure, that she is wanted, that she is part of this group. And that is the key to painfully self-conscious Eleanor, “who belongs, who is talking easily, who is sitting by the fire with her friends.”[iv]

As for actual psychic phenomena, for actual experiences of menacing ghosts or spirits making their presences known, do they happen? Yes, things happen in the house and out in the grounds. But do they happen because the house is haunted? Or do they happen because they are expected to? Is it mass hysteria, “subterranean waters” or true possession?

As the guests sleep on the second night after their arrival, Eleanor is dreaming of her mother pounding on the wall of her bedroom as she did every night to get her attention. Eleanor awakes telling her mother she is coming, but then realizes she is at Hill House and the pounding she hears is coming from the doors at the other end of the hallway. Running into Theo’s adjoining room both realize it is getting closer.

It sounded, Eleanor thought, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute and then suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick fury, seeming to be going methodically from door to door…“Go away, go away!” And there was complete silence. Now I’ve done it, Eleanor thinks, It was looking for the room with someone inside. It started again as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they said, to identify them…waiting to hear if they were afraid…The iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, and the sickening degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door.

It had found them. Since Eleanor would not open the door, it was going to make its own way in…Little pattings came from around the door frame, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in. The doorknob was fondled, and Eleanor, whispering, asked,”is it locked?” The little sticky sounds moved on around the door frame and then, as though a fury caught whatever was outside, the crashing came again and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake, and the door move against its hinges.

“You can’t get in,” said Eleanor wildly, and again there was a silence, as though the house listened with attention to her words, content to wait. A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh…and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs and, mercifully, it was over.[v]

As breathtaking and real as this was for Eleanor and Theo, it turns out Dr. Montague and Luke had been chasing a dog that somehow got into the house and was racing up and down the hall until the two men chased it outside. And from the outside of the house to when they came in, they heard nothing, only the women yelling. When Eleanor opened the bedroom door, there “wasn’t even a scratch on the wood, nor on any of the other doors…”[vi]

But a few days later, the same inexplicable noise occurs again, this time with the four of them in the same room.

A few days after the first experience with the door banging, Mrs. Montague shows up with an assistant and her Planchette device in order to get in touch with the spirits of the house, to free them from their earthly burdens and to help them on their way. In essence, she barges in and tries to take over the experiment convinced that whatever her husband had planned, hers is better for the house. But the house does not seem to recognize her because, when the second experience with the banging doors occurs, she and her assistant, both in separate rooms, have slept soundly through the night.

As time passes at Hill House Eleanor begins to sink into madness and hallucinate, climaxing with a middle of the night foray through the rooms and hallways of the house running from Theo, Dr. Montague and Luke as they try to find her. “Hugh Crain, will you come and dance with me?” she says to his statue, then running into the library and up the iron spiral stairway to the turret, but it would not open. “Make it open, make it open or they’ll catch me.” I can’t get away, she thought and looked down at the assembled house guests at the bottom of the stairway. “Theodora? I can’t get out; the door’s been nailed shut.”[vii]

As I said above, Jackson tells the story from Eleanor’s point of view. And in an interesting style of writing, Eleanor is both first and third person in many of the paragraphs. It adds to the fantasy world she lives in where what she thinks and what is actually happening is blurred.

I would also like to make the case that none of this actually happened at all. The story is not only told from Eleanor’s point of view, but that also she is in every scene. If there is dialogue among the other characters, Eleanor is in the room and notices them talking, presumably, she believes, about her. No one goes out of any room or any space and has an experience. This is all about Eleanor. The tragedy at the end (a spoiler, so you’ll have read the book!) is not a surprise and the only way Eleanor, who just wants to be wanted and who believes the house wants her, could live that. To be more precise, I am saying this was all a dream, a fantasy made up to explain and live out the sickness in Eleanor’s head caused from years of being neglected and made invisible by the people and circumstances of her life.

Whether this was all an elaborate dream or the story of a woman’s descent in to madness, this is a psychological thriller par excellence. Jackson leaves us wondering, “What the heck just happened?” Was the house haunted and evil and so caused the manifestations? Were they caused by sensitive people who made them happen? Does mass hysteria explain it all? Was it Eleanor’s madness that attracted all manner of malevolent phenomena? Or was it just her imagination and a way to feel special in her own mind?

If you have read The Haunting of Hill House or other works by Shirley Jackson, what do you think?
____________

[i] P. 34.
[ii] P. 35.
[iii] P. 39.
[iv] P. 61.
[v] P. 127-133.
[vi] P. 133.
[vii] P. 234.

This book qualifies for the Reading New England challenge