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

Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge

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March Magics – Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975)

Do listen to this, Leo! It’s about the Dog Star.
Sirius, Alpha Canis Major, often called the Dog Star, is only some eight and a half light-years distant from our Solar System…its brightness and characteristic green color make it a notable object in our winter sky…It’s exactly right for you! Oh–and you’ve got a Companion that’s a white dwarf, about half the size of our sun.

 
dogsbodySirius is angry. In fact, he is so angry he is lit up green. He has been accused of murder and the mishandling of the Zoi, which was seen falling to Earth and he cannot convince the other luminaries of his innocence. However, they have suspended his sentence with the proviso that he be banished to Earth to find and return the Zoi. He will be put in the body of a native creature, in this case a dog, without the knowledge of his mission. If he succeeds, he will be reinstated to all his spheric dignities. If he fails he will die in a manner natural to the dog. His green eyes are the only indication he is different from other dogs.

He begins his life on Earth in a litter of unwanted puppies, who are taken to the river to be drowned. Two die, but 4 are rescued by people who find them barely clinging to life, including young Kathleen, who is Irish and living with her English relatives while her father serves out his jail sentence back in Ireland. Already begrudged by Mrs. Duffield, who hates the Irish and is not happy that her husband took her in, the dog just makes things worse: Kathleen has to promise to do all the cooking and cleaning in order for Leo, the name she gives the dog, not to be put down.

Mrs. Duffield and her two young boys, Basil and Robin, make life difficult for Leo by their aggressive behavior towards him. Mrs. Duffield is a potter with a shop inside the house which makes the ever growing Leo a hazard. So he is banished to the backyard every morning to be tied up until Kathleen comes home from school and can take him out. It is on a walk to the field where she picked him up that he begins to awaken to his mission, that he is something else besides a dog, that he was wrongly accused of murder, that someone let him down and while he understands that his goal on Earth is to find a Zoi and bring it back, at this point he does not know what it is.

As the days go by and Leo remembers more he develops the ability to understand human language, which Kathleen notices. A book lover, she reads to him at night and though these scenes are touching, they give Leo some of the most important information he needs for his quest. He also communicates with the 3 Duffield cats, who have come to trust him after he saves one of them, Tibbles, from a severe beating by Mrs. Duffield. Tibbles teaches him how to unlock the gate, which he does each day to go and search for the Zoi. He feels an even more immediate need to find it after he realizes Basil is a collector of rocks and fossils and fears he may come across the Zoi first.

As the rush to find the Zoi and clear his name heats up, Leo encounters help and hindrance from all kinds of magical, earthly and celestial beings: Sol and Moon, who communicate via sun and moon beams and Earth whose clues come from its body, the Companion sphere of Sirius and the New-Sirius who want to kill Leo so he can’t come back and kindly old Miss Smith who takes in Kathleen and Leo when life at the Duffield’s becomes too dangerous for both.

The ending is bittersweet. There is victory, there is letting go, there is grief. But ultimately for us, the stars are in alignment, our Earth is stabilized and Kathleen is safe.

While this is a wonderful children’s tale (although the treatment of Leo by the Duffields is hard to watch even for adults), Diana Wynne Jones fills this story with astronomical legends and mythical symbolism to keep adults satisfied. As the great orbs of our galaxy fight and war with each other, they are reminiscent of the stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and the feuds between them that threaten all of humanity and the one brave warrior tasked to save us all.

And what of the Zoi? Is it life itself? Is this a spiritual quest Leo travels toward as much as it is material? After all he is trying to save his life, or is he trying to save the life of all humanity? Frankly, I didn’t realize the depth of questions I would have before I started this book.

On a Personal Note

About three years ago I wanted to identify some of the constellations in the night sky and to learn their legends and history. Since Orion is so obvious and full of and close to major stars and other constellations I started there. Each late fall and through the winter months as it make its way across the sky I think of what I have learned. Orion is the Hunter, who is in the lead, while Sirius the loyal Dog, follows. In reading Dogsbody now, both Orion and Canis Major are visible and I have loved adding this story to what I know already about these constellations.

This is my first Diana Wynne Jones and I am grateful to Lory at Emerald City Book Review where I discovered March Magics and to Kristen at We Be Reading for having created it, giving readers a chance to discuss or discover a new author.

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My Edition
Title: Dogsbody
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1975
Pages: 261
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

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.

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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

Margery Sharp Day – The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948)

For a moment he was left suspended between past and present, and well he knew which way his heart yearned. What he longed to return to was an orderly world. No one, in Mr. Brocken’s opinion, had tasted the sweetness of life who had not lived before 1914. What years those were for solid comfort!

 

22074996Recently widowed, fifty-five year old Isabel Massey Brocken has come back to her childhood home, Chipping Lodge. Nearby is the war-damaged remains of the much larger, Chipping Priory, where the Brocken family lived with their two sons, Simon and Mark. Ruth, Isabel’s sister, married and moved to New Zealand, while Isabel eventually married Mark. They had a long happy marriage and though childless, Isabel is close to Ruth’s son Humphrey who was educated in England, served in the war and is now staying with Isabel. Simon is also staying at Chipping Lodge while his war-damaged home is renovated. Completing this collection of family members and employees is Jacqueline Brown Isabel’s companion and Mrs. Poole and her 14-year old daughter, Greta, who Simon hired on as caretakers and cooks.

Humphrey and Jacky have struck up a relationship and value the peacefulness of Chipping Lodge after the chaos and stress of the war. As does Simon who hopes he can get through the next several months with his sister-in-law and the rest of the occupants of the house in peace and quiet. The Poole mother and daughter only want to do their jobs and be left alone. Order and respect permeate Chipping Lodge, though Sharp’s writing suggests a sense of unease.

We soon find Isabel holds a secret that will disrupt the balance of power at Chipping Lodge, a secret she has harbored since girlhood concerning a great wrong she committed against her cousin, Tilly Cuff. She has invited Miss Cuff to visit indefinitely and plans to make whatever amends she can. Simon remembers Tilly, but does not remember a special affection between her and Isabel and fears the disruption of a new person, a feeling shared by Humphrey. Both men have also observed that Isabel seems distracted and under some strain; a normally a patient woman, her temper has become thin and her tongue sharp.

When Isabel finally unburdens herself and what she hopes to do about it Simon and Humphrey are shocked and angry: Isabel wants to give all her money to Tilly out of guilt because of a childish misdeed she believes changed her life for the worse and deprived her of a home and family. It wasn’t until but a few weeks before that a half-heard phrase at church woke this guilt and the remedy to assuage it. She tells Simon what the preacher said,

It was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. “He meant, don’t you see, that because a thing happened a long time ago, it doesn’t make it any less base if it was base at the time.”

The sleeping guilt of the act has risen up inside her so that her only remedy is to confess to Tilly the deed and to give her all of her inheritance, including the house, which would go to Humphrey if she didn’t want it.

Once Tilly arrives, however, her abrasive and dictatorial behavior sets everyone on edge. Isabel promises Simon she won’t tell Tilly of her plans until she settles in, but even she sees how loathsome and impossible to bear Tilly has become. Simon tries to talk her out of her plans and though Isabel is aware of her disruption and admits she is very unlikable, that is still no reason to withhold what should come to her.

As time goes by, Tilly has encroached and wrestled her way into the personal and professional life of every person at Chipping Lodge and all is chaos and bad feelings. The Pooles have given notice, Jacky and Humphrey have separated, Simon stays late at the office and leaves early and Isabel has retreated into her own mind.

Something must give before all is lost, so Isabel plucks up the courage and tells Tilly that on the morning after one of their teenage parties, a certain Mr. Macgregor who was interested her wrote her a letter offering marriage. Isabel found it, read it and kept it from her, because she was in love with him herself. She knows this selfish act deprived Tilly of a future of happiness and security that she could never get back. But Isabel could make her future better by offering her money and a home.

It took Tilly three days to emerge from her bedroom and when she does she stuns them all by refusing Isabel’s offer. What she wants instead is for Isabel to keep everything and to give the house to Humphrey; she only wants a life with Isabel. Together they would live out their days in Bath, which Isabel loves, or anywhere else. After all of her years in service, where she went from one job to the next she only wants the stability of friendship and the security of a place to live in her old age. What Tilly is proposing surprises Isabel, since she expected, and was frankly looking forward to, a little suffering as penance. She questions Tilly until she is satisfied that Tilly’s need for stability is the best gift she can give her at this time in her life.

Jacky and Humphrey are horrified for Isabel, until a childhood friend of hers spells it out for them,

Isabel and Tilly have lived their lives for better or worse, “They’ll do very well together, and when Tilly upsets people, Isabel will calm them; and if Isabel is sick, Tilly will nurse her–and of course Isabel will nurse Tilly. I shouldn’t be surprised if they grew to be a very devoted pair.”

As Jacky, Humphrey, Isabel and Tilly make their separate ways out of the house, Simon is left with the Pooles, who continue to do their jobs quietly and unobtrusively. Simon is left with the ghosts of his past until Humphrey, if ever, returns and “could look forward to a period of perfect peace.”

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the setting. Almost every scene takes place in one location, Chipping Lodge. The characters develop, interact with each other, rant and rave and come to terms with their fate all in the same place. The character journey is really the thing here and it’s as if they are forced to face themselves in a locked room until they each find a way out.

This was a satisfying read and one that does make one question wrongs done in the past and how or should they be rectified. To bring up old wounds or not when starting anew might be a better step? While Tilly claims she was not in love with Macgregor, which satisfies Simon, Isabel knows a marriage proposal from anyone decent would have been better in her situation than the life she was eventually forced into.

I am happy to have been introduced to this author and look forward to reading more about her today.

If you are interested in other neglected women writers, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock has created a wonderful post called, A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors that lists the dates of birth of 16 women writers in which to read, read about or celebrate. This makes the prospects of 2018 much better, in my opinion!

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My Edition
Title: The Foolish Gentlewoman
Author: Margery Sharp
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Library binding
Year: 1948
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

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

Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)

fever

 

I didn’t run from the redcoats, and I won’t run from a dockside miasma. What is wrong with people…We suffered all kinds of disease in our youth, but folks were sensible. They didn’t squall like children and hide in the woods. Captain William Farnsworth Cook, Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment.

Fever 1793, is a compelling historical novel based on the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia during the stifling hot summer of 1793. The story centers on 13-year old Mattie Cook, who watches helplessly as her beloved city grapples with the fear and devastation the epidemic wreaks.

Mattie’s parents own Cook’s Coffeehouse, a hub for politicians and merchants located two blocks from President Washington’s house. Philadelphia is the nation’s first capital city and Mattie is proud to live here. Since her father died, she helps her mother run the business along with Polly, the serving girl and her childhood friend, and Eliza, a free black who has been cooking up the special fare Cook’s is known for since it opened. As the city has prospered, so has Cook’s.

But August has brought fever—just a few cases to start, but enough to worry Mattie’s mother, Lucille, who forbids her daughter from doing any errands or getting provisions down at the docks. Some people are certain the refugees from Barbados have brought the illness and want them quarantined. Though others remind them there is always a sickness during the height of summer heat. Still, there are more cases as August progresses and there have been deaths. Lucille puts more restrictions on Mattie, who is frustrated at being so confined. When Polly does not come to work one day and it is learned she died of the fever, Lucille is adamant that Mattie be sent out of the city to friends out of town.

When it is declared the illness is in fact yellow fever, Philadelphia quickly empties as the wealthy leave for their homes in the country and others write to friends and family outside the city hoping they will take them in. Ships stop docking making food and other supplies scarce forcing businesses to close. Many who can’t get out hoard as much food as they can and close up their homes hunkering down inside for the duration. Amidst protest, Mattie is sent away with her grandfather.

And so begins Mattie’s harrowing journey to the family she never gets to, to the fever that almost kills her and the hospital stay where she recovers. Though weak and with Philadelphia still in the grip of the fever, her age precludes her being released with no place to go. There is no word of her mother’s fate and her aged grandfather cannot take full responsibility for her. Her only option is an orphan house for children who lost their parents and who have no other family to care for them.

But Mattie refuses. She wants to find her mother and go back home. Her determination cannot be matched, so she and her grandfather return to the coffeehouse only to find it has been plundered. After a few days of cleaning up, the coffeehouse is again broken into and her grandfather is killed. Mattie is now afraid to stay by herself.

Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation. Charles Brockden Brown (Memoirs of the Year 1793)

One of the very engaging aspects of the book are the historical quotes that begin each chapter adding to the reality of this frightening time. The real epidemic killed an astonishingly 5,000 people during the summer and early fall of 1793 until the first frost in October brought it to an end.

Anderson incorporates into the novel several contentious issues the epidemic sparked, including the controversial use of bloodletting to “release the poisons” from the blood; the argument between doctors who believed the fever spread through a “miasma” in the air, therefore confining patients to rooms with no access to fresh air versus those doctors who believed fresh air was healthy and part of the cure; the overwhelming number of children orphaned by the epidemic who needed to be housed; how the fever transformed some relationships between blacks and whites who worked together to help the city; and how this catastrophe brought out the best and worst in people as they fought for their lives.

There is great distress in the city for want of cash. Friendship is nearly entirely banished from our city. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

Not for the The Free African Society, however. Founded in 1787 to aid widows, the infirm and out of work Africans, during the epidemic it offered to help all citizens of Philadelphia. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones co-founders of the Society put advertisements in the papers: “We set out to see where we could be useful—the black people were looked to. We then offered our services in the public papers, by advertising that we would remove the dead and procure nurses.”

And in fact, this is how Mattie found Eliza. After her grandfather was killed, Mattie knew she couldn’t stay in the coffeehouse and set out looking for news of her mother. She stumbled upon Eliza in the streets and found she was caring for and feeding the sick wherever she was needed. Eliza was able to fill Mattie in on all that had transpired since she was sent away. Mattie learned that her mother had gone to the family she was sent to, so what could she think when she found that Mattie had never arrived? But for the moment it was decided that without her grandfather and with the business too dangerous to stay in alone, Mattie would stay with Eliza’s family and would go out with her and nurse the sick.

Blessed be God for the change in the weather. The disease visibly and universally declines. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

For weeks the city was caught in the grip of fever, death carts piled high as they rumbled down the streets. Finally, one blessed night a frost sets in and in a little more than a day or two the epidemic is over. Almost immediately the ships begin to dock bringing food and supplies to the beleaguered city and those who went to the country come back. George Washington makes his way back to Philadelphia and the whole city comes alive.

But Mattie has an uncertain future ahead of her. It is suggested she go into an orphan house until she reaches maturity. If she sells the coffeehouse, she can use the money for a dowry. Maturity? Hasn’t she seen and done enough in the last few months as any adult? No, she thinks. The coffeehouse is hers and it is a good respectful business. She will reopen it. But she knows she can’t do it alone and there is only one person she can trust who also has the experience to make the coffeehouse successful again. Though it is unconventional, she asks Eliza to go into partnership. She does not have to be asked twice.

A very satisfying book in which I learned about an event in American history I did not know before.

__________

My Edition
Title: Fever 1793
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2000
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (1908)

GECrucible

 

 

Prison bars are not the only barriers to man’s freedom, there is a bondage that is far more intolerable—the bondage of one’s own evil passions and self-will.

 

The Dime Novel

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is considered an American ‘dime novel’ for working and middle class women. Dime novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were usually serialized weekly in inexpensive pamphlets or printed in magazines.

In fact, I came to find out the author, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (Sarah Elizabeth Forbush), was an extremely popular writer of serial romances for Theodore Dreiser and his Smith’s Magazine. She serialized 47 romances between 1880-1889 and Dreiser considered her one of the most popular writers in the world.

The Fall of Gertrude Elliot. And Everyone Else
GECrucible1
“Gertrude! How can I ever atone for what I have done?”

Gertrude Elliot has just been informed by Daniel Dexter, an old friend of her late father who is handling her estate, that all her money is gone. He used it to pay off his son’s debts and lost the rest in bad investments trying to recoup the money he stole. Her mother’s terminal illness strained the finances to the extent that Gertrude is now destitute and must sell her house to make a good show of faith to the creditors.

Gertrude was told by her father that she would inherit a large sum of money and the family home and is mortified over what Mr. Dexter has revealed. He is humiliated at what he has done to her and tells her he is prepared to be arrested for fraud and robbery. But the shock of humiliating him further by sending to jail her father’s longtime friend is too much and she refuses to call the police. Dexter is humbled at this show of generosity and is resolved to pay her back. When his son, Robert, arrives the next day and hears what happened, he is so remorseful and realizes how much he is to  blame for Miss Elliot’s destitution he, too, makes a vow to repay his father for the money used for his debts. A few days later, Robert informs his father that a friend has asked him to assist him in his fruit business and he is leaving for California right away.

With nowhere to go, Gertrude visits an old friend on Long Island, who has been asking her for a visit. Phronie is her family’s former housekeeper. While Gertrude doesn’t tell Phronie the details, she reveals her dire financial situation and asks her for help. She reminds Phronie how she used to follow her around helping in the kitchen and with simple jobs throughout the house. “Surely, I could go out to work for a family as a head house keeper?”

Most of the action, then, takes place at the home of her new employer, Mrs. Young and her two teenage daughters. Mrs. Young has reservations with Gertrude’s age and lack of experience, because she isn’t much older than her daughters. But Mrs. Young has recently let go of an incompetent head housekeeper who left a dirty house, a chaotic schedule and a slovenly staff in her wake. She is desperate to fill the position and is swayed by Gertrude’s competence, kindness and willingness to work hard as is the skeptical cook and maids. Only the head butler has reservations and his bad attitude continues until he is let go.

Gertrude never lets her bad luck affect her moral compass. She stays positive and accepts that this is her fate. She doesn’t let petty squabbles or negative thoughts steer her down an evil path like so many of the people she is surrounded by. In fact, it is just the opposite; her compassion and genuine love for all she meets makes people see their calculating and self-centered acts, embarrassed to even to think bad thoughts!

It is as if she is put in these situations to make people better. Robert Dexter, will change his wild ways, learn the fruit trade and come back to New York on a promotion to supervise the fruit business from that end. And when he is surprised by a large inheritance from an aunt, he gives it all to Gertrude. When the butler, who has hated Gertrude from the beginning and wants her out, schemes against her to make it look like she is stealing Mrs. Young’s jewels and furs, he gets caught. Gertrude asks that he not be punished as his unsuspecting mother is coming to live in a little house he bought for the two of them. She tells him, “I cannot bear to have her come and find you in prison,” at which point he breaks down in sobs.

And finally, the oldest of the Young children, Hugh Spencer (from a previous marriage), was a college classmate of Robert Dexter and has held a revengeful rage against him all these years, which grows when he finds out Dexter and Gertrude are old family friends and maybe more.  He has found the means to ruin both Robert Dexter and his father and has been waiting to witness their fall. But Gertrude, upon hearing such fury and anger in the plan presses upon him the importance of love and justice, which challenge his devious revenge.

…every time one yields to temptation to do wrong one is weakened, morally and spiritually; and, Mr. Spencer, until you learn to substitute love for hate, honor for dishonor, justice for injustice, you will never attain the standard of true manhood. When you do this you will find that you have no enemy upon whom you desire to be revenged…It is not my theory; it is no human axiom; but it is the command of One who said—‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.’

 

Good Wins!

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is very much a morality tale. The high principles of love, justice and honor that Gertrude unwaveringly lives her life allows all she comes into contact with to be affected by these highest of ideals and in turn shine them on to others. Though people do bad things to each other, they lie, they steal, they hold incredibly long resentments bent on revenge that eat them up for decades, no one is unredeemable.

This was a complex novel full of intricate story lines and complicated relationships. I am inspired to read more of these novels and to research their affect on those who read them.

And in case you want to know, everyone who falls is raised up and everyone finds love in the end, including Gertrude.

I can honestly say, if I lived during this serialization I WOULD be waiting each week for the next installment!

______________

 

My Edition
Title: Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible
Author: Mrs. George Sheldon Downs
Publisher: G.W. Dillingham Co.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1908
Pages: 308

Challenges: Classics Club

A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith (2007)

Austen

I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.

 

This was the perfect book to cap my first Austen in August experience.  A work of nonfiction, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith helped with much of the back story to Jane Austen’s life and times that I mentioned in my Mansfield Park post and filled in some of the etiquette and culture gaps that perplexed me.

The Premise

Lori Smith is at a painful and difficult time in her life. Thirty-three years old she is unfulfilled in her job, frustrated that she is still single and though she does not doubt her Christian faith, she is struggling to make sense with all that is not working in her life. But the most difficult impediment is the profound fatigue and debilitating symptoms of an illness doctors cannot diagnose.

She learns to cope with the on again off again pattern of the illness and makes the decision to quit her job to become a full time writer. Long an admirer of Jane Austen, when a medication for an imbalanced thyroid gives her a reprieve from her symptoms, she books a trip to England with the goal of healing and reinventing herself through the life and works of Austen.

Everything in my life was dark, stifling. I needed light and air….In some ways, those of us who love Austen look to her to escape into another world. When our own is complicated and stressful, hers is tea and careful conversations and lovely dresses and healthy country air.

A Travel Guide

Starting with a course at Oxford and by reading through all of Austen’s novels, Smith is armed with maps and tips for visiting cities and landmarks that figure in Austen’s life as well as in her novels: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Winchester, Bath, Box Hill and more. She quotes passages and ponders their connections to her own life.

Though I still have two more books of Austen to read (Pride and Prejudice and Emma) it was easy to follow the parallels of Austen’s life with her novels that Smith points out (for example, at Steventon, she sees the barn where Austen “threw rousing family theatricals with her brothers,” and I just read Mansfield Park!)

Some of the Austen family material Smith shares was helpful to me, too, in knowing two of her brothers were in the Navy (William in Mansfield Park, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Wentworth and others in Persuasion), that one of her brothers was adopted into another family (Fanny in Mansfield Park), that James second wife was mean and jealous (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park) and Chawton Great House as the model for the Tilney home in Northanger Abbey.

This is a book for those new to Jane Austen and for the confirmed Janeite. For anyone planning a trip to England and their own walk with Jane Austen, consider this a comprehensive model.

Romance?

Finally, does Smith find romance? Of course, she does! Youth, England, summer, a course at Oxford. On her first day at the University she meets an American man studying for the summer who is kind, Christian and seems friendly. She falls head over heels, obsesses appropriately, has her future with him all planned out, but sadly, the feelings are not reciprocated. Although there are few resolutions for the issues Smith begins her trip

My days are still small. But the light is beginning to return. Just a couple of weeks ago I started being able to laugh at the world again, and that felt very good–soul healing laughter. I want more of it, to enjoy life, to love the people around me…I hope I will be healthy again.

And in health and all aspects of her life, I wish her well.

 

walkjane2

 

Lori Smith has written several books including, Jane Austen’s Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman.

___________

My Edition
Title: A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith
Author: Lori Smith
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2007
Pages: 235
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, #AusteninAugustrbr

 

 

 

 

 

Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calf….

 

pengguinsPenguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes L’Engle’s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.

Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.

It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.

Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.

There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.

I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creator’s creation. How ironic!

So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….

______________________

My Edition
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2003
Pages: 271
Plot summary

#BloggingTheSpirit