BR: ‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’ The stunning, strangely modern introductory sentences of Bleak House’, the novel many consider to be Dickens’ masterpiece, grabbed my attention straightaway. Not only that, but they set the tone for the rest of the book faithfully: unorthodox in style, rambling in parts, amusing but ultimately concerned with the grim repercussions of the cases in the law court at Chancery.

‘Bleak House’ follows the interlinking stories of such diverse characters as the proud, bored Lady Dedlock, the lowly crossing-sweeper Jo and the flamboyant law clerk Mr Guppy. It is narrated partially in the form of a memoir told through the eyes of the dutiful orphan Esther Summerson and partially in the present tense from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. When I first learned of the structure, it sounded so unusual that I thought I would become thoroughly confused, but somehow Dickens made it work and I can only admire the way he played with the rigid conventions of Victorian novel-writing. The book transcends so many different genres – social satire, legal drama, romance, comedy, murder mystery, coming-of-age – that it is no wonder it takes up over 800 pages in most editions.

It was an enjoyable read; I appreciated both the serious critique of the corrupt legal system, demonstrated most forcibly by the unravelling of Richard Carstone, and the comedic passages, such as Mr Guppy’s unprecedented proposal to Esther. However, the finest parts of the novel were those in which social criticism and comedy were blended, for example in the characters of Mr Skimpole, who judged every external event by its effect on his wellbeing, and Mrs Jellyby, who was so obsessed with her missionary work in Africa that she neglected her own children to the point of abuse.

‘Bleak House’ was not perfect: sometimes the strings of coincidences connecting the characters were difficult to accept, and there were several passages which could easily have been cut out. The fact that I watched the BBC mini-series before reading the novel also removed much of the mystery. However, I would still recommend it as a stunningly innovative and engaging example of Victorian fiction.

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BR: ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot

‘Middlemarch’ is a novel comprised of a series of interlinked sketches of provincial life in 1830s England. The plot revolves around three major characters: Dorothea Brooke, who struggles to express herself in the constricted world afforded to women at the time; Tertius Lydgate, whose dreams of groundbreaking medical research are complicated by the demands of his marriage; and the dissipated Fred Vincy, who strives to be worthy of the love of his childhood sweetheart, Mary.

I can see why ‘Middlemarch’ is considered a ‘great’ novel; it blends big ideas with acute social observations, and one can only admire Eliot’s power of psychological insight. Virginia Woolf once referred to it as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people‘ and I understand what she meant; instead of stopping at the fairytale wedding, ‘Middlemarch’ conducted a warts-and-all examination of marriage in the 19th century. However, I can’t deny that it was heavy going – for a book of eight hundred pages there was very little in the way of plot. Thrilling, emotionally intense scenes, such as the reading of Mr Featherstone’s will, were interspersed with dry digressions populated by various lawyer/doctor/vicar characters, many of whom had little to differentiate them. On the other hand, there were some characters who did not feature nearly enough, such as the delightfully savage Mrs Cadwallader. I also loved the relationship between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, which was playful and surprisingly modern. I was less fond of the Lydgates, since I was fairly sure that Rosamond, with her conceit and emotionless vanity, was an undiagnosed psychopath. However, I found the famous final chapter, in which the reader learns the fates of all the characters, moving and poignant in spite of this.

Overall, I am glad I have read ‘Middlemarch’, if only so that I can smugly discuss it in intellectual circles and feel like a truly ‘accomplished’ woman.

BR: ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë

‘Jane Eyre’ is the well-loved story of an orphaned girl who is engaged as a governess on behalf of the mysterious Mr Rochester. She and her employer fall in love but the situation is complicated by the dark secret Mr Rochester is hiding in his attic.

I recently read this book for the second time after a gap of about six years, and I still loved it and couldn’t put it down. All the characters seemed so vivid and real; Jane was a truly modern heroine and one with whom I sympathised strongly. I admired her independence and self-respect, and I appreciated Brontë’s inclusion of proto-feminist lines such as ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will’ and ‘It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, – as we are!’ My absolute favourite quote, however, is: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more unsustained, the more friendless I am, the more I will respect myself‘ – a pertinent message even for modern-day readers. I know that some schools of thought argue that Jane loses her independence at the end of the novel, when she effectively becomes Mr Rochester’s nursemaid, but I feel that this is missing the point. He does not force her to stay with him; it is a choice she makes, and it is what she feels happiest doing.

Aside from a strong lead character, Jane Eyre has the added bonus of being one of the great books in the Gothic tradition. I particularly liked the contrast of folklore and magic with Christian morality, reflecting a conflict which I also noted in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and, to a lesser extent, Wuthering Heights. After re-reading Jane Eyre, I can say that in the Charlotte vs Emily war I am firmly in Charlotte’s camp. Jane Eyre was more engaging, better-written and felt more real than Wuthering Heights, for all the two novels share with regards to lonely moors and crumbling mansions.

BR: ‘In The Woods’ by Tana French

This novel is narrated from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad haunted by memories of his two best friends, who vanished the summer he was twelve. He is sucked back into the case when a girl’s body is found near the sight of their disappearance, but the further he goes in investigating the crime, the closer he comes to tipping over the edge. The story is complicated by his intense relationship with his fellow detective Cassie Maddox, which becomes increasingly fraught as the past catches up with him.

The central mystery was unpredictable and I read it in a greedy, gulping couple of days. I cared deeply about the characters; Rob’s destruction of his career, his sanity, and ultimately his relationship with Cassie, absolutely broke my heart. The depiction of Rob’s carefree, innocent childhood and the contrast with the dark, uncertain present made this all the more moving. The novel mixed believable colloquial chatter with beautiful, literary prose; I particularly liked the way Rob’s memories returned to him in random fragments, written in uncertain stream-of-consciousness italics throughout the text.

Much as I enjoyed this book, I do have a few issues with it. Rob’s childhood mystery was never solved, and while a double solution might be less realistic, I feel as if a crime writer does have a duty to provide the reader with answers, particularly after tantalising them with clues and hints as French did. Moreover, the ending was just so tragic; it seemed downright unkind of French to leave Rob without one scrap of redemption.

With this sense of unfinished business – as well as the novel’s compelling, immersive charm – it is no wonder that readers are crying out for a sequel.

BR: ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens

‘Great Expectations’ begins irresistibly with the narrator, the orphan Pip, encountering a mysterious convict on the Kent marshes. This terrifying experience is contrasted later with his more insidiously haunting visits to Miss Havisham, for whom time stopped on the day she was jilted. Both of these characters have a great influence on Pip as he is raised to ‘great expectations’, learning to be ashamed of his family and pining after the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella. An air of Gothic mystery pervades the novel but there is also action, humour, and witty social commentary.

This is one of the most engaging Victorian novels I have ever read. The dramatic tension rarely flagged and even the more minor characters were memorable and moving: take, for example, Mr Jaggers with his brutal manner and scented hands, or Wemmick with his ‘post-office‘ mouth (indeed, the diversions to Wemmick’s ‘Castle’ – a little cottage with a drawbridge and cannon – created some welcome humour in an occasionally dark narrative). Pip made a good hero; he was flawed but essentially good at heart, and Dickens did a wonderful job in making him gradually more complex and tormented as he grew older, perfectly capturing the difficult transition from boy to man.

In this sense, ‘Great Expectations’ is a tale that will never age. Some of Dickens’ social satire is just as relevant today as it was in the Victorian era: Pip’s admission that ‘there was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did’ reminds me of the social media generation and our artificial presentation of a perfect life. Similarly Pip’s advocacy of greater openness – ‘Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts’ – is surprisingly progressive, and reminiscent of the recent #TimeToTalk campaign.

Overall, I can certainly recommend ‘Great Expectations’ – it is funny, exciting, accessible, and populated with a vibrant cast of characters. Moreover, as a relatively short and action-packed book, it is a perfect starting-point for anyone thinking of dipping into Dickens’ work for the first time.

BR: ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a classic ghost story, set in an English country house, in which a young, naive governess is alarmed by the appearance of malign spirits who attempt to possess her young charges. As the novella progresses, she becomes increasingly unhinged as she tries to save the children from their fate.

It sounds great in theory, but I was disappointed. Reviews I read labelled it as ‘chilling’, so much so that it terrified even the author, but I didn’t find it mildly frightening. It could be argued that 21st-century readers have more exposure to the grisly than the Victorians did, but in this sense I am practically Victorian anyway: I have only ever watched one horror film in my life and I don’t like going down the bottom of my garden in the dark.

The novella simply lacked atmosphere – little time was devoted to building up the creepiness of the setting, which in my opinion is a vital aspect of any horror story. None of the characters rang true for me; the author explained how wonderful the children were at least a thousand times but never really showed why this was the case. The descriptions of the governess’ emotions were rambling and over-complicated, the dialogue oblique and unrealistic; I found myself skimming over the paragraphs, waiting for something truly haunting to happen, but then I turned the last page and that was the end of it. I think James’ intricate, psychologically observant style of writing is much better suited to realistic stories such as ‘Washington Square’, in which the characters’ actions are believable and he is able to showcase his wit, something that was lacking in this book.

Not only was the story disappointing in itself, but the author displayed blatant sexism, not least in the phrase, ‘What surpassed everything was that here was a little boy who could have for the inferior age, sex and intelligence so fine a consideration.’  I suppose this statement is hardly surprising coming from a male Victorian novelist, but on top of everything else it tipped me over the edge. I will not be recommending this one to a friend.

 

BR: ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘The Great Gatsby’ is narrated from the perspective of a fairly dull young man, Nick Carraway, who moves to an affluent suburb of New York and becomes drawn into a world of extravagance, wild parties and deceit. Most intriguing of all is his new next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby, whose glittering, fantastical world is about to come crashing down.

I feel as though I should have read this a long time ago, but am slightly ashamed to admit that I watched the film with Leonardo DiCaprio first and therefore felt as though I knew everything there was to know about it. However, I can say with confidence that already knowing the outcome did not spoil my enjoyment of the story; the novel’s best features are its beautiful atmospheric writing and insightful social criticism, rather than its plot, which is slightly thin on the ground.

I think one of the reasons why ‘Gatsby’ is so loved is because, even after all this time, it transports you straight into the seductive world of 1920s New York with evocative descriptions such as that of Daisy, ‘drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.’ Yet alongside this beautiful imagery, there is also a sense of emptiness, of something off-kilter, which never quite goes away. This is particularly apparent in the pathetic pretensions of Myrtle, the poor lower-class mistress of a rich married man, who begs him to buy her a dress, then simpers to her friends, ‘I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like.’ There is even something unsettling in the understated mention of ‘children’ singing, ‘Your love belongs to me/ At night when you’re asleep/ Into your tent I’ll creep‘; to me this implied a corruption of innocence, a price paid for the pleasures of a hedonistic lifestyle. It is this dichotomy of beauty and emptiness, squeezed into every line, which makes ‘Gatsby’ such a memorable and enjoyable novella. I would certainly recommend it as a readable and deserving modern classic.

BR: ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ by C.S. Lewis

I think I owe science fiction an apology. It’s never been a genre I naturally gravitate towards; in my mind I’ve never quite been able to separate it from images of trashy B movies and geeky conventions. However, this book has proved my prejudices wrong; it is  beautifully and intelligently written and throws up some very deep questions about the nature of the universe and the way in which we are destroying our planet.

The novel tells the story of Professor Ransom, who is kidnapped by some unscrupulous acquaintances and brought to the planet of Malacandra (otherwise known as Mars) as a hostage. After escaping his captors he fears death at the hands of the planet’s native inhabitants, yet he quickly comes to discover a peaceful and harmonious civilisation who face a far greater threat from humans than he does from them. The narrative unfolds in the charming style of an old-fashioned adventure story, and even though there are no battles or hectic action scenes like those in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, I was captivated throughout.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was its linguistic slant; Ransom is a professor of philology so takes a particular interest in the languages of the Malacandrians. I loved the alien-sounding words such as ‘hrossa’ and ‘pfifltriggi’ and appreciated the fact that the language of each species living there was different. There is also a very clever scene towards the end in which the evil scientist Weston explains his ambitions with pretentious jargon, but when Ransom comes to translate them for the benefit of the Malacandrians, his elementary knowledge of the language means that he must reduce them to their most basic meaning. For example, his glorification of the strength of human armies and weapons becomes ‘we have many ways for the hnau [sentient beings] of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it.’ I found that this exchange offered a clever and refreshing perspective on the things humanity is proud of.

My one complaint is that the ending was perhaps a little anticlimactic, but I did enjoy the epilogue with its promise of future adventures to come. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone thinking of testing the waters of the sci-fi genre, as it is well-written, accessible and – if, for whatever reason, you don’t like it – relatively short!

BR: ‘Into the Blue’ by Robert Goddard

I am very partial to a good thriller, and this is one of the best I have ever read. It tells the story of Harry Barnett, a shabby middle-aged failure, who leads an indifferent life as caretaker of a friend’s villa in Rhodes. However, he discovers a new sense of purpose when Heather, a guest at the villa, disappears, leaving behind only a few photographs. He resolves to track her down and, in doing so, must return to England to confront his past.

The novel was so exciting, with tension sustained expertly over more than 500 pages of twists and turns in the plot. It did take me a while to get into the story, but once it was over I felt something akin to grief at the loss of this fascinating cast of characters and the world in which I had become so invested. Goddard is great at creating atmosphere, slipping description into the story in such a subtle way that it is almost unnoticeable. I loved the idea that long-forgotten events in history can still impact the future, and I also loved the fact that, though the story started off being about Heather, in the end it was about Harry, who was a likeable character in spite of his many flaws.

Overall I would recommend this as a classy and clever thriller, and I will certainly be sampling more of Goddard’s work in future!

BR: ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

This book is Bill Bryson’s account of his valedictory tour of Great Britain before he moves to start a new life in America. He travels from Calais to London, traversing the south coast before travelling up through the Midlands and finally Wales and Scotland. At times it made me laugh out loud; Bryson points out amusing quirks of the country which a Brit might overlook. It is also full of interesting facts about obscure towns and historical figures, which makes it perfect for lovers of trivia.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that it enables the reader to compare three different versions of Britain: the version Bryson remembers from his first visit in the 1970s, the one he sees on this trip in the 1990s, and Britain as the reader perceives it today. I’m not sure whether Britain has changed drastically over the past two decades, but I did think the places Bryson criticised for being ugly were odd – Oxford, Cambridge, Lulworth, Exeter – most of which are famed for being beautiful. His aversion to plate glass and chain restaurants did become tedious sometimes – I think we have to accept that, like them or not, these things are just part of the modern world.

However, all in all this book is a very entertaining and light-hearted read, and the enthusiasm with which Bryson enters into everything makes him an endearing companion for an armchair tour of Britain.