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: ‘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: ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid

‘Metamorphoses’ is a Roman epic poem which chronicles everything from the mythical beginnings of the world to the foundation of Rome and the deification of Julius Caesar. I was very impressed by the fact that David Raeburn had translated it into hexameter verse, the meter in which it is written in Latin, so that the narrative swings along without losing any of its original charm as a poem. It features some of the best-known classical myths such as those of Daedalus and Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts and Theseus and the Minotaur, but perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me was discovering lesser-known ones such as that of Myrrha, who is changed into a myrrh tree due to her incestuous desire for her father. I also loved the tense debate between Odysseus and Ajax, in which Ovid’s rhetorical training was clearly visible.

Something that surprised me while reading the poem was how little humanity has changed over time. I expected such an old text to be reasonably prudish, but actually there were more accounts of rape – or attempted rape – than I could count, and there was even one incident with a female perpetrator. Ovid’s attitude towards women was also more liberal than I expected – although many were presented as stereotypical virtuous maidens, Ovid was genuinely interested in female perspectives on classical mythology. For example, he gives a voice to Byblis to explain why she is tempted to incest, and seems more interested in Medea than her lover, the hero Jason. The poem was also extremely gory in parts: in the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs, ‘as globules of blood and fragments of brain poured out of the wound,/ the centaur, vomiting wine from his mouth, fell backwards and drummed/ with his heels on the sodden sand.’ I could imagine the author relishing these details with boyish glee!

My least favourite aspect of the book was the long lists of place and character names because they didn’t mean much to me and probably lost some of their beauty in translation. However, on balance I would say that the poem was very pacy and rarely dull because it was split into small stories instead of forming one long narrative. I would certainly recommend it as an exciting and not at all intimidating introduction to classical literature.

BR: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë

This book was given to me as a present, but for years I avoided it, ignoring that wise saying: ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ However, I feel I was not wholly unjustified when the cover of my copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ looked like this:

 

wuthering-heights

Cathy and Heathcliff, childhood friends, are cruelly separated by class, fate and the actions of others. But uniting them is something even stronger: an all-consuming passion that sweeps away everything that comes between them. Even death…’

I laboured under the mistaken delusion that the novel was some sort of 19th-century paranormal romance. This is certainly not my favourite genre, and the blurb was too generic to capture my interest.

However, in this case the blurb and cover gave a false impression. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is much more than a romance. In fact, I would say that the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is less one of love than one of possession and jealousy. The story itself is a family saga, dealing with the intertwined paths of the families at Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. It is darker and more twisted than any other Victorian novel I have read, full of characters abusing one another both mentally and physically. The writing is unusually crisp and fast-paced for the period and I found it very compelling reading.

This was in spite of the fact that I did not actually like many of the characters. Cathy and Heathcliff were both awful people and I wasn’t rooting for their romance at all. The religious fanatic Joseph was amusing, but I found his phonetically-written speech (ie ‘All warks togither for the gooid tuh them as is chozzen, and piked aht froo’ th’ rubbidge’) difficult to wade through. When I tried reading it aloud, it didn’t even seem to resemble a Yorkshire accent! The housekeeper Ellen Dean was alright, but some of the things she said were rather miserable: for example, when her young mistress worried about what would happen when her father died, Mrs Dean replied by way of consolation, ‘None can tell, whether you won’t die before us’! However, I did like the relationship between Cathy Jr and Hareton Earnshaw: it was genuinely sweet and tender, making a contrast to the violent passions engulfing the rest of the book.

The plot was slightly contrived: I found it difficult to believe that the characters would remember what had happened and relate it word-for-word so many years later. I think the story could really have done with an omniscient narrator and the use of flashbacks, but perhaps the form of the novel had not developed that far yet. It was also quite difficult to keep track of which character was which – the same names were recycled multiple times – and how they were all related (I kept wondering whether or not any of them had committed full-on incest yet or whether they had managed to find someone who was just their cousin).

Overall, I am glad I did decide to read this book in the end – I love a good Gothic novel and, after all, it is one of the most influential tales ever written.

BR: ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot, the protagonist of ‘Persuasion’, is the oldest Austen heroine by far, at the ripe old age of 27. She was persuaded by her mentor to reject the proposal of her first love and has regretted it ever since. When they are thrown together years later, she finds that he still resents her dismissal and must watch as he becomes entangled with someone else, with the ever-growing fear that happiness will never be hers. This was certainly an interesting premise, and ‘Persuasion’ has been recommended to me by several people, yet it is probably my least favourite Austen novel (the only one I haven’t read is ‘Mansfield Park’).

There were still many enjoyable aspects to the book. I liked the descriptions of the vain Sir Walter, whose room is full of mirrors, and Anne’s selfish sister Mary, who is continually convinced that she is being ill-used by others. Captain Wentworth’s constancy to Anne and final letter to her were also very romantic. As was only to be expected, the text was sprinkled with witty and often scathing remarks from the narrator, such as this description of a very one-sided conversation: ‘minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.’ 

I know that ‘Persuasion’ is supposed to be more serious in tone and subject matter, perhaps because it was written towards the end of Jane Austen’s life, but I cannot help but feel that it does not have the charm of books such as ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In these novels almost all of the characters have amusing quirks or endearing features, yet in ‘Persuasion’ I found that there was nothing particularly memorable about several members of the supporting cast, such as the Miss Musgroves and the Harvilles. Even the more entertaining characters like Sir Walter and Elizabeth were rather one-dimensional. Captain Wentworth was not my favourite hero – he was clearly very noble and loyal but I never really got a feel for his personality. Anne was a pretty bland heroine, so flawless that her thoughts alone were ‘almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way‘. I realise that I was supposed to feel sympathy for the crippled Mrs Smith but her air of martyrdom just irritated me.

I understand that this review is quite harsh but it is only because I was disappointed. I admit that the first time I read ‘Northanger Abbey’, I did not enjoy it at all, but after returning to it years later it went up hugely in my estimation. Perhaps I will give it a few years and a re-read will persuade me to change my opinion in this case, too.

BR: ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf

‘To the Lighthouse’ describes the experiences of a family and their guests on the Isle of Skye, with such diverse characters as the frustrated artist Lily Briscoe; the beautiful, universally-admired Mrs Ramsay; the needy, temperamental Mr Ramsay; and their son James, who is desperate to visit the lighthouse. However, the trip only takes place many years later, when the family’s circumstances have changed greatly.

Some of the imagery in the book is beautiful and I really appreciated the way that Woolf never once resorts to cliché. I think her best descriptions pertain to nature: for example, when she describes the children ‘netted in their cots like birds among cherries and raspberries, still making up stories‘ – it’s so unusual but I love the cosy atmosphere it creates. Then, atmospheric in a different sense: ‘The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands.

Another great thing about the novel is the way Woolf sets down ideas about the human condition which I could really empathise with. I have always felt that ‘after a dream some subtle change is felt‘ in the people who have appeared in it, but have never seen this idea written down before. Then there is the notion of the gap between Lily’s dreams and what she is able to translate onto paper, as she tries to ‘clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast‘. I think this is probably Woolf trying to convey some of her own frustrations about the writing process. Having dabbled in both writing and art myself, I can sympathise with the idea that most things do not turn out as perfectly as I first imagined. I liked Lily Briscoe’s character because she was an artistic, intelligent woman restricted by society’s view that just because she was unmarried she was ‘not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid.’ I admired the fact that Woolf tried to challenge these views, particularly as she lived in a society which was still relatively misogynistic.

Having studied ‘Mrs Dalloway’, which was published two years previously, it was interesting to see that there were a lot of similarities between the two novels. Woolf experimented with the same themes in both: time, the imperfections of memory, the position of ageing women in society, the impact of the war and disillusionment with marriage. Her obsession with the sea also comes through in both cases, something which I find haunting considering her eventual method of death. The lighthouse in this novel also seems to act as a similar symbol to Big Ben in ‘Mrs Dalloway’, due to its familiarity to all the characters and thus its ability to connect them to each other.

I feel that to rate this novel in terms of plot and character would be missing the point. If you are looking for a linear plot with lots of action and clear character arcs then you will be disappointed. To me it seemed like more of an experiment than a story, more focused on tracking the thoughts and perceptions of the characters and exploring various ideas through symbolism. At times I did get a bit tired of the constant soul-searching and felt it was unrealistic that most characters seemed to pause every five minutes to think about the meaning of life. However, it was still an interesting, eye-opening and refreshingly different read.