Here's another adult novel by an author much better known for her children's books. The only other adult novel by Burnett I've read is A Lady of Quali...moreHere's another adult novel by an author much better known for her children's books. The only other adult novel by Burnett I've read is A Lady of Quality, which I didn't like; I tried The Making of a Marchioness and liked it quite a bit more. The book is divided into two parts. The first is a simple Cinderella tale, akin to Burnett's other books; simple Emily Fox-Seton is raised into the nobility when she marries the Marquis of Walderhurst. In the second part, the book becomes a melodrama as Emily falls prey to the machinations of Alec Osborn, heir to the title unless Emily produces a son. Under the surface of the fairy tale and the melodrama, though, there's a fascinating commentary on late Victorian marriage: Emily and Lord Walderhurst, Alec Osborn and his wife Hester, and the beautiful Lady Agatha, who must soon marry well or step aside for her younger sisters and face the grim fate of a spinster. (less)
I can do no better to begin with than to quote George Eliot, who upon reading Villette called it "a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre".
Villett...moreI can do no better to begin with than to quote George Eliot, who upon reading Villette called it "a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre".
Villette is darker and more realistic than Jane Eyre, and more autobiographical (and perhaps thus even more powerful). Drawing on Charlotte Brontë's experiences in Brussels, Villette tells the story of Lucy Snowe, who leaves England in flight from a shadowy, unhappy past; she comes to "Villette" (i.e., Brussels) and becomes an English teacher at Madame Beck's school, where she meets the mercurial, autocratic Monsieur Paul (based on Constantin Heger, the married schoolmaster with whom Charlotte fell in love during her time in Brussels).
Lucy is a complex character: repressed, yet deeply emotional, cold on the outside (like her name), but fiery within. Her narration is reticent; unlike Jane Eyre, she holds back, never telling the reader everything, rarely allowing herself to show her feelings. A key passage occurs relatively early on the book, soon after Lucy has begun work at the school:
"Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future -- such a future as mine -- to be dead. And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature."
I do admit that Villette is not as easy to read as Jane Eyre. Lucy's reticence as a narrator forces the reader to reach out further to engage with her; yet her depth of feeling and her humor are engaging. I defy anyone (all right, anyone who likes Victorian fiction) to read fifty pages of Villette and be able to put it down; every time I read it, I feel as though I could pick it right back up after finishing, start it over, and be just as enthralled as though it had been years since I'd read it. (less)
Anne Bronte's second novel is often overshadowed by her sisters' more famous novels, Charlotte's Jane Eyre (and three others) and Emily's Wuthering He...moreAnne Bronte's second novel is often overshadowed by her sisters' more famous novels, Charlotte's Jane Eyre (and three others) and Emily's Wuthering Heights, but it is equally worth reading. It tells the story of Helen Huntingdon, a mysterious woman who comes to live at Wildfell Hall with her child and one servant, and Gilbert Markham, the young man who is powerfully drawn to her and eventually learns her secret: that she left her dissolute, drunken husband in order to shield their son from his influence. The first and last sections are from Gilbert's point of view; the central, and most powerful, from Helen's, as Gilbert reads the diary in which she narrates the events of her marriage.
Victorian readers found the scenes of Huntingdon's drunkenness and infidelity revolting and coarse, and they remain powerfully compelling today, though the subjects are less shocking to today's readers. Helen is a strong, willful, intelligent heroine, and to my mind, the novel's one real fault is that too much of the narrative is given to the less interesting Gilbert; once finished with Helen's diary, the story loses much of its power, though it regains some through the use of Helen's letters in the chapters leading up to the climax.
Anne Brontë's voice is as passionate as her sisters', and her fierce truthfulness pervades the novel; as her preface to the second edition says, in response to the censures of critics and readers, "I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it." In penning this challenge to the conventional morals of Victorian society, Brontë told truths about the role of women and the potential pitfalls of marriage that are meaningful more than 150 years after the publication of her book. (less)
I haven't read this in years and had forgotten how much I like it. It's far more restrained than her sisters' novels, yet the treatment Agnes receives...moreI haven't read this in years and had forgotten how much I like it. It's far more restrained than her sisters' novels, yet the treatment Agnes receives from her employers, the way they deny her equality and humanity because she's only a governess, is as horrifying in its own way as anything suffered by Charlotte's Jane Eyre. On this reading, I especially noticed also Anne's quiet wit, rather akin to Austen's, and her feeling for nature and the outdoors, akin to her sister Emily's.(less)
An absorbing Victorian sensation novel - murder, arson, blackmail, bigamy, you name it. Braddon's writing style is nothing special, but the plot is fa...moreAn absorbing Victorian sensation novel - murder, arson, blackmail, bigamy, you name it. Braddon's writing style is nothing special, but the plot is fast-paced and never dull, and the main character is a nicely manipulative villainess. I'll have to read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins soon, as this book is often compared to it. (I have since read The Woman in White twice and think it superior.)(less)
Braddon was the queen of Victorian sensation novels, like Lady Audley's Secret; although the heroine falls in love with a man who's not her husband, T...moreBraddon was the queen of Victorian sensation novels, like Lady Audley's Secret; although the heroine falls in love with a man who's not her husband, The Doctor's Wife isn't really a sensation novel. Braddon was clearly trying to transcend her genre (and rewrite Madame Bovary) in this story of Isabel Gilbert, the eponymous heroine, and her love for Roland Lansdell; their affair is pointedly not consummated, and Isabel's emotional and mental growth is really the main point of the story. (less)
Published right after Lady Audley's Secret, Aurora Floyd was almost as popular. Aurora Floyd is a newlywed with a deadly secret, and although (like La...morePublished right after Lady Audley's Secret, Aurora Floyd was almost as popular. Aurora Floyd is a newlywed with a deadly secret, and although (like Lady Audley's) Aurora's secret is fairly easy to guess early on, that doesn't slow down the fast pace and drama of the novel. Braddon's novels are being heralded recently as challenges to the Victorian notion of ideal ladyhood, but in the other books of hers I've read, those unusual women receive suitable punishments for their violations of femininity; Aurora suffers but isn't punished as drastically as Lady Audley or Olivia Marchmont (of John Marchmont's Legacy) - a refreshing change. (less)
I don't think I agree with Trollope's assessment of this as one of his worst novels, but it's definitely not in the top ranks. On the plus side, there...moreI don't think I agree with Trollope's assessment of this as one of his worst novels, but it's definitely not in the top ranks. On the plus side, there's some interest in the political plot (which echoes Trollope's own experience of running unsuccessfully for Parliament), and there are several good character studies; on the minus side, the plot threads never seem to hang together well, and the love stories are frankly uninteresting.(less)
I've finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green, by far the most difficult to obtain of her eight novels. It conta...moreI've finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green, by far the most difficult to obtain of her eight novels. It contains a thinly disguised portrait of Nancy's sister Unity (a passionate Nazi sympathizer) and of the British Union of Fascists, which was headed up by her sister Diana's husband Sir Oswald Mosley; the publication in the book caused a rift in the family, particularly after Unity's attempted suicide when Germany and Great Britain went to war, and Nancy chose not to have it reprinted in her lifetime. My copy was published a couple of years after she died, oddly packaged in a double edition with her earlier novel, Highland Fling, and marketed (according to the front cover) as two of her "most wickedly witty and enchantingly romantic novels".
In the book, the BUF becomes the Union Jack Movement, and its supporters, the Blackshirts, become the Union Jackshirts, wearing shirts made out of Britain's flag in order to emphasize their brand of national socialism. Eugenia Malmains (a thinly veiled Unity) is a passionate supporter of the Union Jackshirts and their leader ("the Captain", who never appears in the book but is clearly meant to be Mosley, who was called "the Leader"), and the climax of the book is a pageant put on by Eugenia and her friends in support of the party, which degenerates into a brawl between the Union Jackshirts and the Pacifists of the local village.
Mitford's satire is pointed, skewering the BUF and its supporters at every opportunity. Along with the satire, though, she provides a more pleasing plot and characters than in her earlier novels, which tended to suffer from a lack of sympathetic characters and a lack of overarching story. She hadn't yet gained the polished style and engaging characters of the novels that followed after Wigs on the Green (beginning with The Pursuit of Love, one of my all-time favorite books), but you can see that she was getting there. It's a shame that Wigs on the Green isn't more available, as it provides both an interesting social document of its time and a vital piece of Mitford's development as a writer. (less)
Barry Lyndon is a classically "unreliable narrator". He's an Irish rogue who joins the British army after an unhappy love affair and then goes on to f...moreBarry Lyndon is a classically "unreliable narrator". He's an Irish rogue who joins the British army after an unhappy love affair and then goes on to fame and fortune as a fashionable gambler. As in Vanity Fair, Thackeray is interested in representing his characters accurately and realistically, and his portrayal of the dissolute, amoral Barry, a rake who thinks he's a prince among men, is masterful. (less)
I had a lovely Everyman's edition of Vanity Fair for several years, just sitting on my bookshelf unread, looking reproachfully at me. Finally, I decid...moreI had a lovely Everyman's edition of Vanity Fair for several years, just sitting on my bookshelf unread, looking reproachfully at me. Finally, I decided to take it down and read it, thus filling an enormous gap in my Victorian-era reading. I fear that I can now only be disappointed in Thackeray's other books (though I intend to read them anyway), because I can't imagine anything better than Vanity Fair.
The plot does sprawl a little, but the characters are so wonderfully realized that it doesn't matter (and sprawling plots are a feature I'm used to in Victorian novels anyway). The best thing about the characters is how three-dimensional they are, and how Thackeray never lets you see them in black or white; in this "novel without a hero" (the book's subtitle), the worst characters have good points, and the best have deep flaws. The virtuous Amelia dangerously romanticizes her loved one, while the wicked Becky Sharp is perhaps the novel's most appealing (and certainly most famous) character, in spite of her immorality (though at the same time, Thackeray never lets you lose sight of her essential wickedness).(less)