I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narra...moreSPOILER WARNING
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narrator, who alternately reveals her deepest feelings while deliberately concealing certain fact/plot point from the reader. We are both privy to her innermost thoughts --- at least those that she feels appropriate to share --- while at the same time being held at a distance by her sly opaqueness and secretive nature. Jane Eyre she ain't. How Bronte utilized this framework to both tell the story and illuminate Lucy’s complex psychological states is both subtle and brilliant, and surely ahead of her time. We get to learn firsthand what makes Lucy Snowe ticks; we see her being reticent about the tragic circumstances of her early life, pining over Dr. John --- while still making excuses for his shallowness, being amusingly sardonic about the goings-on in the pensionat (secret love letters! cross-dressing as a nun!), struggling with depression, and (in a plot development that is hard to swallow --- more on this later) learning to love a man whom she previously despised.
That said, the technique also exposes us to a lot of her internal monologues, which occasionally devolve into tedious ramblings composed of melodramatic, adjective-laden sentences that seem to breathlessly run forever. Perhaps Bronte used Lucy to explore her own dark night of the soul, but somehow my eyes tend to glaze over whenever they occur.
Another recurrent theme is Lucy’s vehement anti-Catholicism and strong belief in English superiority. I have no idea whether Bronte shared the same views, but they are an integral part of Lucy’s personality and perhaps are simply a reflection of the times that they were living in. The French are shown to be similarly afflicted with national and religious chauvinism.
Eventually, love between Lucy and her “little” Frenchman, M. Paul, conquers all --- which brings us to my major beef with the story. M. Paul is a misogynist (“A ‘woman of intellect’,… a luckless incident, a thing for which there was neither place nor use in creation, wanted neither as wife nor worker.”) and control freak (“Pink or scarlet, yellow or crimson, pea green or sky blue; it was all one: these were all flaunting, giddy colours…”) of the first order. He constantly harangues Lucy about her dress, her intellect, her manners etc. ad nauseam. Sure, the man is not entirely devoid of little gestures of kindness for the lonely English teacher, and there is that big reveal about the life-long sacrifice that he made for a bunch of ungrateful semi-relatives, but he never repents of his earlier unPC-ness, and Lucy seems to happily gloss over them once they become an item. Oh, and Lucy is supposed to be fiercely independent, but at the end it is M. Paul who sets her up financially by giving her the girls school to run. Perhaps it’s better that he never returns from that business trip to the West Indies --- we never know, because Lucy is just as reticent about the closure to her story as about her early life.
3 ½ stars (1/2 star deducted for the awkward romance and rambling monologues). (less)
In a world full of flawed characters, pity for another human being may be the greatest flaw of all. The story charts the gradual decline of Major Scob...more In a world full of flawed characters, pity for another human being may be the greatest flaw of all. The story charts the gradual decline of Major Scobie, an upright colonial policemen who slowly succumbs to corruption and adultery. The irony is that the mortal sins (yes, this is a Catholic novel) that he committed are fueled not by garden-variety greed or lust, but by his propensity to take pity on other human beings. Pity for his wife --- he doesn’t love her but he feels an overwhelming sense of duty towards her wellbeing --- leads him to accept bribes. Pity for a friendless young widow, a war survivor, leads to an illicit relationship. Before long, he gets so entangled in a web of deceit that there is only one way out. You may or may not agree with Greene’s assertion that pity is a kind of pride that can lead to damnation, but there is no denying the power of this sparely told, bleak morality tale.(less)
**spoiler alert** Daniel Deronda is not an easy book to read. If Middlemarch is a masterpiece of 19th century realism, Deronda is something else altog...more**spoiler alert** Daniel Deronda is not an easy book to read. If Middlemarch is a masterpiece of 19th century realism, Deronda is something else altogether. Like its predecessor, the narrative follows two main protagonists: Deronda, a young Englishman of uncertain parentage, and Gwendolen Harleth, a pretty, at times vain and spoiled daughter of a well-off family. The two meet by chance at the gambling hall of a swanky European watering place, where Gwendolen is doing her best to live in fashionable dissipation. The gentlemanly Deronda discreetly helps her when she loses everything at the roulette table. He doesn’t know that she is, in a sense, a runaway, and that her reason for being so is perfectly honorable. Gwendolen may share certain qualities with the shallow Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, but she is not entirely devoid of a sense of honor.
Gwendolen has been running away from one Henleigh Grandcourt, a rich, indolent playboy who is only one life away from inheriting vast estates and a peerage. Everyone, including her widowed mother and country parson uncle think that he is a splendid catch for her. Except that Gwendolen has secretly found out that he had fathered a number of illegitimate children with another woman, whom he is now ready to discard to be able to marry her. As long as her family remains well off, she has no pressing need to marry, and she keeps fending him off. But then all the family money is lost in a speculative bubble, and what can a pretty, essentially uneducated girl of modest talents do? She wants to sing for her supper, but is told that she is not talented and tough enough to be a professional singer. The only other alternative is to be a governess, a desperate option that she despises. She is too dutiful a daughter to let her beloved mother and sisters live poorly in a dinky cottage. Therefore, she (with a little nudge from her newly impoverished family) convinces herself that after all, Grandcourt is a suitable husband material. He seems pliable enough, and with her beauty and forceful personality, she figures out that she will have the upper hand in that marriage. She is unaware that in Eliot’s universe, marriage is a noose and a husband likes to be master. Soon, she finds herself at the mercy of the possessive, passive-aggressive Grandcourt, a control freak of the first order who is jealous of his wife’s emotional dependence on Deronda.
Gwendolen is an interesting character and her dysfunctional relationship with her husband is morbidly fascinating, but the Deronda side of the narrative suffers from the lack of character development. Deronda accidentally rescues a suicidal girl, Mirah, a Jewess who had ran away from her abusive father to find her family in London. He brings her to live with the family of Hans Meyrick, a painter friend whom he has helped in the past. In the course of searching for her long-lost relatives, Deronda develops an interest in Judaism, and under the influence of Mordecai, Mirah’s terminally ill brother, even becomes a Zionist sympathizer. But how can a goyim be a (proto) Zionist and also win the hand of Mirah the Jewess (who, despite being attracted to him is dead set against miscegenation)? Cue a letter from Deronda’s long lost mother, now Contessa Maria Alcharisi, who informs him that he IS a Jew (duh). She had given him up to be raised as an English gentleman when she decided to pursue her singing ambition.
The character of the Contessa is probably the most interesting one in the Deronda strand, although she immediately exits the stage after discharging her plot duties. Among the three women who aspire to be singing stars (Gwendolen, Mirah and herself), the Contessa is the only one who manages to succeed. But to achieve it she had to abandon her son, family and race. Success for a woman always comes at a price, often a steep one.
Deronda himself, despite being given lengthy, sometimes rambling monologues, is oddly amorphous as a character. We know that he is a rescuer of distressed damsels, and that he is almost saintly, but other than that he is a blank. Even his transformation from an English gentleman to a committed Zionist is not entirely convincing. It doesn’t help that the parts in which Eliot expounds about Judaism are perhaps aesthetically among the weakest in the book. It is mostly done through Mordecai’s rambling about ‘ruach-ha-kodesh’ and other bits of Jewish lore, as well as through scenes of a meeting, where talking heads discuss --- rather abstrusely --- proto-Zionist ideas. Eliot clearly had researched the subject extensively, but the regurgitated knowledge that she presents to the reader is patchy and quite tedious to read. Mordecai himself is so much the Suffering Jew that he virtually has no personality, a fact that holds true for most of the Jewish characters. It is surely laudable that Eliot strived to present Jewish characters in a positive light in the midst of rampant anti-Semitism in Victorian Britain, but what is gained in positive characterization is lost in the believability of the characters themselves. The Jews are too busy being model minorities to be real people.
Meanwhile, Gwendolen’s increasingly creepy husband drags her across Europe on a trip, which primary object seems to be to put the farthest distance between her and Deronda. While boating off Genoa, he accidentally drowns, thus releasing Gwendolen from the ‘empire of fear’ that he had created. Deronda, who happens to be there to meet his mother, rescues her. He notes that, while she herself did not do the deed, she actively desired her husband’s death. He also discovers that, in a vindictive move, Grandcourt had altered his will to prevent Gwendolen from inheriting the bulk of his property, bequeathing it to his illegitimate son instead. The novel’s end is inconclusive; Gwendolen learns to stoically accept her situation and Deronda, after marrying Mirah, sets off for Palestine.
Despite a happy ending for Deronda and Mirah, the tone of the novel is somber, with very little of the sarcastic wit and humor that enliven Middlemarch. At certain parts, Eliot seems to abandon realism and descends into melodrama and insipid characterization, which makes it hard to continue reading. If you absolutely have to read one Eliot novel, pick Middlemarch instead.
Persuasion, Austen's last completed novel, has little in common with her earlier, more celebrated works. There is comparatively little in the way of s...morePersuasion, Austen's last completed novel, has little in common with her earlier, more celebrated works. There is comparatively little in the way of surprising plot twists, clever witticisms, or amusing comic moments. It even lacks a heroine that we could look up to, or even identify with. It is as if Austen had dispensed with nearly all conventional means that novelists use to hold the reader's interest. Shorn of literary ornamentations, Persuasion is instead a moving story of lost love and regrets, second chances and reconciliation, told with remarkable economy and precision. What is lost by the exclusion of the qualities that are usually present in her works, is amply compensated by a greater clarity of focus and depth of feeling. The mature Austen was no longer interested in amusing us with her cleverness, or with being a moralist, but instead chose to delve into the secret depths of men and women's inner lives, resulting in a deeply affecting contemplation of the limits of romantic love and devotion.
My Wordsworth edition contains an earlier draft of Chapter Eleven of Volume II, which omits Captain Wentworth's letter (surely the mother of all love letters!) and the fascinating discussion on the constancy of love among men and women between Anne and Captain Harville. Fortunately, Austen changed her mind and rewrote that part. The ending would have lost much of its impact without them.
The other surprising element in the novel for me is the 'feminist' (or perhaps proto-feminist?) depiction of Mrs. Croft and her marriage to her husband the Admiral. While criticism of society's treatment of women, particularly women who are either poor or low in rank, has always been implied in her previous novels, it has never been as explicit as in this one.
It is a tragedy that Austen passed away soon after completing Persuasion, and thus we are left with a mere glimpse of her mature style. It would have been fascinating to know what her subsequent novels would be like.(less)