North and South is a perfectly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which is to say that it is didactic, occasionally wordy, earnestly concerned with social iss...moreNorth and South is a perfectly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which is to say that it is didactic, occasionally wordy, earnestly concerned with social issues and not entirely free from sentimentality and melodrama.
The heroine, Margaret Hale, can be a tad Mary Sue-ish at times, but she is ultimately an admirable example of resilience and single-minded perseverance in the face of constantly changing, often difficult, circumstances. It is quite astounding, and at times frustrating, that such a young girl is expected to be a pillar of strength for so many others; for her father, a country parson who quits his comfortable living for conscientious reasons but is too chicken to tell his family about it; for her mother, a fragile invalid whose terminal illness must be concealed from everyone else; for her cousin, a shallow, dependent woman whose life revolves around dinner-parties; for her brother, a fugitive from justice; and even for a family of laborers who are oppressed by the harsh working conditions of the industrial north of England. From time to time, I feel the urge to smack the weak, vacillating adults around her for reserving the right to make all the life-changing decisions and then abdicating responsibility for the consequences. And yet, Margaret herself is not without flaws, for she could be proud and prejudiced against the newly rising class of Northern self-made men, mere “manufacturers” like Mr. Thornton, who due to their affluence, is able to employ her father, an Oxford-educated gentleman, as a tutor. It is interesting that she could look down on her suitor Thornton, a wealthy man who began his career as a draper’s assistant, and yet also forms an entirely sympathetic relationship with a factory hand’s daughter, someone who is several rung under him in the social pecking order. Apparently, the lower classes are perfectly fine as objects of Christian charity but are objectionable as potential spouses.
To his credit, the equally proud, taciturn Thornton himself is mercifully free from the more vulgar traits of the manufacturing class and is zealous in catching up on his education. Through his personal acquaintance with Higgins, the laborer that Margaret befriended, he even introduces reforms in his factory that is not solely inspired by utilitarian principles.
Gaskell’s writing about industrial Milton and contemporary social issues is credible and informative --- undoubtedly derived from her first-hand experience as a minister’s wife in Manchester --- but I expected it to be more detailed. I’d be interested to see the insides of the textile factory, for instance. Or to hear more about the working conditions that spark the violent riot. We get to see the interior of the on-site Thornton home, but never get into the factory itself. The workers’ arguments are mostly presented through Higgins’ monologues, and the bosses’ side through Thornton’s reasoning. This part of the story is pretty slow for me because of the way Gaskell chose to tell it, and also because of the laborer characters, who veer towards Dickensian sentimentality but are drawn without his knack for creating memorable traits for them.
Ultimately, the book’s strength lies on the vivid evocation of Margaret’s experiences and the sympathetic, yet not wholly uncritical portrayal of its characters. Aside from the main characters, the grumpy but kindly Mr. Bell and Dixon, the chronically class-prejudiced but utterly loyal maid, are particularly delightful. The prose itself is not that extraordinary --- you won’t find Eliot’s epigrammatic wit, Dickens’ intricate plotting, or Hardy’s descriptive power in it --- but it is perfectly enjoyable, very accessible and oddly soothing, considering the numerous tragedies in the story. The ending, with its last-minute romantic reconciliation is rather abrupt, but utterly believable, and the characters feel like old friends that you have known all your life. (less)
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)
**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.
I suppose that a story that is so ubiquitous during Christmas time as this one needs no introduction. I can see why it has been constantly popular for...moreI suppose that a story that is so ubiquitous during Christmas time as this one needs no introduction. I can see why it has been constantly popular for more than one hundred years. I appreciate the writing and craft that goes into the story, the social commentary, the worthy morals, and the affection that generations of readers have for it. But I hated it. Yes, it's official, I'm the Grinch and (pre-reformed) Scrooge rolled into one. I have a heart made of stone, or at least something equally hard, immune to the plight of tiny, poor, crippled tots and destitute Victorian families who couldn't afford a stuffed goose for their Christmas tables.
I found the story to be simplistic, with sketchy, largely one dimensional characters, and so drenched in sugary sentimentality that it made my teeth hurt. I can deal with sentimentality, but such a massive, industrial-strength dose of it renders me comatose, instead of being genuinely moved.
*slinking away to hide under a rock until Christmas is over* (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order) :
1. Italians are excitable, dedicated to the opera, and most likely to be in...more Beware of spoilers!
What I learned from this book (in no particular order) :
1. Italians are excitable, dedicated to the opera, and most likely to be involved with organized crime.
2. Beware of fat, jolly Italian counts with submissive wives and fondness of white mice and canaries.
3. Watch out if your newly wed husband lives in a stately pile with an abandoned wing full of creepy Elizabethan furniture. If the said ancestral house is surrounded by dark ponds and eerie woods, expect the worst.
4. A Baronet is not always noble, and his impressive manor and estate might be mortgaged to the hilt. Instead of being the lady of the house, you might be forced to pay HIS debts. Make sure that the marriage settlement is settled in your favor before marrying.
5. Never marry for convenience or enter into any legal agreement when you are: a. under age; b. sentimental and easily persuadable; c. prone to swooning and fainting.
6. Intelligent, resourceful women are likely to be mannish, and even actually HAVE a mustache, but are strong and have good figures. They can also be relied on to provide intelligent conversation when your beautiful but fragile wives are too busy swooning.
7. Shutting yourself up in a medieval vestry full of combustible materials with a candle for lighting is NOT advisable. Always have your minions do the dirty work.
8. Being ‘feeble in mind’ is enough reason to get you committed into an asylum for the mentally ill. So is knowing some secret that you might accidentally blurt out to strangers.
9. You CAN marry someone who is legally dead. Nobody bothered to check the civil registry records in those good old days.
10. A ménage a trois is fun, but you have to marry at least ONE of them first to preserve Victorian propriety.
Lately, I have received several personal messages that accused me, based on point#1 in my review above, of being prejudiced toward Italians --- something which couldn't be further from the truth. For those who hold such view, I would like to point out that my review is a parody which involves humorous, satiric or ironic imitations of the plot, characters or point of views set forth in the novel.The "This is what I learned" heading is a part of the whole exercise, and does not mean that I personally subscribe to the points enumerated therein. Obviously, I don't believe that "intelligent, resourceful women are likely to be mannish, and even actually HAVE a mustache" (point 6) or that "being ‘feeble in mind’ is enough reason to get you committed into an asylum for the mentally ill" (point 8) --- just as I don't believe that "Italians are excitable, dedicated to the opera, and most likely to be involved with organized crime".
I'm aware that my sense of humor is not to everyone's taste, but it has never been my intention to denigrate Italians or any other ethnic groups in this review (or any other review of mine).
It is surely an understatement to call Les Miserables a sprawling epic. In fact, it is perhaps the loosest, baggie...more"Conscience is the highest justice”.
It is surely an understatement to call Les Miserables a sprawling epic. In fact, it is perhaps the loosest, baggiest monster of all those great 19th century novels. This monster contains everything: morality play, melodrama, political tracts, religious polemic and urban history. Hugo’s great bag of a novel is big enough to contain all those and more. He has a healthy ego, and is perpetually eager to pontificate on subjects as diverse as the battle of Waterloo, monastic history, the jet jewelry industry, the development of the argot and the sewer system of Paris. The effect is like having a retired professor camping out in your living room, always ready with an impromptu lecture or two. These mini-lectures, which are almost encyclopedic in their details, give a fascinating picture of the different aspects of French life at that time. But every time Hugo gets up on the soapbox to talk politics, he bores me to tears. These political lectures are delivered in a polemical, disjointed style which nuances are hard to grasps unless you are intimately familiar with French history of the period. And these digressions tend to occur in the middle of the exciting parts of the main story. What happens at the barricade? Is he killed? Wait; let’s wax poetic about flowers for a few pages first. Jean Valjean escapes through the sewer! Wait --- you’ve got to read this dissertation on the sewer system of Paris first. You get the idea. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter, as these digressions (except for the abovementioned political op-eds) are often as absorbing as the main narrative.
And what is the main narrative? At its heart, Les Miserables is a moving parable of mercy and redemption, a meditation on justice and conscience that makes us reflect on our own lives. Hugo’s France, with its crumbling tenements, abandoned street children and revolutions may be history to the Western world, but it is still alive and well in parts of the developing world. The barricades still have resonance today. Yes, Hugo could be sentimental and verbose, didactic and pedantic. He is not averse to use improbable coincidences (or divine providence, as another fellow reader had kindly pointed out) to tie up his storylines. He could have used a good editor with a big red pen. But again, it doesn’t matter in the big picture, as we are swept away in the stories of Jean Valjean, Bishop Myriel, Gavroche, Marius, Cosette and Eponine. Their stories, despite the melodrama and Romantic trappings, are the eternal story of man’s struggle against himself and society to live a good life, to be kind and forgiving to his fellows, to sacrifice one’s life selflessly for the good of others. Conscience is the highest justice, indeed.
Now I know why Charlotte Bronte said this of Jane Austen: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with th...moreNow I know why Charlotte Bronte said this of Jane Austen: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood". I love Jane, but Charlotte REALLY knows how to write about passion, romantic or otherwise. If Jane’s books are stately minuets in which the smallest gesture has its meaning, Charlotte’s is a spirited, sweeping tango of duty and desire. A perfect blend of passionate romance, gothic mystery, romantic description of nature, social commentary and humor, all rendered in vivid, gorgeous prose. One cannot help to admire Jane Eyre, the little governess who could. She rises above her harsh upbringing to become a governess, poor but ever fiercely independent. Even the promise of love and comfort with the man that she worships is not enough to sway her from the path of integrity. One cannot help to admire Charlotte, who makes her intensely human; a woman of virtue, yet one who is not above jealousy and doubts, and who constantly struggles with the personal cost of her decisions. A deeply felt, and ultimately moving story of love and redemption that will linger long after the last page is turned.
**spoiler alert** To Mr. Philip Pirrip, Esq. ______________, London
Dear Mr. Pirrip,
I have just finished reading your remarkable memoir, titled ‘Great Ex...more**spoiler alert** To Mr. Philip Pirrip, Esq. ______________, London
Dear Mr. Pirrip,
I have just finished reading your remarkable memoir, titled ‘Great Expectations’, and I am compelled to lift my humble pen to write to you about it. Oh, before I proceed, may I ask your permission to call you ‘Mister Pip’? After all, that is how you refer to yourself in your history, not to mention that it is a name that you are legally bound to use under your benefactor’s terms. So, Mr. Pip, I must say that I have been enthralled by your story, beginning with your account of your childhood in the marsh country. A most hardscrabble childhood that you had, sir, with you being an orphan and raised ‘by hand’ by your sister, Mrs. Joe. Fortunately, you had Mr. Joe Gargery, a constant friend and protector. I was surprised that you could tell of your harsh childhood with such a sense of humor. You made me chuckle, sir, as when you said that you were a ‘connubial missile’ being passed from wife to husband. As a child you helped an escaped convict, an act which consequences later changed your whole life.
Then one day you came into the attention of Miss Havisham, a rich, eccentric recluse, who wanted you to come to her house to play. How odd that was, and how odd was Miss Havisham, with her yellowing bridal dress and strange habits! Your description of her and her gloomy house, where the wax candles burned in broad daylight and beetles “groped about the hearth in a ponderous elderly way, as if they were short–sighted and hard of hearing, and not on terms with one another”, was unforgettable. There you met Estella, a girl-child not much older than yourself, who was destined to become your life-long love. There you also became aware of a loftier world than your own and honest Joe’s; a world of gentlemen and ladies, of wealth and privilege. You wanted to partake of that world and win Estella for yourself, but alas, you were a common laboring boy and seemed destined for nothing better than to become Joe’s apprentice at his forge. That is, until a certain Mr. Jaggers, lawyer, came to apprise you of your good fortune. A mysterious benefactor desired to turn you into a gentleman!
So off you went to London to lay claim on your new position in life. I must admit that I did not find you entirely sympathetic during this period in your life, Mr. Pip. You were profligate and snobbish. You were embarrassed of your own kin and wanted nothing to do with them. But you evidently still retained a few positive traits, for you soon gained steady friends in Mr. Herbert Pocket and Mr. Wemmick. Meanwhile, your whole being was consumed with the pursuit of the lovely Miss Estella. Somehow you believed that old Miss Havisham intended her to marry you, despite numerous evidence to the contrary. You were not aware, sir, that Miss Estella had been bred to break men’s hearts, hearts that were far more hardened than yours.
The day came when you were to meet your mysterious benefactor, and he was not the person you had always thought he was! I must confess that I was just as surprised as you were. Despite your initial disgust at his uncouthness and criminal past, you grew to like and respect him. You aided him, at great personal cost to yourself, to escape the law’s justice. Alas, his attempt at freedom failed and he expired, under your tender care, in prison. As a criminal, his possessions reverted to the Crown, and thus you lost your expectation. You fell gravely ill, and who else but the faithful Joe who nursed you back to health.
After losing your expectation, you seemed to have learned a valuable lesson, Mr. Pip, and you spent the next decade working hard for your living in the East. Upon your return to England you accidentally met Miss Estella, now a widow after years of being ill used by her brutish husband. You were reconciled to her, despite her coldness to you over the years. And thus your narrative ended. I wonder if she will stay true to you, or whether she is yet another expectation in your life that shall remain unfulfilled? I, of course, fervently hope for the earlier.
I must warmly thank you for the enjoyable and instructive hours that I have spent in perusing your remarkable memoir and I remain,
1. If a young lady is not born into either rank or fortune, she will be looked down upon by...moreSpoilers!
Miss Rebecca Sharp's Guide to the Regency Society
1. If a young lady is not born into either rank or fortune, she will be looked down upon by good society and forced to exist in a humiliating dependency on others for life, unless the said young lady is willing, nay, not merely willing, but most strenuously strive to improve her situation.
2. If the said young lady, despite being a poor orphan, happens to have the good fortune of being admitted into an exclusive academy for young ladies as an articled pupil, she has to ensure that she makes the utmost effort to learn everything that she could in that fine establishment. The modern languages, Greek, Latin and the rudiments of Hebrew, as well as music and dancing are important subjects that need to be mastered by an accomplished young lady, but most important of all is the ability to speak good French with the purest Parisian accent, for it enables the speaker to pass herself off as a daughter of the French aristocracy, even though in reality her mother is a mere stage actress.
3. “A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry whom she likes”. A wealthy husband should be prospected immediately after the young lady completes her education. The brother of a school friend is most suitable, even if the said young man is a fat dandy and not very sensible, as long as he is of ample inheritance. Beware of the gluttonous young buck though, for an overindulgence in a bowl of punch might thwart a young lady’s designs on him!
4. “Schoolmistresses' letters are to be trusted no more nor less than churchyard epitaphs”. There are notable exceptions, it must be admitted, but they are exceedingly rare. Nevertheless, the young lady, should she fail in her initial effort to land a wealthy husband, should endeavour to gain a letter of introduction that would recommend her as a governess to the most respectable of households. Such households, though populated by dissolute aristocrats, might house a number of potential spouses. A younger son of a baronet, even though he is a scoundrel, gambler, swindler and murderer, is a most suitable prospect, provided that he is to inherit an elderly relative’s fortune.
5. “Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same”. A little sweet talk and a wink, and they all fall on your feet bearing trinkets of pearls and gold. It doesn’t matter a whit if he happens to be your best friend’s husband, nor if you yourself is somebody’s else’s wife. It is best, however, if the gentleman admirer is a wealthy, powerful nobleman, for the advantages that a clever lady could get from him, financially or otherwise, is great indeed. Why, not only is he able to provide the lady’s household with a thousand-pound cheque at a whim, he is also able to bestow a profitable colonial governorship on the lady’s husband. Beware of the jealous husband, though, who through an imaginary affront to his honor might destroy all of the lady’s clever schemes!
6. How To Live Well On Nothing A Year. Appearances must be kept: a residence in Mayfair, a smart carriage, the best game and wines for one’s entertainments, and the latest Parisian fashions. How to afford all these when one has no regular income? Not to despair, the ingenious lady always has means to do so. Prevail upon the generosity of friends and relatives. Impose upon your landlord and your greengrocers, washerwomen and other domestics. Unlike banks or Hebrew money-lenders, these little people are very unlikely to set loose a bailiff upon your respectable self, especially if they are in awe of your noble family.
7. If all these schemes fail, and both your husband and gentleman admirer abandon you in a cloud of scandal, despair not! A lady of some talent can always flee abroad and sing for her supper, if necessary. Better still, if you could rekindle a relationship with a former beau, now older and ailing, who though his own fortune is much encumbered, would take a life insurance naming your pitiful self as a beneficiary. The small fortune that ensues from such a settlement is surely enough to tide you over until your estranged son succeeds into his baronetcy and is finally able to provide you with a generous allowance. Then you can spend your declining years as an admirably pious and charitable society lady. Thus a penniless orphan girl need not condemn herself to a life of servitude and penury, but instead rise into the pinnacle of society through her industry and ingeniousness!
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. You can use the same adjective 19 times in a short chapter to describe a s...more3.5 stars
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. You can use the same adjective 19 times in a short chapter to describe a single character and still be considered a great literary stylist. Yes, I get it, Mr. Dickens: Bella’s adorable father is CHERUBIC.
2. It is perfectly acceptable to deceive your wife-to-be, and even marry her under an assumed identity, for the noble purpose of ascertaining her moral worthiness.
3. Once you are convinced that she is no gold-digger, she can be informed of your true identity as the sole heir of a wealthy garbage man.
4. She of course, having been established as a person of high moral standing, would take the news with perfect equanimity, even though she was of the mercenary persuasion just before she agreed to marry you.
5. It is perfectly possible for a hard-nosed, mercenary beauty to be reformed through the example of others whose characters have been debased by the sudden acquirement of wealth.
6. A barely literate, retired garbage man with no acting experience whatsoever can convincingly act this example.
7. The notion of the bee as a paragon of industriousness is vastly overrated. We as a bipeds should object on principle to being constantly referred to insects and other four footed creatures. As human beings, we cannot be required to model our behavior on the behaviors of the bee, the dog, the spider or the camel.
8. One of the most salient reasons of why this is so, is the undeniable fact that a camel has several stomachs to entertain himself with, while we poor humans have only one.
9. One of the best ways to educate oneself is to listen to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire being read by a one-legged street ballad seller. Thus we may learn of fascinating historical characters such as Polly Beeious (a Roman virgin, and therefore cannot be discussed in polite company), Commodious (an Emperor who is unworthy of his English origins) and Bully Sawyers, a.k.a Belisarius, a great military leader.
10. If you need to have your leg amputated, you can always sell it to Mr. Venus, a bone man whose collection includes preserved Hindu, African and (articulated) English babies, a French Gentleman, human bones (“warious”), mummified birds and dried cuticles.
The most entertaining part of the book for me is when Dickens is being caustically funny. Mr. Boffin’s reading of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mr. Venus’ dry recitation of his macabre inventory, and Wrayburn’s argument against the bee made me chuckle. The social satire with the social-climbing, money-obsessed Veneerings, Podsnaps et al is piquant and sharp, and perhaps as relevant today as it was in the Victorian era. The plot is intricate but deftly woven, with hardly any improbable coincidences that mar his other works such as A Tale of Two Cities. The evocation of the Thames and the marginal characters that make their living from its ebb and flow is immediate and pungent: we can palpably see and smell the great river, the seaman’s taverns and the muddy lanes where the Hexams and Riderhoods live. The river is a metaphor for growth and decay, and the most interesting characters are those that are associated with it. In fact, I find the supporting cast more interesting than the bland main characters. I don’t really understand who Wrayburn and Rokesmith/Harmon are, aside from the traits that they are given to support their roles in the plot. Bradley Headstone is a one-dimensional plot device. Bella is given more personality than the usual saintly, long-suffering Dickens heroine, but her sudden transformation seems to be hardly credible, and so is her romance with Rokesmith/Harmon. The contrast between the dark satire and the fairy-tale conclusion is jarring, and at times the pace of the story is as slow as the silt-burdened current of the Thames. And I was sorely tempted to fling the book to the wall every time Dickens calls Bella’s father a ‘cherub’ --- it’s like a literary Tourette syndrome.
A mixed bag for me, and if not for the melodramatic A plot and bland main characters, should have been a solid four stars. (less)
" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central...more" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central theme that runs through Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke, thirsting for knowledge and a meaningful occupation, deludes herself that she would gain those things by marrying Casaubon, a cold, obsessive scholar more than twice her age. Casaubon himself is mired in self-delusion about his life-long research, which Dorothea soon finds out to be obsolete. The idealistic Lydgate deludes himself that by marrying the pretty but high-maintenance Rosamond Vincy he would gain both beauty and love, without having to give up the ideals that he lives for. Rosamond's delusion is that by marrying Lydgate, whose fledgling medical profession she despises, but whose aristocratic connections she covets, she would gain status while being maintained at the high standards that she has gotten used to. Bulstrode, MIddlemarch's banker and pious benefactor, has successfully deluded the whole town of his decidedly unpious past before it came back with a vengeance in the form of a certain Mr. Raffles. Mr. Brooke, who champions the liberal spirit of the Reform Act, is under the delusion that by merely being idealistic, he has changed the world, while neglecting to reform his own estate. The main interest of the novel consists of seeing how these very human characters cope with the consequences of their delusions.
Dorothea soon realizes that Casaubon and his work are not what she thought they were, but she holds up her end of the bargain by being a loyal spouse to him, though her heart sinks when she imagines the loveless and futile years that stretch out before her. Casaubon's sudden death mercifully terminates the disastrous marriage, and Dorothea's integrity, after further trials and tribulations, is ultimately rewarded by her finding love with Will Ladislaw. Lydgate discovers how his love of a pretty face slowly compromises his ideals and ends up in mediocrity, very far from what he aims for as a young medical reformer. Rosamond selfishly persists in her delusions without any regard for what it costs her husband. She finally gets what she wants, but at what price? Bulstrode's past misdeeds eventually catch up with him and destroy the life that he has so painstakingly constructed in Middlemarch. Mr. Brooke's political dilletantism never change the world, but it successfully opens up a path to meaningful occupation for an otherwise aimless young man.
Meanwhile, all of these characters' struggles are contrasted with the Garths' earthy integrity. Mr. Garth is an estate manager who does his job capably and honorably, without any pretensions to status or unearned wealth. Fred Vincy and Mary Garth are the only couple that is not under any delusions of each other's characters and goes on to a long and happy union.
Eliot's writing is infused with penetrating insights into human nature without ever losing compassion and understanding for their frailties and errors, a quality that she shares with Tolstoy. She never sentimentalizes her characters, except perhaps for the idealized Garths. They are all believably human, and they drive the narrative instead of the other way around. Eliot also has a great eye for the ludicruous and her wicked sense of humor constantly enlivens what could have been a ponderous account of provincial English life. One may read Middlemarch for the portrait of a Midlands town on the cusp of industrial revolution in 19th century England, which Eliot admirably delivers, but ultimately it is Eliot's insight into the universal human condition that makes it eternally relevant.
Finally, this book is a profoundly wise, if rather melancholic, reflection on the loss of youthful hopes and ambitions, and their replacement by the more realistic (and inevitable) compromises of maturity. Which, Eliot says, is not a bad thing in itself, as " the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs".
Not Tolstoy at his peak. It is said that after Anna Karenina, Tolstoy the moralist triumphed upon Tolstoy the artist, and it is very true of this late...moreNot Tolstoy at his peak. It is said that after Anna Karenina, Tolstoy the moralist triumphed upon Tolstoy the artist, and it is very true of this late novel. There is very little of the subtleties that animates the characters in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Characters are painted in broad brushstrokes according to their acceptance or rejection of the author's idealism, and none of them really stands out as wholly believable men and women. That said, it is still worth reading for its description of the Russian penal system in the late 19th century, as well as to understand the undercurrents of ideas that led to the Russian Revolution that came soon after the book was written.(less)