Imagine waking up one day to find yourself in an asylum, with no memory of how you came to be there. You know your own name – Georgina Ferrars – but tImagine waking up one day to find yourself in an asylum, with no memory of how you came to be there. You know your own name – Georgina Ferrars – but the doctor tells you that you had admitted yourself as a voluntary patient the day before under the name Lucy Ashton. The clothes and belongings you've brought with you, marked with the initials LA, seem to confirm this, but you're sure that's not who you are. Sending a telegram to your uncle, a London bookseller, you wait for him to prove your identity, but when the reply comes it isn't what you'd hoped for at all. Apparently Georgina Ferrars is safe and well at home...which means you must be an imposter.
This is the nightmare scenario in which a lonely young woman finds herself in this atmospheric gothic tale of betrayal and deceit, secrets, insanity and identity. To describe the plot in any more detail would risk giving too much away, so I won't try – I think it's best if you begin this novel knowing no more than I've already told you above as part of the fun is in wondering what's going on and coming up with theories of your own. And I certainly came up with plenty of theories...and had to keep changing and revising them as new clues and revelations came to light!
As I read The Asylum I felt as confused and bewildered as our narrator did. Was she really Georgina Ferrars, as she claimed to be? I thought so at first – I liked her and wanted to believe her – and I was convinced she must be the victim of a conspiracy. But who exactly was involved in the conspiracy? The doctor? The uncle? The fake Georgina? After a while, though, I began to have doubts. Was the narrator herself the fake after all? I couldn't believe she was telling lies, so did that mean she was deluded or just suffering from a total loss of memory? There were so many questions to ask and so many possible answers.
The story is set in the 1880s and written in the style of a Victorian sensation novel. Like Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and other books of that era, parts of the story are told in the form of journal entries and letters. These help to fill in some gaps in our knowledge so that we can start to understand what is happening to Georgina. There were other aspects of the novel that reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and one of the letter writers finds herself in a situation similar to the heroine of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, but there were enough original ideas here to make this an intriguing and absorbing story in its own right.
Most of the action takes place within the confines of Tregannon House (the private asylum on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, in which Georgina becomes trapped) and the atmosphere Harwood creates is wonderfully claustrophobic and eerie. I really sympathised with Georgina's situation and shared her terror and bewilderment. My only criticism of the book is that the ending – in particular the way in which one of the villains of the story is eventually dealt with – felt a bit too melodramatic in comparison to the rest of the book.
This is the third John Harwood novel I've read and while I think the first, The Ghost Writer, is still my favourite, I enjoyed this one more than the second, The Séance. They're all great, though, and if you like this sort of book you can't go wrong with any of them! ...more
What a great book! A wonderful setting, a beautiful romance, characters I really cared about, an exciting story and lots of fascinating historical detWhat a great book! A wonderful setting, a beautiful romance, characters I really cared about, an exciting story and lots of fascinating historical detail...definitely one of my favourite books of the year. I could see the influence of other books that I love – The Far Pavilions, Gone with the Wind and Jane Eyre – so it's maybe not surprising that I loved this one too!
Zemindar is set in India before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Laura Hewitt, a single woman of twenty-four, is accompanying her newly married cousin Emily and her husband Charles Flood on a trip to India as Emily, at eighteen, is considered too young to travel without another female in the party. Laura is happy to accept the position of paid companion – her parents are both dead and she has no money of her own – but she is also aware that it may not be a good idea to be in such close proximity to Charles, whom she had been in love with herself before he turned his attentions to the younger, prettier Emily.
After a brief stay in Calcutta, Laura and the Floods travel to Lucknow where Charles is planning to make the acquaintance of his half-brother Oliver Erskine who lives a few days' journey away on the estate of Hassanganj. Charles and Oliver have never met but knowing that his brother is unmarried and seems likely to remain that way, Charles hopes to convince Oliver to make him his heir. On arriving at Hassanganj, however, it quickly becomes obvious that this will not be an easy task. As a zemindar (hereditary landowner), Oliver has been used to leading an unconventional lifestyle on his huge and isolated estate and is not the sort of man who can be made to do anything he doesn't want to do!
Laura and Emily are both fascinated by Oliver Erskine, though while he shows nothing but kindness to Emily, Laura finds him arrogant and annoying. But when mutiny breaks out among the Indian sepoys in the army and Hassanganj comes under attack, she begins to see a different side to Oliver. Taking refuge in the Residency in Lucknow where the British army is preparing to withstand a siege, Laura must decide how she really feels about Oliver and whether she can see a future for herself in India. First, though, she needs to stay alive…
There are so many things I loved about this book it's difficult to know what to focus on first, but I think I should start by praising Valerie Fitzgerald's beautiful writing. Zemindar was published in 1981, but I almost felt I was reading something written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. Laura's story is told in the first person and her narrative voice sounds exactly as the voice of a 19th century woman should sound. The descriptions of India – the landscape, the culture, the contrast between life in the British colonial communities and the mofussil (the rural areas) – are stunning too.
The story takes place during a turbulent time in the history of British India, but don't expect this to be a fast-paced novel – some parts are very slow allowing time for character development and fleshing out of the historical background. No previous knowledge is needed as we have the opportunity to learn along with Laura as the events leading up to the Indian Rebellion unfold. Later in the book, when the British begin to crowd into the poorly-fortified Residency for safety there are some quite graphic descriptions of the brutality and atrocities committed by both sides as Lucknow finds itself under siege and tales of even greater horrors suffered by those in Cawnpore reach Laura's ears. Obviously we are seeing things from a British perspective but there's some sympathy for the Indian point of view as well; having spent most of his life at Hassanganj, Oliver understands India and its people in a way that most of the other characters don't and he tries to pass this understanding on to Laura.
The relationship between Laura and Oliver is a lovely and poignant one which takes its time to develop and is not without its difficulties and misunderstandings. At times it reminded me of the romance in Gone with the Wind, though while Oliver is similar in some ways to Rhett Butler, the quiet, sensible Laura is more like Jane Eyre than Scarlett O'Hara. Because I liked Laura and Oliver so much I was completely absorbed in their story and hoping for a happy ending for them both – it was not at all obvious whether they were going to get one so I was kept in suspense right to the end!
I hoped I've made it clear, though, that this book is not a fluffy romance or a silly bodice ripper. The romance is only one element of the story and is sometimes pushed into the background while we concentrate on the history, the battles and the sieges. My only disappointment on reaching the end of the book was discovering that Zemindar was Valerie Fitzgerald's only novel. I know M.M. Kaye's Shadow of the Moon is set during the same period so I'm hoping to read that one soon and see how it compares. ...more
I don't know why I had ever been intimidated by the thought of reading Don Quixote. Yes, it's long (over 1,000 pages in most editions) and old (originI don't know why I had ever been intimidated by the thought of reading Don Quixote. Yes, it's long (over 1,000 pages in most editions) and old (originally published in two parts in 1605 and 1615) and a translation, but I didn't find it difficult to read at all. It's fun and imaginative and entertaining – and I loved it.
Don Quixote is the story of a gentleman of La Mancha who has spent so many years reading books of chivalry and romance that he has come to believe the tales they tell are true. Inspired by the heroes of his favourite books, he decides to become a knight errant and go out into the world in search of adventures. Renaming himself Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante, he convinces a neighbouring peasant, Sancho Panza, to join him as his squire. With Sancho at his side, Don Quixote sets out to right wrongs, fight duels and rescue damsels in distress, in the hope that his valiant deeds will win him the love of the beautiful (and largely imaginary) Dulcinea del Toboso.
As Don Quixote and Sancho travel across Spain they have one adventure after another, each one headed with a long and intriguing chapter title such as "Of the strange adventure which befell the valiant Don Quixote with the bold Knight of the Mirrors" or "Which deals with the adventure of the enchanted head, together with other trivial matters which cannot be left untold". As you read on, however, it soon becomes obvious that these 'adventures' are not quite as amazing as they sound and usually have a logical explanation.
Many people, even without reading the book, will have heard of the famous 'tilting at windmills' episode. There are many, many other similar episodes in the novel but this one appears near the beginning which is probably why it's the best known. If you're not familiar with it, on approaching some windmills in a field Don Quixote becomes convinced they are giants and attacks them with his sword:
"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.
"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."
"Look, your worship," said Sancho; "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that, turned by the wind, make the millstone go."
"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."
This is a pattern that is repeated over and over again throughout the novel: Don Quixote mistakes inns for castles and flocks of sheep for armies – and even when Sancho points out the truth he still insists that he is right. The castles and the armies must have been enchanted by great wizards, he says, so that they appear to be inns and sheep. As the story progresses, Don Quixote's fame spreads and he is thought of as insane and Sancho as an idiot. The response of some of the people they meet can be very cruel and it's quite sad to see how Don Quixote and Sancho are ridiculed, scorned and made the target of elaborate practical jokes. I wouldn't describe this as a sad book, though; in fact, it's a very funny one. The humour doesn't always work (being four hundred years old and in translation, maybe that's not surprising) but at times it's hilarious!
As well as the adventures and the humour, there are lots of songs, poems and ballads interspersed with the prose. There are also lots of stories-within-stories – almost everyone they meet on their journey has a long and tragic story of their own to tell – and many of these have no relevance to the rest of the novel. For example, a lot of time is devoted to the tale of a Christian who was held captive by Moors in Algiers and has escaped back to Spain – nothing to do with Don Quixote, but apparently based on Cervantes' own experiences. This is why the novel is so long and why you need to have some patience with it! Reading this book over a period of several months was the perfect strategy for me as the episodic nature of the story meant that I could leave it for a few weeks and still get straight back into it when I picked it up again. Breaking it up into small sections kept it feeling fresh and interesting so that I never felt bored or overwhelmed.
A quick note on the translation now. There have been many English translations of Don Quixote over the years but not really having any idea which to choose, I started reading the 1885 John Ormsby translation (in the public domain so free to download from Project Gutenberg and other websites) and I found it perfectly readable so decided just to stick with it. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that translation to everyone as it does use some archaic terms and feels 'old' but that's what I prefer when I'm reading an old book so it wasn't a problem for me. Whichever may be closest to the literal translation, Ormsby's description of Don Quixote as "Knight of the Rueful Countenance" just sounds better to me than, for example, Edith Grossman's "Knight of the Sorrowful Face". It's a matter of personal taste, though, so it's probably a good idea to look at a few different translations and find one that suits you before you embark on such a long novel!
Much as I enjoyed this book it did sometimes feel as if I was never going to finish it, so I was pleased to reach the end. I'm going to miss Don Quixote and Sancho, though, after spending so much time with them this year! ...more