A terrific collection of stories, the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, some standard classics of the genre (Henry James's "The Jolly CorA terrific collection of stories, the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, some standard classics of the genre (Henry James's "The Jolly Corner," WW Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," Charles Dickens's "The Signal-man") and a bunch of lesser-known stories. There isn't a story here that's not worth reading; the weakest selection is Lafcadio Hearns's "Nightmare-Touch," which isn't really a story but a kind of memoir and far from being Hearns's best work. Fitz-james O'Brien (great name) is new to me, and his "What Was It?" is creepy fun.I liked Edward Bulwer Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" a lot; it has a lighter touch than some of his work. MR James is consistently wonderful, and "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" generates a genuine sense of the uncanny. I hadn't read Mary Austin before, and her "The Readjustment" is subtle and moving in its evocation of the complex, ambiguous feelings when death ends a not very happy marriage. The volume ends with Edith Wharton's "Afterword," about Americans abroad confronting history; they're focussed on the history they have bought their way into, the thrilling and foreign history of England, but what gets them into trouble is their own history that they think they've turned their back on (the reluctance of Americans to face their own troubling history, the pretence that they are exempt from the dangers of history, seems particularly relevant right now). All in all, a collection worth dipping into if you like short stories, especially of a ghostly variety....more
Many aspects of this book will be hard for 21st-century readers to take. In particular, its insistence on the need, especially but not only for women, Many aspects of this book will be hard for 21st-century readers to take. In particular, its insistence on the need, especially but not only for women, to deny one's wishes and dreams and preferences in service to higher ideals of service and duty to others, will rub a lot of people the wrong way. But as a window into ideals of Victorian family life and the ways in which those ideals both fostered and limited certain ways of being in the world, it's both invaluable and fascinating. Yonge was an enormously popular and prolific author, and reading the work of authors who were read with great pleasure in their day but who have not worn well because their styles and values fit badly with our own is tremendously useful in understanding how different the past genuinely was, how values and worldviews have changed. If we read only those texts that fit with our values and worldview, that make easy sense to us, we lose the opportunity to think through both our assumptions and the ways in which earlier periods genuinely thought differently....more
Judith Flanders writes wonderfully readable social history, particularly enjoyable for people who like Victorian fiction and want to enrich their readJudith Flanders writes wonderfully readable social history, particularly enjoyable for people who like Victorian fiction and want to enrich their reading of the novels with a more informed sense of the world the characters are living in. I particularly like her emphasis on ordinary lived experience. Here she concentrates on the experience of living in London, focussing on people in public spaces (thus not duplicating the material in her earlier books on domestic life and consumption)--on moving about the streets, on the sensory overload of everyday life in the city....more
Eakins is an artist I had, at best, vaguely heard of. This biography not only narrates his difficult life very well, it also shows how the conflicts tEakins is an artist I had, at best, vaguely heard of. This biography not only narrates his difficult life very well, it also shows how the conflicts that marked his career (by his later years he was basically blacklisted by the American art establishment) were largely the product of narrowing conceptions of morality in the United States (he was a passionate proponent of the nude as the foundation of art training and practice, something that other Americans insisted on seeing as narrowly and dangerously sexual [the more things change...]), as well as to competing notions of what art education and art itself were for. One conception of art (one largely shared by the well-bred elites who acted as patrons) saw it as ennobling, pleasant, an ornament to life--something for ladies to dabble in before they were married, for well-bred people to decorate their homes tastefully and display their respectable cultural capital. This set of values Eakins utterly--and quite tactlessly--rejected. Another group--a small one but increasing in numbers and influence towards the end of the century, especially in Paris, where Eakins trained--valued spontaneity, emotion, expression; Eakins did train in Paris, but he just missed the development of expressionism and found their values and their approach to art deeply uncongenial. As he aged, a number of his students found his insistence on deep knowledge of anatomy and mathematically informed perspective old-fashioned and limited. Eakins' uncompromising realism, his attempt to capture a kind of scientific truth about the visible world and, especially, the body, was largely unappreciated in his day but has since made him one of the most admired artists in the United States....more
Rereading this book has convinced me that this book is a masterpiece. So beautifully and complexly structured, so full of clear-eyed depiction of suffRereading this book has convinced me that this book is a masterpiece. So beautifully and complexly structured, so full of clear-eyed depiction of suffering and loss. Standout sections: the slow disintegration of a marriage, as husband and wife bring out the emotional knives, and Carker's nightmare flight across France and England, only to confront the shadow he's been fleeing in a rural train station. Really, anyone who says Dickens is all sentiment and mush needs to read the account of Dombey and Edith tearing each other apart; no one knows better exactly where to stick the emotional knife than a spouse who hates you. No one who can understand and depict that kind of intimate torture is a mere sentimentalist. Dombey is a man utterly unable to live in the world and utterly unable to understand his inability because he embodies so much of what his world values and admires, and how can that go so wrong? How many ways can a man and a family go wrong? Wonderfully rich. ...more
I love Trollope's novels, but I didn't expect his first novel to be this good. The Irishness is not just a matter of exotic stage setting or condescenI love Trollope's novels, but I didn't expect his first novel to be this good. The Irishness is not just a matter of exotic stage setting or condescending comedy, as happens so often in English novels about Ireland. Thackeray clearly observed Irish culture and landscape and ways of living closely; he has an eye for foibles while maintaining the compassion for people caught in personal and economic traps that characterises his mature fiction. His characters are trapped in their broadly human and specifically Irish circumstances, and Thackeray is very good at creating our understanding of the complexity and extensiveness of their entrapment and their struggle against their limitations. He even manages to give his characters a distinctly Irish voice without descending into caricature or unreadability. There are some set-pieces, especially comic set-pieces, that I think drag out too long (like the horse race scene, but then I find horses of far, far less interest than Thackeray does), but Robert Tracy makes a good case in the introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition for their value: "The English novel assumes the possibility of social coherence, maintained by the mediating role of the middle class. It appeals continually to social coherence as a goal, even when depicting injustice or agitation. Its form reflects this coherence, with characters and situations subordinated to and integrated into the total work. The Irish novel, depicting a divided society, rarely achieves such formal coherence. It tends to be episodic, a series of encounters or activities not wholly integrated into a plot.... In this, as in its insights, The Macdermotts is an Irish novel.... In these episodes, Trollope virtually abandons the forward progress of his story to present comic scenes allegedly typical of Irish life. They are rich in comic observation, but irrelevant to his plot. But it is precisely in these episodes that Trollope is able to suggest the vitality of Irish life, and to reinforce the sense that Ireland is two countries, not one" (xxv). I like this structural reading of these scenes very much, even as I admit that I found them at times excessive. Probably the biggest difference between this and Trollope's more mature fiction is its tendency to melodrama, something highly characteristic of much Victorian fiction but not usually so prominent in Trollope....more
So, as I read it, there are at least three levels on which to understand the Dreyfus Affair, a complex series of events that convulsed France at the eSo, as I read it, there are at least three levels on which to understand the Dreyfus Affair, a complex series of events that convulsed France at the end of the nineteenth century. The first is as a story of a wrongful conviction, of a man accused, convicted of, and punished horribly for a crime he didn't commit. On that level, it reminds me of other, more recent stories of investigations gone horribly wrong. Investigators fix too quickly on a single suspect, get tunnel vision, start reading all the evidence, even selecting and manipulating the evidence, based on how it fits a predetermined narrative of guilt. Then, having locked themselves into this narrative, they start distorting and lying to maintain it. They do so not so much because they actively wish to convince others of something they know to be untrue but because they have convinced themselves so absolutely that something is true and made themselves victims of cognitive dissonance when faced with evidence that doesn't fit that they are compelled to reconstruct reality to suit what they believe and to avoid admitting, to themselves more than to anyone else, that they are disastrously mistaken. Later, facesaving and other less creditable motives kick in, too, but that's not usually where such stories of wrongful convictions start. The story of Alfred Dreyfus, convicted in 1894 of treason, fits this storyline very well. The fact that he was Jewish and personally unappealing to many (stiff, awkward, socially clumsy) made it easier to attach the story of guilt to him; investigators often fasten on suspects they consider wrong or odd or marginal for some reason, as they did here.
On the second level, it reveals fault lines in French history. The French Revolution had let loose all sorts of forces and, more than a century after the Revolution, many of them had not been reharnessed or stabilised. At the heart of the French state and of French society were a number of unresolved tensions: between the Catholic Church and the structure and meaning of the state, about secularism and anti-clericalism, about the purpose of education, about the meaning of true Frenchness, about the relationship between true Frenchness and those designated "other" (immigrants, Protestants, Jews, people of other ethnicities). What does it mean to be French? Who is a true Frenchman? How should true Frenchmen deal with threats to their Frenchness or with those who are not true Frenchmen? It is on this level that the opening chapters of Piers Paul Read's book make perfect sense and contribute to understanding the meaning of the story. Unfortunately, Read leaves readers to make these connections themselves; if you know the outlines of Dreyfus's story, these are pretty easy to make, but if you don't (and are reading the book to find them out), then you will have trouble seeing what these opening chapters, skimming over more than a century of history with no mention whatsoever of Alfred Dreyfus, are doing here. But so many threads of modern French history come together in the tangled knot of the Dreyfus Affair that an understanding of it is crucial to understanding the country. For example, the otherwise perplexing French insistence on a kind of radical secularism in public spaces and institutions, such as schools, makes so much sense against this background.
On the third level, the story is about the conflict between two fundamentally different world views, views we might label conservative and progressive,or right and left, or Republican and Democrat (if you're American). The former values religion and religious community as a force for social stability and health; distrusts change, innovation, or the notion of progress; looks to the past for strength, worth, and goodness; regards tradition as a source of strength and as an inherent good; values hierarchy, order, and stability; distrusts or resents the "other" and sees "others" as a threat to order, stability, and social coherence. The latter values the public sphere and wishes to keep it free of private matters, especially of private matters that could become coercive (such as religion); values progress, advancement, and change; looks to the future with hope rather than fear; regards the past as potentially burdensome, holding society and individuals back from pursuing the new and the improved; sees hierarchy as stifling, dangerous, and immoral; welcomes the other as bringing vitality and novelty to a potentially stifling or stagnating social environment. In the context of the Dreyfus Affair, the former describes the anti-Dreyfusards and the latter the Dreyfusards. This is why it makes sense to refer to people as anti-Dreyfusards or Dreyfusards even after Dreyfus's pardon. Their conflict actually had little to do with the man himself and everything to do with a struggle over how to make sense of the world and think about power and society; Alfred Dreyfus, poor man, became for many a convenient peg on which to hang these larger and largely incommensurable values. On this level, the story of the Dreyfus Affair remains enormously relevant to the world we live in today, because the powderkeg of tension that his conviction set off is still with us and we're still fighting the same basic battles....more
What Altick is really interested in here is how and why, for so many Victorians, murder played "a part in their imaginative lives that was far out ofWhat Altick is really interested in here is how and why, for so many Victorians, murder played "a part in their imaginative lives that was far out of proportion to its actual incidence." He traces the roots of the Victorian fascination with murder (and hence with ours, because we're just as fascinated with it as they were) from Gothic fiction, broadsides, ballads, and pamphlets through the development of the popular press and the vogue for sensation novels in mid-century. People at all levels of society turned to stories, both real and fictional, of murder.
By examining the Victorian fascination with murder, of course, he also sheds light on our own, because we're just as fascinated with it as they were. A glance at our either our entertainment or our news is enough to prove that suggestion. And, of course, the lines between entertainment and news are blurrier than ever; big murder trials feature on entertainment "news" shows, and serial killers compete with reality show stars for the front page of supermarket tabloids. More people can identify famous serial killers than can name their Member of Parliament. In this, as in so much else, despite our use of "Victorian" as a pejorative, we are very much like them. Altick doesn't moralise about that fascination, although he points out that stories of murder are often turned to moralising purposes; instead, he regards it with interest and an amusement born of recognition....more
Although it was published in 2002, this is the last of Sarah Waters's books I've read--that's all of them now. Time for her to publish a new book, I tAlthough it was published in 2002, this is the last of Sarah Waters's books I've read--that's all of them now. Time for her to publish a new book, I think. She's one of the best English-language writers currently publishing. Every summer I see lists of summer vacation reading suggestions and most of the books on the lists I have no interest in reading, no matter what the season. THIS is my idea of perfect vacation reading: intelligent, absorbing, intricately plotted, beautifully written, informed by a thorough familiarity with the period in which it's set, a familiarity that infuses every line but is nowhere obtrusive (of the historical fiction look-at-me-I'm-researching! sort of obstrusiveness). Part 2 (narrated by Maud) beautifully compels the reader to rethink everything related in part 1 (narrated by Sue), and part 3 (narrated by Sue again) does the same thing to both. I marvelled at the technical skill of the narrative structure, where both narrators reveal the gaps and misreadings of the other. Wonderful book....more
Interesting early example of a series detective, worth reading mostly for historical reasons if you want to encounter the roots of the genre. The prosInteresting early example of a series detective, worth reading mostly for historical reasons if you want to encounter the roots of the genre. The prose is often a bit purple, and the relentless highmindedness so characteristic of popular late-nineteenth-century popular fiction can get tiring for a modern reader....more