Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

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After reading Goodbye to All That, next in my To Read pile was a book that a good friend (who is currently living in the heart of Hardy country) recently sent me: Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales. This was quite a fitting follow up to my previous read, as Robert Graves mentions visiting Hardy in his autobiography.

Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

At this point, I feel I must make a public apology: I somehow managed to get through an English literature GCSE, an English literature A-level, and an English literature degree without reading a single Thomas Hardy work, which seems somewhat ridiculous. However, I did read Tess of the d’Urbervilles a few years back, which I half like and half tremble at the thought of. Tess is clearly a classic tale; evocative and memorable, yet it is also quite possibly the bleakest book I have ever read!

Still, I know several people who love Hardy’s works and who have recommended them to me, so a collection of stories seemed like a good next step. Plus, I was hoping that this 1988 collection might not be quite as bleak as Tess of the d’Urbervilles was.

However, if I mention that two of the seven tales in the collection feature a hangman, while others focus on disease, loneliness, and unrequited love, you will quickly gather that this volume was not exactly hilariously fun either. Let me give you just one example:

There is a perfectly good, engaging, well structured tale entitled “Fellow Townsmen”, which I was enjoying reading. It is essentially a classic will-they-won’t-they? type love story. However, being a Thomas Hardy story, this is how the reader is rewarded for his or her attentive efforts: after having read 43 pages of this tale, this is how Hardy concludes the piece:

[After many years, just when all external barriers to their love have been overcome] Lucy went herself to the Black-Bull, and questioned the staff closely.

Mr Barnet had curiously remarked when leaving that he might return on the Thursday or Friday, but they were directed not to reserve a room for him unless he should write.

He had left no address.

Lucy sorrowfully took back her note, went home, and resolved to wait.

She did wait – years and years – but Barnet never reappeared.

And that’s it. The end. “She did wait – years and years – but Barney never reappeared.” A true Hardy tale!

Actually, I’m being rather misleading with this review, as I did actually enjoy reading these tales a lot. There are some great characters and the stories provide fascinating depictions of life in rural towns and villages in the mid nineteenth century.

If you liked this you might also enjoy Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. And if you can stomach the relentless sadness, you might like to try Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

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I read The Moonstone a couple of years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and so I’ve been looking forward to reading The Woman in White ever since. I also found out that this is my grandmother’s favourite novel of all time, and as she is a well read lady, I figured it must be pretty special.

The tale is told by multiple narrators, in a similar vein to The Moonstone. Wilkie Collins himself trained as a lawyer (though never practiced) and he structures the narrative as a series of accounts, as would be given in a legal case:

…The story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offense against the law is told in Court by more than one witness…

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White offers a fairly long, meandering narrative, with new pieces of the jigsaw, so to speak, being presented by different narrators at different points. There are many twists in the plot and there is much suspense, often made all the more painful by the forced passivity of the central characters.

Highlights of the novel:

There is a great opening to the novel, where Walter Hartright, a young art teacher and the hero of the tale, is walking home late one evening, when he meets a mysterious woman dressed all in white, who is clearly much distressed. Walter is unable to get much information out of the Woman in White, however he manages to help escort her to a carriage and sends her safely on her way. Soon after this event however, Walter learns that the lady had escaped from an asylum.

This intriguing event is really well told – with just enough information to make us suspect that the Woman in White has been wronged and is in some kind of danger. This of course raises many question and ensures that our curiosity is well and truly piqued.

There are also some great characters in the novel too. There is the ever so pure and innocent (and to be honest, somewhat pathetic) Laura Fairlie, who is married off to the thoroughly mean and nasty Sir Percival Glyde. Then there is Marian Halcombe, Laura’s brave and intelligent half-sister, who some critics believe to be based upon Collin’s friend and fellow-writer, George Elliot. Then, best of all, there is Count Fosco – an almost comically overweight Italian, who is terribly cultured and charming, highly intelligent but also mysterious and menacing. He is truly a most memorably character – what with his bombastic speech, his eccentric habits and his seeming omniscience.

I have to confess that I felt the pace slackened somewhat in the middle, and I did find the helplessness and passivity of Laura and Marian at times exasperating, but overall this is a great mystery / detective tale. It is also quite bleak and harrowing at times. I mean, you kind of know that all will turn out well in the end, but there is a huge chunk of the narrative – probably three hundred odd pages –  in which the sisters are in serious (if undefined) danger, and seem to be able to do little about their predicament.  So, whilst The Woman in White is certainly well worth a read, for my money, The Moonstone is both the more accomplished and more enjoyable novel of the two.

Trivia: Wikipedia informs me that The Woman in White, published in 1859-60 “is considered to be among the first ‘mystery novels’ and is widely regarded as one of the first (and finest) in the genre of ‘sensation novels’.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Wilkie Collin’s other greatly celebrated mystery novel, The Moonstone.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

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It’s been a busy few weeks for me, so have not managed as much novel reading time as I might have liked. Plus I am also reading some non-fiction at present (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey).  However, as a little light relief, I did pull down my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the bookshelf the other day and have very much enjoyed re-reading this at odd moments (typically in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep – which, I suppose, is probably the perfect time to read Alice!).

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Okay, let me say upfront that if anyone reading this blog has not ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, then, well, quite frankly, you should! It is delightful; it is a classic; it is random; it is memorable; it is a perfect piece of nonsense and it is quintessentially English.

I splashed out on a nice hardback edition years ago when I bought my copy and it has all of the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel in it. I have included photos of a couple of the ninety-two illustrations below, which all fit so perfectly with the tale.

Lewis Carroll is the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), who was a Lecturer in Mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. It was at Christ Church, in 1855, while taking photographs of the garden of Henry George Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, that he met Liddell’s four-year-old daughter, Alice, and her two sisters. As Charles Dodgson spent more time entertaining these three girls over the following months (often rowing them along the river), he  composed stories for them, which ultimately turned into this much beloved children’s classic.

The genius of the tale is that mixed amongst all of the apparent oddness and nonsense, there is a wealth of wit, wordplay and philosophical questioning.

Here is a well-known extract taken from Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty:

‘…There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

 
I also cannot resist quoting at least a couple of verses from the brilliant nonsense poem Jabberwocky before I finish this post. So here are the opening two stanzas (and you’ll just have to read the book yourself to discover Humpty Dumpty’s explanation of the meaning):
 
 

‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’

Finally, some trivia: the poem that ends Through the Looking Glass is an acrostic of Alice Liddell’s full name.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky

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My goodness! It’s been a long time since I last posted anything. Apologies and all that – most remiss of me, etc., etc.

I am still alive and I have been steadily reading (work, family, general life, etc. allowing). And what have I been reading all this time? The intriguing, engrossing, psychological, philosophical, renowned, Russian, huge (my edition has 767 tiny font filled pages) and thoroughly brilliant novel that is: The Brothers Karamazov.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is a deep, vast and intellectually challenging novel. It is first and foremost the saga of one crooked man, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, and his three strong-willed sons: Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei. However, the tale is told over twelve books and, to be honest, contains a bit of absolutely everything: love, faith, morality, ethics, betrayal, murder, desire, patriotism, politics, philosophy, life, death, humour and tragedy.

In fact, it is such a vast work that any attempt on my behalf to outline the characters, plot and main themes here would a) take up far more words than is probably appropriate for a blog post, and b) still be insufficient to convey half of what this novel contains. However, I would point interested readers to the Wikipedia article on The Brothers Karamazov for a good overview.

One thing I will say is that this is a passionate, full-blooded novel. There is romance and violence and piety throughout, and all of it written with an essential honesty and vitality that is refreshing. Here is a short snippet from near the end of the book, where Dmitri and Katerina meet for perhaps the last time:

Thus they prattled to each other, and their talk was frantic, almost senseless, and perhaps also not even truthful, but at that moment everything was truth, and they both utterly believed what they were saying.

I actually had the day of work today and as I was nearing the end of the novel I intentionally took myself off to a favourite cafe this morning to enjoy the final chapters in a comfortable armchair with the odd cup of tea and toasted teacake ordered to sustain me. As I sat and soaked up the final scenes, the question did cross my mind: does life get any better than this?!

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Fyodor Dosteovsky’s The Idiot or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

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I’ve not read much in the way of  ‘detective fiction’ in my life, though in the last two or three years I have made a few forays in that direction. First, I was bought one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels (The Nine Tailors), which I thoroughly enjoyed, then not long after that, I read John Buchan’s classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was also good. So, when I read that T. S. Eliot had described Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as, ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels’ I thought I had better give the book a try.

And I’m glad I did; the novel is a real treat (in a comfortingly English country-house crime-mystery sort of way!)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The basic plot premise is that one Colonel Herncastle acquired the amazing diamond of the title under highly dubious circumstances during during the Siege of Seringapatam and then brought it back from India to England. Upon his death, the Colonel leaves the jewel to his young niece, Rachel Verinder, who is presented with it on her eighteenth birthday. However, that very night the moonstone is stolen – and the rest of the novel is taken up with the investigation into exactly what happened and who was responsible.

There is a plentiful ensemble of suspects: three Indian jugglers who, it is rumoured, have sworn to return the jewel to the Hindu temple from where it was taken; an unusual maidservant, who has a history of theft;  Rachel herself, who shortly after the theft begins to behave quite erratically; and a gentleman friend and guest, Franklin Blake.  After the ineffectual efforts of the local bumbling police, the renowned detective Sergeant Cuff is brought in to investigate. Sergeant Cuff is a great character and one that has evidently shaped many fictional detectives since; he is clearly very intelligent, but also quite remote; he always has much more going on in his head than he will let on to the other characters; and he has a few eccentric habits (in this case, an intense love of roses and a tendency to whistle to himself when he is thinking things over).

Every human institution (Justice included) will stretch a little, if only you pull it in the right way.

The novel contains many features which have become staples in the English detective genre: an English country house setting, a famed detective, a large number of possible suspects, many red herrings and plot twists, a reconstruction of the crime and a final denouement which reveals the least likely of characters as the culprit.

As well as all of the features mentioned already, the novel is also notable in that the narrative is told by several different characters. I particularly enjoyed the accounts from loyal family servant, Gabriel Betteredge, who is a brilliant, quirky, memorable character, with a penchant for turning to Robinson Crusoe not only as a source of comfort but also as a kind of guide to life. All very entertaining!

I eagerly look forward to getting hold of a copy of Wilkie Collins’ other much celebrated novel, The Woman in White.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

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After finishing my last book at the end of November, I decided that with some time off work coming up around  Christmas, I would take the opportunity to tackle a larger novel. This is what I choose: Tolstoy’s epic novel, Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I have to admit, that although I was looking forward to reading this, I also had notions of it being a fairly tough read. However this turned out to be a completely false fear, and after reading the last page this morning I can truly say that I was totally enthralled throughout.

An interesting point, which I discovered when reading the Introduction to my edition, is that whereas we think of Anna Karenina as one huge novel (it’s 817 pages in my edition), originally it was published in regular small installments in a Russian periodical between 1873 and 1877.  So the novel  is actually made up of many very short chapters (typically only 3-5 pages each), with Tolstoy moving from one storyline to another at frequent intervals. Often, just as I was getting really absorbed with the activities of one set of characters, he switches scenes and continues with one of the other story lines. So, what with all of these short, sharp chapters, plenty of  mini cliff-hangers, and the use of varying narrative perspectives, the novel makes for a very compelling read. In this respect I was surprised at just how ‘modern’ it felt.

Anna Karenina also covers an amazing array of themes: some topical and unique to its setting (e.g. farming reforms in Russia, the plight of the Slavic people, etc.), others common to all human experience. Love, betrayal, jealousy, marriage, family life, education, faith, society and death are all explored intelligently in the novel. These discussions never seem forced, but are always interwoven into the fabric of the narrative with great subtlety. Much is inferred rather than spelled out to us, and the contrast between the characters – especially between the two main couples,  Anna / Vronsky and Levin / Kitty, is striking as we follow them throughout the course of the book.  This is a master-class in realist fiction and truly a great novel.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

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A few weeks back I was with some friends in the park and after a time our meandering discussion turned to books. Before long, Thomas Hardy was mentioned, whereupon I meekly mentioned that I had never read one of his novels. A certain amount of huffing, puffing, face pulling and general indignation ensued, and I was encouraged to dig out Tess of the d’Urbervilles post haste. So, after finishing the slightly disappointing All Families are Psychotic, I did indeed dig out the old copy of Tess which has been sitting quietly on my bookshelves for several years.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

In fact, the full title given on the inside title page is as follows: Tess of the d’Urbervilles / A Pure Woman / Faithfully Presented By Thomas Hardy. Having now read this novel, I am struggling somewhat to know what to write about it. It certainly has some very well drawn characters in Angel Clare, Alec d’Urberville and, of course, in Tess herself (having read this, how could anyone ever forget poor Tess?). Hardy’s Wessex setting is also well developed and entirely believable and there are several dramatic and highly memorable scenes. All in all, this is a classic tale, very well constructed and well worth reading.

However, it is also the most desperately sad tale I have ever come across. The sense of unmovable fate and impending tragedy is woven throughout the tale, which makes it positively painful to read at times. I found myself totally drawn in to Tess’s plight, hoping against hope that she would be rescued, vindicated, saved, yet knowing all along that her path was set. Here is an excerpt taken from the end of the first phase, after Tess’s undoing at the hands of the cruel Alec d’Urberville:

…why so often the course appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. […] But though to visit the sins of the father upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: ‘It was to be.’ There lay the pity of it.

As you can see, I have awarded this novel a rating of “Very Good” and I would recommend it, however I don’t think I’ll be rushing back for more Hardy until I have read some happier tales.

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