Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Guest Review: THE ODD WOMEN by George Gissing

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1893

Genre: fiction

Topics: marriage, society, women

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:

Another provocative read from Victorian writer George Gissing, this one focused on the role of women in society and the push-and-pull of the early feminist movement. The title comes from a phrase that one of the female characters says in the middle of the book:

My work and thought are for the women who do not marry – the “odd women” I call them. They alone interest me.

(Speaking is Rhoda Nunn who runs a typewriting/business school for middle class women who don’t want to/can’t get married and will need to work.)

As is the trend in Victorian novels, there is a dichotomy set up in the structure of the book: the group (mostly women) who believe that women should have more choices for their lives than just getting married, and then characters (such as Mr. Widdowson – a real pain) who believe that women should do what’s expected of them (i.e. what men expect them to do), and this age-old battle is a constant thread throughout the plot.

Here is an example of Widdowson’s (misogynistic) PoV:

Women’s sphere is in the home, Monica (name of wife). Unfortunately, girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish.

Basically, the plot concerns three groups of people: two women who are business partners in the women-focused business school (neither married), a family of sisters, and a few men who stray into the obits of these folks. A lot of the action revolves around the machinations and stratagies for the women to get married (or not married) to the right people (or not). It gets quite complicated in places, rather like a Venn diagram in terms of worlds colliding and overlapping with each other, but it’s realistic in that in the confining world of Victorian times, your friends and family did interact with each other a lot, primarily because that was who you met back then (due to convention, transport limitations, individual freedom etc.)

As mentioned, the story revolves around relationships and cultural expectations for gender: who should get married to whom, when… Monica, the youngest of the group of sisters in the novel, ends up choosing to marry an older widow (Mr. Widdowson of the quotation above) who ends up being a jealous and controlling husband for her. (Not a real shocker there, as he more or less stalked her during his “courtship” of her and eventually browbeat her into submission and marriage. Not a good start to a lifelong relationship, I’m afraid.)

There’s a rakish cousin involved “with a past”, and there’s scandals of the Victorian type, such as babies out of wedlock, “women of the street”, and substance abuse. Again, this novel is close to being a sensation novel, but just stays on the serious side of things most of the time. It’s well written, certainly, and representative of its time. After all the complex action that occurs throughout the novel, the ending was a bit of a disappointment, but those Victorians could be a bit heavy-handed with their moralism every now and then.

Gissing was a promising student in the late 1800’s, and won a prestigious scholarship to a forerunner of University of Manchester. However, he focused on more than just his studies (as people do), and ended up falling in love with an unsuitable orphan prostitute called Nell. He gave her money to keep her off the streets, and when his funds ran out, Gissing stole from his fellow students which didn’t go over well.

Gissing was expelled, and sentenced to a month’s hard labor in Belle Vue Gaol in Manchester in 1876.

He left for a year to move to the States, but was not successful so decamped back to England after a year or so. (This experience was influential in his novel, New Grub Street.)

Nell was still around, and they married a few years later. There’s a discussion about how true Gissing’s literary tales of his poverty are, but even if he himself didn’t actually live them, they seem to be accurate so perhaps it was through observation of others.

Eventually, Nell died of alcohol-related disease, and Gissing went on to marry another “unsuitable” working class woman who ended up in an asylum. (Not sure what role Gissing played in her being ill. He sounds like he was a lazy work-avoiding layabout to me.) And when the second wife was indisposed, there was a third woman who came into Gissing’s life and took care of the kids. (Gissing, it seems, was too busy being “scholastic” to help much with his family life.)

One interesting overlap is Gissing was friends with J. M. Barrie (he of Peter Pan fame) among others, and as Barrie himself had somewhat of a weird life, perhaps it enabled Gissing to see his lack of involvement as normal.

Despite my misgivings about Gissing as a responsible human being, he was a prolific writer and ended up published twenty-plus novels and short stories over his time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: CARMILLA by J. Sheridan le Fanu

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Original Publication Date: 1872

Genre: Gothic

Topics: vampires, homosexuality


Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Laura who lived in a beautiful castle in the middle of a vast and enchanted forest. Even though she had everything she could possibly want, she was very lonely, for her mother had died when she was a baby and she had only her father and governess to keep her company. Then one day there was a carriage accident in front of the castle, and a young woman named Carmilla came to stay with them, and Laura was happy--until Carmilla started sucking her blood.

Carmilla is the third Victorian vampire novel I've read in the space of a month, and wow... I really need a break. Not that Carmilla is bad, mind--I actually enjoyed it a lot more than either Dracula (review here) or Varney the Vampire (review here). For one thing, it was a lot shorter than either of those two novels. For another, it was also a lot creepier. But there's only so much sexual double-speak a girl can take. And I thought Dracula was bad! Take a gander at this paragraph from early in the story:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever".
Uh, yeah. How's it going, female Edward Cullen? Naturally, since Laura is a clueless innocent wergin, she's just like, "Welllllll, that was weird," and then moves on. One gets the sense that if she knew ANY OTHER females her own age, she'd be avoiding Carmilla. But the suggestion of lesbianism is pretty outre in Carmilla, way more so than in Dracula between Lucy and Mina. The excessive framing was also a little trying.

Aside from that, though, there's a fairy tale tone to Carmilla that makes it particularly creepy. Perhaps because it gives the impression of being targeted toward young girls, or maybe J. Sheridan le Fanu was simply better at setting a scene than Bram Stoker was; either way, Carmilla definitely conveys the sense of a romantic tale gone wrong.

Overall I think Carmilla is definitely worth checking out, especially if you've read Dracula. You can definitely see where Stoker "drew inspiration from" this book (Stoker was totally the EL James of his time). I kind of wish I'd read it before Dracula; but in any case it was pretty good, even though it lost me at the end with the vampire-detecting doctor.

Download Carmilla by J. Sheridan le Fanu from Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Original Publication Date:  1904

Genre:  Mystery, Folk Tales 

Topics:  Ghosts, Spirits, Japanese Culture

Review:  I spent a lot of time scouring Librivox before settling on Kwaidan.  I was looking for books about non-Western countries that were written in English so that I could add some multi-cultural action to this blog!  I found two books that qualified in my first search, Kwaidan being one of them.  While it's not written by a Japanese author, Lafcadio Hearn did read a lot of Japanese texts and spend a good amount of time in Japan.  He also was a completely fascinating person in his own right.

Kwaidan is a collection of many short stories, fables, and folk tales from Japan.  One of the best parts of reading folk tales is seeing the similarities and differences that exist between cultures.  For example, many folk tales from around the world seem to address the cross-over from living to dead.  In this collection, the story of Hoichi the Earless is the one that most stood out - Hoichi is a blind monk who is a master musician and every evening, he is called to play for a lively lord.  But Hoichi soon learns that he has been led to the graveyard every night and that his life is in great danger unless he can outwit the ghosts that haunt him.

Another story I really enjoyed in this collection was "The Dream of Akinosuke," which reminded me a little bit of The Life of Pi, mainly because readers are brought back to reality near the end of a beautiful and lovely story and are left mystified as to what really happened.

I tend not to remember the details and intricacies of folk tales very well.  I always enjoy the act of reading them, but I don't remember much about them after the fact.  Even now, the stories shared in this collection are fading from my mind.  But they were a treat to read, and the narrators for the stories were good at telling their tales.

One thing that was a little odd about this book was that the last three chapters were not really folk tales - instead, they were about insects (butterflies, ants, and mosquitoes).  Hearn gives some context as to the superstitions around these insects and then goes off into somewhat random tangents on his thoughts about each of them.  I'm sure I would have appreciated this in a book on natural history or science or, well, insects, but in a collection of folk tales, it felt a little out of place.

Overall, though, I am quite happy with this selection - it was fun to read about things that go bump in the night in Japan and listen to stories that were quite foreign to me.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: DRACULA by Bram Stoker

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Original Publication Date: 1897

Genre: horror

Topics: vampires, gothic, sex

October 17th, Ad:
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Starting October 18th, @heidenkind's Twitter stream:

October 20th, Blog post:
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books: Weekend Cooking: Food in DRACULA: "I don't drink... wine." It's not that I pay particular attention to food mentions in books (honest), but in some novels...

October 21st, @heidenkind's Twitter stream, continued:

November 5th, Blog post:
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books: Mina Harker and Dr. Seward: So In Love.: Warning: there is going to be a lot of capslocksia going on in this post. Sometimes, when I'm reading a book or watching a TV show, my b...

November 5th, @heidenkind's Twitter stream, continued:

November 5th, GoodReads review:
DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker

Unexpectedly light on the vampires, I have to say.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: The Third Miss Symons

Original Publication Date:  1913

Genre:  Moral Tales

Topics:  Single Women, The Importance of Good Cheer, Family, Societal Norms

Review:  This is one of those books that seems to have been written to serve as a Dire Warning against certain types of behavior.  F. M. Mayor writes about Henrietta Symons, an awkward girl who grows into a hard-edged young woman who in turn becomes a querulous middle-aged woman who becomes an isolated old woman.  Henrietta has had a bad temper her whole life, and this clearly has disastrous implications on her whole life.

If this had been the whole point of the story, it would have been depressing enough to read, but it probably wouldn't have made it into the line of Virago Modern Classics.  But Mayor used Henrietta to comment on many aspects of Victorian life, particularly about the lives of women.  Henrietta grew up in a very comfortable home where she never had to worry about money.  Thus, she went to school and had no real hobbies, studied without learning much of anything, and then... not much else.  She never married, but she was never in need of a job.  She had a lot of time, but she had no interests.  She could manage a household if she needed to, but no one needed her to do so.  She could visit friends, but she had none.  Henrietta's life devolved into one of isolation and emptiness, mostly because she wasn't good at anything and had no ambition to try to be better.

Early in the story, Mayor points out that most Victorian women in their late teens and early 20s  graduated from school and then spent a few years doing nothing but worrying about clothes and attending parties (I find it hard to believe that all Victorian women were that vapid, but let's ignore that for now).  And then they got married and settled into their lives as wives, mothers and homemakers and things progressed according to their natural order.  But that didn't happen for Henrietta, and so when the party invites stopped coming and it became clear she wasn't going to marry, there was nowhere for her to go.  There was no contingency plan.  There were just years of emptiness before her, and she had to find ways to fill them.

In some ways this book was refreshing because Henrietta didn't seem like she really wanted to be married for much of it, she just wasn't sure what other options were available to her.  And her family didn't tell her that she was useless or unnatural for not having a husband and children.  But all of that was implied, really - Henrietta was unmarried because she was unlikeable.  If she had been just a little bit nicer, she would have been married and life would have been much better for her.  Never mind the fact that her married sisters all had sorrows and troubles of their own - they were obviously much better off.

This was a tough read, obviously.  Lots of subtle commentary about the state of the world and a woman's role in society.  Luckily, the narrator for this one was excellent and the story is very short, so I didn't have any trouble finishing it.  Think I will steer clear of the heavy-handed Victorians for a little while, though!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: CRANFORD by Elizabeth Gaskell

Original Publication Date: 1851

Genre: Literary fiction

Topics: English village life, domesticity, gossip, friendship, community


Without melodrama, without even an actual plot, Cranford develops at the gentle pace you’d expect from an early-Victorian small town. Elizabeth Gaskell is the Queen of Domestic Life and from page 1 the reader is immediately involved in the small pains and pleasures of a group of middle-aged genteel women. With just a few anecdotes, she is able to build distinct individuals and I was often left with the vague impression I actually knew someone who, as Miss Matty and her candles, is obsessed about saving something or other, or who would defend his/hers favorite author as devotedly as Miss Jenkins’ did her Dr. Jenkyns (the dialogue in that scene is priceless).

I also found the narrator delightful. She’s the outsider looking in and has just the right amount of clever irony, like asking the readers if they would find some of Cranford’s eccentricities in London. My favorite:

The greatest event was, that Miss Jenkyns had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room.  Oh, the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window!  (…) We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper so as to form little paths to every chair set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet.  Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

What a great image, I’m sorry they didn't use that in the series!

Cranford is my fourth Gaskell after North & South, Wives & Daughters and The Life of Charlotte Brontë. In comparison it’s much lighter and I can easily imagine Gaskell having fun writing it. She avoided the major social convulsions and deep moral dilemmas of the others, but her recurrent theme of tradition vs. progress is still very much present in Cranford. Change in this village does not come through the arrival of rail line or a factory, but is more subtle. Almost every chapter is about how these women gently adapt to the developments around them, especially after the death of Miss Jenkins, the village’s bastion of tradition. Sucking oranges in company, burning old letters (why didn't the narrator offer to take care of them?!) had the scale of revolutions in the quite life of Miss Matty.

Don’t you sometimes wish that a separate story would be written about another book’s secondary characters? I get that a lot – the one that comes to mind immediately is Faramir from Lord of the Rings (one of my biggest literary crushes!). I got that same feeling about “Mr. Thomas Holbrook, yeoman”, my favorite character in the first half of the book. I would have liked to know more about his daily life, what he reads, his relationship with tenants and servants, but most of all, I’d have liked to see Paris through his eyes. I was very sorry to see him go so soon.

I had fun during my stay at Cranford. Not only was it a gentle book, full of characters you’d like to know in real life, but it also confirmed my belief that no one tops BBC when if comes to adapting classics. I still have the “Return to Cranford” DVD waiting for me on the shelf. I've been saving it for a rainy day.

Cranford and Mrs. Gaskell's other books are available at Project Gunteberg.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Curiosities: CAMILLE

Camille is a tragic love story about a courtesan living in Paris who falls in love with Armand Duval, an ambitious young man. This movie is based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas (which was first written in the 1850s), but is set in 1920s Paris and stars Rudolph Valentino as Armand. The sets and costumes are AWESOME. Definitely a must-watch if you're interested in Art Deco.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


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Original Publication Date: 1920

Genre: Mystery

Topics: detective, marriage,


Lt. Hastings is mooching on his friend John Cavendish by staying in his mother-in-law's house, Styles, for a reeeeally long time. Naturally something horrible happens. John's mother-in-law is poisoned! But who did it? Her new husband, whom everyone hates? One of her stepsons? Or one of her desperate dependents? Fortunately, Hastings' friend, Monsieur Hercule Poirot, just happens to be staying in the nearby village and just happens to be the world's greatest detective. So that was poor planning on the killer's part.

I had no idea that Agatha Christie's first novel also introduced Hercule Poirot to the world until I read Memory's review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles at Stella Matutina. I happen to love the TV show with David Suchet, and it's impossible not to picture him as Poirot while reading. But the book version of Poirot is even more awesome than the screen version! He's more bouncy and quirky and snarky.

what are you doing?

As for Hastings, he's worse on the page than he is on screen. He's petty, jealous, myopic, and he has the hots for his bestie's wife. That's just rude. Of course The Mysterious Affair at Styles is told from his perspective, so the reader never knows what's going on.

The only other Christie book I've read (so far) is Murder on the Orient Express; The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not as good as that book. There were some boring parts that seriously put me to sleep. But there were also really good parts, and the mystery was delightfully twisty. Poirot gathers everyone together in the drawing room at the end to reveal the killer, and I LOVE THAT.

Overall I think The Mysterious Affair at Styles evens out to an okay novel, especially if you like intellectual puzzle type-mysteries. Worth checking out for a mystery fan.

Download The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie from Project Gutenberg

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Guest Review: DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann

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Original Publication Date: 1912

Genre: novella

Topics: philosophy, obsession, logic versus passion

Review by Patty S.

I regard Thomas Mann as one of the more esteemed German writers of his era. He has provided enough material to mark his place in German literature, and his works are almost always taught at university. It was hight time, therefore, to read one of his better-known novelas, Death in Venice (I read it in the original, available through Project Gutenberg).

I knew of the plot of the book so I was ready to dive into a whirl of emotions. No - this is not how Mann writes. We follow the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a middle-aged man who is at the height of recognition as an artist and basically on the verge of going downhill. He tries to find inspiration anywhere, and this has to be Venice. From the beginning, I could not sympathise with him. Because the story is told by an unknown third person, I find there is too much distance between myself and the main character. While I can read about his struggle, it felt like reading a report on some unknown soldier in a far-away land. How much more impressive it would have been had I been reading Gustav's own thoughts and fears and expectations! That was a point I was really astonished with and it triggered a bit of research into Mann's point of view: It turns out that the story of this book is based on Mann's own experience. This put everything into a new perspective: did Mann deliberately want to "tone down" the connection between Gustav and himself? Was he afraid that if he had the protagonist talk for himself, he might have revealed more than he was comfortable with? And why should he be uncomfortable?

This is the second point: I see the despair of an man who has gained recognition by nurture when he sees a naturally beautiful boy. To me, this goes beyond an older man trying to find the youth elixir in the young boy - it's more of the feeling of insecurity that keeps us from feeling safe. We will always run the risk of being "exposed" because we don't feel at ease in our skin. We've accomplished great things with the respective effort, but we feel that it's all fake. It is when we witness someone who embodies all the qualities we would have liked to see in ourselves, that we lose our grasp of reality. Gustav has all the qualities that other people admire, yet he's not happy. He's searching for inspiration, he can find none, and resorts to moving to and from places, just to escape this feeling of convention.

This is the third point: while I said I would have preferred Gustav to talk for himself, I appreciate the insinuations the reader provides as to social convention. The story unfolds at a time where society imposed a number of guidelines as to how one should live. We can a glimpse from the Polish family, where the girls are made to look like nuns, while the boy is free to do as he pleases. While growing up, of course, he will also succumb to the pressure of society and will probably end up like Gustav. Gustav, who has "profited" from society, but who now realises that he has made a pact that can no longer be sustained. He sees how pointless all this masquerade is, and he escapes - only in spirit - by obsessing about the young boy.

How I wish that escapes of this kind were the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of those who need it. But there, even Mann knows the outcome: harsh and definite, he shows that there is no escape - once we get into acting our lives, we will keep on acting until the end. A challenging book, great in interpretation, but it left me wondering how Gustav really felt - how Mann really felt ...

Find Death In Venice by Thomas Mann at Project Gutenberg (German)|Internet Archive (English)