The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

the-woodlanders I love Thomas Hardy but have been resisting the temptation to rush through his novels too quickly. I’m dreading there being none left for me to discover for the first time, so since reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 2010, I have been limiting myself to one or two a year. It’s been a while since my last Hardy, The Return of the Native, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to read another one.

The Woodlanders, published in 1887, is set in the small woodland community of Little Hintock. For generations, the people of Little Hintock have made their living from the trees around them. The timber merchant George Melbury, however, is keen for his daughter, Grace, to experience life outside the woodlands and so he sends her away to be educated. The novel opens as she returns to the village after several years of absence and finds herself looking at her old home through new eyes.

Although Grace is promised to Giles Winterborne, a neighbouring woodsman, now that she has become used to a different way of life she can’t help noticing his lack of sophistication, causing her father to question whether the marriage he had planned for her is still appropriate. Grace’s return to Little Hintock coincides with the arrival of a newcomer – Edred Fitzpiers, a young doctor whom Melbury decides will make a much more suitable husband for his daughter than Giles. Despite his good intentions, however, Melbury’s meddling only succeeds in making everyone unhappy in typical Thomas Hardy fashion!

One thing I love about Hardy’s books is that although most of them are set in his fictional Wessex, each one covers a different aspect of Wessex life, from the rural farms of Far From the Madding Crowd and the country fairs and markets of The Mayor of Casterbridge to The Return of the Native’s wild and beautiful Egdon Heath. In The Woodlanders, we see how the lives of the characters have become defined by the woods which surround them, we see Giles Winterborne cutting down trees and pressing apples to make cider, and we see his neighbour, a young woman called Marty South, stripping bark from branches and shaping wood into spars to sell for thatching. It’s the two outsiders in the story – the newly arrived Dr Fitzpiers and the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond – who disrupt the harmony of life in Little Hintock, and Grace who is caught between the sophisticated, cultured world they represent and the simple traditions of her childhood home and friends.

Although this book isn’t as dramatic or tragic as some of Hardy’s others, there were still some scenes near the end that moved me to tears and others that had me holding my breath – and I found the final page beautifully sad and poignant. Not everyone gets the happy ending I would have liked, but that’s true to life, I suppose, and I don’t really expect happy endings from Hardy anyway.

The Woodlanders was apparently one of Hardy’s own favourites; he is quoted as having said, “On taking up The Woodlanders and reading it after many years, I like it as a story best of all”. Now that I’ve read more than half of his novels, I have to say that I think I agree with him. It’s not as powerful or as heartbreaking as Tess or Jude the Obscure, for example, but I really enjoyed it and would definitely include it in my top two or three Hardy novels read so far.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

the-mill-on-the-floss Whenever I think about my favourite Victorian authors, George Eliot never seems to be a name that comes to mind – and yet I’ve liked everything I’ve read by her…Middlemarch, Romola and, years ago, Silas Marner. The Mill on the Floss is another one I can now add to this list; it was one of the titles on my Classics Club list I had been putting off reading and I really don’t know why. I didn’t love it as much as Middlemarch but I did enjoy it. It’s a beautifully written novel, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from George Eliot.

The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860, but set several decades earlier, beginning before the Reform Act of 1832. The story takes place in the fictional English town of St Ogg’s and at Dorlcote Mill which stands on the banks of the River Floss. The mill is owned by Mr Tulliver who lives there with his wife and two children, Tom and Maggie. He is keen for his son to receive a good education, so Tom is sent to school, but it’s nine-year-old Maggie who shows the most interest and aptitude for books and learning.

Remembering how much I loved reading myself when I was Maggie’s age and how much I value my 20th century education, I had a lot of sympathy for her when Tom’s tutor tells her that girls have a “great deal of superficial cleverness, but couldn’t go far into anything; they’re quick and shallow” or when she finds herself having a conversation like this one with her brother:

“Why, you couldn’t read one of ’em,” said Tom, triumphantly. “They’re all Latin.”

“No, they aren’t,” said Maggie. “I can read the back of this, – ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'”

“Well, what does that mean? You don’t know,” said Tom, wagging his head.

“But I could soon find out,” said Maggie, scornfully.

“Why, how?”

“I should look inside, and see what it was about.”

Although they don’t always see eye to eye (and despite Tom’s sense of superiority) Maggie and Tom do care about each other and their relationship is quite a strong one – until the day Philip Wakem, a lawyer’s son, joins Tom at Mr Stelling’s school. Tom dislikes Philip from the start, but Maggie grows very close to him and as the years go by they begin to have feelings for each other. Unfortunately for Maggie and Philip, their fathers have become sworn enemies following a lawsuit which has resulted in Mr Tulliver losing Dorlcote Mill. Maggie is forbidden to see any more of Philip, but when Tom discovers that they are still meeting in secret, she is forced to choose between her family and the man she is beginning to love.

There’s more to the story than this – a second love interest appears later in the novel and we also get to know several of Maggie’s aunts, uncles and cousins – but I’m not going to describe the plot in any more detail. I do want to mention the ending, though. It’s one of those endings which, when you first read it, is shocking, unexpected and not very satisfactory – but after you’ve had time to think about it, you decide it was perfect after all. That’s how I felt about it, anyway; I imagine other readers would have had a different reaction.

I don’t know very much about George Eliot as a person, but she writes so convincingly about Maggie’s childhood and about the ups and downs of sibling relationships that I wonder how much of it was autobiographical. These were my favourite sections of the book, but I liked, and had some sympathy for, the older Maggie too.

The Mill on the Floss is not a fast-paced novel and not a short one either, so it’s not the sort of book you can read quickly. I took my time with it, enjoying the beautiful writing, the descriptions of the town, the mill and the river, and the insights into life. And now I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Eliot’s books; I think Daniel Deronda will probably be next.

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

the-romance-of-the-forest If you were going to write a Gothic novel, what sort of things would you include? Dark forests? Ruined abbeys? Stormy weather? Wicked noblemen? Secret manuscripts? Skeletons? Well, you’ll find all of those and more in Ann Radcliffe’s 1791 classic, The Romance of the Forest. Radcliffe was one of the earliest pioneers of the Gothic novel and, while I can see that her books won’t appeal to everyone, I’ve now read four of them and enjoyed them all – although this one is not her best.

The story is set in 17th century France and opens with Pierre de la Motte, who has found himself in debt, fleeing Paris with his wife and servants, hoping to get as far away from his creditors as possible. Losing their way in the dark, they see lights shining from a house in the distance and Pierre knocks on the door to ask for help. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when the man who answers the door pushes a beautiful young lady towards him and begs Pierre to take her away with him. Pierre agrees and the family, with the addition of the girl, whose name is Adeline, continue on their way.

They find refuge in an old, deserted abbey and decide to settle there for a while, safe in the knowledge that their pursuers are unlikely to find them in such a remote and gloomy place. Inside the abbey, though, there are new terrors to face. The discovery of a skeleton, a rusty dagger and a faded manuscript point to a murder in the abbey’s history – and when the sinister Marquis de Montalt arrives on the scene, Adeline senses that her own life could also be in danger.

Ann Radcliffe is not known for her strong heroines and Adeline is no exception, so be prepared for some fainting and swooning and lots of melodrama. Having said that, she does have strong principles, and tries, in her own way, to fight for what she wants and believes in. Like Emily St Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, she also has a habit of picking up her lute and breaking into song from time to time (giving Radcliffe an opportunity to insert her own poems into the text).

I didn’t find this book quite as atmospheric as her others (certain sections of The Italian, in particular, have a darkness and an eeriness that are never matched in this book), but her descriptive writing is still beautiful:

Dark woods, intermingled with bold projections of rock, sometimes barren, and sometimes covered with the purple bloom of wild flowers, impended over the lake, and were seen in the clear mirror of its waters. The wild and alpine heights which rose above were either crowned with perpetual snows, or exhibited tremendous crags and masses of solid rock, whose appearance was continually changing as the rays of light were variously reflected on their surface, and whose summits were often wrapt in impenetrable mists.

I also enjoyed seeing the plot unfold in the final third of the novel, with revelation following upon revelation. There are some coincidences which are too convenient or too ridiculous to be believed and any big holes in the plot are explained away as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. These are things that would bother me in any other type of novel, but in an 18th century Gothic novel, they’re exactly what I would expect and so I was able to suspend my disbelief without any problems!

This is a weaker Radcliffe novel, in my opinion, so if you’ve never read any of her books before I would probably recommend beginning with a different one. The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance are the others I’ve read and any of those might be a better starting point.

Witch Week Readalong: Something Wicked This Way Comes

witch-week-2016 I read this Ray Bradbury novel for a readalong as part of Witch Week, hosted by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review, but I’m sure I would have read it eventually anyway. It’s a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while – mainly, I have to confess, because I liked the title. It comes from a line spoken by one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”. I didn’t really have any idea what the novel itself was about, so the Witch Week readalong seemed a good opportunity to find out!

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of two teenage boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. Not only are Will and Jim neighbours and best friends, they share another special bond: they were born just a few minutes apart, Will one minute before Halloween and Jim one minute after. They are inseparable, but they also have very different personalities – Will is the more sensible and cautious of the two, whereas Jim is more reckless and daring. The boys are thirteen years old as the novel opens one day in October when they have an encounter with a mysterious lightning rod salesman who warns that a storm is approaching.

something-wicked-this-way-comes That same night, a carnival – Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show – is heading towards Green Town. Will and Jim watch it arrive at three o’clock in the morning, excited that a carnival has come so late in the year. Their excitement quickly starts to fade, however, as strange things begin to happen in connection with the carnival and its sinister owners. When they spot Mr Cooger riding on a carousel while the music plays backwards, they realise they are witnessing something which shouldn’t have been possible, something which tells them that this is no ordinary carnival – and that their lives could be in danger.

I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, as it’s the first I’ve read by Ray Bradbury, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it. The writing style is unusual and took a while to get used to, but I found the use of language very intriguing. The streets are ‘footstepped’, for example, the rain ‘chuckles’ and ‘nuzzles’ at the windows, the people of the town ‘breathe back and forth’ to the carnival and laughter ‘walks on panther feet’. I’m not sure if I particularly liked the writing – the choice of words and the structure of the sentences are often so unconventional that I found it quite distracting – but it’s certainly one of the things I’ll remember most about this book.

I’ll also remember the philosophical musings of Charles Halloway, Will’s father:

So in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do, depending on the season and the need.

And the many wonderful descriptions of the library, where he works:

When rivers flooded, when fire fell from the sky, what a fine place the library was, the many rooms, the books. With luck, no one found you. How could they! – when you were off to Tanganyika in ’98, Cairo in 1812, Florence in 1492!?

Some of the readalong participants have discussed the fact that the two main characters (in the first half of the book, at least) are teenage boys and how the age we are when we first read the book could affect our ability to relate to the boys and their lives. Although I did still enjoy it anyway, I do wonder whether I might have had a different impression of it if I’d read it when I was younger. Later in the book, Charles Halloway begins to play a bigger part in the story, providing an adult perspective and bringing his experience, knowledge and wisdom to the fight against the evil forces of the carnival.

Good versus evil is obviously one of the major themes of the novel. A feeling of malice and danger hangs over the carnival from the moment it arrives and the people connected with it are both strange and sinister – particularly the blind Dust Witch who hovers over the boys’ houses in a hot air balloon in one of the creepiest scenes in the book. There are other themes too, though, such as life and death, age and the passing of time, the ties of friendship and the power of happiness and of love. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fascinating read and one which left me with a lot to think about.

Small and Spooky, edited by M.R. Nelson

small-and-spooky As it’s Halloween on Monday, I thought today would be a good time to tell you about the wonderful collection of classic ghost stories I’ve just had the pleasure of reading. It’s called Small and Spooky and the six stories it contains were selected by M.R. Nelson, editor of two other short story collections (she refers to them as ‘taster flights’), one of which – Love and Other Happy Endings – I read and enjoyed earlier in the year.

Three of the stories in this collection are by authors I already know and love, while the other three are by authors who were new to me. All six share a common theme – they all feature a child or the ghost of a child – but otherwise they’re all quite different. It’s difficult to know how much you can say about short stories without spoiling them, so I’m just going to give a brief overview of each one.

The first is The Marble Child (1918) by E. Nesbit, a favourite childhood author of mine. I remember loving her children’s novels The Railway Children and The Phoenix and the Carpet, but had no idea until recently that she had also written ghost stories. This story about a little boy who is fascinated by the marble child he sees in the church gets the collection off to a good start. Part of the story is written from the boy’s perspective and part from an adult’s which, as the editor points out in her notes, makes this story a sort of bridge between children’s and adult fiction.

The next story is a great one: The Wind in the Rose-Bush (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, an American author I had never heard of until now. The story follows Rebecca Flint as she travels to a small, remote town hoping to see her young niece, who has been living with her stepmother since her parents died. From the moment Rebecca arrives and sees a rosebush moving when there’s no wind, she knows something is wrong. I found it easy to guess what was going on in this story, but Rebecca didn’t know and I could really feel her growing sense of unease and confusion as the truth began to unfold.

Next is Their Dear Little Ghost (1890) by Elia Wilkinson Peattie (also another new author for me), which as you might guess from the title is not a scary ghost story at all. It’s actually quite a sweet and moving little story about a child who dies just before Christmas and her godmother’s love for her even in death. I found this one of the weakest stories in the book, but I still liked it and thought it made a nice contrast to the previous one, which was quite creepy!

The following story, Morella (1835), is by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is another author I love and I was already familiar with Morella (I think I read nearly all of his short stories and poems years ago when I was given his complete works as a Christmas present). This tale of reincarnation is not one of his scariest and I don’t think it’s one of his best either, but I can see why it was chosen for this collection as it does fit the theme.

The fifth story is another strong one: The Old Nurse’s Story (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell. I was convinced I had read this one before – it appears in Gaskell’s Gothic Tales which I borrowed from the library a few years ago – but when I started to read, I didn’t remember it at all. In this atmospheric story set in winter, a ghostly child haunts the Northumberland countryside. I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.

Finally, we have The Doll’s Ghost (1911) by F. Marion Crawford, another author I’ve never read before. This is an unusual story about a child’s doll which is broken and given to a dolls’ hospital to repair. Although I found this story a bit eerie, the ghost was a nice ghost, which meant the collection finished on an uplifting note! I would be happy to read more by this author.

These are six very enjoyable stories and perfect for those readers who, like me, prefer their ghost stories to be spooky but not terrifying! It was good to revisit Nesbit, Gaskell and Poe – and also to be introduced to three new authors, all of whom I’m now interested in exploring further.

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Small and Spooky for review.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

a-room-of-ones-own For Phase 5 of Heavenali’s #Woolfalong, we are asked to read some of Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction – essays or diaries. As I hadn’t read any of her essays or diaries at all until now, the choice was easy for me: A Room of One’s Own, her 1929 classic and possibly the book for which she’s best known. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books so I wondered what I would think of this one. Well, I thought it was fascinating! The edition I read had just over 100 pages but so much is packed into those pages that I feel quite overwhelmed trying to write about it all.

A Room of One’s Own is Woolf’s famous extended essay based on a series of lectures she gave at two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. In the essay, Woolf uses a fictional narrator – whom she refers to at various points as Mary Beaton, Mary Seton or Mary Carmichael, names taken symbolically from a 16th century Scottish ballad – to explore the subject of women and fiction. As a starting point, she states that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” and then goes on to explain why she believes this statement to be true.

For many women living in the modern day and experiencing a level of equality women in the past could only dream of, it may be hard to imagine a lack of money or a room of our own preventing us from writing if that is what we wish to do, but in Woolf’s day – and especially in the decades and centuries before that – these things could be very real obstacles. I’m not sure I completely agree that women must have a certain amount of money and their own room to be able to write, but Woolf’s arguments are very thought-provoking and make a lot of sense.

Near the beginning of the book, we see the narrator attempting to enter a library and being turned away because it is for men only – ladies aren’t admitted unless they are accompanied by a man or have a letter of introduction. This is just one illustration of how women in the past were denied the same rights and freedoms which were available to men. Obviously this made it more difficult for them to bring the same depth of knowledge and experience to their writing that a man would have – and also much more difficult to become financially independent. Living in poverty, Woolf explains, meant that women were more likely to be deprived of a private space in which to sit and write and the spare time in which to do it.

Here I am asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night. They had no money evidently; according to Professor Trevelyan they were married whether they liked it or not before they were out of the nursery, at fifteen or sixteen very likely. It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare…

The narrator then goes on to imagine that Shakespeare had a sister, Judith, who was just as talented as her brother but had no opportunity to use her ability. She wasn’t sent to school, was given no encouragement to read and write, and ran away from home when her father tried to force her into an early marriage. Judith’s story is tragic, and Woolf uses it to show that talent alone isn’t enough; without equality and opportunity, it would have been impossible for Shakespeare’s sister to achieve Shakespeare’s success.

Another aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed was Woolf’s discussion of the work of four female authors I love – Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot and Jane Austen – exploring and comparing the ways in which their lifestyles and the opportunities open to them may have affected their writing. She talks about Jane Austen’s lack of a separate study to work in and how she tried to hide her manuscripts when a visitor walked into the room, and about Charlotte Brontë’s anger at being interrupted during the writing of Jane Eyre and how this influenced her writing:

She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience — she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve.

As I’ve mentioned, this is a short book, but despite that I decided to read it slowly – the six chapters over six evenings – because I wanted to have time to think about what I’d read and to digest all the ideas and issues Woolf raises in each chapter. I would definitely recommend this approach to reading the book – and I would also recommend keeping a pen and paper beside you as you may find yourself desperate to make a note of your favourite passages as you read!

So far this year I’ve read three books by Virginia Woolf; To the Lighthouse just wasn’t for me, but I loved this one and Flush. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll be taking part in the final phase of the #Woolfalong – I’ll try to, if I have time – but if not, I’m sure I’ll be exploring more of Woolf’s work eventually anyway. I’ve already read Orlando, which I enjoyed, but any other recommendations would be welcome.

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas

Louise de la Valliere Louise de la Vallière is the fourth book (or in some cases, the fifth – more on that later) in the series of d’Artagnan novels which began with The Three Musketeers. Looking at other readers’ reviews, this seems to be one of the least popular books in the series and I can understand why, even though I did enjoy it.

In Louise de la Vallière, the story is picked up directly where the previous book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, ended and follows all the romance and intrigue of the court of Louis XIV. As the novel opens, the king’s brother, Philippe (known as Monsieur), has just married Charles II’s sister, Henrietta of England (Madame). An instant attraction has formed between the king and his new sister-in-law, so to avert suspicion they decide that Louis will pretend to turn his attentions to Louise de la Vallière, Madame’s young lady-in-waiting. Things don’t go exactly according to plan, however, and the king and Louise end up really falling in love with each other, breaking the heart of poor Raoul, the Vicomte of Bragelonne, who was hoping to marry Louise.

Apart from a few brief scenes here and there, there’s an almost total absence in Louise de la Vallière of the swashbuckling action and adventure which formed such a large part of the earlier volumes of the series. This could be disappointing if you’re expecting more of the same, but I do think the antics of Louis’ court are fun to read too. It’s amusing to watch the king’s desperate attempts to steal some time alone with Louise – passing letters hidden in handkerchiefs, climbing ladders to reach her window and installing secret staircases in her room!

What does all of this have to do with d’Artagnan, you may be asking? Well, the answer is – very little. He does appear from time to time, but this is not really his story. We don’t see much of Athos or Porthos either, although what we do see assures us that they are still the same characters we know and love: Athos is still noble and honourable, while Porthos is still the gentle giant, as good-natured and trusting as ever. I didn’t care for Aramis in this book, though – he’s preoccupied with a mysterious prisoner in the Bastille and when we do see him, he’s plotting and scheming, reluctant to confide in his fellow musketeers. His storyline ends on a cliffhanger which has left me wanting to start The Man in the Iron Mask as soon as possible!

Now, a note on the structure of this series. The first two books are The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, which I have written about in previous posts. The third book was originally intended to be one very long novel, but most publishers now split it into three: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, then Louise de la Vallière and finally The Man in the Iron Mask. Some versions (such as the free Project Gutenberg ebooks – see the notes here), split the chapters differently, including an extra volume, Ten Years Later, between The Vicomte and Louise. Be sure to check the editions you’re reading or you could miss part of the story.

This may not have been my favourite Musketeer novel, then, but I did still find a lot to like about it and can’t wait to finish the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.