The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M Yonge

The Heir of Redclyffe I was supposed to be writing about Kristin Lavransdatter today – it was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and today is the deadline for reading it – but there’s been a change of plan. For the last few weeks I’ve been engrossed in a completely different classic novel, so Kristin has had to wait. I’ve started reading it at last (and like what I’ve read so far) but for today, I’m going to talk instead about The Heir of Redclyffe.

When the elderly Sir Guy Morville dies, his title and his estate of Redclyffe pass to his grandson, another Guy. Being only seventeen years old, the new Sir Guy is taken in by another branch of the family, the Edmonstones, who provide him with a home and an education. With his generous, warm-hearted nature, Guy quickly wins the respect of Mr and Mrs Edmonstone, the friendship of three of his cousins – Charles (crippled with a disease in the hip), the beautiful Laura, and little Charlotte – and the love of the fourth, Amabel (known as Amy). In fact, the only person who doesn’t seem to like Guy is Philip Morville, another cousin.

To Guy’s dismay, Philip – who happens to be the next heir to Redclyffe – makes no secret of his dislike for him. Philip is a well-educated, confident and accomplished young man, and based on a long-ago family rivalry, is determined to disapprove of Guy, finding fault with everything he does. After Guy and Amy declare their love for each other, Philip decides to do everything he can to put a stop to their marriage. Meanwhile, he himself has fallen in love with Amy’s sister, Laura, but due to his financial situation he is reluctant to make their romance public and so he asks Laura to keep their relationship secret from her parents.

And that’s really all I want to say about the story, as it does become quite convoluted and I wouldn’t want to spoil things for future readers. I knew very little about this novel before I started it (although I remember that Lisa enjoyed it a few years ago) and part of the pleasure in reading it was wondering how things would turn out for Guy and Amy, Philip and Laura, and the others. Yonge took me completely by surprise once or twice with some plot developments that I hadn’t expected, one of which was very sad – although I would have been prepared for that if only I’d remembered that in Little Women, Jo March is found “eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe”!

I liked Guy – it would probably be difficult not to – and I also liked Amabel, although it irritated me that she is always referred to (by herself and others) as ‘silly little Amy’ when it’s obvious that she has far more sense and strength of character than anybody gives her credit for. I never felt that I really knew or understood Laura, but as for Philip, I found him completely annoying, arrogant and overbearing. He’s not a villain exactly (there are no villains in this book – only flawed human beings) and he does seem to believe that he’s acting with the best intentions, but those actions cause a lot of unnecessary misery for a lot of people. My favourite character, though, was probably Charles, one of the few people prepared to stand up to Philip and say what he thinks, while also trying to come to terms with his own illness and disability.

First published in 1853, The Heir of Redclyffe was a popular bestseller throughout the 19th century, yet how many people still read this book today? It seems that Charlotte Mary Yonge’s novels haven’t stood the test of time as well as books by other female Victorian authors, which is a shame as I found a lot to like about The Heir of Redclyffe. Maybe it’s too sentimental for modern tastes and with too much emphasis on faith and spirituality – not that any of those things stopped me from enjoying this book. I would definitely consider reading more of Yonge’s work in the future!

Mauprat by George Sand

Mauprat When I was looking for suggestions for books to read for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, Camille de Fleurville suggested the French author George Sand (a pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) and pointed me in the direction of her 1837 novel, Mauprat. Having never read George Sand before, I had no idea what her books would be like, but whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this!

The novel begins with a description of Roche-Mauprat, an abandoned château in the French countryside, once home to Bernard Mauprat, an orphan raised by his wicked grandfather and violent, brutal uncles:

On the borders of La Marche and Berry, in the district known as Varenne, which is naught but a vast moor studded with forests of oak and chestnut, and in the most thickly wooded and wildest part of the country, may be found, crouching within a ravine, a little ruined château. The dilapidated turrets would not catch your eye until you were about a hundred yards from the principal portcullis. The venerable trees around and the scattered rocks above bury it in everlasting obscurity; and you would experience the greatest difficulty, even in broad daylight, in crossing the deserted path leading to it, without stumbling against the gnarled trunks and rubbish that bar every step. The name given to this dark ravine and gloomy castle is Roche-Mauprat.

Mauprat is set in the eighteenth century, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and in Varenne an ancient feudal system is still in place with the peasants living in fear of the powerful Mauprat family, who rule over them with tyranny and corruption. One night Bernard’s uncles take a young girl captive in the woods and bring her back to Roche-Mauprat. Her name is Edmée and she is a cousin of Bernard’s belonging to another, more civilised branch of the family. Instantly attracted to his beautiful cousin, Bernard helps her to escape, but not before making her promise to marry him in return.

Unfortunately for Bernard, he didn’t specify exactly when Edmée will have to marry him. Once she is free of Roche-Mauprat, she insists that she cannot possibly become Bernard’s wife until he proves himself worthy. And so Bernard begins a seven-year struggle to gain an education and transform himself into the sort of respectable, well-mannered man Edmée is happy to love. How much of a man’s character is due to heredity and how much to the way he has been brought up? In Mauprat, we see that even a man who has had the roughest of upbringings has the opportunity to change through love, guidance and his own desire to improve.

The novel is narrated by a much older Bernard, who is entertaining some visitors with the story of his life, but apart from the first chapter, the book is structured as a straightforward first person narrative. We are with Bernard through every step of his journey, from his flawed younger self – rough, impulsive, passionate and uneducated – to the more refined, cultured man he becomes after being shaped by Edmée’s influence. Along the way Bernard encounters several other men – from the reclusive philosopher Patience and the mole-catcher Marcasse to the Abbé Aubert and the American soldier, Arthur – all of whom provide help and advice and teach him some important lessons.

We see Edmée only through Bernard’s eyes and this makes it difficult to understand her motives. I had a lot of questions about Edmée as I read. Why was she determined to keep Bernard waiting for so many years? Did she truly love him – and if so, at what point did she begin to love him? And if you love someone, shouldn’t you be prepared to accept them for what they are? Some of these questions are answered, to some extent, by the end of the book but Edmée still intrigued and frustrated me.

Mauprat is also interesting from an historical perspective. Bernard spends some time in America fighting in the Revolution (this is where he meets Arthur, the soldier and natural scientist who becomes his friend and helps to continue his education), while France is also on the brink of revolution and society is already beginning to change:

The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.

As I’ve mentioned, Mauprat wasn’t quite what I’d expected (the Gothic atmosphere and the amount of melodrama surprised me) and I don’t know whether it’s typical of George Sand’s novels, but I did enjoy it. Sand herself sounds like a fascinating woman too. I would like to read more of her books, so any recommendations are welcome.

Finally, I should point out that I didn’t read the edition pictured above, but it was the only decent cover image I could find. I read the free version available through Project Gutenberg, translated by Stanley Young.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair With my love of Victorian novels, I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Vanity Fair. I think, without really knowing anything about it, I thought it sounded dry and hard going; Lisa’s review changed my mind and I added it to my Classics Club list, but I was still slow to actually pick it up and start reading. I finally got round to it this month and am pleased to say that although there were certainly times when I found the book dry and times when I found it hard going, overall I enjoyed it.

The first thing I found on beginning Vanity Fair is that Thackeray, like Anthony Trollope and other Victorian authors, likes to talk directly to the reader, commenting on his characters and giving praise or criticism where necessary:

“And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.”

He never lets us forget that we are reading a novel and that the characters are puppets under the author’s control – but at the same time, I found them all very real and human. There are a few examples in Vanity Fair of people being ‘good and kindly’, but many more of them being silly and heartless. In a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” (which is debatable), it’s not surprising that the characters are flawed and imperfect. The most flawed of all is Becky Sharp, ruthless schemer and ambitious social-climber. From the moment Becky throws her dictionary through the carriage window as she drives out of the school gates to go and make her own way in the world, I knew she was going to be an interesting character!

Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley, is her exact opposite: quiet and gentle, sweet and obliging…and from a wealthy family. I liked Amelia – although she could be infuriating – but there’s no doubt that it’s Becky who makes things happen and keeps the story moving forward. Early in the novel, she sets her sights on marrying Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, and when this plan fails, it becomes clear that there is nothing Becky won’t do to get what she wants and to advance another step up the social ladder.

This is not just Becky’s story, though. Vanity Fair has a very large cast of characters, drawn from a variety of backgrounds: noblemen and army officers, merchants and servants. Most of them belong to, or are in some way connected with, the novel’s three central families – the Sedleys, the Osbornes and the Crawleys – and with plenty of subplots involving these three families, the story quickly becomes quite complex. Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was originally published as a serial and as a result feels longer than it maybe needed to be, but everything that happens has its place in the plot, as Thackeray explains:

“…my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history?”

‘Vauxhall’, of course, is a reference to the famous London pleasure gardens so popular during the Regency – and this will be a good place for me to mention that despite being a Victorian novel first published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair is actually set several decades earlier, in the Regency period. The Napoleonic Wars are always in the background, with some of the characters being present at the Battle of Waterloo.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic – I thought at first that it might, but in the end there were too many moments when I felt the story was starting to drag and too many times when I found my attention starting to wander. I did like it, though, and am glad I hadn’t put off reading it any longer!

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

This is the fourth book in Trollope’s Palliser series and continues the story begun in the second book, Phineas Finn. It would have been possible to move straight from one Phineas novel to the other, but in between the two there is The Eustace Diamonds, which I’m glad I read first as several characters and storylines from that book are picked up again in this one.

*Spoiler warning – If you have not yet read Phineas Finn, be aware that the rest of this post will contain spoilers.*

Phineas Redux At the beginning of the novel we learn that Phineas is now living alone in Dublin, his wife having died in childbirth. Phineas is leading a comfortable but uneventful life and misses the excitement of his former political career in London, so when an opportunity arises for him to return to England and stand for parliament again, he jumps at the chance. Soon Phineas is back in the House of Commons having won a seat as the member for Tankerville, but he almost immediately finds himself caught up in the controversy surrounding plans for the disestablishment of the Church.

The return of Phineas Finn to parliament also means that both he and the reader are reunited with old friends from earlier in the series. These include Plantagenet Palliser, now Duke of Omnium following the death of his elderly uncle, and his wife, Lady Glencora, the new Duchess. Madame Max Goesler, who had been a companion to the old Duke, is still part of Glencora’s circle and is pleased to be able to resume her friendship with Phineas. Meanwhile, Lady Laura Kennedy, the woman Phineas once hoped to marry, has left her husband, but Phineas knows that even though she is passionately in love with him, his own feelings have now changed.

There’s so much going on in Phineas Redux; now that we are four books into the series, the cast of characters is widening all the time. As well as all of the characters I’ve already mentioned, I was pleased to catch up with Lord Chiltern and Violet Effingham and to find that they are now a happily married couple. A young woman called Adelaide Palliser is staying with the Chilterns and one of the novel’s subplots centres around her as she attracts the attentions of two very different men – Gerard Maule and Ned Spooner. And a few characters from The Eustace Diamonds appear again too, including Lizzie Eustace, Lord Fawn and Mr Emilius.

I enjoyed meeting all of these people again and being back in the world of Phineas and the Pallisers, but it took a while for me to become fully drawn into this particular novel. There are some long political passages in the first half of the book, and some fox-hunting chapters too, which I struggled to get through. Then, somewhere in the middle of the novel, a murder takes place and from this point on I thought things became much more interesting. The murder is that of Mr Bonteen, a political rival of Phineas’s, and all the evidence seems to point to Phineas as the culprit.

Now, Anthony Trollope is no Agatha Christie, and we know from the beginning who really committed the crime, but the murder and the trial which follows allows Trollope to develop the relationships between Phineas and each of the other characters, some of whom have no doubts that Phineas is innocent and some who aren’t so sure. Phineas finds that his strongest support comes from the women in his life. Lady Laura wants to help, but is limited as to what she can actually do, and eventually becomes aware that while Phineas values her friendship, the offer he once made her is unlikely to be repeated. Laura’s story is a sad one, in contrast with Madame Max Goesler’s, who goes to great lengths to try to clear Phineas’s name and proves herself to be a true friend. And I love the warm-hearted Duchess and her enthusiasm for the causes she believes in.

After a slow start I enjoyed Phineas Redux and am looking forward to reading the final two Palliser novels. Next will be The Prime Minister!

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

“On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.”

The Road to Wigan Pier I am working very slowly through George Orwell’s books, having read Keep the Aspidistra Flying last year and Coming Up for Air the year before, as well as 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager (I should probably re-read those two one day). The Road to Wigan Pier is the first example of his non-fiction I have read.

Published in 1937, this book was commissioned by the publisher Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England, particularly in the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Orwell spent several months in 1936 living in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley while he researched the book…which turned out to be not quite what Gollancz had hoped for. When it was issued by the Left Book Club, Gollancz was concerned that members would be offended by some of the ideas expressed in the book and added a foreword in which he distanced himself from Orwell’s views.

The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two very different parts. The first half documents Orwell’s time spent in the north, staying with working class people and studying the way they lived. Orwell’s observations are honest, vivid and non-judgmental, and this is by far the most interesting section of the book. Although he was originally asked to write about the unemployed – which he does – he also writes about those who are employed but still living in poverty, and he devotes a lot of time to describing the working conditions of one sector of workers in particular: the miners. Orwell went down a coal mine himself as part of his research, in an attempt to understand what it was like, and the respect he gained for the miners is clear.

I found it fascinating to read Orwell’s descriptions of the houses he visited and stayed in: the layouts of the buildings, the furnishings and amenities (or lack of them) and the sleeping arrangements. The levels of squalor in which families with young children were living is shocking to read about. Here is one of the many examples Orwell gives of the notes he made while inspecting these houses:

1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft. by 10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal hole under stairs. Sink worn almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated at 4d. a day. Upstairs rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad — wall of back room cracked right through. Window frames coming to pieces and have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation ‘says they can’t do nowt’. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital — tuberculosis suspected. House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.

The Penguin Classics edition I read includes a selection of photographs so you can see what these homes looked like (although, curiously, most of them are pictures of buildings in Wales and London rather than the northern towns discussed in the text). Being from the north myself I feel I should point out here that, thankfully, things have changed drastically since the 1930s! The slums were cleared long ago and towns and cities have been regenerated; some areas are still suffering from the loss of heavy industry, and poverty still exists, of course, but not on the scale or of the type Orwell describes in this book.

The second half of the book takes the form of a long essay in which Orwell talks about his own upbringing as a member of what he calls ‘the lower-upper-middle class’ and how this affected the way he felt about the unemployed and working classes (he grew up, he says, being told that working class people smell). He goes on to explain how his attitudes began to change and to discuss his theories on socialism, the class system and left-wing politics. He also takes the opportunity to criticise the views of his fellow socialists, which is what sent Victor Gollancz into a panic. While I found this part of the book much less compelling than the first (I have to confess that I found my attention wandering a few times and had to force myself to concentrate), it was still interesting to read.

Because Orwell puts so much of himself into this book, it has given me a better appreciation of what he was trying to say about class and capitalism in novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m now looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London!

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore

A clan of murderous outlaws, a dashing highwayman, stolen jewels, family feuds, political intrigue, lots of beautiful scenery and a tender love story: R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 classic, Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, has all of these things and more. Set in the south west of England in the seventeenth century, it tells the story of John Ridd, a yeoman farmer, and his love for the beautiful Lorna Doone.

Lorna Doone John is twelve years old when his father is attacked and killed by a gang of Doones, a once noble family who fell out of favour at court and fled to an isolated Exmoor valley where they have since been leading wild and lawless lives. Being a child, there is no immediate action John can take, so he puts his desire for revenge aside and settles back into life at Plover’s Barrows farm with his mother and two younger sisters, Annie and Lizzie.

At fourteen, John has his first encounter with the eight-year-old Lorna after climbing a hill behind a steep waterfall and unexpectedly finding himself in the Doone Valley. Several years later they meet again as adults and fall in love, but there are many obstacles which must be overcome before they can have any chance of happiness. First there are John’s own feelings towards the Doones, and the fact that as granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone, head of the family, Lorna’s social status is much higher than that of a humble farmer like John. To complicate things further, the brutal and violent Carver Doone intends to marry Lorna himself and will let nothing stand in his way.

I could tell from the beginning that I was going to enjoy Lorna Doone. It’s just the sort of classic I love! I suppose this could technically be classed as a re-read as I did own an abridged version of the book as a child, but I can barely remember reading it and huge chunks of the original must have been missing anyway (the full, unabridged version has more than 700 pages). I can only regret that it has taken me so long to decide to try it again as an adult.

Lorna Doone takes place during the final years of the reign of Charles II, the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and the Bloody Assizes which followed. If you don’t know much about this period of history it might be worth briefly reading up on it first, to gain an understanding of the novel’s historical context, but don’t worry – it’s easy enough to follow the story of John and Lorna even without this knowledge. As our narrator, John is the character we get to know best, following him as he grows from a child into a man. His narrative voice is honest, down-to-earth and often humorous. Lorna, though, is a typical Victorian heroine – beautiful, delicate, gentle, passive, and with a tendency to faint and swoon. I didn’t dislike her, but I preferred John’s two sisters: Annie, who has a romance of her own with the highwayman Tom Faggus (who is based on a real person, and whose horse, Winnie, is a great character in her own right), and the intelligent, sharp-tongued Lizzie.

There are lots of other characters, of course, all of whom play an important role in the story. These include Reuben Huckaback and his granddaughter, Ruth, who wants John to marry her; Lorna’s maid Gwenny Carfax, daughter of a Cornish miner; Counsellor Doone, the clever, scheming father of Carver; and Jeremy Stickles, the King’s messenger, who provides a link with London and the court. I should warn you that some of the characters speak in a strong dialect (for example, “there be a dale of faighting avore thee. Best wai to begin gude taime laike. Wull the geatman latt me in, to zee as thee hast vair plai, lad?”) but this is restricted mainly to one or two of the Ridds’ servants – as in many Victorian novels, dialect is used as an indication of class.

Blackmore devotes a lot of time to telling us about daily life at Plover’s Barrows and the things that are important to John and to his family, such as bringing in the harvest, fishing for loaches in the river and surviving a bad winter. I couldn’t help being reminded of Thomas Hardy – another author with a lot of affection for the countryside and country life. Doing a bit of research online, I was interested to discover that Hardy had read Lorna Doone in 1875 and wrote a letter to Blackmore, mentioning “the kindred sentiment between us in so many things”. Lorna Doone is set in Somerset and Devon and there are lots of vivid descriptions of the beautiful landscapes. I particularly loved reading about John Ridd’s adventures in the secluded, hidden valley of the Doones; every time he enters it in search of Lorna, whether through the waterfall or the forbidding Doone Gate, it’s almost as if the reader is being pulled into another world.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lorna Doone and now I’m curious as to why it seems to be the only one of Blackmore’s many novels that has stood the test of time and is still in print. His others are available as ebooks and on Project Gutenberg, but before I investigate further I would love to know if any of you have read them and if so, did you find them worth reading?

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Throughout 2016 Ali of Heavenali is hosting a #Woolfalong – a celebration of the work of Virginia Woolf. Every two months there’s a selection of books to choose from and the theme for January/February is ‘getting started with a famous Woolf novel – To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway’. As I hadn’t read either of those books (my previous experience with Woolf has been limited to Orlando, which I enjoyed) I thought I would start with her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts. The first, The Window, introduces us to Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their children, and a group of friends who have all gathered for a holiday on the Isle of Skye. As the novel opens, young James Ramsay is looking forward to a journey to the nearby lighthouse the next day – but only if the weather is fine, which his father informs him is not likely to happen. We then get to know each of the other characters – including Lily Briscoe, an artist who is working on a painting of the Ramsays, and Charles Tansley, a philosophy student – and we follow them over the course of a single day.

The middle section, Time Passes, moves the story forward ten years and shows us what has happened to the Ramsay family during that period (a period which includes the First World War). The Ramsay’s summer house on the island has been standing empty and from the perspective of the housekeeper, Mrs McNab, we learn how things have changed over time. Eventually, in The Lighthouse, several of the people we met in the first section of the book decide to return to Skye and make that long-anticipated journey to the lighthouse.

This is a novel that I’m glad I’ve read, but not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. That doesn’t surprise me, though – not being a fan of the ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing or of books with almost no plot, I knew before I started that this wouldn’t really be my kind of book, so I’m actually quite proud of myself for not only attempting to read it, but managing to finish it. There’s no doubt that it’s beautifully written (as Woolf herself is quoted as saying on the back cover of my edition, “I am making up To the Lighthouse – the sea is to be heard all through it”) but I sometimes struggled to concentrate and had to read the same page twice to be able to appreciate the beauty of the words.

I did like the way the passage of time was handled in the novel. The first and third sections are the longest; they each cover just one day (ten years apart) and the perspective constantly shifts from character to character, taking us through a stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and observations. The middle section is much shorter, forming a bridge between the two September days, and is a wonderfully poetic piece of writing.

Although I didn’t love To the Lighthouse, I did find a lot to admire. I don’t think Woolf will ever be a favourite author of mine, but I will probably dip into the #Woolfalong again later in the year, as I think I might be interested in reading Flush and A Room of One’s Own.