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.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell Now that I’m starting to come towards the end of my Classics Club list, I’m having to tackle some of the books I’ve been putting off reading since I put the list together in 2012. I’m really not sure why I haven’t picked up Wives and Daughters until now; I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Gaskell (North and South, Sylvia’s Lovers, The Moorland Cottage, Cranford and Mr Harrison’s Confessions) so it seemed likely that I would enjoy this one too. And did I? Yes, of course I did!

Wives and Daughters is set in a village in England in the 1830s, a world similar to the one Gaskell created in Cranford, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Molly Gibson, our heroine, is the daughter of the village doctor; her mother is dead and, as an only child, Molly is very close to her father. The two have a strong relationship built around love and trust, but the harmony of their little household is disrupted when Mr Gibson decides to marry again. His new wife is the beautiful widow, Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, former governess to the Duke of Cumnor’s children, and he hopes she will provide the seventeen-year-old Molly with the motherly guidance he is unable to give. Unfortunately, Hyacinth proves to be a selfish, manipulative woman and she and Molly don’t always see eye to eye.

As well as a new stepmother, Molly also has a new stepsister – Cynthia. Although she and Cynthia have very different personalities, the two girls become good friends – and it is this friendship which will get Molly into trouble when she tries to help Cynthia find a way out of her tangled love affairs. Meanwhile, there’s a romance for Molly too but it’s quite a subtle one and also quite one-sided, as the man she loves appears to be in love with someone else, so poor Molly has to keep her feelings to herself.

Wives and Daughters is a very long novel, with more than 700 pages, and there were times when it seemed to be going on forever, but I didn’t really mind because once I’d been pulled into Molly’s world I didn’t want to leave it again. I didn’t want to leave the characters behind either – they were drawn with so much care and in so much depth. I loved Molly for her honesty, intelligence and kind heart, and Cynthia, with all her charms, flaws and vulnerabilities, was also an interesting character. But I particularly enjoyed reading about the family at nearby Hamley Hall: the old country squire, his invalid wife, and their two sons, Osborne and Roger.

First published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, this was Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel, sadly left unfinished at the time of her death. I was aware that it was unfinished before I started to read, so I was prepared to be left feeling frustrated (as I was when I read Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood) but luckily this wasn’t the case. At the point where the novel finished I could see the direction in which the plot was heading and I was satisfied that, if the story had continued, things would have worked out in the way that I’d hoped.

Gaskell has a style all of her own, but I think this particular book would appeal to readers of Jane Austen; I could see some similarities in the characterisation, the dialogue and the shape of the plot. So far all of the books I’ve read by Gaskell have been quite different from each other. Wives and Daughters is probably my favourite so far, but I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels I haven’t read yet – Ruth and Mary Barton.

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush Phase 4 of Ali’s year-long #Woolfalong involves reading biographies by or about Virginia Woolf during the months of July and August. I didn’t think I would have time to participate, but Flush, Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, is a very short book and I have managed to fit it in before the end of the two month period. Flush is a book I’d been interested in reading for a long time and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed!

Flush, a red cocker spaniel, is given to the poet Elizabeth Barrett by her friend Mary Russell Mitford. Unmarried and an invalid, Elizabeth is confined to her bedroom in the family home on London’s Wimpole Street, where she lives with her father and siblings. Flush immediately forms a strong bond with his new mistress and although at first he misses the open spaces of his old home with the Mitfords, he quickly becomes spoiled and pampered, happy to stay curled up at Elizabeth’s feet in front of the fire. It’s not long, however, before Flush’s happiness is threatened by the arrival of another contender for Elizabeth Barrett’s love: the poet Robert Browning.

As Browning’s visits to the Barratt home become more frequent, Flush is forced to deal with new emotions he has never experienced before: jealousy and rivalry. When Barrett and Browning elope, Flush goes with them to Italy. Here Elizabeth finds a new strength and independence away from the control of her father and the stifling seclusion of her Wimpole Street bedroom – and in one of many parallels between the life of woman and dog, Flush rediscovers some of the freedom he had enjoyed as a young puppy.

Flush is a wonderfully creative combination of fiction and non-fiction. For factual information, Woolf draws on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s two poems about her dog and also the letters of Elizabeth and Robert, some of which she quotes from in the text. From a fictional point of view, the book is written from Flush’s perspective, imagining how a dog might feel and behave in a variety of different situations. The result is a book which is fascinating, unusual and a delight to read!

Flush works on at least three levels. First, it’s exactly what it appears to be: the biography of a dog, taking us from puppyhood to adulthood and old age, immersing us in a canine world – a world of intriguing scents and mysterious sounds. It’s also the biography of two poets, exploring the lives of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning through a dog’s eyes. Finally, it gives Woolf a chance to examine various aspects of class and society. For example, on his occasional outings in London with Wilson, the maid, Flush notices that not all dogs are equal:

But the dogs of London, Flush soon discovered, are strictly divided into different classes. Some are chained dogs; some run wild. Some take their airings in carriages and drink from purple jars; others are unkempt and uncollared and pick up a living in the gutter. Dogs therefore, Flush began to suspect, differ; some are high, others low…

If this book sounds of any interest to you at all, then I would highly recommend giving it a try. It’s insightful, amusing and entertaining and I think it might be a good place to start for a reader who has never read Woolf before; I found it a much lighter and easier read than To the Lighthouse, for example, which I read earlier this year. Although I haven’t managed to take part in every phase of the Woolfalong, there are still another two to come so I may be tempted to read more Woolf before the year is over!

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

Prince of Foxes This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin a few months ago; I’m a day late posting this review (the deadline was yesterday) but I did actually finish the book in time. It has taken me a while to decide what to say about this wonderful novel and I probably still haven’t done it justice! I had at least three reasons for adding Prince of Foxes to my Classics Club list in the first place: it’s a classic historical fiction/adventure novel published in 1947 and set in Renaissance Italy, a period I love; it sounded very similar to the work of Rafael Sabatini, an author I love; and it came highly recommended by The Idle Woman, whose blog I love. It seemed inevitable, then, that I would love the book itself – and fortunately I did.

In 1500, when Prince of Foxes begins, Italy is divided into a collection of city-states which are constantly at war, leaving them vulnerable to foreign invasion. Our hero, Andrea Orsini, dreams of seeing the country united under one ruler and has entered the service of the ruthless and powerful Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. We first meet Andrea in Venice, preparing to undertake a mission for the Borgias. He has been given the task of travelling to Ferrara to try to negotiate a marriage between Alfonso d’Este, son of Duke Ercole, and Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare’s sister. When the d’Estes hear about this, however, they decide to have Andrea killed in Venice before he can reach Ferrara – but the murder attempt is foiled and the hired assassin, Mario Belli, ends up switching sides and joining Andrea on his journey.

If he is successful, the Borgias have promised to reward Andrea with the strategically placed hill town of Città del Monte, and the town’s ruling lady, the beautiful Camilla degli Baglione, as his wife. The problem is, Camilla’s husband, the elderly Lord Varano, is still alive and must be disposed of before Andrea will be able to claim his reward. As Andrea gets to know both Varano and Camilla, he finds that he’s not at all sure he’ll be able to betray them into the hands of Cesare when the time comes. Torn between his loyalty to the Borgias (and the personal ambition which goes with it) and his increasing love and respect for Camilla and her husband, Andrea is faced with making a decision which could affect not only his own future but the future of Italy.

As well as navigating his way through this delicate political situation, Andrea and Belli have a number of adventures involving battles, duels, clever disguises, last-minute escapes, sieges, miracles and all sorts of trickery and deception. I was right in thinking that this book would be similar to Sabatini; in particular, I kept being reminded of Bellarion (a previous Classics Spin read) which is also set in Renaissance Italy and includes many of the same elements. But while I remember feeling irritated by the perfection of the main character in Bellarion, I did like Andrea Orsini. He’s another hero who is good at everything, but with just enough flaws and ambiguities to make him interesting. Mario Belli was my favourite, though – and I can’t say too much about him without spoiling the story!

I also loved Camilla, an intelligent and courageous woman with a sense of humour, although other female characters such as Lucrezia and Angela Borgia felt less well developed. Moving away from the novel’s central characters, there’s also a fascinating supporting cast consisting of assorted dukes, lords and ambassadors, soldiers (including the Chevalier de Bayard) and saints (Lucia of Narni). The language used throughout the novel always feel appropriate to the time period and the dialogue is subtle and witty.

Not being an expert on the Renaissance (although I always enjoy reading about it and am gradually building up my knowledge) I found that I was learning a lot from Prince of Foxes as well as being entertained by it. It really is a great book and if anyone else has read it – or seen the 1949 film version with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles – I’d love to know what you thought.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter I have always loved long books, the sort you can bury yourself in for weeks, becoming immersed in a fully-formed fictional world and getting to know characters who, by the time you reach the final page, feel almost like personal friends. Kristin Lavransdatter, though, is more than just a ‘long’ book – it’s a very long book! With over 1,100 pages in the edition I read, it’s similar in length to classics like War and Peace, Don Quixote and Les Miserables and left me with a similar mixture of feelings on finishing: a sense of achievement at making it to the end; sadness at having to say goodbye to Kristin and her family; and, I have to admit, relief at finally being able to move on to something else. I enjoyed Kristin Lavransdatter – loved it at times – but it’s not always an easy book to read, for reasons which I’ll explain below.

So far I have been describing this as a ‘book’, but in fact Sigrid Undset originally wrote three individual books about Kristin – The Wreath (first published in 1920), The Wife (1921) and The Cross (1922) – which have been combined into one volume in this Penguin Classics edition. It’s still possible to buy them separately (and it would probably seem less daunting that way) but they don’t stand alone very well at all and really do feel like three sections of a longer novel. After finishing the first part I moved straight on to the second and then the third and I was glad I took this approach otherwise I would probably have lost track of what was happening.

Set in the 14th century, Kristin Lavransdatter is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kristin, daughter of Lavrans. We first meet Kristin as a young girl growing up on her parents’ manor at Jorundgaard in Sil, a rural area of Norway. A good, honourable, hard-working man, Lavrans gains respect and admiration wherever he goes and he and Kristin are very close. His wife, Ragnfrid, however, has never fully recovered from the loss of three young sons and as a result her relationships with both Lavrans and Kristin are strained.

Early in the novel, Kristin is betrothed to the quiet, reliable Simon Darre, whose family own a neighbouring estate. She has no reason to dislike Simon, but she feels nothing for him and longs to experience the sort of passion her own parents’ marriage lacks. Her chance comes when she meets and falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson, a man who is handsome, charming and romantic – in other words, everything Simon isn’t. Kristin knows that this is the husband she has been dreaming of and even the knowledge that he has been excommunicated by the church for living with another man’s wife doesn’t change her mind. When Simon finds out about Erlend he agrees to break off the betrothal, but it takes a lot longer for Kristin to persuade Lavrans and Ragnfrid – so long that by the time she is eventually allowed to marry Erlend she is already pregnant with his child.

In case you’re thinking I’ve given away too much of the plot, all of the above happens in The Wreath alone. The other two parts of the book – The Wife and The Cross – explore the consequences of Kristin’s decision to marry Erlend rather than Simon. And the consequences are varied and far-reaching, affecting not only Kristin herself but everyone else around her. It’s a sad and tragic story and this is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned earlier, this is not the easiest of books to read. Whether it’s a death, an illness or an accident, a murder, an act of betrayal or an unhappy marriage, each and every character is subjected to a relentless stream of misery.

My heart ached for Kristin as she discovered that the man she had married was not all that she had hoped he would be – not a hero but a flawed human being – and that making their relationship work was going to be difficult. However, I also had some sympathy for Erlend; he is not a bad man but he is sometimes a weak one, with a tendency to act before he thinks and with none of the skills necessary to manage a farm and household effectively. He makes mistakes and has to live with those mistakes, but so does Kristin and I thought it was unfair of her to place so much of the blame on him. I also felt sorry for their young children, for Simon (who ended up being one of my favourite characters) and for Kristin’s sister, Ramborg. As I said, this is not a happy story for anyone!

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)
Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)
As we accompany Kristin on her journey through life, we are also given a lot of information on the history and politics of the period. This becomes increasingly important as Erlend finds himself embroiled in a plot against the king and, I have to admit, I found some of this difficult to follow. If I read the book again (as I’m sure I will want to at some point in the future) I’ll have to concentrate more on that aspect of the story. Of more interest to me was the portrayal of daily life in the valleys and mountains of medieval Norway, a way of life strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, but also steeped in superstition and folklore. The publication of Kristin Lavransdatter led to Sigrid Undset being awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”.

Finally, I should mention that Kristin Lavransdatter was originally written in Norwegian. The English translation I read was a recent one by Tiina Nunnally and I had no problems with it; I thought it was very clear and readable. I’ve heard that the earlier translation from the 1920s by Charles Archer and JS Scott is not as accessible, so I’m happy that I made the right choice.

Kristin Lavransdatter was the book selected for me in the Classics Club Spin back in March – and it kept me busy until June! Now I’m looking forward to starting my next Spin book: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

Shirley I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Shirley. I have read all of the other novels by the Brontë sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a teenager and Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor in more recent years) but for some reason haven’t felt motivated to read Shirley – until a few weeks ago when, looking at the remaining titles on my Classics Club list, I decided I couldn’t leave it to languish unread on my shelf any longer.

Shirley (published in 1849) is set in Briarfield, a small Yorkshire community in which a mill is the major employer. The year is 1811 and England’s economy is suffering from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Moore, owner of the mill, is struggling financially and, as the novel opens, he is preparing to take delivery of some new machinery which will enable him to lay off some of his employees. Needless to say, the millworkers are enraged by this and set out to destroy the machines; uprisings like these would take place all over the country and become known as the Luddite Riots.

Against this political and social backdrop, the stories of two very different young women are played out. One is the local clergyman’s niece, Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl of eighteen. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore but he is reluctant to return her feelings due to her lack of money and position. The other is the title character, Shirley Keeldar, a beautiful young heiress. Shirley is a strong and spirited person with independent wealth – and although Caroline likes her very much, she becomes convinced that her new friend is going to marry Robert.

The title of the novel is Shirley, but this is as much Caroline’s story as Shirley’s (in fact, Shirley herself doesn’t appear until Chapter Eleven). I found them both interesting characters; there are many differences in personality, situation and outlook on life, but as the two become close friends we see a bond developing between them as they discover shared values and interests. They are described in the novel as ‘a graceful pencil sketch compared with a vivid painting’. After finishing the book I learned that Charlotte Brontë is thought to have based the character of Caroline on her sister Anne, and Shirley on Emily (she would lose both of her sisters to tuberculosis during the writing of the novel).

Another interesting fact about Shirley is that before the book was published, Shirley was usually a male name rather than a female one:

…she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed.

I can’t say that I loved this book – maybe because, as Brontë hinted in the opening lines (quoted at the beginning of this post) it lacked passion and I never felt that I had been truly drawn into the stories of Shirley and Caroline the way I had been drawn into Jane Eyre’s or Lucy Snowe’s. This was a slow read for me and at times quite a dry one, but I did find a lot to like and appreciate, from the relationships between the main characters to the historical background. Even though this hasn’t become a favourite, I’m pleased to have now read all of the Brontë sisters’ novels.