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.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist I know it’s the middle of January, but I still have a few books that I read towards the end of 2015 to write about – and Oliver Twist is one of them. I’ve been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year and having started 2015 with David Copperfield I decided to end it with another of his books. Of the two, I much preferred David Copperfield, but I did still enjoy Oliver Twist. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it difficult to think of anything new to say about books that are so well known and widely studied, so I’m just posting some general impressions of the novel here rather than attempting any sort of analysis.

I think most people, even without reading the book, probably have a basic idea of what it is about: an orphan boy who is raised in a workhouse in Victorian London – where he famously says, “Please, sir, I want some more” – and who later becomes involved with a gang of thieves and pickpockets. Maybe you have seen one of the many films, adaptations and musicals and so will know a little bit more, but the only way to discover the whole of Oliver’s story in the way Charles Dickens intended is to read the book!

This is the first time I have read Oliver Twist in its entirety and I was surprised by how much of it was completely unfamiliar to me. I had either forgotten or was unaware of whole chunks of the plot and of the roles played by characters such as Rose Maylie, Noah Claypole and Monks, so I was in the unusual position of reading a story that I both knew and didn’t know!

While this hasn’t become a favourite, I found Oliver Twist an enjoyable, entertaining read (one of the easiest to read and to follow of all the Dickens novels I’ve read so far) and as you would expect from Dickens, the pages are populated with colourful, larger than life characters, from Mr Bumble the beadle and the brutal Bill Sikes to the Artful Dodger and the villainous Fagin. The characters are mostly either ‘very good’ or ‘very bad’. Nancy, Bill Sikes’ lover, is the only one I found significantly more complex and she makes an interesting contrast with the novel’s other main female character, the pure, gentle Rose Maylie.

This is one of the earliest of Dickens’ major works, first published as a serial from 1837-1839, and it’s a relatively short novel by his standards (there are over 500 pages in the edition I read, but in comparison with books like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House that’s not long at all). The amount of social commentary in the book is also particularly heavy; it was written just a few years after the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed by parliament in 1834, stating that relief for the poor would only be provided within the workhouse. The idea was that conditions inside the workhouse would be so harsh and unpleasant that only those people desperately in need of help would consider entering one. Telling Oliver’s story gave Dickens a chance to express his own views on the Poor Laws and related issues such as poverty and child labour.

Oliver Twist was the final novel by Dickens on my list for the Classics Club, but I will continue to work my way through his other books, as I have about half of them still to read. I think either Dombey and Son or Little Dorrit might be next.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea After finishing a re-read of Jane Eyre recently, I decided that my next read would have to be Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a book inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel and which I’ve seen described both as a prequel and a reimagining. I don’t read this type of book very often as I prefer to keep my feelings for the originals intact, but this one, published in 1966, is now considered a classic in itself and I wanted to find out why.

As I started writing this review it occurred to me that it would be impossible to discuss Wide Sargasso Sea in any meaningful way without giving away some of the secrets revealed in Jane Eyre and spoiling the Brontë novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I will assume that if you’re reading this post you’re already familiar with Jane Eyre, so consider this your spoiler warning!

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Mr Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the ‘madwoman in the attic’. In Jane Eyre, we learn that Rochester was sent by his father to Jamaica where he met the Mason family and married Bertha, a beautiful Creole heiress. Rochester explains that he was unaware of the madness running in Bertha’s family and the fact that her mother was not dead, as he had first believed, but had actually been locked away in an asylum. When Bertha’s own behaviour begins to worry Rochester, he brings her home to England and Thornfield Hall, where he has her imprisoned in an attic room under the care of a servant, Grace Poole.

Jane Eyre only shows us one side of the story: Rochester’s. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys gives a voice to Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway, as she is known here). The first part of the novel, narrated by Antoinette herself, describes her childhood in 1830s Jamaica, just after the Emancipation Act has ended slavery across the British Empire. Antoinette’s own father made his fortune through slavery and since his death the family have remained on their crumbling plantation, Coulibri, where as white Creoles they are isolated and shunned by the freed black slaves and their rich white neighbours alike. As the years go by and Antoinette’s mother descends into mental illness, her stepfather, Mr Mason, announces that friends from England are coming to visit…

In the middle section of the book, we switch to Rochester’s point of view (although he is not actually named in the novel, it’s clear who he is supposed to be) and he relates in his own words the story of his marriage to Antoinette, whom he renames Bertha, and his views on the deteoriation of her mental health. The final, shortest section is set at Thornfield Hall and takes us through the familiar events of Jane Eyre.

I was quite disappointed with this book, if I’m going to be completely honest. Yes, it’s beautifully written but I found the dreamlike, disjointed narrative slightly difficult to follow and while I could sympathise with Antoinette’s situation, I never felt fully engaged with her on an emotional level. I realise that the writing style was probably intended to unsettle and disorientate the reader, but I just didn’t like it. Luckily, my lack of love for this novel has not affected my memories of Jane Eyre or its characters – not even Mr Rochester, despite the negative portrayal, mainly because the character in this novel just doesn’t feel at all like Brontë’s Rochester (not even his ‘voice’ sounds the same).

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short novel (I was surprised when I discovered just how short it was) but it’s also a complex one with lots of layers, symbolism and important themes – including slavery, colonialism, mental illness, race and gender – and I can see why it’s a book that has come to be widely studied in schools and universities. I can recommend the Penguin Modern Classics ‘Annotated Edition’ as an excellent choice for students or anyone who wants to study the story and its background in more depth. There’s an introduction, notes at the end, suggestions for further reading and background information on some of the topics alluded to in the story, such as the Jamaican folk magic known as Obeah.

I did love the concept of giving Bertha/Antoinette a chance to tell her story and I wouldn’t want to put anyone else off reading this book – even though I didn’t find it very satisfying, I know there are many, many other people who have enjoyed it, so if it does sound appealing to you then I would certainly recommend giving it a try.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (re-read)

Jane Eyre was the book chosen for me in the Classics Spin in December. When I discovered that this was the one I’d be reading, I was delighted – it’s a book I love and which I hadn’t read for a long time. I immediately pulled my copy off the shelf to start my re-read and from the familiar opening line – “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” – I was drawn into the story once more. The gothic atmosphere of the novel made it a perfect read for dark December nights and I finished it just before Christmas.

Jane Eyre I think I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I had my first encounter with Jane but on that first read I didn’t get past the Lowood School section at the beginning and more than ten years passed before I decided to try again. My second attempt was much more successful; being older and better able to appreciate the story and the quality of the writing, I read the whole book and loved it. This most recent read was my third. I was curious to see whether I would feel differently about it now, after another long gap, but although I did notice things this time that I don’t think I picked up on last time, my overall opinion of the book is unchanged.

Jane Eyre, for those who don’t know the story, is an orphan raised in the home of an aunt and three cousins who make it obvious that they don’t like her and don’t want her there. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to a charity-run boarding school for girls, another harsh and unwelcoming environment. However, Jane is able to take two positive things away from her time at school – a brief but much-valued friendship with Helen Burns, and the education which later enables her to find a position as governess to Adele, the young ward of Mr Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Jane soon begins to fall in love with her employer but when she discovers that he is hiding a dark secret, it seems that her chance of happiness has been destroyed.

*Spoiler warning: I will find it difficult to discuss the book any further without spoilers, so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I would advise skipping to the end of this post.*

I loved the experience of reading Jane Eyre again. Although much of the story was familiar to me from my previous reads and many of the scenes had stayed in my mind – including Jane’s imprisonment in the red room at Gateshead Hall, the tragic death of Helen Burns, Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy woman and the revelation of Bertha’s existence – there were other parts that I had forgotten and that I enjoyed discovering again.

I also loved being reacquainted with the characters. I know there are a lot of people who have problems with Mr Rochester and I can understand why – apart from his treatment of Bertha, there’s the fact that he lies to Jane and that he’s prepared to enter into a bigamous marriage with her, but despite this I have always liked him as a character. Jane is not my favourite literary heroine (although I do admire her for her honesty, integrity, inner strength and sense of right and wrong) and Mr Rochester is not my favourite hero but they both feel so real and I can believe in their relationship and their love for one another – a love that I think they both desperately needed.

Of course, there’s much more to Jane Eyre than just the romance. There’s also some social commentary, with the descriptions of conditions at Lowood School and with the exploration of class, gender and religion. It’s an interesting read from a feminist perspective, portraying Jane’s search for independence and depicting the options open to a woman faced with making her own way in life in the early Victorian period. Having read about the lives of Charlotte and the rest of the Brontë family (something I hadn’t done when I first read this book) I can see how autobiographical some parts of the story are.

My least favourite section of the book is still the part where Jane leaves Thornfield Hall during the night and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters. I remembered intensely disliking St. John on my last read, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because of the character himself or just because I was impatient for Jane and Rochester to be reunited. However, I didn’t like St. John any better this time round. I find him cold and controlling – Jane herself describes his nature as “austere and despotic” – and he doesn’t seem to care at all about Jane’s own opinions and wishes. Even though I had read the book before, I was still relieved when Jane rejects him!

*End of spoilers*

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of Jane Eyre, if I haven’t already made that clear! I’ve heard it said that people can either love Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but not both – well, I do love both, but I have always preferred Wuthering Heights. I’m planning to re-read it soon too and it will be interesting to see if I still do like it more.

Since finishing Jane Eyre a couple of weeks ago, I have now read the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for the first time and will be posting my thoughts on that one soon. Then I have a copy of Lyndsay Faye’s new Jane Eyre-inspired novel, Jane Steele, which I’m looking forward to reading – and I also still need to read my only remaining unread Brontë novel, Shirley. It seems I’m having a very Brontë themed start to the new year!

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier I seem to have been under a bit of a misconception with this book; based on the title and the fact that it was published in 1915 I thought it would be a book about war. It isn’t, of course. I expect everyone else already knows that and I’ve just made myself sound stupid, but it’s really not a book I’ve ever considered reading or paid any attention to until recently. That’s my excuse! What is The Good Soldier actually about, then? Well, it’s a tale of marriage and adultery, of love and betrayal, and it reminded me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald might write (although Fitzgerald’s books would come several years later).

The Good Soldier is a deceptively simple story of two seemingly respectable couples who meet and get to know each other at a spa town in Germany in 1904. John Dowell, our narrator, is an American who has come to Bad Nauheim with his wife, Florence, whom he tells us has a weak heart. The other couple – Edward Ashburnham, another heart patient, and his wife Leonora – are British. Seen through John Dowell’s eyes, the story of these four people and the relationships between them slowly unfolds and we gradually discover that there is more to each of them than meets the eye.

I don’t think I really need to say much more about the plot – and to do so would run the risk of spoiling the book for future readers. This is a story built around lies, deceptions and secrets, things which are only revealed when John Dowell decides to reveal them. It’s an interesting structure, consisting of a series of memories and flashbacks told in non-chronological order, moving backwards and forwards in time. Interesting, but not very easy to follow, at least on a first read! This is the sort of book you would really need to read more than once to be able to fully appreciate it, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it again – at least not in the near future – because, although I did like the book, I didn’t like it enough for a re-read.

It’s a clever and intriguing novel, though, with a narrator who is certainly not a reliable one. We can never be sure how much of what Dowell says is true, as he often makes a statement or describes a sequence of events only to contradict himself later in the book. I was constantly having to change my mind about the characters and reassess what I thought I knew about them. The question is whether Dowell is deliberately trying to mislead us or whether he himself is deluded or confused. Even the opening line is curious: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard”. Why does he say it’s a story he’s ‘heard’ when he is one of the main participants in the story? This is a book that left me with many more questions than answers!

Have you read anything by Ford Madox Ford? I think I would like to try Parade’s End at some point.

The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

The Sea Hawk I love Rafael Sabatini! I can always count on him when I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned adventure story (which is often) and The Sea-Hawk has it all: treachery, betrayal, revenge, duels, kidnapping and piracy on the high seas. It’s a similar story in some ways to his later pirate novel, Captain Blood, but I think I enjoyed this one slightly more.

Published in 1915, The Sea-Hawk is set in the sixteenth century during the reign of Elizabeth I. Our hero is Sir Oliver Tressilian, a gentleman and former sailor from Cornwall who has worked hard to restore his family’s reputation which had been tarnished by the behaviour of his late father. Sir Oliver is betrothed to the beautiful Rosamund Godolphin who returns his love despite the fact that her brother Peter hates the Tressilians due to a family feud. When Peter is killed in a duel the blame falls on Oliver – and while the reader knows that Oliver is innocent, Rosamund does not. Things quickly go from bad to worse for Oliver and he finds himself sold into slavery and sent to the Barbary Coast at the oars of a Spanish galley.

At home in England Rosamund continues to believe Oliver to be the murderer of her brother, while the real culprit stays quiet and benefits from Oliver’s absence by claiming his estates, as well as the woman he loves. Several months later, in Algiers, we meet a Muslim corsair known as Sakr-el-Bahr, or ‘hawk of the sea’. Sakr-el-Bahr’s pirating skills have won the admiration of Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers, who claims to love him as a son – but this has made him a target of the Basha’s Sicilian wife, the scheming Fenzileh, and her jealous son Marzak. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that Sakr-el-Bahr is, of course, Sir Oliver, who is preparing to return to Cornwall to take his revenge…

Having read three of Sabatini’s other novels, I’ve come to know what to expect from him – and The Sea-Hawk definitely lived up to my expectations. I’m finding that his books all follow a similar pattern (at least, the ones I’ve read do) in which the hero suffers a betrayal or injustice of some kind, undergoes a transformation and plots his revenge/attempts to clear his name, while being completely misunderstood and misjudged by his love interest. Sir Oliver is a great character; he’s not always easy to like, but considering everything he is forced to endure, it would be difficult not to want things to work out for him in the end. Rosamund is a frustrating heroine, though, being so quick to think the worst of Oliver – but to be fair, she doesn’t share the reader’s knowledge that he is innocent.

The setting is great too. I particularly loved the chapters set in Algiers, in which Sabatini immerses us in the culture, religion and history of the Barbary coast, with some vivid descriptions of the labyrinths of narrow streets, souks and slave markets, and the courtyards, archways and orchards of the Basha’s palace. The focus on the Barbary corsairs rather than the pirates of the Caribbean gives the book a different feel and a different atmosphere from Captain Blood – and I was pleased to find that there was plenty of land-based action as well as ship-based (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually a big fan of books set at sea).

As I’ve now read the four novels which are probably Sabatini’s most popular – Scaramouche, Captain Blood, The Sea-Hawk and Bellarion – I would appreciate any recommendations as to which of his books to read next.