Love and Other Happy Endings, edited by M. R. Nelson

This is a collection of five classic short stories from five very different authors: Katherine Mansfield, L.M. Montgomery, Wilkie Collins, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Oliver Curwood. The title given to the collection by its editor, M.R. Nelson, means that we know before we begin that each story will have a happy ending of some sort, but I can assure you that this doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading them. The interest is in seeing how each happy ending is reached and how the conflicts or problems in each story are resolved.

Love and Other Happy Endings First is The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield, a story which appeared in her 1922 collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories. This is a very short story, but Mansfield (a new author for me) manages to pack a lot of meaning into it. The story follows Miss Meadows, a singing teacher, who has had some bad news and begins the day “With despair — cold, sharp despair — buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”. We see how Miss Meadows’ state of mind affects not only herself but the girls in her class; she is someone who brings her personal troubles into work with her. Later in the day, something happens to change the teacher’s mood and the way she perceives the world is suddenly quite different.

Story two is Akin to Love by L.M. Montgomery, best known for her Anne of Green Gables series. I read her Anne novels (or most of them anyway) as a child, but this is the first time I’ve read any of her other work. Akin to Love is from her 1909-1922 collection of short stories. It’s a simple tale of two single people, Josephine Elliott and David Hartley, who are friends and neighbours. David has proposed to Josephine many times over the last eighteen years and she has turned him down every time. Eventually Josephine begins to experience a feeling akin to love, but will she act on her feelings?

The third story, Mr Lismore and the Widow is by Wilkie Collins, who has long been one of my favourite Victorian authors, so it’s not surprising that this was one of the stories I enjoyed most from this collection. Originally published in 1883, it’s the story of a man in need of money and a woman in need of a husband. It’s easy to predict what will happen – or is it? This is a tale with a twist…a slightly implausible twist, but a fun one!

Next is Head and Shoulders, a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers (1920). It’s a great story, again with a twist, about Horace Tarbox, a clever, intellectual student and Marcia Meadow, a dancer (a philosopher and a flapper?). Despite being complete opposites, the two fall in love, but their relationship does not follow the course you might expect. I’m not really a fan of Fitzgerald, but this is a bright, witty story which really stands out from the others in the book.

The final story is The Other Man’s Wife, taken from the 1920 collection Back to God’s Country and Other Stories by James Oliver Curwood, another author I have never read before. In this story we meet a man who has taken refuge in the wilderness because he needs some time away from the woman he loves – and from her husband, whom he describes as “a scoundrel, a brute, who came home from his club drunk, a cheap money-spender, a man who wasn’t fit to wipe the mud from her little feet, much less call her wife.” This is another very short story, and I found it easy to guess how it would end, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying to read.

Reading these five stories one after the other encouraged me to look for common themes and ideas and to think about the ways in which different authors tackle the subject of love. I wondered why, out of all the short stories in the world, Nelson chose these particular five, so I was interested to read her notes at the end explaining her choices. I really enjoyed this little collection and am pleased to be able to give this review a happy ending!

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Love and Other Happy Endings for review.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in 80 Days When Frenchman Jean Passepartout starts a new job as valet to a wealthy English gentleman called Phileas Fogg, he is pleased to find that his master is a quiet, solitary man who lives his life to a strict routine. Having previously worked as a singer, a circus acrobat and a fireman, Passepartout is looking forward to leading a settled, domestic life for a change. To his dismay, no sooner has he taken up his new position than Phileas Fogg informs him that they will be leaving at once to go on a journey around the world. He has made a bet with some friends at London’s Reform Club based on a newspaper article which claims that, with the opening of a new railway in India, it is now possible to travel around the entire world in eighty days.

Travelling by train, boat, sledge and even by elephant, Fogg and Passepartout begin a race against time through Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Along the way they rescue an Indian widow, are attacked by Sioux warriors…and find themselves pursued by a detective who believes there is more to Fogg’s eccentric behaviour than meets the eye.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the first book I’ve read by Jules Verne. It has been on my Classics Club list from the beginning, while other titles have been added and deleted, but it has never seemed to be the right time to read it. Last week I wanted to take a break from the very long novel I’m in the middle of reading (Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset) and have a change of pace, so I decided to give this one a try – and it was the perfect choice. This is a short book with short chapters, and the rate at which Fogg and Passepartout move from one adventure to the next makes this a very quick and entertaining read.

Putting the novel in historical context – it was published in 1873 – it really must have seemed that the world was getting smaller and more accessible. It seems such a waste, though, to be determined to travel the world at such a speed! If I had the opportunity – and the money – to make a journey like that, I would want to spend some time exploring each of the countries I passed through on the way, but Phileas Fogg appears to have no curiosity at all:

Mr. Fogg, after bidding good-bye to his whist partners, left the steamer, gave his servant several errands to do, urged it upon him to be at the station promptly at eight, and, with his regular step, which beat to the second, like an astronomical clock, directed his steps to the passport office. As for the wonders of Bombay — its famous city hall, its splendid library, its forts and docks, its bazaars, mosques, synagogues, its Armenian churches, and the noble pagoda on Malabar Hill, with its two polygonal towers — he cared not a straw to see them.

We do still learn a little bit about the geography and history of the various places Fogg and Passepartout visit (and Passepartout, who shares my frustration at Fogg’s lack of interest, does occasionally manage to do some sightseeing on his own, with mixed results) but the main focus of the story is on the journey itself and whether they actually will succeed in going around the world in eighty days. There’s also a romance, which I found difficult to believe in as we rarely even see the characters involved speaking to each other, but I suppose the hints were there! I loved the relationship between Fogg and Passepartout, though; they are such different men yet have so much loyalty to each other.

I enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days much more than I thought I would when I first decided to put it on my Classics Club list. I’ll have to keep Jules Verne in mind for my second list – which I’ve already started to compile despite still having twenty books to read from the first one!

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!