Fiendish Fridays #6: Mrs Danvers

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

This week’s Fiend is a controversial one – she is often cited as one of literature’s greatest female villains, but some people don’t consider her to be a villain at all. What do you think?

#6 – Friday 19 March 2010: Mrs Danvers

Name: Mrs Danvers

Appears in: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Who is she? Mrs Danvers is the housekeeper at Manderley, the house where Maxim de Winter lived with his wife Rebecca before her tragic death. When Maxim brings home his second wife whom he has met in Monte Carlo, Mrs Danvers is not happy!

What is she like? The character was famously portrayed by Judith Anderson who received an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film. In the book she is described as ‘someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame’.

What makes her a Friday Fiend? She does her best to make the second Mrs de Winter unwelcome at Manderley by constantly undermining her confidence and making her the target of some cruel tricks, causing her to feel inferior to Rebecca in every way.

Redeeming features: Her devotion and loyalty to Rebecca even after her death can be seen as an admirable quality and is the reason for her behaving the way she does.

Have you read Rebecca? What do you think about this week’s Friday Fiend?

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Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

I think I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself. A gothic mystery/horror story set in Victorian London, featuring Charles Dickens and narrated by Wilkie Collins sounded like exactly the kind of book I would enjoy. Unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to its fascinating premise and I was left with mixed feelings about it.

Drood is told in the form of a memoir written by Wilkie Collins (a close friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens, as well as being the author of The Woman in White, The Moonstone and many other novels and plays) and addressed to an unknown reader in the future – that is, to us.

The story begins with the Staplehurst Rail Disaster of 1865, when the train on which Charles Dickens is travelling crashes, sending most of the carriages plummeting over a viaduct into the riverbed below. Luckily Dickens is in one of the few carriages that doesn’t fall. As he helps to rescue people from the wreckage, he encounters a mysterious figure dressed in a black cape who introduces himself only as ‘Drood’. In the days following the train crash, Dickens becomes obsessed with finding Drood and discovering his true identity. With the reluctant help of Wilkie Collins, Dickens begins a search for Drood which leads them through the dark alleys and underground catacombs of London.

Interspersed with the Drood storyline are long passages in which we learn about the family life and living arrangements of both Dickens and Collins, how much they earned for their various novels, their walking tour of Cumberland in 1857, the details of Wilkie’s laudanum addiction, the story of the Swiss chalet given to Dickens by his friend Charles Fechter, Dickens’ interest in mesmerism and every other piece of biographical information you could possibly want to know. Simmons also incorporates some genuine historical letters and quotes which adds some authenticity to the book. I can see why some readers might find this boring, but I enjoyed these sections – I thought the descriptions of Dickens’ reading tours were particularly fascinating.

Simmons has attempted to imitate Wilkie Collins’ narrative style (including the Victorian habit of talking directly to the reader) but I felt that he didn’t get it quite right. He also uses a lot of words and phrases that just sound either too modern or too American to me (the real Collins or Dickens would have walked on the pavement rather than the sidewalk, for example). This is only a small complaint though, as overall, Dear Reader, I thought his style was quite convincing.

I do like the way the book takes us through the process of researching and writing The Moonstone. However, some important plot points are given away so if you haven’t already read The Moonstone and think you might want to, then I would suggest you read it before you begin Drood. It might also be a good idea to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood first (I didn’t and kept wishing I had). Another thing I liked about the book was the way Simmons deliberately tries to confuse and mislead the reader – at several points in the novel we are made to wonder whether something we’ve just read is real or an illusion.

This journey through the cemeteries, opium dens and underground sewers of London is a good atmospheric read for a cold dark night, but I was slightly disappointed by it and despite reading all 775 pages I still can’t decide whether I enjoyed it or not! However, it will almost certainly leave you wanting to learn more about Dickens and Collins and their works, which can only be a good thing. If you like this type of book I would also recommend The Quincunx by Charles Palliser – another book set in Victorian England and written in a 19th century style.

Before I come to the end of this review I would just like to say a few words in defence of poor Wilkie Collins, who happens to be one of my favourite authors. Simmons clearly doesn’t rate Wilkie as a writer (I saw an interview where he described him as ‘mediocre’) and in Drood, the character is portrayed as a not very talented, second-rate author who is consumed with jealousy of the more successful Dickens and becomes increasingly bitter and unlikeable as the book goes on. I admit I’m biased because I’ve absolutely loved every Wilkie Collins book I’ve read; he was a much better writer than Drood suggests and definitely not mediocre, at least in my opinion!

*Pictures of Charles Dickens (top) and Wilkie Collins (bottom) both in the public domain

Genre: Historical Fiction/Horror/Pages: 775/Publisher: Quercus Fiction/Year: 2009/Source: My own copy bought new

A Short Story for Saturday: The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

Owen Warland is a young watchmaker who devotes his life to the creation of a beautiful mechanical butterfly which he presents to his friend Annie as a wedding gift. Annie and her family are not artists and they are unable to appreciate the beauty of Owen’s butterfly or to understand why he wasted so much time making it when he could have been doing something more useful. Each character in the story represents a different side of human nature and it’s interesting to see how Owen’s butterfly reacts differently to each of them.

This is a beautifully written story with the message that not everything in life needs to have a purpose – some things are worth doing just for the sake of doing them. Despite being ridiculed by the other townspeople, Owen doesn’t let other people’s opinions stop him in his pursuit of spiritual happiness.

“Yes, Annie; it may well be said to possess life, for it has absorbed my own being into itself; and in the secret of that butterfly, and in its beauty – which is not merely outward, but deep as its whole system – is represented the intellect, the imagination, the sensibility, the soul of an Artist of the Beautiful!”

Read The Artist of the Beautiful online here

* Butterfly picture by Galawebdesign used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

New Book Arrival: O, Juliet

I won O, Juliet by Robin Maxwell in a giveaway at The Maiden’s Court last month and received it today. Thanks Heather! This was the Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table’s featured book for January, so I’m looking forward to reading it.

[From Goodreads]
“Before Juliet Capelletti lie two futures: a traditionally loveless marriage to her father’s business partner, or the fulfillment of her poetic dreams, inspired by the great Dante. Unlike her beloved friend Lucrezia, who looks forward to her arranged marriage, Juliet has a wild, romantic imagination that knows not the bounds of her great family’s stalwart keep.

The latter path is hers for the taking when Juliet meets Romeo Monticecco, a soulful young man seeking peace between their warring families. A dreamer himself, Romeo is unstoppable, once he determines to capture the heart of the remarkable woman foretold in his stars. The breathless intrigue that ensues is the stuff of beloved legend. But those familiar with Shakespeare’s muse know only half the story…”

The Sunday Salon: Labels, Labels, Labels!

This week I have combined my Sunday Salon post with my Week 3 Blog Improvement Project post.

I haven’t posted any book reviews this week because I’m still reading Drood by Dan Simmons which seems to be taking forever to get through (775 pages but it feels even longer). I’m having mixed feelings about the book at the moment – hopefully I’ll be able to review it for you later in the week. However, I took a break from Drood yesterday to post my first short story review – Chekhov’s The Black Monk. One of my personal reading challenges for this year was to read more short stories, so now that I’ve begun I hope I can make A Short Story for Saturday a regular feature.

[Edited 16th April 2010 to add: This post was written before I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress, therefore its no longer relevant]

This week’s Blog Improvement task is to improve the way our posts are organised by ensuring that we’re using labels that are useful and meaningful. I had already spent some time doing this in January as part of Bloggiesta, but I thought I’d take another look and make some more changes.

You can see my list of labels at the top of my blog’s left sidebar. I’m currently using 12 different labels, as follows:

Author Interviews
Blog Updates: Includes Blog Improvement Project, Bloggiesta and anything else relating to blog maintenance.
Book Miscellany
Features
Fiendish Fridays: My series profiling literary villains
Great Books: The books that I consider to be among the very best that I’ve reviewed – worthy of a 6th star!
Memes: I don’t participate in these very often, so I’ve just used one label to cover them all.
New Book Arrivals: Highlights books that I’ve bought, won, borrowed from the library or that have recently come into my house in one way or another.
Not About Books: Personal or non-book related posts.
Reading Challenges
Reviews
Sunday Salon: I don’t really consider The Sunday Salon to be a meme, so have not included TSS posts in the Memes label above.

In the future I may add more different types of posts which will need their own labels, but at the moment I think these twelve are adequate.

Further down the left sidebar are two more label clouds – Explore by Genre (e.g. Classics, Historical Fiction, Mystery) and Explore by Theme (e.g. 19th century, Afghanistan, Christmas). I don’t know how useful these are but I like them because over time they should give a new visitor a good idea of the types of books I read and make it easier for them to find reviews that interest them. What do you think – is this useful or not?

Are there any more changes I should make to my labels? Any feedback would be very welcome!

A Short Story for Saturday: The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov (1894)

Where do we draw the line between genius and madness? Anton Chekhov explores this question in The Black Monk – the story of a young man called Andrei Kovrin who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness which causes him to believe he is being visited by a monk dressed in black. Even when he becomes aware that the monk is only a hallucination, he is not concerned because his visions make him feel happy and full of energy and creativity. Eventually though, his family begin to worry about his sanity…

This is a fascinating, unusual story which I found easy to read but difficult to fully understand. Chekhov’s poetic writing creates an eerie, disturbing atmosphere appropriate to Kovrin’s descent into mental illness.

“Once or twice a week, in the park or in the house, he met the black monk and had long conversations with him, but this did not alarm him, but, on the contrary, delighted him, as he was now firmly persuaded that such apparitions only visited the elect few who rise up above their fellows and devote themselves to the service of the idea.”

Read The Black Monk online here

Fiendish Fridays #5: Black Jack Randall

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

There are several Fiends I could have chosen from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. This is one of them…

#5 – Friday 5 March 2010: Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall

Name: Jonathan Wolverton Randall

Appears in: Outlander/Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Who is he? A captain in the English Army during the 18th century and an ancestor of our heroine Claire Randall’s husband Frank.

What is he like? He looks so much like Frank Randall that even Claire almost mistakes him for her husband, although his hair is longer, and his skin darker from years of exposure to the weather.

What makes him a Friday Fiend? According to Jamie Fraser, Randall’s nickname ‘Black Jack’ refers to the colour of his soul. Randall is cruel and sadistic and abuses his position in the army by flogging, torturing and otherwise badly treating his prisoners. As Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie says, Randall is unable to earn the respect of his men so earns their fear instead.

Redeeming features: Of all the Outlander villains (Stephen Bonnet, Geilie Duncan, Laoghaire MacKenzie and others) Black Jack Randall is probably the least sympathetic character. He does love his brother, but that’s all.

What do you think about this week’s Fiend? Who is your favourite Outlander villain?