Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

 Anna Karenina cover

I’ve had Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy on my Classics Club reading list for years now and I’ve been put off reading it for a couple of reasons – namely the 800 odd pages and also the fact that I knew how it ended as I’ve seen it on TV (hasn’t everyone?). But I really enjoyed reading it. Just about everyone knows the story so I’m going to ramble a bit just about things that struck me about it, others probably won’t agree.

It’s fashionable (and possibly a feminist thing) to see Anna as a victim but she was a spoiled fool more than anything. Having made her young son the centre of her life she had no time for her husband Alexei Karenin who was what John Galsworthy would have described as being a bit of a cold fish – like Soames Forsyth. Anthony Trollope’s disastrous marriage between Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser comes to mind too. These undemonstrative men are a common type in reality and their ‘buttoned up’ characters aren’t a problem for any intelligent woman of the low maintenance and level headed type.

Anna wasn’t astute enough to see that her husband was really very much in love with her. Possibly the fact that Anna’s mother had shamelessly implied that Karenin had compromised Anna’s reputation when he was courting her – so determined was she to get her daughter off her hands and married to a wealthy man – had left Anna feeling somewhat insecure.

I really wish that Tolstoy had written a prequel based around the upbringing of Anna (nee Princess Oblonsky) and her brother Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky. These two cause mayhem within their families, their own needs being the most important thing to them – and to hell with everyone else.

Compare Anna’s mother with Kitty’s family. Vronsky has courted Kitty for ages and everyone expects him to propose to her, but Vronsky is a ladies man and a bit of a flibbertijibbet so when a new face appears in the shape of the beautiful Anna he drops poor Kitty fast. Kitty is damaged goods now as far as society is concerned, her parents had relied on Vronsky being a gentleman and wouldn’t have considered twisting his arm to get him to marry Kitty, but Vronsky was far from being a gentleman. He’s soon sleeping with Anna which is something that Anna was evidently not doing with her husband otherwise she would have had a family as large as her brother’s (Prince Stepan) whose poor wife Dolly seems to be having a child a year despite the fact that she knows he is a serial adulterer. Anna persuades Dolly to stay in her abusive marriage despite the fact that Anna would never put up with being treated so badly.

Those people who are brought up with a feeling of entitlement are a blight on society but when for some reason they aren’t able to get their own way for once then the result is often a disaster, they don’t have the strength of character to take the blows that they’ve happily dealt out to other people.

The book swings between high society in St Petersburg to the country estate of Konstantin Levin. He is a friend of Kitty’s family and has been in love with Kitty for years. After he’s told that they expect Vronsky to propose to Kitty, Levin takes himself and his broken heart off to his estate, throwing himself into the work of improving the land. He’s a decent man who gets his hands dirty and I suppose he stands for the Russian people whereas the aristocrats of St Petersburg are the degenerate French speaking leeches.

When the relationship between Anna and Vronsky becomes fraught Anna falls apart very quickly and of course she ends up under a train. I must say that I think that part was really well written. I suspect that Anna’s last seconds are typical for people in that situation – they didn’t really mean it, but it’s too late to go back in time.

Life goes on for everyone else of course. At first I thought that maybe the book should just have finished with Anna’s death but – I was wrong.

I loved War and Peace but it’s a while since I read that one and I’m not sure which book is my favourite. Have you read them both, if so which one do you like the most?

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I bought this book twenty years ago, intending to read it then but I’ve just got around to it, I don’t do many things fast. It’s one of those books which always seem to be being mentioned which is why I wanted to read it as I had only a vague idea of what it was about. I’m sure everybody else has read it. The book was first published in 1850 and has been described as a romantic mystery. It is set in 17th century New England.

Hester Prynne is a young married woman whose husband has been absent for many years so when she gives birth to a daughter the powers that be in the American Puritan town in which she lives, decide that she must wear a scarlet letter on her breast as a punishment for the rest of her life. The letter is A for adulterer and Hester could have been condemned to death but instead she has to stand on a wooden platform/scaffold for three hours with her baby daughter, Pearl.

Hester’s misfortune doesn’t get her down and she shows great character in coping with the situation and refusing to divulge the name of Pearl’s father. As she is a talented needlewoman she embroiders her letter A in gold thread, using fancy stitches which gain the admiration of the women of the town.

The mystery is, who is Pearl’s father and is he amongst the observers.

I can’t say I really enjoyed this book because it was obvious who the father was and I was so annoyed that he was such a hypocrite and just left Hester to struggle on on her own. The fact that he had a bit of a guilty conscience didn’t go anywhere close to him redeeming himself. To my way of thinking he was more than a wee bit of a swine.

Poor Hester was not good at choosing men. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth turns up in town just in time to see the spectacle of Hester being shamed but they keep quite about their relationship and when Roger realises who has been ‘keeping company’ with Hester he sets about befriending the culprit with the intention of dosing him up with herbal ‘medicines’.

Anyway, there wouldn’t have been a story if Hester had been a good judge of men and I must admit that I feel a sense of satisfaction that I’ve read it at last. The Scarlet Letter was on my list of 55 classic books to be read within five years or so at A Room of One’s Own.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This is another book from my 2011 reading list and a quick read. I think I’ve said before that you never really know what you’re going to get from Evelyn Waugh. To begin with A Handful of Dust is one of his satirical books on the lifestyle of the English upper classes but exactly half way through it turns into something much less comfortable.

Brenda and Tony Last have been married for several years and have one small son – John Andrew. Tony is really only interested in his family stately pile which is one of those very gothic places which is decorated in a sort of mock Arthurian style. Brenda hates his rural idyll and is bored stiff there.

She’s so desperate that she starts an affair with John Beaver, a young mummy’s boy type whom everybody dislikes. Brenda has no interest in John Andrew at all and spends all of her time in London with John Beaver who is penniless and is hoping to be able to live off Brenda’s husband when she gets divorced and is given alimony.

Quite a bit of the book concerns the hoops which people had to jump through to get a divorce in those days. In fact I can remember as late as the 1970s that men used to go off to seaside hotels and pretend to be having an affair with someone so that their wife could get their divorce without the wife’s lover being named as correspondent. How gentlemanly they were!

Anyway, when Brenda demands loads of alimony Tony quite rightly sees red and takes himself off abroad to avoid going to court. He gets involved with an explorer and ends up in a god awful place where disaster follows disaster.

I really disliked the end of this book. Apparently the American version has a different ending and I would have preferred that one. If you’re interested in knowing more about it have a look here. It is included in the Modern Library List of Best 20th Century Novels. I can’t say that it would make it on to my list. It was readable but I wouldn’t say it exactly set the heather alight!.

My copy of A Handful of Dust is an ancient Penguin from 1953 which originally belonged to my grandad but it was first published in 1934. Evelyn Waugh is mentioned quite a lot in Deborah Devonshire’s autobiography so now I can’t think of him without picturing him rubbing a bottle of alcohol into his hair when he was absolutely stinking drunk – which he often was. He did become part of her set though which he would have been very pleased about as he was a monumental snob, by all accounts.