The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

The American Senator cover

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1877 and this was my second attempt at reading it, which is strange as I ended up loving it. Obviously my brain just wasn’t in the right place when I lost interest in it first time around. What I love about Trollope’s writing is that he wears his heart on his sleeve and he chose to highlight different aspects of British culture that he found to be unfair and distasteful. In this book it’s the way young women were put on the marriage market at the age of 18 and often pressurised into being ‘settled’.

Arabella Trefoil is from an aristocratic family but is penniless and she has been chasing after various wealthy men for years and it has all come to nothing. She’s now getting on for 30 and is worn out with it all so she plumps for an engagement with an older man, John Morton, a diplomat, but she makes no attempt to even be pleasant to him, she thinks he’s mean with money and is having second thoughts. When another man who’s a wealthy young lord comes into view she’s tempted to try to manipulate him into a marriage proposal and lies her head off to everyone, including herself.

Mary Masters is a lot younger, just 18 or so and her step-mother is pressurising her to marry a local farmer. It would be a hard life for Mary who would be expected to do a lot of the farm/dairy work on her own, but apart from that Mary just doesn’t love the man. Her step-mother doesn’t see that as a problem.

Meanwhile Elias Gotobed is an American senator who is in England visiting John Morton and writing to a friend in America about his observations on British society and culture. He’s critical of the way the eldest male in any family inherits everything leaving the other children to make the best of it, usually by joining the army or the church.

The way the Church of England is organised is another thing that appalls him. This is a subject that obviously weighed on Trollope’s mind as his Barchester books are about the same thing.

He’s critical of fox-hunting, the cruel ‘sport’ which entails riders trampling crops and trespassing, ending with a fox being ripped apart.

He’s critical of the House of Lords as they’re unelected. The voting system is bizarre and basically corrupt.

Unfortunately the senator doesn’t keep his criticism for his American friend. While at a dinner party he’s keen to share his thoughts with the other guests. Mr Gotobed has no tact or sense of diplomacy whatsoever. Freedom of speech is more important to him, no matter how much he upsets his hosts. His bad manners shock the guests.

This was a great read although it’s slightly depressing that one of the things that obviously annoyed Trollope still hasn’t been improved as the House of Lords is still an unelected house. It’s a really ridiculous state of affairs but I read somewhere that in British politics things are usually spoken of for around 200 years before any change ever takes place, so there can’t be too long to go now surely!

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs cover

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster was first published in 1912 but my copy dates from 1929 and it was a recent purchase of mine. It’s one of the many books aimed at younger people that I didn’t read when I was young. I have to admit though that I had been under the impression that this one was for much younger children so I was surprised to discover that Miss Jerusha Abbott is in fact 17 years old when she begins writing her letters to her benefactor Daddy-Long-Legs.

She gives up on her given name Jerusha (who wouldn’t?) and decides to be known as Judy. She has been brought up in an orphanage and obviously lacks love and attention but the staff recognise that she’s brighter than most of the children there and she’s allowed to stay on at school longer than most. When the dreaded monthly visit of the trustees comes around Judy is noticed by one particular trustee who decides to pay for her college tuition – it’s a miracle.

Her benefactor wishes to remain anonymous but Judy saw a silhouette of a long-legged man whom she guesses is her benefactor, hence she calls him Daddy-Long-Legs. He does want her to send him letters though and so begins Judy’s one sided correspondence with him.

Judy is an excitable and exuberant seventeen year old, immature by modern day standards I think but she’s very lovable although to me by the time she reaches the age of twenty-one she doesn’t seem much older. It’s quite obvious from fairly early on in the book what is going to happen, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this charming book.

I bought my copy of the book in Pitlochry, a small Scottish Highland town and I was amazed to see that it has a small rubber stamp in it which says Perkin, Grant and CI 542 Cangallo BUENOS AIRES. I think that must have been the bookshop it was originally sold in. I just wish that all our books could tell us where they’ve been in their journeys from being published to ending up in our hands, sometimes a couple of hundred years later in my case anyway. I do know that the original owner of this one was called Eileen Bannerman as she wrote her name in pencil inside it and the date 17th July, 1929.

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.