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!

Linda Tressel by Anthony Trollope

Linda Tressel by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1868. The setting is Nurenberg in Bavaria, I think this is the first book by Trollope that I’ve read which wasn’t set in Britain or Ireland. I really enjoyed this one despite the fact that it was the third book on the trot I’d read which had extreme Presbyterianism/Calvinism as the theme. I’ve been to Bavaria a few times and it’s known for being mainly Roman Catholic (or it was in the past) but I had no idea that Nurenberg was a staunchly Calvinist city.

Linda Tressel is a young woman who sadly was orphaned at a very young age. Her father had had a very prominent position in Nurenberg and they lived in a much admired house in the city – the Red House. Linda inherited the house and her widowed childless aunt came to stay in it, to be Linda’s guardian. Aunt Staubach is a fanatic when it comes to Calvinism and like all such people she only reads the dictatorial and miserable bits of the Bible.

Money wasn’t plentiful so they had a lodger to help finance their life. The lodger Peter Stenimarc happened to have been Linda’s father’s deputy and he had fallen heir to the promoted position that Linda’s father had held. Peter was 52 and so was over 30 years older than Linda. He had an ambition to be the master of the Red House and so proposed marriage to the aunt. She had only been married for two years when her husband had died and she had no intention of remarrying but she thought it would be a good idea if Peter married Linda, and she decided that that was God’s will. Nothing could be better than Linda marrying the man who had been her father’s junior as far as Aunt Staubach was concerned.

Linda is appalled at the prospect of marriage to Peter who is not only 31 years older than her but is fat, bald, except for a few carefully arranged strands of hair and is very far from being love’s young dream.

Linda has a fancy for a young man she has seen from her window, Ludovic Valcarm happens to be a relative of Peter, but he is seen as being a bit of a rebel. He didn’t knuckle down and get on with work at the local council offices as his cousin Peter did, and preferred to work at a local brewery. Worse still he has got himself involved in liberal politics and has been arrested by the police in the past.

Linda’s aunt is horrified at the thought of her niece ending up losing the respect of the inhabitants of Nurenberg and she exerts incredible pressure on Linda to do as God (Aunt Staubach) wishes and marry the ghastly sleazebag that is Peter Stenimarc.

Linda ends up being imprisoned in her own house until she will accept Peter as her husband. Even when she runs away to Augsburg her aunt brings her back and will not relent.

I couldn’t help thinking – for goodness sake Linda tell your aunt where to go – it was Linda’s house after all. But of course Linda’s Calvinist upbringing (brainwashing) had been so strict that she really believed it was her duty to forego any joy in life and do as she was told by her elders.

Linda Tressel isn’t the first Trollope which I’ve read with the subject of young women being married off to much older men. It was obviously a procedure that he really disapproved of and as with all of his writing he was trying to point out social evils, no doubt in the hope that others would begin to see the problem in the same light. He always seemed to be on the side of decent women who got the bad end of a bargain in life. Who wouldn’t love his writing?

I read this one for the Classics Club Challenge.

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

I’m steadily working my way through Trollope’s Pallisers, this being the fourth book in the series, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it all. In fact I’m having to make myself take a rest in between them and read something completely different (and less of a chunkster) otherwise it would be ages before I was ‘living’ outside 19th century Britain.

As you will realise from the title, Phineas Finn makes a comeback to Westminster via the constituency of Tankerville where he is eventually proclaimed as their MP after the vote was scrutinised and his opponent was found to have been bribing voters.

Although he doesn’t like the look of the place or its inhabitants he’s glad to be able to be part of the life of Westminster again, despite the fact that he is having to live off his savings as of course in those times MPs weren’t paid a wage, politics was really a rich man’s pastime. Phineas is hoping to gain a ministerial post as ministers were paid, but things don’t go well for him and he has such a quick temper and he takes offence so easily that it’s inevitable that he falls foul of enemies who are out to get him.

Well, that’s about as much as I’m going to say about the storyline, except to say that it did take a completely unexpected turn – for me anyway. I haven’t seen the Pallisers on TV so it’s all new to me.

In this book and the previous one there has been a lot written about Plantagenet Palliser, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, trying to get decimalisation of the currency through the House of Commons. This was a huge surprise to me when I first read it because decimalisation didn’t take place in the UK until 1971, when I was in primary 7. We were all given dummy sets of the new coins in plastic so that we would be used to them when they were minted. You can see what the old coins looked like here.

I was quite amazed to discover through Trollope that decimalisation was mooted as far back as Victorian times. I had a bit of a search and discovered it being spoken of in Hansard on 12th,June 1855. So it took over 100 years from then for the system to be changed to what is definitely a simpler way of calculating things but I must admit that I’m one of the generation who still thinks of prices in ‘real’ money, so I still find myself saying occasionally something like: Flip! That cauliflower is 30 bob in real money! In other words 30 shillings – or £1.50 in decimal coinage.

Planty Palliser or the Duke as I must now call him was exasperated as he didn’t know what to do about the farthings as five farthings wouldn’t fit into an old penny. That was no problem in 1971 because farthings had been abolished by then as being too worthless to bother about. A certain person sitting not too far from me now can remember being charged tuppence three farthings for something, it must have been sweeties surely. I bet shop workers were glad to be rid of them, it’s such a lot to have to say – for so little.

November’s Autumn Prompt

The August prompt for November’s Autumn is a difficult one for me, it is: write a memorable quote from the book you’re reading.

I’ve just finished Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse which I bought a while ago. It turns out that this is the first book by Woolf which I’ve read, I must have been getting her mixed up with Vita Sackville-West!

Anyway, I really wanted to like this book, for one thing Woolf’s maiden name is the same as my married name – Stephen – and believe it or not it isn’t all that common, in the singular. Also I love lighthouses and this book is set in Scotland, on the Isle of Skye. Apparently, it’s a modernist book and I obviously prefer old-fashioned ones.

It’s quite autobiographical, the Ramsays are based on Woolf’s parents except the Woolf household spent their holidays in Cornwall, where they visited a lighthouse, she has transferred the action to the extreme north of Great Britain. I say action but in truth there’s very little action in the book, nothing much in the way of dialogue and although it’s set on a Scottish island, there’s hardly any description of landscape or atmosphere, it could have been anywhere – or nowhere.

The youngest in the family, James is desperate to visit the lighthouse, but his father in particular seems quite determined to give him no hope of getting there, he’s a ghastly parent who has never quite grown up himself and prefers to behave like a cruel elder brother than a father. The one thing which stuck out for me in the book was the fact that Mrs Ramsay, who is a mother of eight, seems always to be knitting a stocking and she’s knitting it for the lighthouse keeper’s small son. I thought that there can’t be too many women who would be so generous when they have eight children of their own who would always be needing socks too.

Do you know that artist Paul Klee? Actually I like his work, you can see some of it here, he said that when he was drawing he was “taking a line for a walk”. Well I feel that when Woolf was writing To the Lighthouse she took her pencil for a walk and she rambled and rambled, to very little effect, for me anyway.

This is a paragraph from around about the middle of the book, just to give you an idea of the writing style, if you don’t already know it. You might like it, may think it’s quite poetic or something, thankfully we are all different!

Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference. Listening, (had their been anyone to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the wind and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness of the daylight (for night and day, month and year, ran shapelessly together) in idiot games until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself.

It says on the front of the book:

‘Woolf is Modern. She feels close to us. With Joyce and Eliot she has shaped a literary century.’ Jeanette Winterson.

I’m not a fan of James Joyce either.

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.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

I’ve had this Daniel Defoe book in my house for over 30 years and it’s one of those lovely wee dark blue leather bound books but luckily the print is quite good so it’s easy on the eyes. I’ve been avoiding reading it mainly because I’ve seen numerous TV adaptations but over the last couple of years I’ve been struck by how many authors have mentioned Robinson Crusoe in their own books, it must get the most name checks of any book surely. It was the detective in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone who was most keen on reading it though and he seemed to find everything he needed in Robinson C.

Anyway, first published in 1719 and as you would expect, the writing seems quite archaic at first but I got used to it and ended up quite enjoying it. Everybody knows the story probably, if Robinson had been a dutiful son he would have taken his father’s advice and lived a sedate middle-of-the-road life as his father had noticed that those were the happiest of people. Being young and looking for adventure Robinson sailed off looking for excitement and he found it. He eventually ends up being taken as a slave but after years of slavery he manages to escape on a ship only to be shipwrecked and ending up being the only survivor of it when he manages to reach a nearby island.

Luckily he was able to swim back out to the ship and rescue lots of useful things to help him to survive – tools, some seeds, rum, sailcloth, guns and gunpowder – in fact he was fairly well stocked with the necessities of life. The island had a reasonable amount of edibles so I like to think that I could have managed as well as he did in the same circumstances.

The only thing that he doesn’t have is human company although he does have a dog and some ship’s cats. Robert Louis Stevenson thinks that the part where Robinson finds a human footprint in the sand as one of the most unforgettable scenes in English literature. Even although he later discovered that the island was used as an occasional ‘picnic area’ for a tribe of cannibals it was the scenes involving wolves in snowy mountains when he gets back to Europe which I found to be the most scary.

I did find the many descriptions of how he made pallisades around his cave a wee bit tedious but I’m glad that I’ve read it at last.

Daniel Defoe was born plain Daniel Foe and he decided to stick the De on to it to make himself seem aristocratic, that’s always a sign of a ‘dodgy’ person. And indeed Defoe was actually an English spy who took up residence in Edinburgh and infiltrated Scottish society and became an adviser to committees of the Scottish Parliament and the Church of Scotland. The English government had given orders to make sure that Scotland joined itself to England, for one thing Scotland had a ‘great treasury of men’ which England wanted to use.

Afterthe deed was done Defoe had the grace to admit that he had been wrong. He had apparently thought that Scotland would become more prosperous joined to England but of course the opposite was the outcome and poverty and unemployment became much worse.

Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe whilst he was living in Edinburgh and it’s thought that he got the idea from the true story of Alexander Selkirk from Lower Largo in Fife who had been marooned on the island of Juan Fernandez near Chile which has since had a change of name to Robinson Crusoe Island.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Graham Greene wrote this book between 1952 and 1955. He was inspired to write it after spending four weeks as a war correspondent in Indo-China for the Sunday Times and Le Figaro.

It’s set in the beginnings of what later became the Vietnam War. Thomas Fowler is an English war correspondent there and although he has an abandoned wife back in England who refuses to give him a divorce, he has been having a relationship with Phuong, a young Annamite (from eastern Indochina). Phuong is obsessed with the British royal family and hopes to be able to go to London some day.

Pyle is a young American and he is besotted with Phuong from the minute he first sees her. I’m not sure if Pyle is supposed to be ‘not quite the full shilling’ – anyway, he is completely upfront about wanting to take Phuong from Fowler and seems to be under the impression that that means he is a decent man.

Phuong’s main job is to prepare Fowler’s opium pipes and to be a compliant easy lay, basically. Fowler is attached to her because she’s of use to him without giving him any emotional problems.

Fowler was sick of Americans before Pyle came on the scene, he saw them as greedy and imperialistic, making sure that they came out top in any business deals and that their allies the French were left out of things.

Fowler realises that Pyle is working undercover and underneath all that wide-eyed decency and innocence is a dangerous man who thinks in black and white – the white being America and the black being anything against America but particularly communism. Pyle is quite happy to unleash bombs in areas which he knows will be full of innocent people, he thinks the cause is good, so their deaths are unimportant.

As you can imagine this book didn’t go down well with the American reviewers at the time but I think that it’s probably an accurate reflection of what Graham Greene experienced.

This is another one from my 2011 Reading List.

The subject matter wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I quite enjoyed it.

If you’ve read the book and you want a laugh, have a look at this review here from The New York Times 1956.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Can You Forgive Her? is the first in The Palliser Series and I thought it was about time that I got around to reading them, especially as the Angela Thirkell books which I’ve been enjoying recently are very loosely based on the series, although a few generations later.

I had seen a comment from another blogger that the book should have been called Can You Stand Her? and I can see what they mean, but in the preface it says that it could have been called Can She Forgive Herself?

Alice Vavasor is a young woman with a very complicated love life and as her mother died within a year of her marriage to Alice’s father it means that Alice has no older female to guide her in these things. Her cousin Kate Vavasor is keen for Alice to become engaged to Kate’s brother George and George is happy to go along with the idea because it means he would get his hands on Alice’s money.

However Alice broke the engagement because of George’s bad behaviour and subsequently became engaged to John Grey a gentleman who has a small country house, called Nethercoates, in Cambridgeshire. Alice finds the area unlovely and fears that she won’t enjoy life amongst people that she doesn’t know and thinks she will miss the bustle of London, even although she rarely goes into society there.

It has to be said that John Grey could be described as being a decent but boring man and Alice believes that, in modern parlance he’s not that into her. But she’s entirely wrong about that, it’s just that John Grey is a very buttoned-up sort of chap who isn’t very good at showing his feelings.

Inevitably Alice changes her mind yet again and cousin George comes back on the scene, aided and abetted by his sister Kate.

Anyway, that’s the gist of the story but it’s a very long book in two parts, each of over 400 pages in length. So there’s a lot more to it and at times it veers off to Yarmouth where Aunt Morrow, who is a very merry, rich widow and, despite her husband being dead only four months, is setting her cap at various men. She’s a really unlikeable character. Presumably she is in the book to add some humour but I felt it did get in the way of the story and in fact in the introduction which I always read last it did suggest that readers should skip those bits entirely.

But the most interesting character is Lady Glencora and I can see that her husband Plantagenet Palliser is going to be driven to distraction by her and a good thing too.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I’ve been avoiding reading this book for a very long time because the subject matter didn’t really appeal to me. I’ve never watched a Frankenstein film either but when I saw the book in my local branch of The Works at the amazing price of 10p – I took it as a sign that it was time to read it. Also, I just realised that I can make it my first book which counts towards the Gilmore Girls Challenge.

I did enjoy the book, it wasn’t really what I had been expecting at all. Frankenstein isn’t the monster but is actually a chemist who has managed to construct a monstrous form of life, which is a really crazy idea. The monster escapes and Frankenstein believes that he has let loose a murderous being on society.

The monster learns about human life whilst hiding out close to a family and being able to observe them he develops language and teaches himself to read, hoping that he will be accepted by society despite the fact that he looks so scary. But he is driven away by the family and his anger and loneliness change him from a gentle beastie into one consumed with bitterness and rage. He decides to track down his creator with the intention of making Frankenstein create a female monster to alleviate his loneliness.

The action switches from Switzerland to Britain with Frankenstein hoping that he can avoid the monster there. Frankenstein and his friend Clerval travel round Britain from London to Oxford, Derby and then to Scotland visiting Edinburgh, including Arthur’s Seat and St Bernard’s Well before travelling on to Cupar, St Andrews and Perth, ending up on a remote Orkney island, which is where the monster caught up with him. Obviously this is just a brief outline of the story and I’m not going to go any further with it. I think it is the sort of book which you could read umpteen times and find something new in it at every visit.

Mary Shelley wrote this book during a holiday in Switzerland with her husband Percy Byshe Shelley and Lord Byron. The weather was dreadful with the sun being unable to break through the atmosphere which had been polluted by the eruption of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.

During this dark and spooky time they had entertained each other reading German ghost stories and decided they would all write their own, but Mary’s was the only one which was completed.

I was really surprised when the action moved to Scotland, close to where I live. It seems that every book that I pick up at the moment has a Scottish dimension.

Anyway, I’m glad that I read this one at last and I may even do so again.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’m not going to do an in depth review of this book, I’m just going to make a few observations. It’s a fairly hefty tome at 627 pages, this is partly because it was originally printed in a weekly magazine and I suppose the editor wanted so many words each week to fill the allotted space for it. You can down-load it in instalments if you want to go for the authentic Victorian experience and I think I might have preferred that, then you get the cliff-hangers which Collins wrote for the end of each piece. Also, I imagine that if you are waiting a week for the next instalment then you are bound to think about it more and try to guess which turn the story is going to take.

I did think whilst reading it that the Count Fosco – Sir Percival relationship was what the Victorians would have deemed to be ‘unnatural’. There was the constant repetition that Count Fosco had a strange power over Sir Percival and in my Penguin edition on page 214, Marian describes Sir Percival as having a mania for order and he is upset even by flower-blossoms which have fallen on the carpet.

I think that Victorian readers would have seen such behaviour as ‘womanish’ and definitely suspect in a man. Coupled with Count Fosco’s flamboyant clothes and Sir Percival’s assertion that there was no chance that Laura would be having any children, it does seem to add up to me, but nobody else seems to have noticed it so I might be going off at a mad tangent with that thought. However I see from the introduction which I have just read – I always keep that for last – that Oscar Wilde was given the nickname of Fosco when he was a student.

So, it’s very wordy with masses of description and doesn’t really have much in the way of humour in it. Mrs. Catherick is a tragic/comic figure in her determination to appear to be respectable, but I did enjoy reading it although I probably wouldn’t read it again.

I reviewed this book as part of the Thriller and Suspense Reading Challenge.