November’s Autumn Challenge

I joined in a few challenges this year after swearing that I wouldn’t, November’s Autumn was the one which I joined first I think. It seemed easy to complete so I thought that I might as well go for it, but I’ve just realised that I didn’t actually manage to finish all seven books. I completely forgot about The Old Wives’ Tale so I plan to read that one early on in 2013.

I did read lots of other classic books though, so it has been a good year classics-wise for me. Buying a Kindle has definitely helped as so many of my classics are really old editions with very small print, which is very off putting, especially for bedtime reading.

Yet again I’ve decided not to join any challenges. It’s not that I feel them to be a burden or anything but I often read the books and forget to link them to the challenge, so I’m sort of humming along on my own, which I’m quite happy to do. I’ll follow other people’s challenges from a distance this year I think.

This is my list of books which I read for this challenge, or didn’t read!

1. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

2. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4. Summer by Edith Wharton

5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

6. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

7. The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott

November’s Autumn September Prompt

The September prompt over at November’s Autumn is which piece of music reflects the classic book which you read? I have to admit that I was flummoxed, but just for a wee minute, then it came to me – any music which is played at the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

I read Phineas Finn, Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister recently, all books from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, mainly set in the the atmosphere of power and arrogance of Westminster but occasionally taking forays into the countryside and to Scotland, exactly as they do every year at the last night of the proms.

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March – Land of Hope and Glory – is a perfect accompaniment to the Victorian splendour of Westminster and the ‘promenaders’ with their hooters and whizbangs mirror the character of Lady Glencora with her cheek and disrespect for authority.

Rule Britannia of course is a must and the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly certainly enjoyed herself here.

The Sailor’s Hornpipe ia always more than a wee bit of mayhem as the promenaders (the eccentrics bobbing up and down, they have no seats, hence the name) join in as much as possible. I believe there were some nasty comments on You Tube about this behaviour. Maybe you have to be a Brit to appreciate the humour of it all. Anthony Trollope enjoyed poking fun at the establishment, politics and even himself.

I think all of the Palliser books feature Scotland, just as the Proms do as they traditionally end with Auld Land Syne. Years ago a very funny Scottish conductor tried to teach them how to do it properly but he was wasting his breath because they never do. Apart from anything else, like pronunciation being wrong – it’s never ‘Zine’ as some people say, you shouldn’t cross your arms until the second verse; so just at the end.

These pieces of music definitely give you a flavour of Victorian Britain, Empire, humour and downright eccentricity, just as Trollope’s books do.

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.

November’s Autumn Classics Challenge

It’s months since I’ve read anything for this challenge, you can have a look at the July Prompt here.

So, which book has left a Lasting Impression?

For me that has to be Germinal by Emile Zola. I must admit that I read it a while ago, you can read my review of it here.

It isn’t a comfortable read and that’s probably one of the reasons that bits of it are still so clear in my mind. It’s about unemployment and people who are starving, rich people exploiting the poor and the terrible working conditions down mines which had to be endured, just to try to stay alive.

More than a hundred years on, the same problems are still with us. In the case of the men who are mining, they are still being buried alive and killed by roof collapses or explosions. If anything the conditions are even worse down the mines nowadays as machinery is used, so the noise and heat of that is added to what was already a hellish environment.

Remember the miners when you buy some silver/gold jewellery or a diamond ring. Some poor soul had to risk their life to dig it out of the earth for you. If, like me you’re squeamish about that thought, the only way you can get around it is to forego the bling or buy the antique variety. Then you aren’t propping up (no pun intended!) the modern mining industries.

November’s Autumn Classics Challenge Prompt

November's AutumnI decided to do level 2 of this month’s prompt and I’m writing about the character Norna of Fitful-head. She appears in The Pirate by Walter Scott.

Level 2
How has the character changed? Has your opinion of them altered? Are there aspects of their character you aspire to? or hope never to be? What are their strengths and faults? Do you find them believable? If not, how could they have been molded so? Would you want to meet them?

Norna is a sort of prophetess/white witch of a character and as such she is held in high esteem by the inhabitants of the isles of Shetland, who also have a healthy fear of her because of her seemingly magical qualities. You can’t help but admire a woman who makes a good living by selling fair winds to sailors and anyone else who needs help. I suppose she’s a bit of a con woman really but there’s no real nastiness about her. She has just had to acquire her reputation as a way of surviving in a male dominated and harsh environment. I would have been quite happy to meet her.

She has had to put a lot of work into exploring the islands so that she knows all of the hiding places which were used by previous generations when Viking marauders came raiding, and she knows all of the short cuts, which means that the other islanders think she uses supernatural means of getting about as they don’t think she could possibly travel around so quickly otherwise.

At the beginning of the book Norna is living in a tower on a cliff, with a dwarf who is her servant, far away from anyone else.

Towards the end of the book we discover that as a young woman Norna had been an unmarried mother and her kinswomen had given her son to his father who had sailed away with him to Spain. She also believed that she had been the cause of her father’s death and the guilt had caused her to withdraw from normal life.

Years later Norna mistakes another young man for her son and her actions end up putting her real son in danger. When she discovers her mistake the shock changes her character completely. She refuses to answer to the name Norna which she had adopted and reverts to her real name Ulla Troil.

From the book:

“From that time Norna appeared to assume a different character. Her dress was changed to a simpler and less imposing appearance. Her dwarf was dismissed with ample provision for his future comfort. She showed no desire of resuming her erratic life; and directed her observatory, as it might be called, on Fitful-head to be dismantled. She refused the name of Norna and would only answer to the appellation of Ulla Troil. But the most important change remained behind. Formerly, from the dreadful dictates of spiritual despair, arising from the circumstances of her father’s death, she seemed to consider herself an outcast from divine grace; besides that, enveloped in the vain occult sciences which she pretended to practise, her study, like that of Chaucer’s physician, had been “but little in the Bible.” Now the sacred volume was seldom laid aside; and to the poor ignorant people who came as before to invoke her power over the elements, she only replied – ” The winds are in the hollow of His hand.”

I must admit I preferred the character of Norna but as The Pirate was first published in 1822 it probably wouldn’t have gone down very well with readers if Norna/Ulla didn’t have some sort of experience which caused her to become a good Christian woman again.

You can read my review of The Pirate here.

The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott

November's Autumn

I read The Pirate as part of the November’s Autumn classic challenge.
All the nice girls love a sailor, so THEY say – but what sort of girls like a pirate? My sort of course, I’ve always had a bit of a yen for the pirate type, in fiction anyway, which is why I opted to read this book. I can’t even read the word pirate without saying – aarrr Jim lad to myself, that’s Long John Silver of Treasure Island fame of course.

As I said previously this book was a very slow starter and I kept wondering when there would ever be some pirate action. It didn’t come until about two thirds of the way through the book. I was reminded of a heart monitor because The Pirate is very wordy and Scott does quite a lot of rambling for no good reason really, so it sort of flatlines and then there’s the odd spike of interest or excitement. But those bits are good and in the end I was glad that I hadn’t given up on it.

The action is set on Zetland, which is what we call Shetland nowadays, a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. Mordaunt Mertoun is a young man who has never known his mother and has been brought up by a very cold and unloving father. When Mordaunt sees a ship being wrecked on the rocks near his home he has to save a sailor who is in danger of drowning, despite the fact that the Zetlanders don’t approve of such actions. In a harsh landscape where scavenging for goods from wrecked ships helps the islanders to survive, so they don’t want the complications which shipwreck survivors bring.

The survivor is a young man called Clement Cleveland and as predicted by the Zetlanders he brings no good to Mordaunt, in fact Cleveland turns Mordaunt’s friends and neighbours against him, particularly the sisters Brenda and Minna.

It’s a long book and I’m not going to say much more about the storyline but I have to say that although it dragged along slowly at times I did enjoy the atmosphere and descriptions of Shetland and later Orkney. The story is set not all that long after Shetland became part of Scotland, you might not know that up until the 15th century Shetland was part of Norway but it was given to Scotland as part of a dowry payment from King Christian of Norway on his daughter’s marriage. So there was a big Scandinavian influence and at the time The Pirate is set the islanders see the Scots as foreigners.

Walter Scott has woven Norse mythological tales into the storyline with the result that I want to read more about them, so that’s a plus point I think. I especially liked the character of Norna of Fitful Head who is a sort of white witch/soothsayer and makes a good living selling fair winds to fishermen and sailors, what a great idea! The population is generally wary of her and wants to keep in her good books.

Fitful Head is an actual place and you can see some wonderful images of it here and here.

So as I said before, reading The Pirate was a bit like wading through porridge at times, without the benefit of sugar or syrup but on balance it was worth it, if only to find out about Fitful Head, it might be added to our places to visit list!

Summer by Edith Wharton

November's Autumn

I read this book as part of the November’s Autumn Classics Challenge. Although Summer is set in rural America, the Massachusetts Berkshires, rather than Wharton’s more usual setting of New York high society, she’s still writing about similar situations.

Charity Royall is a young girl who is living in the village of North Dormer which has nothing in it but a library which hasn’t had a new book in it for over twenty years. The books that are there are mouldering and damp and Charity gets the job of running it all. Charity is really a mountain girl but she was taken from her mother when she was a baby by the lawyer Royall and although he never adopted her he is the father figure in her life. Mrs Royall died seven years after Charity arrived from the mountain.

The mountain people live their lives completely separate from the rest of society and it’s a desperately hard and miserable existence for them. They don’t seem to want to help themselves and are portrayed as feckless, lawless drunks. Charity never hides the fact that she is really one of them and she never seems to realise that the snootier people of North Dormer and the larger nearby town of Nettleton look down their noses at her and she isn’t even able to get into the boarding school because of her background. Despite the fact that Charity has been brought up in the household of the most important man in town, her humble origins are held against her.

This is a recurring theme in Wharton’s writing where there are often young women who don’t quite fit in to society and will never be accepted by the ‘old’ families of the area. They teeter on the edge, just as the mountain people teetered on the edge of the law and starvation.

It’s a very quick read at just 190 pages and if you haven’t read anything by Edith Wharton before I think Summer would be a good place to begin.

Who was Edith Wharton?
She was born in New York City in 1862 and died in France in 1937. She’s buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles.

I didn’t know an awful lot about Edith Wharton before I read this book. I knew that she came from a very privileged and wealthy American background and that Henry James was a friend of hers. She must have made a lot of money from her writing and she moved to France as she seemed to be happier in European society. I also knew that she had won the Pulitzer prize for The Age of Innocence and was furious when she heard that she was given it because of its “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” She wondered if they had understood the book because she had been trying to highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of the society.

So I was really surprised when I discovered recently that she had worked very hard in France during World War I. She wrote a series of essays called Fighting France (1915) in an attempt to get America to join the war. She raised money for relief work and organized and ran American Hostels which helped shelter and feed the thousands of refugees who had been uprooted by the war. The whole experience was an exhausting and depressing one and she wrote to a friend at the time that she had a sense of waking “in the middle of the night with a black abyss where one’s heart ought to be.” She was very angry at the American government for refusing to join the war. Surprisingly it was at this time that she wrote Summer, and for all we know it might just have been the thing which got her through it all. Thankfully by the time Summer was published in 1917 the US government had joined the war.

Edith seems to have had a very bad relationship with her mother and although she had two brothers, they were 12 and 14 years older than Edith and I think this is why she often seems to write about abandonment and not being part of society. I think this is something which inevitably happens in families where there are large age gaps and the children don’t share the same experiences and schools. It certainly happened in mine. It also has to be said that there are a lot of women who really put their sons on a pedestal high above their daughters and Edith’s mother seems to have been one of those. She seems to have given Edith no help or support, and even when Edith asked her mother for some information and advice about sex just before she was married – none was forthcoming.

Well nobody has a perfect upbringing I’m sure and Edith’s experiences all contributed to her writing. I don’t know about your mother but mine didn’t even tell me about the birds and the bees! I should be a modern day Edith Wharton really. What went wrong?! Oh well, such is life.

Edith Wharton’s estate The Mount is in the Berkshires so it’s an area which she knew well. It looks a gorgeous place, I just wish that I could click my fingers, or wiggle my nose to get there. This year is the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth.