Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

 Miss Marjoribanks cover

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant has been languishing on my Classics Club list for years, it was definitely about time that I got around to reading it, and I’m so glad that I did, it’s so well written. This book was originally published in 15 parts in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1865-66. Margaret Oliphant was Scottish, born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh. In case you don’t know – the Scottish surname Marjoribanks is pronounced Marchbanks and indeed by the end of the book Marchbanks does appear – in the shape of an estate and village.

It begins when Miss Marjoribanks, known as Lucilla to her friends is only fifteen years old, and her mother has just died. Lucilla was away at boarding school at the time but she has decided that she will leave school and concentrate on being ‘a comfort to her papa’. Papa is a popular local doctor and he succeeds in making Lucilla go back to school to finish her education, including a finishing year in Switzerland and Italy. By the time Lucilla gets back to her home town of Carlingford she’s raring to go.

She’s a managing sort of female and quickly takes control of the household. She gets the decorators in to transform the drawing room where her mother had died, making sure that the walls are the perfect shade of green to complement her own complexion and re-upholstering the sofa where her mother had died. She couldn’t be called good looking and she’s a bit on the heavy side, but her father is well off and she intends to stay at home with him for at least ten years before getting married, after ten years she thinks she’ll begin to ‘go off’. She very quickly develops what would be called in London ‘a salon’, with every Thursday night an open evening for the local society and very good dinners being served to them, no wonder she becomes very popular. The house becomes the centre of Carlingford society and Lucilla seems to have an abundance of common sense which helps her to manage everyone which could be very annoying – but somehow isn’t.

To begin with it’s her intention to stop any men from ‘speaking’ (proposing marriage) but over the years just as she thinks that the big moment is coming from various eligible bachelors – it doesn’t, and before she knows it her ten years of self-imposed spinsterhood are almost up and she’s sure that her best days are behind her.

To begin with I wasn’t too sure about this book but I really ended up loving it. Miss Marjoribanks’s thoughts and comments often seem so modern. Men were often seen as being rather inadequate and far from perfect and I really had to laugh when she met up with an old favourite from the past and realised that he had definitely ‘gone off’ far more than she had over the years.

Jack read Miss Marjoribanks before I did and you can read his thoughts on it here.

I agree with Jack that Miss Marjoribanks would make a great TV dramatisation and would be such a change from the seemingly constant re-makes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s works. It’s about time that TV producers branched out to the less well known writers of the past, but I suspect that they never actually read any of them.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse cover

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan was first published in 1954 but my copy is from 1955 when it was published in English, translated by Irene Ash. It’s a slim volume with just 132 pages. It was published when she was just 20 years old and had dropped out of the Sorbonne. The book is written in the first person.

This is a very simple tale, but it’s beautifully written. Cecile is just 17 and since her mother died when Cecile was only two she has had her father to herself. He’s now 40 years old and is described as being an attractive, pleasant and sophisticated hedonist, and he’s rich. His hobby seems to be falling in love with very much younger women, but he tires of them within a few months and Cecile is quite happy with that situation, she knows none of his women are going to be a threat to her relationship with him. Cecile is conducting her own holiday affair with Cyril, a young student.

Her father has rented a large white villa in the Mediterranean for the summer and he and Cecile are accompanied by his current girlfriend the red-haired Elsa which Cecile is happy about but when she discovers that her father has also invited Anne, the woman who had been her mother’s best friend she’s upset by the prospect of them all being together. Anne is 42, elegant and a successful fashion designer. Cecile should feel gratitude towards Anne as she had taken her in hand when she was at an awkward stage in her development and was suffering from a lack of motherly advice on clothes and such.

Cecile immediately sees Anne as an enemy although that isn’t immediately obvious, but when Anne begins to throw her weight about it’s obvious that things aren’t going to turn out well.

I really liked this one which I read for the 2019 European Reading Challenge which is hosted by Rose City Reader.

And also for the Classics Club

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cover

I feel that I might be close to being one of the last females in the western world to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The blurb on the front of the book says: Poignant, moving, triumphant – in the bestselling tradition of Angela’s Ashes. I find that really bizarre as this book was first published in 1943 and Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996 and is so much more depressing and frankly distressing than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The setting is the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn where the Nolan family is living a hand to mouth existence, being held back by the alcoholic father who is ruled by his need for alcohol but otherwise is a decent father and husband, greatly loved by his family despite his weakness. The book begins in 1912. Katie and Johnny are a young married couple. Katie married Johnny mainly because he had been her friend’s boyfriend and she liked knowing that her friend had still wanted him, she liked winning him but it wasn’t long before Katie realised that she had taken on a big problem and she realised that she would have to find work with a home as part of the deal as paying rent was going to be a problem. She can’t rely on her husband to come home from work with his wages. To add to their problems in no time Katie and Johnny find themselves the parents of a daughter and son.

Francie is the young daughter who along with her brother Neeley and their mother manage to cope with the poverty and often go hungry when Papa loses his job due to his drinking. He’s a singing waiter (who knew?). Papa has charm though and he’s a popular character, I think Francie inherited his charm. She’s a bookish little girl and her favourite place is the library, despite the fact that she doesn’t get much in the way of encouragement from the librarian. She can hardly wait to get home with her books where she sits out on the fire escape to read them, hidden from the neighbours by her tree. I loved Francie and how she matures in this book but there are other great characters in it too, people that I was happy to spend a lot of time with as this book has 487 pages.

To me there’s a vast difference between this one and Angela’s Ashes as in that one the mother is just as bad as the father is and she just spends her time drinking and smoking while her children die of starvation or suffer from terrible health problems that could be easily dealt with by a doctor. However Katie is the opposite, she’s hardworking and resourceful, but she isn’t able to hide that she loves Neeley much more than she loves Francie and Francie has to take second best all the time. This is how it was back then, in fact it was how it was when I was growing up in the 1960s/70s. Boys in families were treated like kings and the daughters were the maidservants. I hope it’s different nowadays!

I read this one for The Classics Club and I think I’ll probably give it five stars on Goodreads.

The Classics Club Spin #19 – The Earth by Emile Zola

The Earth cover

The Earth by Emile Zola was first published in 1887 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series and it’s the book that I got in the Classics Club Spin number 19. I’ve read quite a lot of books in this series and enjoyed most of them, I liked this one but it wasn’t exactly an uplifting read. My Penguin edition, translated by Douglas Parmee is 500 pages long and I was glad to get to the end of it, but apparently it was the author’s favourite novel.

Jean Macquart is now working as a wandering farmhand but previously he had been a corporal in the army, a veteran of the Battle of Solferino. When he reaches the small village of Beauce, north of Paris he decides to settle there, he’s attracted to Francoise who already has an illegitimate child with Buteau who is the youngest child of a local landowner. Buteau isn’t keen to marry Francoise but she decides to wait in hope that he will eventually. Meanwhile Jean says that he will marry her if Buteau won’t.

Buteau’s father Fouan is feeling his age and decides to split his land up between his three children who will work the land and pay their father a small pension from their farm incomes. Fouan’s older sister is very domineering, she’s nicknamed La Grande and she warns Fouan that he is making a huge mistake in giving up his land. She’s correct of course as as soon as Fouan gives up his land he feels that he has lost his status in the village, he’s just an old man of no importance now and it isn’t long before his children stop paying him his pension. They aren’t at all interested in him now that they already have their inheritance and they all start fighting amongst themselves. Fouan should have read King Lear.

Zola had obviously done plenty of research into the subject of agriculture and the problems that were faced by the peasants, the agricultural year is described as the peasants work their way through the sowing, reaping and then the wine-making and amazingly despite the hard work involved they always seemed to have plenty of stamina for illicit sex, they were a very loose-living bunch indeed. Under a hedge seemed to be a favourite place for it!

As ever though Zola’s descriptions are lovely and I intend to read my way through all of this series.

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

The Fair Maid of Perth or Saint Valentine’s Day as it was originally titled by Sir Walter Scott was first published in 1828 and I believe it was originally in three volumes, but they’re all incorporated in one book in The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels. I must say that these editions are really excellent as they have so many interesting explanatory notes, a glossary, an emendation list and all sorts. Scott seems to have felt that people might be losing their appetite for chivalric swashbuckling tales, but he was persuaded to carry on although there is an unusual ending – in my opinion. I must admit that the first volume of this book I ploughed through with not much enjoyment, I wasn’t too concerned by that as it usually takes me a while to get into the rhythm of Scott’s very wordy writing style. The further I got into the book – the more I enjoyed it.

The setting is mainly Perth and Falkland so just a stone’s throw from where I live, great for me as I could ‘see’ it all clearly in my mind. It’s 1496 and Catherine is such a beauty she’s nicknamed The Fair Maid of Perth. During a drunken escapade King Robert III’s eldest son Rothsay and his entourage try to abduct Catherine. She’s the daughter of a well-off glover and he is keen for his daughter to marry Henry Smith who is a very successful armourer. He’s also well known for being good at fighting and it’s that that puts Catherine off him. She isn’t into alpha males at all, doesn’t like violence and she already has feelings for a young man who had been her father’s apprentice in the past.

In this book Scott shows that he wants to move on from the days when clan warfare could result in some clans being more or less wiped out completely and looks forward to a more civilised society in the future – I think.

I read The Fair Maid of Perth for The Classics Club.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

No Signposts in the Sea cover

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West was first published in 1961 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics reprint from 1985.

I really liked this one, the setting is a cruise ship which is sailing to exotic locations and Edmund Carr is a passenger on it, one of the reasons he decided to go on the cruise is that he discovered that Laura is going on it and he has secretly admired the beautiful and smart widow for years.

Edmund had never married, his life had been taken up with his career in journalism and he had ended up being an influential leader writer on a serious Fleet Street newspaper. Edmund’s doctor has recently given him bad news, he doesn’t have long to live so he gives up his job to go on the cruise and spend his last weeks with Laura who knows nothing about his illness or indeed even that he will be on the cruise.

This is a thoughtful read as Laura and Edmund’s friendship deepens and they explore each other’s views on marriage and other things and Laura realises just how different their backgrounds are (possibly this explains Edmund’s reticence where a relationship with Laura was concerned) as Laura is obviously well-heeled and Edmund grew up in poverty in a teeny wee cottage. There’s plenty of humour though in observing the other cruisers and those must have been gleaned from the author’s own cruising experiences.

There is an introduction by Victoria Glendinning.

This was Sackville-West’s last novel, written when she was dying of cancer. She had a complicated personal life but was also a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, creating the famous Sissinghurst – a place that I have yet to visit.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

Classics Club Spin – it’s NINE

classics club
The 18th Classics Club Spin number is 9 and that means that I’ll be reading The Kill by Emile Zola before the 31st of August.

I’m very happy about this as apart from anything else my copy of The Kill only has 271 pages, very short for Zola I think, it looks like it’ll be a great read too.

This book is part of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and the blurb on the back says:

A great wave of redevelopment is bursting over Paris when Aristide Rougon arrives from the provinces in 1852. Fortunes are being made and lost by those with the nerve to speculate and to swindle on a grand scale. To some, Paris is disappearing in a cloud of plaster dust: All Aristide can see is a shower of gold.

I’m really looking forward to reading it now.

The cover of my copy shows a detail from the painting Foggy day near Madeleine by Jean Beraud.

If This is a Man/The Truce cover

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden cover

East of Eden by John Steinbeck was first published in 1952 and it was high time that I got around to reading it. I suspect that everybody who is a keen reader already got there long before I did, it’s probably a set book in many schools. I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck’s books and have never been disappointed and sometimes I absolutely love them, East of Eden comes into that category. It’s 714 pages and I read it in three days as I could hardly put it down.

The setting is the Salinas Valley in Northern California and Steinbeck said about East of Eden: “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

I must admit that the title East of Eden didn’t mean anything to me but it is of course from the Bible, Genesis – where Cain was told to go East of Eden after he killed his brother Abel and a version of that story is repeated throughout the book. The main story takes place from the beginning of the 20th century until just after World War 1 but does dip back to the 1880s at times. Mainly it’s about good and evil and how some people are just bad right through to the core whilst others are aware of their weaknesses and fight against their instincts. Many of the characters are from Steinbeck’s own family or neighbours.

As ever Steinbeck’s descriptions of the surroundings and his insight into the human condition, good and evil are a treat to read and I’ve always been slightly puzzled that he apparently didn’t have any Scottish blood in him as those are traits that are particularly prominent in Scottish literature – think Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and many others.

Steinbeck’s maternal family – the Hamiltons – feature in the book and much is made of them coming originally from Ireland and their fierce Presbyterianism, so that solved my problem of how Steinbeck could seem so Scottish – because he was obviously of Scottish descent although somewhere along the way they forgot about going to Ireland from Scotland. Maybe when people migrate more than once it’s easiest to only recall the most recent past. As the Hamiltons were Protestants then it’s likely that they were amongst the Scots who were encouraged by the British government to settle in northern Ireland in an attempt to keep those Roman Catholic Irish people down.

Anyway, all the Scottish elements of writing are in his books, but wherever his talent sprang from he was a great writer and after reading Travels with Charley I came to the conclusion he was a great human being too. If by any unlikely chance you haven’t read any of his books – you should definitely give him a go.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Classics Club Spin – Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

I’ve had Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov sitting on a shelf for over 20 years (maybe even 30) and when I bought it I hadn’t even heard of the book before. I freely admit I was drawn to the book by its binding, so I was pleased to read fairly recently that Oblomov is a book that is well thought of by others, so I was quite chuffed when I got it in this spin.

Lovely Book Cover

I can’t say I absolutely adored it but I did really like the book.

Oblomov is a likeable character, in fact there isn’t a bad boen in his body. As a young man who got a position in a government office when he left his home in the country he had the usual ambitions of hoping that it would lead to better things, but he quickly became disillusioned by the work and more or less took to his bed. He has classic signs of depression and even after he inherits the family country estate he just can’t get up the energy required to sort out the problems of running it. He has great intentions of building roads and bridges there, repairing houses and building a school for his peasants’ children. He lies in bed day dreaming of everything he will do there, but when it comes to it he can’t get up the energy required to get up and get dressed.

When Oblomov falls in love with a beautiful young girl he can hardly believe that she is interested in him, she rouses him out of his langour, he must get out and about to meet her. Despite being besotted by her Oblomov worries that he isn’t cut out for marriage, passion means expending energy and he has his doubts that he can manage much of that.

Oblomov is a kind and easy-going soul and he puts up with people that others wouldn’t give the time of day. This leads to him being targetted by a ghastly sponger who goes to Oblomov’s apartment to eat his food and drink his wine, even ‘borrowing’ his clothes and money, neither of which are ever seen again of course. Money from his estate is sent to Oblomov but he is so feckless that it disappears in no time, either given away or pilfered by servants.

His kind nature ends up in him being abused financially which leads to him having to move to a poor area of the city where he becomes the lodger of relatives of the sponger and they set about bleeding him dry of money.

Meanwhile Sophie has come to realise that Oblomov is never going to shake himself out of his torpor for long enough to be a decent husband and part of Oblomov is relieved as he prefers to spend his time just sleeping and eating anyway. His landlady is a wonderful cook and as we all know – the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so he had been getting very attached to her.

Things take a turn for the worse when his landlady’s brother blackmails Oblomov, saying he has damaged his sister’s reputation and this ends up with the brother and the sponger being in control of Oblomov’s estate.

The cavalry rides in in the shape of Oblomov’s German childhood friend who realises what has been going on and sorts the whole mess out.