The Odd Women by George Gissing

This book was written in 1892 and was published the following year. The Odd Women in the title are those half a million or so ‘superfluous’ females who are never going to find a husband because of the imbalance of the sexes at the time.

Monica Madden was one of them, along with her two older sisters, and they had struggled to earn a living since the early death of their parents. Monica is wearing herself away at a place of business, a sort of shop/warehouse, where she has to spend many hours on her feet, in an unhealthy atmosphere.

Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn are two unmarried ladies who are dedicating their lives to the betterment of young women, hoping to educate them with office skills and the ability to support themselves in independent lives, with no need to rely on men to look after them. Monica takes the opportunity to leave her workplace in the hope of finding something better after she has had some training, but her heart isn’t really in it and she ends up marrying a man more than twice her age whom she hardly knows at all. Basically Monica married her stalker, Edmund Widdowson, who had become infatuated with the young girl and it wasn’t long before Monica was being suffocated by his possessive and jealous behaviour. It can only end in tears!

Free union is spoken of by other characters, in other words living together as a married couple but without the legal formalities. That subject was about 80 odd years ahead of the times in my neck of the woods anyway – where anyone contemplating that was ‘living in sin’ and would be ‘the talk of the steamie’ right up until about the 1980s!

I had read differing reviews of this book – some people really enjoying it and others finding it a bit meh. I have to say that I was on the side of those who were underwhelmed by it until about half way through, when for me anyway it began to pick up and I did end up by enjoying it. It isn’t a book which I would ever want to revisit though.

George Gissing evidently had a low opinion of women but he seems to have married women that he barely knew, his first wife was a prostitute so the relationship was unlikely to be all hearts and roses – she took to the bottle. The characters who get married in the book do so to escape from unsatisfactory situations but only end up with another set of problems. Frying pan to fire.

As I was born in the 1950s – just – I found the subject matter quite surprising because things didn’t seem to have moved on that far when I was growing up. There was still the belief that if a woman wasn’t married by the time she was 21 then she was ‘on the shelf’ and doomed to a miserable life, always living with her parents – a perpetual child until the parents grew old and then the unmarried daughter became their carer.

Mothers, including my own, actually said that there was no point in bothering about (putting effort into) daughters because they would only end up pushing a pram anyway. We could have been doing with some ambitious women as role models back then but the phrase ‘career women’ was spoken like a dirty word then. How times have changed.

The Claverings by Anthony Trollope

This book was first published in 1867.

At first I thought that The Claverings was going to be very similar to The Belton Estate which was the last book by Trollope which I read but it ended up being quite different. I did enjoy it although it took me longer to read than I had expected but that was really just down to me being a bit too busy.

Joan Kyler and I have been doing what I think is called a buddyread together and we plan to exchange our thoughts on the book, anybody else who has read it please feel free to add your comments.

I do think that Trollope was a master of observation, even today all of his characters are very recognisable in society. I suppose human nature never really changes from one generation to the next.

As Joan has already mentioned – the men in this book are all fairly unlikeable really. The best that can be said for most of the male Claverings is that they are a completely lazy and feckless bunch and if they hadn’t been born into comfortable circumstances there wouldn’t have been much hope for them being able to make their way in the world, and Sir Hugh is an absolute swine of a husband.

The book begins with the beautiful Julia Brabazon jilting Harry Clavering because although she loves him she can’t see him ever having much money and she wants wealth and a position in society, consequently she marries a rich young lord instead and her troubles begin.

I’ll leave it there to see if Joan wants to add her observations.

Classic Children’s Literature

I’ve made a bit of a study of classic children’s literature over the years and although I don’t count myself an expert on the subject, I felt I just had to write to The Guardian Review about last week’s article by A.S. Byatt.

So I was really pleased to see that they had actually published the letter yesterday and illustrated it with a cartoon.

Letters section of Guardian Review 6/3/10

For some reason the Review letters aren’t on the website so I can’t link to them. I took a photo of the page instead. Here’s a close-up of my letter and their cartoon which was by Tom Gauld.

In general it was quite a good article but I do think that Byatt might have made some mention of the fact that so many of the authors she mentioned were actually Scottish.

I find that people from England tend to take it for granted that the great children’s classics were written by English writers. However, J.M. Barrie, George MacDonald, R.L. Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne were all Scottish. In the case of Milne, I believe he was born in England but brought up by Scottish parents and had a grandfather who was a church of Scotland minister. Just thought I’d mention it.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This book was first published in instalments in the London Journal in 1862 and it was hugely successful. I can’t understand how I have never come across Mary Elizabeth Braddon before, I’ve only ever worked in libraries, but anyway I was lucky enough to come across this book in my most recent trip to my local library.

At 476 pages long it’s a fairly chunky read but I found myself getting through it very quickly – always a good sign for me. I really enjoyed it. It’s very much in the Wilkie Collins mode and indeed he is given a name check by the author towards the end of the book. But I actually think that Braddon is even better than Collins. To me, the characters were more likeable and realistic.

The storyline features blackmail, bigamy and murder – what more could you want? Well of course the usual ‘mad’ Victorian woman too. Apparently, up until this book was published wicked women were always brunettes and it all changed with this book as Braddon’s villainess is beautiful, blonde and dainty.

Thackeray said: ‘If I could plot like Miss Braddon I should be the greatest novelist that ever lived.’

Henry James,Dickens,Tennyson,Gladstone and Queen Victoria were also admirers.

If you enjoy reading Victorian ‘sensationalist’ novels, I think you would like this one. I’m certainly going to be looking for more by Braddon and I will probably re-read this one at some point.

I read this book as part of the Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge 2010.

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.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

I have to thank JaneGS and The Classics Circuit for encouraging me to read Wilkie Collins because I don’t think I would ever have got around to him otherwise. I’m on my third one of his now, (The Woman in White) but I read The Haunted Hotel over the Christmas holidays. Although I enjoyed it I was quite happy that it was a really short one, as I have so much of a backlog now.

Lord Montbarry has jilted his fiancee Agnes and married Countess Narona instead. As Agnes is well loved by everyone, they all turn against Lord Montbarry, however it seems to me that he was never a popular person. Even his brothers didn’t seem to get on with him, so the mystery to me is why Agnes was so in love with Montbarry in the first place? But such is life, I suppose.

Things don’t go well for the newly weds from the beginning and Lord Montbarry becomes very stingy with money. In an effort to save on hotel bills he rents a dilapidated, damp palace in Venice and his new wife’s ‘brother’ joins them there. The servants who have been brought from England are appalled at the behaviour of their mistress with her so-called brother and decide to leave for home as soon as they can.

When Lord Montbarry’s family in England hear that he has died they aren’t too surprised at first but then they discover that two insurance policies have been taken out on him and their suspicions are raised.

What had really happened to Lord Montbarry? Well I’m going no further so as not to spoil it for anyone.

I would recommend this one as an introduction to Wilkie Collins as it is a lot less wordy than some of his others. I can only suppose that at the time he wrote it he wasn’t being paid by the word – as so many authors were – and that was always a great incentive for them to pad things out. Either that or the opium that he had become addicted to by this time had exhausted him so much that he didn’t have the energy or the inclination to make it longer.

The Barchester Chronicles

I was lucky enough to be given the DVD’s of The Barchester Chronicles as a Christmas present and I’ve just finished viewing it all. I think this was one of the few classic book adaptations which I saw on television before I had read the books, so I had no idea if the BBC had done a good job or not.

I just knew that I really enjoyed the series, well you can’t go far wrong with such a brilliant cast I suppose. It was the first time that I remember seeing Alan Rickman in anything and he made a wonderful job of portraying the ghastly Obadiah Slope. Barbara Flynn looks so young too, it was made in 1988, which I can hardly believe.

Donald Pleasence, Nigel Hawthorne, Geraldine McEwan,Susan Hampshire and Clive Swift are the main players.

The series is based on the novels The Warden and Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope. A newspaper sets out to rid the Church of England of nepotism, using a young local doctor to spearhead the campaign. The reverend Harding, who is well-loved in the local community is targeted by the newspaper and his name is dragged through the press. At times of great stress, Mr Harding (who is in charge of the church music) plays the air cello whilst he is in mid verbal flow. I thought this was a great way of showing how emotional he became and I was pleased to discover that it is in the books.

When the old bishop dies, he is replaced by Bishop Proudie (Clive Swift) and his wife (Geraldine McEwan), with Mrs. Proudie very much the one wearing the bishop’s hat. I think that this might be quite a common occurrence as at the time the series was first aired they were exactly like a certain bishop and wife couple of our acquaintance with a diocese in the west of Scotland.

Throw in Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope, Mrs. Proudie’s sleazy side-kick and you have a very entertaining series. Don’t be put off by the ecclesiastical ambience of the whole thing.

Trollope seems to have had as much fun with names as Dickens did. One character is called Sir Omicron Pie and there is a Sir Lamda Mewnew, both doctors to the bishop.

It’s a good long while since I read the books but viewing the series again has whetted my appetite so I’m hoping that I enjoy them as much as I did after watching the series the first time.

The Country House by John Galsworthy

The only other Galsworthy books which I have read have been The Forsyte Saga series so I was interested to see what one of his more obscure books was like. Previously I have found his books to be very enjoyable and well written and I wasn’t disappointed with this one.

I galloped through it at a good pace because I found it to be so straightforward and clear, which isn’t always the way with Victorian novels. Strictly speaking, I suppose that The Country House is Edwardian as it was first published in 1907. However the action takes place in 1891. The themes are similar to those of The Forsyte Saga – family, marriage and infidelity.

Chapter 1 starts with guests arriving for a house party at Worsted Skeynes, it is the first shooting party of the season. At first I felt that there were rather a lot of characters being thrown at me and everyone seemed to be described minutely. I was a bit worried that it would all be a bit too much for bedtime reading but they all just seemed to fall into place without any complications.

The estate is owned by Horace Pendyce and has been in his family for generations but although it is farmed on model lines, it still runs on a slight loss. He is married to Margery and they have grown up children, 2 boys and 2 girls.

The eldest son, George owns a racehorse and has developed a secret gambling habit whilst living in town. A relationship develops between him and Helen Bellew, who is the estranged wife of a neighbour. She has left her husband, supposedly because he has a drink problem, however as she is a bit of a man-eater, there is always the possibility that she drove him to drink. They are regarded as both being at fault in the break up of the marriage, but when Jasper Bellew serves divorce papers to George, his parents are horrified to discover that he isn’t the sort of character that they had thought him to be.

The thought of such a scandal in his family is almost more than the squire can bear and there is a meeting to discuss the situation with the local rector Mr. Barter, the family solicitor and a cousin. George refuses to attend.

The rest of the book is about George’s parents reaction to his behaviour and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them.

The book deals with the hypocrisy of the divorce laws, as they were then. Actually they didn’t change until fairly recently, it was much the same in the 1970s.

I don’t want to give too much away and spoil things for any would-be readers. Suffice to say that I’m glad that I read the book, although I wouldn’t read it again.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been trailing our copy of The Moonstone around for over 33 years and six house moves and over 500 miles then back again. So it was definitely overdue for some real attention.

The book was a school prize which my husband won for first place in science in 1967 but he claims that he has never read it.

It is basically a mystery story which was first published in 1868. There was a bit of a boom in detective stories around about the end of the First World War and at that time the genre began to be seriously discussed.

One well known novelist had the opinion that The Moonstone was probably the finest detective novel ever written. As you can imagine that gave Wilkie Collins’s books a great boost. Until then he had been seen as nothing special and quite overlooked.

Apparently Collins didn’t regard it as a mystery novel – he said “The attempt made, here, is to trace the influence of character on circumstances. The conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl supplies the foundation on which I have built this book.”

There is quite a lot of humour in the book which I must admit I hadn’t been expecting so that was a nice surprise.

At one point I asked my husband if he was sure that he had never read the book as a youngster, he denied that he ever had but I have my doubts.

When Mr. Betteredge decided to get married to his housekeeper it was because it would be more economical for him. As a housekeeper he had to pay her so much each week, but as a wife she had to give him her services for nothing.

That attitude fairly well matches my husband’s – or is that just the way with all men.

Most of the comedy is provided by Miss Clack who is a very enthusiastic Christian who spends a lot of her time trying to get people to read the tracts which she scatters liberally around the place. She reminded me very much of born again Christians who used to live next door to us.

All in all, I quite enjoyed The Moonstone although it isn’t a book which I would want to read again. Too many books to try to get through anyway and I’m looking forward to The Woman in White, of which I have heard good reports.