George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

I’ve enjoyed reading Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott this year but based on what I’ve read, in my humble opinion, the Nineteenth Century Female Author to beat all Nineteenth Century Female Authors is George Eliot. I felt this way after I read Silas Marner back in 2013 and immediately went out and bought The Mill on the Floss. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read it but I’m glad I finally did. I can’t wait this long to read more of Eliot’s work.

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From the beginning, Eliot’s own narration drew me into the story and I knew she wouldn’t disappoint:

Ah, my arms are really benumbed. I have been pressing my elbows on the arms of my chair, and dreaming that I was standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill, as it looked one February afternoon many years ago. Before I dozed off, I was going to tell you what Mr and Mrs Tulliver were talking about, as they sat by the bright fire in the left-hand parlour, on that very afternoon I have been dreaming of.

As I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about this novel since I finished it, the one thing I come up with as to why she is my favorite of the above mentioned authors is that her narrative and characters are so subtle and nuanced and yet she’s able to realistically surprise the reader by having characters respond in ways one wouldn’t have expected.

Like the heroines of the other authors, Eliot gives Maggie Tulliver an intelligence and strong will that pushes against and surprises her family and society, usually to their disappointment. Her brother Tom treats her in a less than noble manner while children but the reader (and Eliot herself, I believe) has to give a little admiration to Tom as he makes a tireless and ultimately successful endeavor to win back their lost family property and respect. The chorus of arrogant Aunts on Maggie and Tom’s mother’s side constantly chide Maggie for her nonconforming ways but eventually stand up for her when Tom feels he needs to banish her from the family.

As she develops a wonderful friendship and almost-romance with the shy and deformed Phillip Wakem, Maggie surprised me by getting caught up in the ways and words of the dashing Stephen Guest. Even Stephen Guest doesn’t fit the mold of “mean rich guy”; he reminds me more of Laurie in Little Women.

Then there is the finale that is arguably anything but subtle and nuanced. I firmly believe that many stories are worth reading even if one knows how they will end and The Mill on the Floss is one of them but I won’t reveal the ending. However, I couldn’t help feel that Eliot had given hints (subtle ones) along the way of how the story would wrap up. It was kind of like a literary de ja vu.

I’ll just say that of the three men between which Maggie’s devotion is torn, the one she ends up with is a fascinating choice.

What are your thoughts about George Eliot? Which of her novels have you read and how would you compare her to other popular Nineteenth Century Female British authors?

 

 

 

 

Jane Austen’s Persuasion

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No, it was not regret which made Anne’s heart beat in spite of herself, and brought color into her cheeks when she thought of Captain Wentworth unshackled and free. She had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy!

I’ve always felt that I have to hand it to Jane Austen for achieving rock star status some 200 years after publishing her work. Her novel Pride and Prejudice introduced me to her close to two decades ago. When I flip through the copy that I read, I see that I was still writing in books. Numerous times I would put a “Ha!” next to a sentence or section that I found humorous. A few times, I even put a “Ha! Ha!”

Little did I know that years later, my teenage daughters (at my wife’s suggestion) would read that same copy. They find it funny that I wrote all those Ha!’s. I think it was before the days of “LOL”.

I could see the proverbial twinkle in Jane Austen’s eye as I read Pride and Prejudice. I’m probably the only person that would compare Jane Austen to Kurt Vonnegut but Vonnegut has that same twinkle in his writing.

Now all of these years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Jane Austen again. This time it’s her final novel Persuasion which I have heard many in the blogosphere, in addition to my wife, say is their favorite and/or Austen’s best work.

Persuasion has more of a maturity about it than Pride and Prejudice while keeping with the same themes. Money, social status, and who will get married and why all still play into the plot. Throughout the novel, the word “persuasion” is used frequently to describe the influence various characters have over others in regards to the above list. The romance of Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth is a much longer process than that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It’s this length of time that might make this story the more realistic.

Yes, it’s realistic, mature and beautifully written with well developed characters; however, I didn’t find that same eye-twinkle in Persuasion that I did in Pride and Prejudice. That’s alright – not all great novels have to have humor. And I would consider Persuasion great.

 

 

War and Peace: The first 54 pages…

I started reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace yesterday.  It seems this book is synonymous with “big book”.  My edition has 1,442 pages; but when I think about it, several series over the last few years have significantly more pages than War and Peace.  I think of a certain kid’s series with a boy wizard that is at least twice as long.  In reading a little about War and Peace, I found out that the novel was originally published in serial format and the novel now is separated into four books, though they are together in one volume.

So far the story reminds me very much of Jane Austen’s writing.  The novel initially begins in 1805, right around the time that Jane Austen’s novels were published.  The characters attend quite a few parties and balls and discuss love, life, and politics.  Their conversations seem to be on a grander scale than the conversations in Austen’s novels, though.  Perhaps in part due to the continuous mention of Emperor Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte.

During the first gathering, the hostess, Anna Pavlovna, spends her time bouncing from one group of people to another making sure nobody is stepping on anyone’s toes with their political discussions.  I’ve been to parties like this.  At the (outloud) musings of Pierre Bezuhov regarding Napoleon (Pierre could be called “pro-Bonaparte”), one of his acquaintances tells him “My dear fellow, one can’t everywhere and at all times say all one thinks.”

So true, so true.  I think I’m going to enjoy this book.

 

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

We are now ready to tackle Dickens.  We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.

This is the first paragraph in an excerpt from Vladamir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature that I found in a preface to my copy of Dickens’ Bleak House.  I think I would have enjoyed having Nabokov, author of the infamous Lolita, as a professor (it also reminds me that banned book week is coming up).  The rest of this lecture is just as amusing, but informative.

But this post isn’t about Bleak House or Nabokov or Jane Austen.  It’s about Charles Dickens’ short novel Hard Times.  In spite of it’s brevity, it seemed to take me a long time to read.  Part of the reason could have just been me, but I would put a little of the blame on the novel, itself.

My understanding (and I’m by no means an expert) is that the majority of Dickens’ novels, including Hard Times, were written in serial form for magazines.  When I’ve read other Dickens novels, the question always persisted as to whether he made the story up as he went along or whether he knew how it would end when he started.  Usually, some small part of the story at the end would tie back to the beginning, giving the impression that he did have the story all figured out before he started writing and giving the impression of a brilliant mind and storyteller.

Hard Times was written in the same manner and while the characters are classic Dickens and his writing is superb in his character descriptions, the individual chapters don’t quite equal the whole.

The novel begins as though it’s going to be a story representing class conflict – not surprising as the impoverished seem to gain Dickens’ sympathies in many of his novels.  The Gradgrind  school in Coketown led by Thomas Gradgrind, Sr. seeks to knock out of it’s students any desire for fun or imagination.  While the Gradgrind family can be said to be wealthy, it’s not so much that money and the lack thereof come into conflict as hard cold facts conflict with art and creativity and just plain fun.

Thomas Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa and his son Tom, Jr. take central stage in the plot.  Louisa submits to being married off to a colleague of Gradgrind in order to keep her irresponsible brother out of money trouble.  Some side plots are intertwined as Stephen Blackpool one of the hired “Hands” of Coketown is falsely accused of robbing the Coketown bank and Sissy Jupe leaves the circus to live with the Gradgrinds.  The novel begins and ends with the circus.

My favorite character in the novel is Coketown, itself.  While Dickens desperately tries to paint the town as black and gloomy and dirty, some of his charm seems to always sneak in making the town’s bark worse than it’s bite:

A sunny midsummer day.  There was such a thing sometimes, even in Coketown.

I find even the name of the town a little humorous.

The major disjoint of the novel revolves around Thomas, Sr. At the beginning of story, he’s   hard and cold and willing to marry his daughter off to a braggart and boorish friend.  By the end, he is repentant and willing to do almost anything to appease his daughter.  Characters can change, it’s true, but usually the change process is part of the story.  I looked and looked but couldn’t find reason for this change.  It seemed to be pulled out of thin air.

A minor character named Mr. Sleary, one of the circus people, spoke with a lisp.  Dickens wrote with a lisp when his character talked.  I don’t think I’ve read anything more frustrating.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Favorite Quotations from Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish.  It’s a fun way to share thoughts about books and get to know other bloggers.  This week’s topic is favorite quotations from books.  It was easier than I thought to come up with these.

The first two are fairly well-known as famous final lines (1) and first lines (2) from novels, maybe even a little cliché, but I like them so I included them:

1.        “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

2.        “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I’m still amazed at how much mileage Hemingway could get out of this line:

3.       “Brett was damned good looking.”  From The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

On a personal note, I was going through somewhat of a “down” time in 2009 when I read this and thought “Someone actually knows how I feel!”:

4.       “Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.”  From Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

One of the more powerful lines from one of the more powerful novels I read in 2011:

5.        “I pray you will grow to be a strong man in a strong country.”   From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

You have to read the whole short story to fully appreciate this line – one of the funniest lines I’ve read in a long time:

6.       “My days are peaceful now, and my nights sleep deep.”   From “Moon-Face” by Jack London

Since I’ve never sat down and talked to Stephen King, I don’t know for sure, but it seems like this line from one of his more recent novels sums up his view on life:

7.        “…where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”  From 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I loved this variation on Lao Tse’s proverb from this brilliant book of essays on philanthropy:

8.       “Give a person a fish, and we feed him for a day. Teach a person to fish, and we feed him for a lifetime. Share with a person the joy of helping others learn to fish, and we enable him to participate in a goodness that transcends any particular lifetime.”   From We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

A great quote I’ve been carrying around with me for years from one of my favorite authors:

9.        “…it is as important to learn the important questions as it is the important answers.  It is especially important to learn the questions to which there may not be good answers.  We have to learn to live with questions…”  From In The Beginning by Chaim Potok

And the last one is from The Bible:

10.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.  From New American Standard Verision, 1 Corinthians 13:12

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I read this novel in both high school and college and this line always stuck with me, as well as everyone else in the classes:

11.  “Mother died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”  From The Stranger by Albert Camus

And since my wife and daughter are huge Jane Austen fans, I’ll include this one:

12.   It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“…a great deal of goodhumoured pleasantry followed…”

I am in an unofficial club that I don’t think has too many members.  It’s the “I’m A Man Who Has Read Pride and Prejudice and Liked It” Club.  Perhaps there are more members of this club than I realize.  It’s been a number of years since I have read Pride and Prejudice and I haven’t read anything else by Jane Austen since, until now.

I found Austen’s short story, The Watsons, on my shelf and decided to give it a try.  The story was forty pages of Dances, Card Games, Gossip, Carriage Rides, and Dinners of which “a great deal of goodhumoured pleasantry”  always seemed to follow.  All of this centered around the youngest Watson daughter, Emma.  The Watson family seemed to be fairly low on the society ladder that exists as a backdrop in both this story and Pride and Prejudice.  The Edwards (or the Edwardses, rather) were a few steps up on the ladder and the Osbournes were even higher.

Emma has a number of sisters, none of whom seem to have any matrimonial prospects, another huge “issue” in Austen’s stories from what I understand.  Details are not really given as to the problem these sisters have, but money, or lack thereof, seems to be a part of it.  Emma had been raised by an Aunt but has now come to live with her father.

As she is presented at her first Ball, much discussion takes place about her dark complexion from both men and women.  Several men at least take a slight interest in her including Lord Osbourne, one of the wealthier men at the Ball.  At one rather memorable moment, Emma dances with the ten-year 0ld, Charles Blake, a friend of the Osbournes.  By the end of the story and after several glances from other men, Emma is still alone.  Conversations revolved around who danced with whom and how often and in what order, who had relationships with whom and which ones didn’t work out.  Emma’s sister-in-law and brother pay her a visit and her sister-in-law makes a big deal out of Emma not having any marital prospects while her brother makes a big deal out of the fact that Emma’s Aunt doesn’t have any money.  Apparently it’s simply a given that their father, who is ill, doesn’t have money.

Making up for the general lack of plot, Jane Austen’s wit and wisdom seems to flow through every conversation, every dance, every meal and every card game.  I believe all of Jane Austen’s other novels are on my book shelf unread (by me).  I think I’ll have to read at least one more sometime this year.