“Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited was one more foray into the world of classical literature that I embarked upon recently, sparked by Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I had not read any books by Evelyn Waugh before, but had heard of him and of Brideshead Revisited, thanks to a recent movie adaptation. Since I haven’t seen the movie, I could enjoy the book unencumbered by the images of the movie characters superimposed over those in the book — which I find quite annoying and avoid as much as possible.

Brideshead Revisited is primarily an account of life in England in the first half of the 20th century narrated by a young man, Charles Ryder, starting with his days as a college student at Oxford where he meets and befriends a charismatic fellow student, Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, not in any romantic sense as we would now assume, but simply as very close friends who spend a lot of time together. Sebastian comes from a very wealthy family and lives in a palatial mansion called Brideshead to which he frequently takes Charles whenever he visits. Charles meets and becomes close to all the members of Sebastian’s family, including his beautiful sister, Julia, whom he almost ends up marrying, but much later in the book.

Most of the early part of the story is devoted to Charles and Sebastian’s escapades as students in Oxford, their visits to Brideshead, their travels abroad, and their interactions with the different members of Sebastian’s family. It almost gets to the point where you are over halfway into the book and you are wondering if anything is actually to happen! But then it does. Sebastian rapidly descends into alcoholism from which he never really recovers, Julia gets married but eventually ends up getting a divorce, and Charles drops out of Oxford to become a successful architectural painter. He also gets married and has children, but realizes, after a chance meeting with Julia many years later, that it is her whom he really loves. He also ends up divorcing his wife, and he and Julia are all set to get married when Julia realizes that she cannot go through with the wedding after all because of religious reasons — she is a staunch Catholic while Charles is an agnostic.

For a book set in the 1940s, there are a surprising number of divorces and affairs, which was surprising to me. What I also found unique about Brideshead Revisited was the extended discussions about religion and the critical role it plays in the book — not in bringing the hero and heroine together as you would expect, but in actually breaking them up. This disagreement in religious views happens so often between couples in real life but is hardly ever captured in fiction, and what impressed me the most about Brideshead Revisited was how it made religion a pivotal aspect of the plot.

Apart from this, I cannot really say that Brideshead Revisited was exceptional in any way, and I can see why it did not become a top-tier must-read classic. Much of it seemed to me to be “much ado about nothing.” I was glad to have read it, but I did not find it particularly riveting.

Having failed to find any classics that come even remotely close to how enraptured I was by North and South, I am reverting back to contemporary fiction. Just as Brideshead Revisited was primarily a social commentary on life in the 1940s, I hope to be able to find books situated in modern times with plotlines and settings that I can at least relate to.

Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Reprint Publisher and Date: Back Bay Books, December 2012
Original Publisher and Date: Chapman & Hall, 1945

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein

Three Lives.jpg

Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives is a literary masterpiece that everyone admires, and no one reads. Of those who do read it, few understand it. The reason is that it is innovative on many levels, and innovations have the big drawback of being shocking and disorienting. The most shocking aspect is that the novel depicts women of the servant class with respect. The innermost lives of women who are generally overlooked and undervalued are studied with care and sympathy. The humble are raised up. In addition, Stein shows how being in service constricts their opportunity to develop a sense of self, and their lack of self-hood makes their lives futile.

The true subject of the novel is selfhood or authenticity; it’s about free will and self-awareness. The three lives represent three unsuccessful stages of development of self-awareness, not culminating in fulfillment. Stein embodies these stages in fully-drawn characters, and then immerses these protagonists in detailed renderings of their social scene, peopled by vivid minor characters.

The first story is called The Good Anna. Anna represents the perfect servant, according to certain parts of the German-American community who adhered to old world traditions in the early 1900s. She devotes herself to service, both in her job and in her private life. She lives by an elaborate set of rules and strives to control everything around her. Anna’s life story is told through her relationships with others. We learn the complete life histories of her dogs, and we meet the under-servants that she scolds constantly, but her principal relationships are with her employers. First there’s Miss Mary Wadsmith, “a large, fair, helpless woman, burdened by the care of her brother’s two children.” She manages that household for several years, until the girl gets married. Then Anna goes to work for Dr. Shonjen, a jovial bachelor doctor. When he gets married to a social-climbing woman, Anna goes to work for Miss Mathilda. This was the happiest period in Anna’s life:

With Miss Mathilda Anna did it all. The clothes, the house, the hats, what she should wear and when and what was always best for her to do. There was nothing Miss Mathilda would not let Anna manage, and only be too glad if she would do.

Anna’s only family is a half-brother, a wealthy fat baker, and his sharp-tongued wife. Anna does her duty, as she sees it, by their family, but she doesn’t really care about them, nor they about her. The romance in Anna’s life is Mrs. Lehntman, a widow who supports her two children by working as a midwife. Anna is entirely “subdued by her magnetic sympathetic charm.” Romance, Stein explains, is the ideal in one’s life. The way this plays out is that Anna helps Mrs. Lehntman in all her endeavors—especially tending to poor young girls who are pregnant and alone. The two remain friends for many years, though Anna disapproves of some of her friends’ actions and gradually gains a more realistic attitude toward her. Anna’s other friends are all needy and dependent. She spends all her spare income helping people who are sick, who have bad luck, who are too ignorant to care for themselves, who long to follow their dreams. She makes no effort to plan for her own future or to care for her own health.

Anna complains constantly about the failure of the people in her life to meet her high standards of behavior, but generally she finds both success and contentment in her work as a servant. But service is the only way of relating to people that she understands, and it is the basic rule of her life. When she comes to a point in her life when she can no longer work as a servant, she opens a boarding house, and basically works herself to death in the service of the poor young men who live with her. All of Anna’s employers and friends urge her to take better care of herself, but Anna is not really aware of herself. That is the problem: no sense of selfhood.

The third story is called The Gentle Lena. Lena represents a person who is totally lacking in self-determination; she is a good girl, meaning a good maid who does as she is told without complaining. Her passivity causes her to be pushed about; her lack of will or self-assertion condemns her to a short, unhappy life, ending in gray and miserable dissolution. Stein represents Lena’s sweet and gentle nature in a lovely passage:

Lena’s german voice when she knocked and called the family in the morning was as awakening, as soothing, and as appealing, as a delicate soft breeze in midday, summer. She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping that gives a strength of joyous vigor in the young, over them that have come to the readiness of middle age, in their awakening.

When we first meet her, Lena’s life is an easy routine of housework and childcare, with an “unexacting mistress,” and she is fairly content. But Lena totally lacks will or self-determination:

Lena always saved her wages, for she never thought to spend them, and she always went to her aunt’s house for her Sundays because she did not know that she could do anything different.

Several times, the author describes her with this phrase: “She was always sort of dreamy and not there.” Her downfall starts when her bossy aunt succeeds in marrying her to an unaware gay man named Herman who appears to be as bland and obedient as she is, despite the fact that neither wants to marry. Herman is a tailor. He works for his father and lives with his parents in the house next door. Though the family is prosperous, they are stingy with money and lax in their grooming.

Lena began soon with it to look careless and a little dirty, and to be more lifeless with it, and nobody ever noticed much what Lena wanted, and she never really knew herself what she needed.

The worst part of living with Herman’s parents is that his mother harangues Lena constantly for not having their same stingy ways. Lena has no reassuring contact with old friends, who might come to her defense. Always dreamy, she becomes ever more absent and dull. When she gets pregnant, she is paralyzed with fear and sickness. The only way Lena gets any relief is through the help of an old cook who intervenes on her behalf and starts a process that leads to Lena and Herman getting a separate house after the child is born. But neither having her own place nor motherhood is enough to lift her out of her despair.

This did not seem to make much change now for Lena. She was just the same as when she was waiting with her baby. She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling. She always did everything regular with the work, the way she always had had to do it, but she never got back any spirit in her.

Herman’s sense of self is awakened by his strong desire to be a father, and the pair have two more children. Herman takes over the care of the children, while Lena becomes more and more lifeless. Lena’s fourth baby is still-born, and she dies giving birth as well. Except for the ‘good german cook,’ no one cares. In fact, now Herman can raise his family without having to worry about her.

These two stories serve as book-ends or supports for the central story, Melanctha. Melanctha is a seeker. She says she wants to know the world, but what she is really looking for is unconditional love, expressed as unbridled passion. When you dig down into the depths of this story, you learn that she was unloved in childhood, both by her pale, ineffective mother and her absent brute of a black father. A psychologist might say that she never learned to love herself because her parents didn’t show her much love. Early in childhood, she developed a cheery and helpful personality that hid her emotions and prevented her from making authentic contact with people. No one can ever love her enough to make up for her parents’ neglect.

While Stein makes women from German culture represent suffocating tradition, she reaches into the African-American community to create a character on a quest. Her father is black, but her mother is described as a pale yellow colored woman. Stein makes much of the fact that Melanctha is half-white. Her personality combines the stereotypical attributes of the two races: smart and articulate like white people; passionate and wild like black people, all this according to the stereotypes of the time.

When we first meet Melanctha she is in high school and just beginning to explore the world of men. When she gets out of school, she doesn’t seek employment. Just how she gets by is not explained, except to say that occasionally she does a little sewing for people. She spends more and more time hanging about with men; while she might not be hooking, she might be receiving various favors from admirers that help her get by. None of this is stated. Her circumstances are not important to the story. The story that Stein wanted to tell was about her inner life.

After a lot of romantic and sexual adventure, described in very vague terms, Melanctha rises to the point of engaging in a romantic relationship with a serious and virtuous doctor from the black community. The development, culmination, and decline of their romance is rendered with greater intimacy than any other fictional romance I know: we see exactly what Melanctha and the doctor think of each other at each stage of the process. From the beginning, they argue about authenticity. Doctor Jeff is a thinker, and has a lot of ideas about virtuous living that he likes to expound. Melanctha accuses him of ignoring his own principles; she says his behavior is not so virtuous as he likes to think. On the other hand, Doctor Jeff doesn’t quite trust Melanctha; she always seems to be holding something back.

Despite these initial misgivings, the two are attracted to each other. Melanctha grows to like Doctor Jeff’s warm and generous ways. Jeff is attracted by her beauty and her ability to articulate her thoughts, and he is charmed by the sympathetic way Melanctha listens to his incessant ruminations. Melanctha begins to hope he can make her feel secure. Their earliest conversations seem to be very authentic, each one expressing their truth sincerely. Stein allows them months of blissful wandering in nature and enjoyment of each other’s company.

But there is a fly in the ointment, and that is the original question of authenticity. At the peak of their bliss, Melanctha does something, just some random gesture, that reminds Jeff of her other life, her life with other men, the world she doesn’t talk about while she is listening to him so demurely. And in fact, Melanctha is not quite satisfied with Jeff either; she still thinks he is out of touch with his emotions; she secretly thinks he is sort of a wimp, but she has been submissive because she wants to please him. Stein depicts every step in the unwinding of their relationship. In the course of their arguments, they seem to cover every aspect of the search for authenticity that any psychologist ever identified, though they use everyday language, and are not sure themselves just what they are talking about.

Doctor Jeff drives himself crazy with too much thinking, but eventually he figures out that he was right all along. He rejects Melanctha’s claim that he is hypocritical and inadequate; he rejects her neediness that manipulates him into expressing more than he feels; he rejects her inability to talk about her past life. He sees that some place along the way, she quit talking to him sincerely like an equal, and started putting on an act in order to bind him to her. Slowly and painfully, Doctor Jeff backs away, and resumes his quiet, virtuous life.

Melanctha, on the other hand, is unable to learn from the experience. She doesn’t quite achieve a level of self-awareness that would enable her to learn from her mistakes; she is all instinct, driven by unquenchable psychological needs. Generously, Stein allows her to meet the man of her dreams and to have the perfect all-encompassing romance, for awhile; but the man is a gambler, and when his luck runs out, his love fades as well. Players only love you when they’re playing.

The strongest character in Melanctha’s life is Rose Johnson. Rose is described as careless, negligent, and selfish, but she is completely authentic: she always knows what she wants, she always has an idea of how to behave to get what she wants, she always has faith in herself. Melanctha becomes more attached to Rose than to any of the men in her life, and will demean herself with any sort of service in order to be with her. But even Rose eventually rejects her. She too becomes concerned about Melanctha’s other life, her secret interactions with unspecified men. She hates that Melanctha’s self-defeating behavior patterns. She gets sick of her simpering submissiveness, hiding a wild and promiscuous personality. She totally disdains Melanctha’s whimpering threats to end her own life.

Stein handles the rest of Melanctha’s life in summary fashion. She gets very sick, with consumption or something; she gets well after long treatment. She takes an actual job as a servant, and attempts to live a quiet regular life, but her health is compromised, and she dies young. Sad story.

An aspect of the novel that sounds harsh to the modern ear is Stein’s use of stereotypes in building her African-American characters, including the use of the word ‘nigger.’ However, you notice that she uses positive as well as negative character types, and she makes each character rise above type into eccentricity and particular traits. Moreover, her German characters are all stereotypes as well. All the characters conform to some known type, but the way they talk and the details of their lives are highly individualized and convincing.

On top of innovations in subject, theme, and structure, Gertrude Stein invented her own writing style, an elusive style that sometimes serves as a barrier because people reject its lack of conformity. The most obvious feature is repetition—repetition of descriptive phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs. Characters may be described with the same phrase in one situation after another, but each time that phrase relates to new phrases. She treats phrases like shapes that can be repeated in different parts of the picture. Whole anecdotes might be told in the beginning and repeated at the end of a story. For instance, Melanctha’s story opens with an event in a friend’s life: Rose Johnson has a hard time with her baby. That anecdote is repeated toward the end of Melanctha’s story, after we learn a lot about Rose and Melanctha.

This aspect of Stein’s style has been compared to Cubist painting, because it looks at a subject from different angles, and builds up a picture from layers. Repetition of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs also makes it sound like music; repetition is like the chorus in a song. These stories sound a little like long ballads.

For the critics of Stein’s time—who were steeped in the stilted prose of the 19th century and enthralled by the elaborate sentences of Marcel Proust and James Joyce—the ordinary, everyday quality of Stein’s language and sentence structure must have seemed primitive. Stein’s vocabulary is about 6th grade level, maybe lower, the type of words used by the servant class. The most complex psychological concepts are alluded to vaguely by everyday words, vernacular speech for German maids and women in the lower levels of the black community.

Stein also minimized punctuation: no colons or semi-colons, only commas allowed, and only when really necessary. Similarly, no capitol letters: she refers to ‘german’ girls. More remarkable, Stein doesn’t use subordinate conjunctions, like ‘although’ or ‘since’, to show relationships between facts or ideas. She tends to string simple sentences together with ‘and,’ piling up details one at a time. Nor does she use a lot of modifying prepositional phrases, such as ‘despite her reluctance…’ The result is, the novel can be read very rapidly; it sounds like ordinary conversation. Stein’s style is so fluid that she moves in and out of the thoughts of various characters without the reader noticing the changes from one to another. If you let down your resistance, the novel sounds like a long sad song cycle.

Three Lives is a hard book to put down. It sort of seeps into your soul. The only answer is to go on to Stein’s next major work, The Making of Americans, as I plan to do.

Three Lives
Author: Gertrude Stein
First published 1909

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.

“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.jpg

Having recently rediscovered my love for Victorian classics (courtesy Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South), I turned to one I hadn’t yet read – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. She is, I think, the least known of the Bronte sisters – Charlotte Brontë has become immortalized in our literary canon with Jane Eyre and so has Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. After finishing the book, I can see why. While the writing is as good – all the Brontë sisters were undeniably talented writers – I did not find the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the kind of book I would necessarily want to again read, unlike Jane Eyre, for example, which I have re-read multiple times and find it as enthralling each time as the first time I read it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is primarily the story of a young woman, Helen Huntington, and her journey – from being wooed as a young girl by a dashing, charming man whom she falls madly in love with and marries, to the gradual descent of the marriage into a loveless nightmare because of her husband’s predilection for alcohol and dissoluteness. Her only consolation is her son, born shortly after her marriage, but whom she eventually becomes desperate to remove from the corrupting influence of his father. So she does what was almost unimaginable in those days – she runs away. With the help of her brother, she becomes a tenant in a house he owns in a distant location, Wildfell Hall, and assumes a false name and the guise of being a widow. Being young and beautiful, she naturally arouses the interest and gossip of the families in the neighborhood, as well as the ardent love of a local landowner, Gilbert Markham. While the story does come to a happy conclusion at the end of the book, most of it describes the trials and tribulations faced by Helen and the degenerate behavior of her husband — to the point at which you just wanted to say, “Enough, already! Just leave him!”

Even though I did not find The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the kind of book I would love to read multiple times, it is definitely a good book and I am glad to have read it. For those who enjoy Victorian classics, it is one more on the rather limited list we have of these books. In addition to their literary merits, they allow us to know what it was like to live in those times, and therefore also serve as important historical records. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is especially a important reminder that while many of us have very romantic notions of what it was like to live in Victorian times, it was far from being hunky-dory, especially for women, the vast majority of whom were not so lucky to have devoted husbands with whom they could “live happily ever after.” Apparently, Charlotte Brontë tried to block the publication of this book because it was so scandalous at that time, with its account of a marriage gone sour, the dissipation of a man to alcohol, and a woman escaping from an untenable situation. We are fortunate to live in an age when it’s even hard to comprehend how a woman could be forced to stay in a marriage that was as abusive as Helen Huntington’s in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Not only this, the book was initially published under a male pseudonym, Acton Bell. It is bound to make any feminist’s hackles rise!

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Brontë
Original Publisher and Date: Thomas Cautley Newby (June 1848)
Reprint Publisher and Date: Oxford University Press (May 2008)

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Wives and Daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters

After being introduced to North and South, a Victorian classic novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I absolutely loved, I picked up Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, hoping that it would assuage the withdrawal symptoms I was suffering from after finishing North and South and looking for another book that could inspire the same level of emotion. Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s last novel before her sudden death in 1865; in fact, she was not able to finish it and it was completed by another writer of that time.

Wives and Daughters is centered around the life of Molly Gibson, a young girl living with her widowed father in a small English town in the 1830s. Her mother died when she was very young, but she still leads a very happy life, adored by everyone in the town, with many friends of her mother who watch out for her, and a very close and loving relationship with her father, who is a highly respected doctor. This tranquil state of affairs is completely upended when her father gets remarried. The new Mrs. Gibson is far from being the “evil stepmother” that is almost a caricature in most stories when the father remarries, but she is somewhat of an airhead, with not much sense, intelligence, and depth of character — all of which Molly has in abundance. This makes it very difficult for Molly to really respect her stepmother, and she finds her very wearying at times, but she puts up with it in good spirit — helped enormously by the fact that her stepmother has a daughter, Cynthia, whom Molly takes to right away. There is even less of the “evil stepsister” angle here that we are used to from our Cinderella fairy tale days — Molly and Cynthia form an instant sisterly bond that only grows stronger as time passes and it is their relationship that is the real highlight of the book.

There is, of course, the obligatory romance, and in Wives and Daughters, it is in the form of Roger Hamley, the son of a local squire who develops a close friendship with Molly but then falls head-over-heels in love with Cynthia when he sees her. This is not surprising, given that Cynthia is exceptionally beautiful and has that effect on most men. However, she does not have Molly’s character and depth of feeling — and she is the first person to acknowledge that. In contrast to Cynthia, Molly’s feelings for Roger are very intense, but she never lets them be known and does not ever feel jealous or envious of Cynthia for capturing Roger’s attention.

Of course, eventually, everything is resolved, and Roger and Molly do get together — it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t. That said, this wasn’t really the point of the book. As evidenced by its title, the story was more about the close relationship between Molly and Cynthia and the experiences they go through together, including how they deal with a somewhat villainous character, Mr. Preston, the aristocratic lords and the ladies of the neighboring manor, and the gossip of the local townsfolk. At over 600 pages, Wives and Daughters is a long, extensive, minutely detailed book that captures much of the life of those times and the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, so much so that reading it is an experience in and of itself. For those who love reading about Victorian times, there’s so much of the book to sink into — the author seemed to be in no rush at all to wrap things up.

On my part, while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t fall in love with it as I did with North and South, and this brought home to me an important realization — that the inspiration behind any great work of art cannot be manufactured at will. Thus, there is no guarantee that anyone who has created an outstanding book, movie, painting or song will continue to do so with the same level of success. Inspiration has to strike, and while the creator cannot force it, he or she can make the best of it when it comes and create something truly remarkable that can bring joy to millions of others. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor, we should appreciate that these could be “once in a lifetime” creations and savor them as such.

Wives and Daughters
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Date: Elder and Company, 1866
Reprint Publisher and Date: Norilana Books Classics Norilana Books Norilana Books, April 2008

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca.jpg

Rebecca is, by far, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous book, and while I had read it years ago, I was inspired to read it again after reading My Cousin Rachel a few months ago. Billed as a “classic tale of romantic suspense,” I found this to be very true even though I had read the book before and vaguely remembered what the suspense was. It’s a testament to how good the book was that I still enjoyed it so much.

The story is that of a young girl who gets married to a middle-aged man, Maxim De Winter, whose first wife has died. She meets him in Monte Carlo – where she is employed as a companion to a rich American woman on holiday – falls in love with him, accepts his proposal of marriage, and returns with him to Manderlay, his stately estate in England. However, she finds herself continuously haunted by the presence of his first wife, Rebecca, at Manderlay. This is not a physical haunting – Rebecca is not a ghost story – but an emotional one. Rebecca seems to be everything she is not – beautiful, gregarious, bold, stately, decisive, stylish, with impeccable taste, the life and soul of a party. It seemed that she could do anything and was adored by everyone. The girl, now the new Mrs. De Winter – whose Christian name we are never told – is engulfed by extreme feelings of inadequacy. These are compounded by the housekeeper at Manderlay, Mrs. Danvers, who was devoted to Rebecca and makes no bones about how she feels towards the new Mrs. De Winter, despite continuing to do her housekeeping duties. She, the new Mrs. De Winter, also thinks her husband is still in love with Rebecca and can’t get over her death.

What exactly happened to Rebecca? How did she die? Why does Maxim look so haunted at times? Why is Mrs. Danvers so sinister, and so contemptuous of the new Mrs. De Winter? What does Frank Crawley, who handles the affairs of the estate for Maxim, know about Rebecca? And who is the shady Jack Favell, who comes to Manderlay to meet Mrs. Danvers and is supposedly a cousin of Rebecca, but is strongly disliked by Maxim and has therefore to keep his visit a secret?

While Rebecca is not a detective story — there is no “investigator” as such — it does have a strong element of mystery about it, with so many lingering questions that persist for most of the book. While that, in and of itself, is not unique to a novel, what sets this book apart is the masterful quality of the writing. It gradually builds up the suspense and captures the increasingly haunted feeling experienced by the protagonist — and thus, by extension, the readers — so vividly that I could almost viscerally experience a growing feeling of dread as I was reading it. And this is despite having read it before and guessing what the suspense was.

I can see why Rebecca has secured Daphne du Maurier a secure place in the annals of literary history. It is truly a timeless classic.

Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Original Publisher and Date: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1938
Reprint Publisher and Date: William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2006

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Villette” by Charlotte Brontë

Villette

I decided to read Villette by Charlotte Brontë because I wanted to become more familiar with her works. I had only read Jane Eyre before.

I’ve also always been intrigued by Charlotte Brontë’s life. She was a woman who experienced a lot of sorrow through the loss of some of her family members. It also seemed like she experienced rejection by people who held to certain religious views. This is why I was really interested in reading another one of her works.

Another thing that caught my attention was the idea that this story took place in a fictional town, “Villette.” I was interested to see what kind of town she would create. I imagined that she would create a fictional world, so that I thought it would be something entirely different from Jane Eyre.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t what I expected. Although she did create a fictional town, Villette actually turned out to be another novel largely inspired by real events in her life. Which made it, in some ways, very similar to events that occurred in Jane Eyre. If you have read Jane Eyre, you might enjoy picking up on these similarities and figuring out how each of the similarities could have been inspired by events that were real to her.

I must say that it was really hard for me to get into this story because it was so confusing to me. At first, I thought that a lot of the earlier chapters were pointless. The main character, Lucy Snowe, spends a lot of time talking about two other characters, Graham and Pauline, and I couldn’t understand why. But everything comes together in a lovely way eventually. Every component serves its purpose in bringing the characters and novel together. Something that I learned through reading this book is to be patient in allowing the story to unfold and the characters to develop.

Another thing that made it really confusing for me, at first, was that there was a lot of dialogue in French (as the story is set in France). It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I decided to read using a translation app on my phone which did a great deal in helping me understand and enjoy the story a lot more.

Once I was able to sort out all the confusion and understand the story, I began to enjoy this book so much! Very much like Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë creates a strong passionate woman named Lucy Snowe. What intrigued me about Lucy Snowe was the circumstances she found herself in. She was lonely young woman who had to find a way to support herself.

“Thus, there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look. I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides.”

This is when I first became gripped by the novel. I wanted to learn about how she would survive. This to me, was the central idea throughout the novel and as events unfold surrounding this issue of her finding a way to support herself, she proves herself to be so resilient which was truly an inspiration to me.

A few things that stood out to me were her descriptions with battling depression due to loneliness. This story is told through the perspective of Lucy Snowe, so we are following her journey through her mind and how she perceives people and experiences around her. She’s also very poetic and passionate in her expressions, which was also something I enjoyed. There were many memorable quotes and descriptions very much like Jane Eyre.

I also think Charlotte Brontë did a great job at bringing her characters to life. Although we are in Lucy’s mind, she helps us understand those she encounters through Lucy Snowe’s dialogue and interaction with others. It was really pleasant to read about the relationships she develops with some of these characters. There were lots of moments that I laughed.

There were also scary moments! Several times, she describes Lucy Snowe’s encounter with a scary apparition that makes its occasional appearance throughout the story.

I almost forgot to add that there is a “possible” love interest in this story. However, it wasn’t quite clear who it might be until much later in the story. Therefore, the ambiguity between the two possible characters that could be the male protagonist caused me to stick with the story to see who it might be.

All in all, it was so pleasant to follow Lucy Snowe’s story. She was another woman who I found to be very strong. I really admired her work ethic and her resilience in finding a way to sustain herself and overcoming any emotional hardship. She was also true to herself and her convictions, and a sincere friend. It was definitely worth all the initial confusion and the brain work that went in to understanding this one.

Villette
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Original Publication Date: 1853
Edition: Penguin Classics, December 2004

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South.jpg

Two of my all-time favorite books are Victorian classics — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – and I have been so starved of books in this genre that discovering North and South was like coming across a gem I never even knew existed. I stumbled upon its 2004 BBC adaptation — in the form of a four-part miniseries — on Netflix last week, remembered the recent write-up of the book by Nathalie Dorado-Fields, and started watching it – and couldn’t stop. It made me then get the book which I first obsessively read cover to cover, and then went right back and re-read it. It was simply that good.

As with most Victorian classics, North and South is, at its heart, a love story, and as with most books like it, the romantic tension between the hero and the heroine is sustained throughout the book, literally right down to the last page. The heroine here is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a clergyman who is forced to move with her family from the idyllic pastoral community in the south of England to the gritty industrial and manufacturing community in the north. The hero is a mill-owner in her new surroundings, John Thornton, who is taken with her right away, but whom she finds too harsh and unfeeling until it is almost too late.

While it would be easy to write North and South off as just another romance, what makes it so much more is how it captures the weighty social issues of that time related to industrialization — the growth in manufacturing, the increase in factories, the economic disparity between the mill owners and the workers employed in them, and the class divide. It provides an unflinching look at the lives of the mill workers, their extreme poverty, and their poor health, attributable in large measure to the unhealthy working conditions and polluted air inside the mills. A large portion of the novel is centered around a strike by the mill workers, and the part played in it by the workers’ union. This was when unionization was first starting, and while the strike didn’t end up benefitting the workers in this case, the perspectives of both the workers and the mill owners are the subject of extensive debate and discussion between the various characters. Also, the book does not shy away from the harsh realities of life at that time — there are quite a few deaths and even a suicide. It reminded me a lot of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which portrayed the brutality of criminals and the pitiful treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London in the same heart-rending vein. You feel like you are there and can viscerally experience the pain.

Usually, novels like this are written entirely from one point of view, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. But North and South was unique in that respect — it takes you inside the head of both the hero and the heroine. You can feel both of their feelings, their emotions, their reactions to each other, and to the world around them. It made the book so much more richer and the story so much more vivid.

I am thrilled to have discovered a new book to add to my much-loved collection of classic literature as well as another author in this genre that I so much admire. I have already added Elizabeth Gaskell’s other books to my reading pipeline.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Publication Date: Chapman & Hall, 1855
Edition: Norilana Books, Nov 2007

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine

I had the privilege of reading this book along with a friend. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, since I didn’t know too much about it except from what the title suggested, that it would be about time traveling.

When I first started to read this story, it reminded me a little of the Sherlock Holmes’ series because we are introduced to the time traveler through the perspective of another character, very much like how Watson recounts his observations of Holmes. The time traveler is passionately proposing his idea of time traveling and introducing the machine he has invented to a group of men who are very skeptical of him.

On their second meeting, the time traveler shows up late to their dinner meeting and when he arrives, he is looking very haggard. It turns out that he had just returned from visiting the future. What follows from then on is the time traveler sharing the story of his journey into the future and what he experienced there.

I was really excited and curious to know what happened to him over there. Why was he looking the way he was? Would they finally believe him? Was he even telling the truth? Those were some of the questions that sustained me throughout this book.

Another thing that intrigued me about this story was that it was a science fiction book written in the Victoria Era. I was curious to know how science fiction would play out during that time period. Moreover, it was my first science fiction novel. Some of the science fiction aspects that I really enjoyed were the descriptions of the actual travel into the future and the descriptions of the world and inhabitants he encounters over there. I look forward to continuing to explore this genre thanks to this book.

The author, H.G. Wells, seemed to be very passionate about issues and changes that were going on during his time period due to industrialization. His beliefs come through heavily in his story. It seemed like he believed that the type of progress that was happening during his time would bring about moral decline. These are themes and questions that arise throughout his story. I enjoyed this part as well because I was able to understand what aspects of society were important to him, and it caused me to question where I stood on the issues he would bring up.

This was something I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would mostly be fantasy-like but I enjoyed that he was able to create a fantasy world that symbolized real issues. It was fun to read about this world and imagine it, but it was also interesting to think about the heavier issues that each of these aspects represented.

Overall, it was a fun book to read, especially since I read it with a friend. It was fun to briefly be part of this world and also discuss the heavier topics that were brought up. It was also a short book. If you enjoy the morality aspects that are often brought up in Victorian literature, along with the fantasy elements from science fiction, you might enjoy this book.

The Time Machine
Author: H.G. Wells
Original Publisher and Publication Date: William Heinemann, 1895
Edition: Signet Classics, October 2002

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South

I picked up North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell based on the premise that this book would be about the Hale family and their decision to leave the South of England. I wanted to know what struggles or personal convictions Mr. Hale faced with the Church in order to resign his position as parishioner and move his family to the North of England, to a manufacturing town.

I was quite disappointed that the story did not develop this reason at all. However, all my disappointment was forgotten as I continued reading and learned more about the character of Margaret Hale, Mr. Hale’s daughter. She had initially struck me as someone gentle and kind as she interacted with her mother. But as I continued reading, I soon learned that she was also very bold in communicating her thoughts/disapproval when she felt it was necessary.

This story largely focuses on the misunderstanding and conflict between two groups. One group was the factory owners and their mill workers while the other group was the Hale family, who are from the South and the people of Milton, from the North. Throughout this story, we meet different characters which give us insight into the issues of each group and what biases each group must overcome to understand one another. This was probably one of my favorite parts.

The author, Mrs. Gaskell, does such a fair job at allowing each side to plead their case through dialogue between characters. The dialogue was kind of heavy, at times, for me because it contained a lot of references to how unions and factory businesses’ work, which I am not too familiar with. However, it was coupled with compelling events that demonstrated just how much each person’s life was affected by the environment at Milton such as illness, poverty, hunger, work strikes, death, etc. Again, all very striking and heavy social issues relative to the culture and time. Mrs. Gaskell was able to sustain me as a reader, as I grew to love each and every one of her characters to whom she gives so much depth to as they interact with one another.

Going into the story, I knew that Margaret’s love interest would be Mr. Thornton, which is what intrigued me to continue reading. Amidst all the societal issues, I was so curious to know how Margaret and Mr. Thornton resolved their prejudices towards one another and move on to becoming more than acquaintances. There were many times Mrs. Gaskell created such opposition between them and allowed us, the readers, to be aware of events that maybe the other party was not, which really magnified the tension causing me to ask, “Why, Mrs. Gaskell. Why?!” In a good way, of course.

Overall, this story has left quite an impression on me, especially Margaret’s character. I was so inspired by how strong of a woman she was throughout her experiences at Milton. Mrs. Gaskell did an excellent job at crafting this story together.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics, Revised edition
Publication Date: June 1996 (Originally published in 1855)

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis

I was in Prague in the summer and Franz Kafka’s name came up somewhere somehow. The Czechs are incredibly proud of him. He is among the 20th century’s most celebrated authors and many of his quotes are mind-blowing. Consider this one: “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” One hundred years after the Russian Revolution we can clearly see what he means – but Kafka died seven years after 1917.

When I started reading The Metamorphosis, a sense of deja-vu set in almost immediately. I began to feel that I’ve read this book before. I was an avid reader in my schooldays, so perhaps I must have read it, though the memory is nebulous. The creepy feeling, however, subsists to this day, as I soon found out. The book takes you on a bizarre journey into an unfamiliar domain. Wonder how the author dreamed this up. Should I call it science fiction? But no, the story line is too well-grounded. And it does bring home some home-truths. It is fiction that touches both science and sociology.

Gregor Samsa is a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into an ugly beetle. Until then he had been a conscientious worker, doing the daily grind, bringing home the bread and butter, supporting his parents and sister, and living a mundane life. But everything changes in a horrific instant. As Gregor’s life changes, the people around him are compelled to readjust their lives rather abruptly. His home-bound father starts going to work. His sister Grete starts taking care of him. His mother keeps a distance.

The cast of characters is minimal. A colleague from Gregor’s office who comes in search of him on Day 1 of the horrendous transformation, and three bearded paying guests who are taken in to supplement the family’s dwindling resources are the only other players in the game.

The original novella was written in German and published in 1915. There have been innumerable translations since. The text is barely 56 pages. The rest of the compendium is comprised of the Introduction, a whole lot of critical essays (some of which I didn’t bother to read) and some key documents including a letter from Kafka to his father (with whom he had a troubled relationship).

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of forty. He never married, though he had several known liaisons with women. He did not attain fame during his lifetime. He was a Jew and his three sisters perished in the Holocaust. There have been speculations that Kafka suffered from a schizoid personality disorder and/or anorexia nervosa. He was believed to be a loner with suicidal tendencies.

Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod was responsible for turning Kafka into a celebrity. Kafka’s wish was that his works should be destroyed but Brod ensured their publication instead. The Trial was published in 1925, followed by The Castle in 1926 and Amerika in 1927. Max Brod fled to Palestine in 1939, taking Kafka’s papers with him. In 1988, two decades after Brod’s death, an original manuscript of The Trial was auctioned for $2 million.

“A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.” Wow, Kakfa! What a quotable!

“I can prove at any time that my education tried to make another person out of me than the one I became.” Yes, he proved it. He was trained to be a lawyer, worked for an insurance company, and look what he became!

Overall Assessment: Eerie and thought-provoking.

The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung)
AUTHOR: Franz Kafka (translated from the German by Stanley Corngold)
PUBLISHER: Bantam Classics
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1972 (first Bantam Edition) (German original published in 1915)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.