Surprise, Surprise. Virulently Misogynist Early Sci-fi.

zodiac

Across the Zodiac, Percy Greg, 1880

Why does sci-fi have to be so misogynist? That question lies at the heart of this book review, so we will start with it. Contemporary sci-fi culture is steeped in an antique brew of sexism that dates to 1880. In that year, Percy Greg published a story about a man who travels to Mars in a spaceship. Across the Zodiac originated the sword and planet sci-fi subgenre in which humans travel to other planets and manage to conquer the advanced technology they encounter using only medieval weaponry. I don’t understand the appeal of this premise, but I suppose it might tap into some deep megalomaniacal need to prove your superiority over an entire planet while pretending to be King Arthur?

I have so many problems with this novel. I am just going to tackle them in the order they appear. Percy Greg begins his thrilling adventure story with a long, dull conversation about ciphers conducted by a host of characters whom he does not bother to introduce and who have no importance to the narrative. This book is a stylistic nightmare: plodding, overly detailed and yet haphazard. Just try reading this one sentence:

“And you are the first and only man I ever met who hesitates to affirm the impossibility of that which seems to him wildly improbable, contrary at once to received opinion and to his own experience, and contrary, moreover, to all known natural laws, and all inferences hitherto drawn from them.”

That sentence is a heap trash. All he wanted to say was that the character does not reject ideas that are:

 

The subtitle of the novel is The Story of a Wrecked Record, which refers to the journal of a solo expedition to Mars that the narrator pulls out of a wrecked spaceship. Before he witnesses the crash, he spends the evening with some Confederate officers, because Greg felt the need to express his sympathy with the Confederate cause before he told a story about Mars. Yep. I found very little information about Percy Greg, except that his other writings express his “reactionary” politics. I think that means he wanted the South to rise again. I’m pretty sure he wanted to reestablish slavery, but he couldn’t so he did it in a novel, except slavery on Mars is based on gender not skin color. We’re getting there.

The writer of the journal describes his ship, its instruments and their voyage to Mars with scientific meticulousness, which is awful. The point of scientific writing is to describe an experiment in such detail that other scientists can reproduce your results. The point of science fiction is to entertain the reader. We can’t reproduce an imaginary voyage to Mars, so there is no reason to provide such a dismal quantity of detail about the journey. Profoundly boring. The endless logging of imaginary measurements takes up 10% of the book. Really. Greg is so abysmally unaware of what readers want to know. If J.K. Rowling wrote fifty pages of the Ministry of Magic quibbling over the Quidditch World Cup negotiations, that would be approximately equivalent to the beginning of this novel. Except that Rowling is a much better stylist.

When the protagonist arrives on Mars we get some nearly interesting description of the Martian geography, ecology and culture. Greg has a moderate amount of imagination, but he expresses himself so badly that it’s impossible to enjoy reading about crystal mansions, highly domesticated Martian animals or any of the rest of it.

Greg delves into complex Martian politics, which are Communist. But Greg is reactionary, so of course Communism is a horrible threat to those all-important scions: family values, production, religious freedom, male dominance, and so on. To be clear, I’m for religious freedom, I just wouldn’t buy the idea that religion is under attack for a ha’penny. “Whatever could not be produced in quantities sufficient for all to have a share was not produced at all.” Horrors! I mean, that sounds great. Women became “equal citizens, with no recognized relation to individual men.” Hooray! Except the reason they are separated from their dependence on men is to free men from the burden of having to feed women when Communism caused a collapse of the food supply. And of course the independence of women is depicted as horribly destructive. All family affection is destroyed. Seriously. I guess Greg thinks that women only love their children because their husbands tell them to. Makes perfect sense. . .if you’re a solipsistic fuck who thinks that women are incapable of thought or emotion that isn’t dictated to them by a man.

This guy actually thought that science would destroy maternal instinct. Uh. I don’t think he understands what science is. It gets so much worse. Equality nearly destroys Martian women. They cannot physically withstand the toll of education. Seriously. When asked to prepare for the same examinations that the men take “half the girls of each generation were rendered invalids for life.” Oh man, I really want to resurrect Percy Greg and force his zombified corpse to read meta studies about girls outperforming boys in school. Anyway, to rescue women from the torture of having to compete academically with men, Martians determine that they’d be better off as slaves. Yep, they’re basically slaves.

That’s not the end of it. It’s not over until the hero has a hareem of underage sex slaves. Really. Martian people are smaller than Earthlings. So, when the hero distinguishes himself fighting for the subculture of Martians that want to bring back religion and other nonsense, he is rewarded with a bevy of child-sized wives. His favorite is Eveena who “might possibly have completed her tenth year, which epoch in the life of Mars is about equivalent to the seventeenth birthday of a damsel nurtured in North-Western Europe.” Why Northwestern Europe as opposed to any place else on Earth? I cannot say.

I can’t write about this trash anymore. I’m sorry I read it. I’m a bit sorry to have brought it to your attention. You are too good to know about this book. He actually states that women are better off as slaves than as equals. Slavery is better for them than equality. Really. Why, in the 1880s would a man need to envision a world in which women are more suppressed? He’s not the only man to do this. I’m looking at you, Edward Abbott.

Let’s put this sorry mess behind us.

Final thoughts: 1. This book is trash on every level. 2. Fuck Percy Greg. 3. Sadly, I’m not surprised to find overt, toxic misogyny in the origins of the sci-fi genre. Granted, Greg isn’t a significant influence on the genre as a whole, but some people must have read this. It is the first of its kind. It helped create space for destructive and disgusting male fantasy in the sci-fi/fantasy world. That space endures today. 4. I am so grateful to the people who are fighting to make space for underrepresented groups in sci-fi. It can’t be easy. Thank you.

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Henry James and the Myth of the Independent Woman

portrait of a ladyThe Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, 1881

I half enjoyed this book. Which is to say, I enjoyed half of it. The first half.  Then it went off the rails. I suspected this might happen. When a writer describes a female character as intelligent and independent, I get a bit excited, but I’m also apprehensive. So many writers directly characterize a woman this way, then proceed to depict dimwitted and passive behavior from this supposedly brilliant and forceful woman. They want you to think “gee, these situations are so complex and demanding that even a smart, strong woman has lost her way.” Instead, I think: don’t make claims about characters that you have no intention of substantiating!

Even our beloved Jane Austen is guilty of this disappointing deception. She describes Lizzy Bennet as quick and decisive, but during the slightest crisis, Lizzy just cannot decide what to do. The turning point between her and Darcy is the moment when she’s befuddled, and Darcy charges off on a horse, knowing exactly what to do. Because what this sharp, intelligent woman needed all along was a man to swoop in to make decisions and act on her behalf.

Back to the book at hand. Henry James tells us that Isabel Archer is an independent, intellectual woman. Brimful of ideas. Capable of startling action. At the beginning she seems quite quirky. He introduces her brilliantly, as a young woman so unconventional she’s more interested in introducing herself to dogs than to her own relatives. This is the Victorian Era, when propriety required one to announce one’s presence as a guest in someone’s home before playing with their dogs.

Isabel’s strange, cold-blooded aunt snatched her from Albany to England, where she meets her ailing uncle and his invalid son, Ralph in their English country estate, Gardencourt. Isabel is such a success in England, that several suitable suitors propose to her and she turns them down. James doesn’t provide any real substantive reason for her refusals, which is fine. You don’t need a reason to not marry anyone, Isabel. You do you. When she refuses a wealthy aristocrat, her cousin and uncle think she’s so original, they’d love to see what surprising thing she’d do if she had enough money to make what she wanted out of her life. So, Ralph and the dying uncle conspire to leave the bulk of the uncle’s money to Isabel. At this point the novel goes sour.

Previous to her windfall, I bought into Isabel’s character. I too, was excited to see what she would make of her life. The characterization of the family at Gardencourt is subtle. There are worlds of detail to analyze. Just the first half of the novel contains enough material for several Ph.D. theses on self-perception versus reality. It’s great. I was riding high on the wave of expectation James builds around Isabel. I was enjoying the prose. Then it all came tumbling down.

As I passed the half-way point, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discrepancy between Isabel’s characterization and her behavior. James says she’s intelligent, but I think she says “I don’t understand you” more than she says anything else. She’s supposed to be intellectual, but she doesn’t engage in any intellectual activities. She does refuse to marry an aristocrat when everyone expects her to take such a fabulous opportunity, but that is the one independent thing she does. She spends the rest of the book being extraordinarily passive. It is so disappointing to me that Henry James decided to write about an intelligent and independent woman, but couldn’t come up with anything intelligent for her to do or say. She’s supposed to be so fascinating and modern, but the one concern he has with her is “who will she marry and what will the consequences be?” Just like every other woman in the history of novels. I wanted her to start a political movement or build a hospital or at the very least become a painter or dancer or just do something interesting. One interesting thing. Well, I would have liked for her to do a lifetime of interesting things, but I didn’t get one out of Henry James. Not one.

Isabel does end up marrying someone and he’s terrible. This is in the second part of the novel when things fall apart. James doesn’t really explain why she marries this man. Far after the fact of their marriage he offers the small illumination that he appeared smart and poor, so he seemed like a worthy person to share her newfound wealth with. Poor Isabel was projecting. He’s not what he appeared. Their marriage makes her miserable. She finds out a terrible secret about him. That’s the whole story. A woman inherits wealth unexpectedly and makes an unfortunate marriage. Her husband has a scandalous secret, which I guessed immediately upon his introduction to the story. James’ hints are beyond heavy-handed.

Early on I liked James’ prose and I liked the richness of his depictions of Isabel’s thoughts. However, there are so many elements of this novel, reputedly his best, that seem objectively bad to me. Objective is not quite the right word. We cannot measure the quality of prose objectively. Yet, there is a consensus about “strong writing” and “weak writing” and so much of this is not strong. If a creative writing class were to workshop this novel here’s the criticism James would have to absorb:

  • the narrator’s description of characters does not match their behavior
  • Isabel’s husband’s characterization is weak. He completely demoralizes his wife, but I’m not sure how. How exactly the marriage falls apart is never described. This is a problem, because their relationship is the crux of the story.
  • So much showing, very little telling. It’s almost as if the writer is afraid that he cannot write human behavior effectively, so he describes it instead of demonstrating it.
  • Please, please break up your paragraphs. There are so many long, long paragraphs that include perfectly natural places to break into a second paragraph.
  • There are several passages that read like sitcom phone conversations, where you can only hear one speaker, so they repeat the other speaker’s dialogue in the form of a question. For example, “Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my trip to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.” This is unnatural and I don’t see any reason to do it, when it’s just as easy to break the paragraph.
  • I struggle with the pacing. The first 250 pages give Isabel’s thoughts in such detail, but then her most critical decisions are not explained and there are huge gaps in time that seem unjustified.
  • So much of what the narrator states needs to be unpacked. I’ll give one glaring example “he had neither innocence nor weakness, so he had no practical philosophy.” I’m not sure what that really means. But more importantly, if you want us to believe that he has no innocence, have him do something that betrays a worldliness and lack of innocence. If you want us to believe he has no weakness, give us a scene that demonstrates this. What does it even mean that he has no practical philosophy? Have some faith in your readers. Write human behavior and let them interpret it. These characters rarely do anything. They just sit around having their feelings described. I read 500 pages about these characters, but I couldn’t give you an example of a typical behavior for any one of them, because there is so little actual behavior in the novel.
  • It seems obvious that Isabel’s husband is very controlling of women, because of how controlling he is of his daughter. If you want us to believe that Isabel is intelligent, she should have picked up on that.
  • If you want us to believe that Isabel is independent, she needs to be less passive and devoted to her horrible husband. What exactly is so modern and interesting about this woman whose sense of propriety trumps her need for personal happiness? Why do we end with her going back to her husband?

I could keep going. It seems to me that the only reason Henry James is in the cannon is his detailed description of characters’ conflicting thoughts. I’ve read that this influenced modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and I believe that. However, I strongly believe that we should be honest when someone makes art that is bad, but contains a spark of an idea that other artists took and made into good art. That’s what Henry James is shaping up to be. I still have, sigh, three more books by him to read.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that there is an interesting and independent-minded woman in the book. It isn’t Isabel, it’s her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a feminist journalist. This book should have been about her. But I guess she’s not a “lady” in his mind, because he uses her for . . . comic relief? Well, no, the book is mostly humorless, but Henrietta does seem to be the butt of a joke somehow. James doesn’t take her seriously. He should. She’s everything he claims his main character is.

Final thoughts:

There are so many good late Victorian novels on the theme of marriage as a prison for women. Better on every level. Nearly anything by Thomas Hardy, George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Anne Bronte wrote a novel about a woman who leaves her abusive husband 53 years earlier. The Portrait of a Lady is insufficient, as a work of art and as a social statement. Fail.

Introducing Henry James

unspecifiedThe American, 1877 and Washington Square, 1880

Hello. Please welcome Henry James to the blog. Or don’t. He isn’t particularly welcome. I have read one short story, one novella and four full length novels by the fellow and I don’t care for him. The short story, Daisy Miller, was very pretty good, but everything else fell flat. I am not going to list the defects of James’ prose style now, because everything I have read by him contains the same flaws. I plan on working up a post on his many shortcomings to avoid the tedium of detailing them in every post. Dude wrote a lot of novels. You don’t need to read the same screed eight times. Today I will discuss two of his earliest novels and detail the flaws that are specific to them.

Henry James was American but spent much of his life living overseas. He was very concerned with culture clashes between Americans and Europeans. The titular American is a chap called Christopher Newman, a wealthy industrialist who ventures to the Continent in search of culture and a wife. Christopher Newman. Get it? He’s a new type of man that stale European bluebloods have not encountered. And you can tell he’s a good guy, because Christ appears in his name. I rolled my eyes when I first encountered this name. So heavy-handed, Henry. Our American hero is earnest, hard-working and self-assured. He has the excessive confidence of a tall, rich, American man.

The story opens in the Louvre with an entertaining scene in which poor Newman is duped into buying a poor copy of a painting by a pretty, opportunistic French mademoiselle. I was ready for wily Noemi to tempt him into a life of idleness and dissolution. Get in there and corrupt his Puritanical morals, girl. Sadly, Christ-opher is incorruptible. Instead, another character gets involved with her and pure, innocent Christopher is shocked when she becomes the mistress of a rich man. How dare she attempt to escape poverty! Before this scenario transpires Chris has befriended Noemi’s father and the two of them discussed her sexual purity for absolutely no reason. Sensing Christopher’s high-minded morality, the father tries to ingratiate himself by stating that he would kill his daughter if she ever ruined herself. When Chris hears about her ruination, he turns up at the father’s door like “Well…you better go kill her now.” Seriously. He is disappointed that the father doesn’t murder his daughter. Really.

Elsewhere in the novel, James attempts to update the Gothic novel for the late Victorian Era. In Gothic romances a young villager falls in love with the pure maiden who lives in the castle. Her evil wardens mistreat her and conspire against him. Against all odds, he persists, rescues her, and turns out to be the long-lost son of some nobleman. The angels of heaven descend to bless their holy matrimony. Newman stands in for the plucky villager. He came to Europe in search of a wife and he has very high standards. Chris spouts off copious entitled piffle about his search for an ideal wife. He sees this paragon as a reward due to him for his hard work. What is the point of the wealth he has accumulated if he doesn’t have “a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. […] I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.” Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I did. I know that Henry James is taking a jibe here at the American obsession with money. The very words Newman chooses are redolent of Capitalism. But, we must remember that he is the hero. He is portrayed as a good and pure Christian who deserves the fantasy wife he seeks even though he only seeks her as a symbol of “victory over circumstances.”

Christopher soon encounters the exact embodiment of his fantasy, his “dream realized,” in the person of Claire de Cintre, a widow and member of an aristocratic French family. Unfortunately, the last three quarters of the novel center on this romance and it is not a very convincing one. Claire is quite boring. James does not make his reader fall in love with her. However, in true Gothic style, Christopher is willing to brave the contempt of her evil relatives in his attempts to win her hand. It’s all quite dull. Ultimately, she is too good and pure to disobey her mother. She becomes a nun. Newman returns to America in despair and remains in despair forever.

If The American has a silly and dramatic plot, and it does, Washington Square veers hard in the other direction. He examines how the scenario of the maiden wishing to marry an unsuitable man would play out in contemporary New York with no drama, just realism. Our male lead is Dr. Sloper, an eminent physician and misogynist. His wife dies, leaving him with a daughter whom he does not respect. Dr. Sloper thinks very highly of his own intellect and does not esteem Catherine’s intellect at all. Probably, if he had given her more credit from the outset, she would have accomplished more intellectually and developed more common sense.

A fortune hunter named Morris Townsend starts sniffing around Catherine, who is a bit of an old maid. Dr. Sloper does not believe that anyone could love Catherine for her own merit and forbids her to marry him. Poor Catherine somehow has some self-esteem despite being raised by such a pig of a father. She wishes to marry Morris. Dr. Sloper is right about Morris, but express his reservations in an honest conversation. He is too much of a misogynist for that. Instead he sees the question of her marriage as a competition between himself and the man who wishes for her hand. Who has more influence? Who will she obey? Catherine has never defied him before, and he believes that his paternal sway over this meek and humble girl will reign triumphant. In a way he wins, the two never marry because he threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine is happy to be well off with Morris, but Morris only wants her if she comes with a giant dowry.

The scuffle between the Morris, Dr. Sloper and Catherine does not end in a marriage. Instead Catherine loses respect for her father, because of his disrespectful and manipulative treatment of her. After the doctor’s death, an impoverished Townsend shows up at spinster Catherine’s door and expresses his regret. He should have taken her when he had the chance. Would she like to go out for oysters? No she would not. She is perfectly happy with her needlework and charity work and doesn’t need him.

On the surface, Washington Square sounds like an interesting reexamination of the well-worn archetype of the defiant daughter. There are some good bits of dialogue. I did take some pleasure in James’ subversion of the dramatic and romanticized elements of these stories into prosaic, everyday reality. However, prosaic reality isn’t all that fun or interesting. The characters are dull and flat. I didn’t care much whom Catherine married. It’s not a long book, but it still seemed bogged down in minutiae.

You might like The American or Washington Square if:

  • you are writing your Ph.D. on Henry James for some reason.

You might not like The American or Washington Square if:

  • see above. I think I covered it.

Final Thoughts: These books are just plain bad.

Thomas Hardy Takes a Stab at Napoleon

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The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy, 1880

In 1880 our boy Thomas Hardy attempted a historical novel. As much as I love a romanticized historical setting, Hardy’s Regency Era novel is a big fat fail for me. The story concerns the denizens of a mill, which is a good start, because who doesn’t love a literary miller? The miller has two sons. A sailor named Bob and soldier named John. I knew from the names alone that Hardy didn’t put his thinking cap on for this one. This is the man who created Cytherea Gray, Bathsheba Everdeen and Gabriel Oak. He named the brothers Bob and John. And guess who both brothers are in love with? Anne Garland. No offense intended to the many Anne’s I love in this world, but Hardy sure didn’t strain his creative faculties for this novel.

Anne lives at the mill with her widowed mother. The miller also lost his spouse and decided to rent out part of the mill house to pretty, little Anne and her brainless mother. Of course, both his sons take a fancy to the maiden. Thomas Hardy is too cool for triangles; he loves a love square. So, the local aristocrat also falls for Anne. Anne. Come on now. At least the squire-ling is named Festus Derriman. That’s a name worth hearing. Apart from his appellation, Festus is worthless. He’s a big hulking bro who constantly attempts to or threatens to assault dear little Anne. It’s terrifying. To add another layer of horror, Anne remains silent about Derriman’s persecution, because she doesn’t want to interrupt trade between the manor and the mill. What’s more important than women’s safety in a capitalist society? Everything.

The reader is meant to admire steady, loyal John the soldier and look down on Bob the fickle sailor. However, the characters are so thin and bland, that I couldn’t work up any emotion. The great question of the book is who will Anne marry, but Anne is boring and so are her suitors. My only investment was hoping she didn’t chose Derriman for the sake of increasing her social status. It’s unclear to me why Hardy bothered with the Regency setting when it functions only as a background for his typical love square scenario. Unlike Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the war is incidental to the action of The Trumpet-Major and not fully utilized.

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This book is light, frivolous and unlike Hardy’s other novels, free from any point of view. Yet, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. It’s not a strong novel, but it’s still Thomas freaking Hardy we’re talking about. He’s my favorite writer. Even when he has nothing to say, he says it well. The style of his writing pleases me. Always. I think Hardy wanted an excuse to interview his aged neighbors about their memories of the Napoleonic Wars. That exercise did not result in an excellent novel, but I like to think he enjoyed the process. I still enjoyed reading it more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Henry James so far. Pick up your game, Henry James.

 

You might like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you have a thing for stories about brothers squabbling over the same lady
  • you have a thing for novels about the Napoleonic Wars
  • you want to read a decently written novel that doesn’t require much thought

You might not like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you only have time for the best works by the best writers

Final thoughts: It’s still better than Under the Greenwood Tree. Thomas Hardy’s second worst novel so far. We have at least two truly spectacular novels to go, y’all. Have faith in our boy.

The Forgotten Woman Who Created the Detective Novel

leavenworth case

The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katharine Green, 1878

You have probably never heard of Anna Katharine Green. I certainly hadn’t before I started researching notable 19th century novels. This is a travesty because this woman GAVE BIRTH TO THE DETECTIVE NOVEL. Yes, I am screaming.

She wasn’t quite the first detective novelist or even the first American woman to write in the genre. One other lady whom no one remembers beat her to that distinction, Seeley Regester. But, Anna K was a pioneer. She was the first to publish a series of novels featuring the same detective. What? Yes! She pre-sherlocked Sherlock. I’m so excited I can’t think of verbs. She invented the nosy older lady detective, pre-marpling Marple. And she introduced the first girl detective. A trail of evidence that leads straight to Nancy Drew!

Anna Katharine Green. Remember that name. I’m smiling just thinking about her. What a woman. What a genre starter. Wilkie Collins loved her. Agatha Christie cited her as an influence. Obviously. Arthut Conan Doyle made a point of visiting her when he traveled to the States.

Her first novel is The Leavenworth Case. Our narrator is a young and presumably handsome lawyer whose boss is conveniently laid up when his longtime client and good friend is MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD. Convenient because, this means dashing young Mr. Raymond is sent to comfort and advise the murdered man’s two beautiful nieces. His whole world is shaken when the police inquiry immediately casts suspicion on one of the bereaved ladies. But how could anyone suspect such a lovely creature of  such a foul deed? Horrors.

Our chivalrous hero sets out to aid the eccentric lead detective, Mr. Gryce, out of curiosity, but mainly with the intention of proving that neither of New York’s finest debs could possibly commit such a grizzly deed. I know, confirmation bias. It’s ok though, because Mr. Gryce does make a fool out of him after making good use of his ability rub elbows with high society.

I was surprised by how well Anna Katharine Green tricked me. I’ve read so many books, I can usually guess the outcome many chapters away, but she lays down so many great false paths of suspicion. The actual murderer only popped into my head as a potential suspect fleetingly, before she convinced me that it must be someone else.

I’ll admit, the book is a bit melodramatic, but hey, so what. It’s such good fun. I am going to read more of her stories and I can’t wait to do so. I need to meet the original Ms. Marple and the original girl detective, who appear in later books, not this one. It’s truly delightful. If you’re a mystery fan, you owe Anna Katharine Green some of your time. She birthed your genre for you and it was hard, thankless work. She deserves to be remembered.

You might like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • you’re a fan of classic mystery writers like Conan Doyle and Christie
  • you enjoy period pieces and murder mysteries

You might not like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • mysteries just aren’t your thing

Final Thoughts: Read The Leavenworth Case. Just do it. Anna Katharine Green deserves a renaissance. Or read one of her other novels. At the very least listen to one on librivox.org. It’s free. There are 42 mysteries for you to choose from! Enjoy, darlings.

Black Beauty

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Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, 1877

Do the words Black Beauty conjure a hazy memory of an exciting adventure story about a boy and his horse that you read as a child? Me too. That book is The Black Stallion. Can’t wait to reread that one. Black Beauty is not the same type of story.

An ailing Anna Sewell picked up her pen intending to right an injustice, not to entertain anyone. She saw widespread mistreatment of horses in England. So, to humanize the humble horse Sewell wrote a book in the voice of a horse. Black Beauty recalls his days as a handsome, happy colt on a country estate. Things do not go well from there. BB is sold several times. He becomes a London cab horse. It’s not pretty.

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As someone with limited experience with horses, I am perhaps not the best person to review this book. People flipped over this novel. Immediately. Apparently sad fake horse memoirs were exactly what they’d never known they needed. Anna Sewell lived only five months after the publication of her only book, but that was long enough to see it become a bestseller. It remains among the bestselling books of all time. Sad moralizing horse thoughts. Who’d a thunk it?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Sewell’s message is noble and worthy. I’m all for compassionate treatment of horses. I’m just not for a bleak collection of plotless parables about a horse’s sad life. But hey, as an activist novel it was incredibly successful. That’s wonderful for horses and wonderful for Anna Sewell. I want things to be wonderful for you, dear reader. I sincerely hope you are kind to horses. If you are already kind to horses, you can skip this book, because it’s rather dull.

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I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so overtly and single-mindedly concerned with good behavior. On page seven the reckless behavior of an aristocrat results in the broken legs and subsequent death of a horse.  Black Beauty’s mother laments that “he was a good bold horse, there was no vice in him.” These horses are concerned about vice. I read just  seven pages before I was rolling my eyes at the moralizing. And can we talk about how bored I am of the aristocrat breaks horse’s legs/back trope. Vronsky did it. No one else needs to. Please stop with this shorthand. There are other ways to be inconsiderate.

Anna Sewell is very thorough in her reckoning of all the people who might be involved in the life of a horse and all the ways they might be cruel or kind to a horse. We have good and bad owners, buyers, sellers, riders, grooms, assistant grooms, hotel grooms, breaker inners, cab drivers, coach drivers and a whole slew of other people that didn’t stick in my memory.

Look, horses are cool. I like them as much as the next person, but not as much as girls who read lots of pony books. Pony books are not my subgenre. So, I can’t get too jazzed about the mother of all pony books. But I’m happy for the success of Black Beauty. It’s seminal. But so are some other books that aren’t very good. I’m looking at you Frankenstein and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You might like Black Beauty if:

  • you love horses

You might not like Black Beauty if:

  • you love plots

Final thoughts: It was boring.

Side note: Please do not judge my knitting skills by this atrocious horse. I am so embarrassed by it. I have knit other stuffed animals that turned out very nicely. Cats, rabbits, parrots, people. All very nice looking. I really failed on this poor, derpy horse though. Jeez. It is very hard to sew an accurate seam on black yarn. Yikes. I don’t have access to a horse of any color, so I tried to make a horse. I promise that next knitted item you see on this blog will be better. It is not the fault of the pattern. I have knit other patterns by Alan Dart and they turned out beautifully.

A Forgotten Gem by Thomas Hardy

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This novel is about a young society lady whose father is a butler and I got my father to pose for the picture. Cute, right?

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy, 1876

Did you know that if you stand before a mirror in a dark room and say Ethelberta Petherwin three times fast, a strong, ingeniously resourceful and kind literary heroine will appear?
I will let Thomas Hardy introduce dear Berta. He’s better at these things. An apparently refined and elegant young lady spots a hawk chasing a duck. “Ethelberta impulsively started off in a rapid run that would have made a little dog bark with delight and run after, her object being, if possible, to see the end of this desperate struggle for a life so small and unheard-of. Her stateliness went away, and it could be forgiven for not remaining: for her feet suddenly became as quick as fingers, and she raced along over the uneven ground with such force of tread that, being a woman slightly heavier than gossamer, her patent heels punched little D’s in the soil with unerring accuracy wherever it was bare, crippled the heather where it was not, and sucked the swampy places with a sound of quick kisses.”
Just look at all Hardy is able to do in one little paragraph. We love our girl already, because we understand her impulse to scurry after the birds. We relate to her, because we too want to know the duck’s fate. We are curious. How did such an elegant lady acquire this agility? He has already established a contrast between her fancy garb, genteel appearance and some lovable coarseness in her inner nature. That prose! The images of the delighted dog and the swampy kisses from her little heel. So good. Hardy is a champion and so is Ethelberta.

ethelberta
Our heroine is a country girl, whose father sends money from his London job as a butler. E begins her long career of trying to support her many siblings and invalid mother, by becoming a governess. Don’t worry, I will spoil nothing, this is all background info. Being lovely, she of course elopes with the young aristocratic son. Soon thereafter her husband and his parents die. The elder Lady Petherwin dies last and leaves young Lady Petherwin nothing but a two year lease on an upscale London apartment. Determined to use her new social position to improve her family’s status, Berta comes up with some very creative ways of saving and making money, including:
• Writing light verse
• Becoming a celebrated performer/ storyteller
• Bringing her whole family to live with her under the pretense that they are her servants
• Ultimately deciding that she must marry, because she will not be able to hide the secret of her birth forever
As you can imagine, pretending that your siblings are your servants is a situation ripe for comedy. You have to admire the audaciousness of Ethelberta’s scheme. Hardy tops his usual love square in this book. Four men try for The Hand of Ethelberta, two of whom are loved by other women. We have a love pentagon with two love triangles branching off. Add in the tension between E and her reforming brothers, who worry that she’ll be burned as a blueblood in the coming revolution. Add her own inner tension; she constantly wonders if she’d be happier discarding her deceitful lifestyle and the trappings of wealth to become a rural school mistress. Not to mention Hardy’s bitter commentary on the scornful way servants are regarded. His mother was a servant and he does an excellent job of inverting the popular Victorian and Gothic trope of the bumbling, ludicrous, idiotic, superstitious servants.
Ethelberta is a truly unique character, with an admirable capacity for sacrifice and creativity. I love her for consulting books of philosophy in a crisis. What other Victorian heroine does that? I love her for other reasons, but I’m leaving plenty of detail out, because I really think you should read this one. The prose has all the elements of Hardy’s greatness, including such wisdom as:

“A half knowledge of another’s life usually does injustice to the life half known.”
And
“between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out the miseries of those that do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.”

You might like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • you enjoy a strong heroine with a surfeit of love interests
  • you like unexpected endings
  • you wish the women in Period Pieces had more gumption

You might not like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • I dunno…you’re more into Cormac McCarthy than Jane Austen

Final thoughts: The critics didn’t love this one, but we are not Victorian literary critics. For me, this is one of Hardy’s better books and certainly worth your time. There is a very good recording on Librivox, if you’d prefer an audiobook.