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.

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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.

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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.

Maria Ruiz de Burton’s Savage Satire

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The protagonist of this novel dresses in blackface. I’m not going to touch that. So, here is a wonderful picture of the author herself, a woman whose face we should know.

Who Would Have Thought It? by Maria Ruiz de Burton, 1872

This book is notable for being

  • the first book written in English by a Mexican in the United States
  • about the Civil War. Have you noticed that no book I have reviewed on this blog is about the Civil War? No one wrote about it. The Red Badge of Courage and Cold Mountain are the only canonical books on the topic of the American Civil War. Neither author lived during the war. Ruiz de Burton did.
  • lost and rediscovered by the Recovering the United States Hispanic Literary Heritage Project in the 1990s.

Before you get giddy at the thought of the first novel by a Latinx woman on this blog, let me tell you what this novel is not. It is not as woke as you want it to be. Ruiz de Burton wrote in the 1870s. Nothing is woke enough for us. Our wokest politicians aren’t nearly woke enough. Our wokest friend’s wokest Facebook posts often piss us off. If you choose to read Who Would Have Thought It? and I think you should, you will be offended by Ruiz de Burton’s attitude toward Native Americans, African Americans and dark-skinned Latinx. You should be offended by this, but I still think you should read the book.

The book will not represent the experience of the average Mexican living in the U.S. in the 19th century. The author was born into a powerful family in Baja California. Her father was governor and helped lead Mexican resistance in Baja. Maria married Henry Stanton Burton, a captain in the invading U.S. Army. This is not the typical experience for Mexicans in the land that would be incorporated into the United States. Who Would Have Thought It? has one Mexican character. She is as weak, docile and boring as any other such heroine from Victorian or even Gothic literature.

Taking those failings into account, this is still a special book. Ruiz de Burton describes New England society during the Civil War from the perspective of an outsider and she skewers the hypocrisy she encountered without mercy. My jaw dropped repeatedly at her audacious satire. So much of Victorian fiction reinforces social norms. (Not Thomas Hardy, though. That’s why I love him.) Ruiz de Burton gives unearned respect to absolutely no one, from preachers to Abraham Lincoln himself. No one is safe. Hide your wives; hide your clergy. Ruiz de Burton is coming for them.

We begin with the Norval’s, an upright New England family in need of capital to provide their surfeit of daughters each with “a position.” Mr. Norval suddenly returns from a research expedition to the West with a swarthy young lass and many large boxes of “specimens” in tow. The girl, Lola, is not well received by the family, in great part due to her dark skin. When pious Mrs. Norval discovers that the specimen boxes are filled with gold and gems left to Lola by her deceased mother, she reveals her… shall we say, desire for worldly goods.

Mrs. Norval’s character arc is the highlight of the novel. She begins as a judgmental matron, too good to acknowledge her neighbors. Ruiz de Burton shows that her mantle of respectability is a thin skin covering a greedy and selfish character. Mrs. Norval seems devout, but she’s really in love with her minister. She seems frugal, but she’d do any immoral thing to acquire more wealth for her own worldly needs and to present a fashionable face to society. de Burton puts white New England women on blast and she sure blasts them. For example, when Mrs. Norval hears that her husband wants Lola to be treated with the same respect as his own, fair-skinned daughters, she objects “In that case your daughters and myself will have to wait upon your adopted child; for I am sure we will not find in all New England a white girl willing to do it.”  Her husband responds “And that, of course, speaks very highly for New England,–abolitionist New England mind you. But I’ll warrant, madam, that you shall have plenty of servants.” Damn! Gotcha. Ruiz de Burton shooting straight for the heart of hypocritical New England that prided itself on abolition, but still treated black people as lesser and exploited Irish immigrants as underpaid and mistreated servants.

This review is already getting so long and I could say much more about the satirical brilliance of Who Would Have Thought It? Ugh. I have to tell you about the Cackles. They were the poor next-door neighbors that the young Misses Norval were too good to associate with. They go off to fight for the Union. One Cackle falls off his horse in his urgency to flee from the Rebels. When he manages to reseat himself, he encounters a wounded senator who “came to see the battle from a distance” thinking “it would be such a splendid sight.” Cackle responds, “I hope you are satisfied, you and your friends, with the d—d fun you politicians have made for us all.” But he saves the senator, who repays him by advancing this first man to retreat to a high position in the Union Army. His brother becomes quite famous for losing control of his horse during another retreat. The confused beast runs back onto the field of battle. His fellow soldiers are inspired by his supposed bravery, retake their artillery and win the day. Not even war heroes are safe from Ruiz de Burton. She has no respect for the hierarchy of the Union Army. Cowardly clods are promoted, while honorable soldiers are left to rot in Confederate prison camps with no hope of being traded, because a powerful person has a personal grudge against them.

I can’t share every bit of biting satire or brilliant wisdom from this book with you. Suffice it to say that Ruiz de Burton weaves brutal satirical jabs into every moment of her narrative. Young ladies going abroad? “It was the anniversary of some great day in New England when the Misses Norval were to make their farewell appearance in church before leaving for Europe,–some great day in which the Pilgrim fathers had done some one of their wonderful deeds. They had either embarked, or landed, or burnt a witch, or whipped a woman at the pillory, on just such a day.” Damn.

Returning to Lola, whose role is rather minor. It turns out that she is not in fact “negro” as everyone assumed at first, but that her mother dyed her skin black with…I don’t know, walnut juice or something, to…I guess protect her somehow while they were held captive by a Native American tribe. The characters and the narrator betray a heartbreaking prejudice against Native Americans and anyone with dark skin. This is such a let down and an aspect of the novel and culture in general that cannot be ignored. Lola is considered “pure” and worthy only because she turns out to be of European descent. The presence of this attitude in this novel is plenty good reason to skip it. But I still think there is something unique about Who Would Have Thought It? I’m not suggesting that you tolerate or ignore this prejudice. I’m asking that you criticize it thoroughly while also acknowledging the moments of brilliance in this novel. There is no other novel like this. None.

A Series of Unfortunate Marriages

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The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy, 1878

Alert: The Return of the Native is one of the only audiobooks that Alan Rickman ever recorded. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you should listen to this one before reading this post. Treat yourself. I will not divulge the entire plot here, but you might want to go give it a listen before I divulge a single thing.

This novel is a strange, mixed bag. It contains all the elements that make Thomas Hardy’s writing wonderful and some elements that let the story down. The highlight of the book is Diggory Venn, the reddleman. I love this character from the depths of my being. He roves the heath in something like a Romani wagon, selling red dye that shepherds use to mark their livestock. He’s quite successful, but his trade has the disadvantage of turning his skin and clothes red. Of course, he becomes the local boogeyman, because of his outlandish appearance. If you don’t wash behind your ears, the reddleman will carry you away. Far from being a scary kidnapper, poor Diggory is kind and resourceful and tireless in his efforts to help others. But the woman he loves, Thomasin Yeobright, will not marry him, in part because of his redness.

We must take yet another moment on this blog to recognize Hardy’s brilliance with character names. Characters in this book include:

Thomasin (Tamsin) Yeobright                                          Clement (Clym) Yeobright

Eustacia Vye                                                                        Damon Wildeve

Grandfer Cantle                                                                     Johnny Nunsuch

How does he do it?

The tale takes place on Egdon Heath. Hardy describes this wild habitat with such beauty and nuance that the setting is absolutely the second-best part of the book after Diggory Venn. I appreciate every word he uses to describe Egdon. However, when the setting is more interesting than half your characters, you halfway blew it. If he’d put the same energy into making Tamsin something more than a symbol of feminine sweetness, figuring out whether Eustacia is supposed to be an allegory or a girl, and eliminating the bizarre, abstract elements of Clym’s characterization, this would be a perfect book.

We need to talk about Eustacia Vye. Please indulge me by reading Hardy’s initial description of her:

“Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.”

Wow. I love this intertwining of Hardy’s worldview with his description of this woman. She is as unpredictable and arbitrary as human destiny. I’m intrigued. Did you notice that in this extended metaphor he avoided implying that any deity actually does control the outcome of our lives? Hardy was pretty much an atheist. Go team!

I wanted to love our mercurial heath goddess, Eustacia, because she dresses in drag to get close to a fella she’s interested in. But she’s a Hera, not an Athena, and we can’t love Hera, because she’s prone to imposing extravagant punishments on the women that her husband rapes. You have to exhibit a smidge of compassion to be a sympathetic character. Instead, Eustacia’s careless, egotistic meddling ruins lives. This would be fine, not morally, but as a fictitious device, if Hardy didn’t spend the last section of the novel asking the reader to bewail poor Eustacia’s sad lot. The same lot in life that she chose for herself with complete disregard for the happiness of everyone around her. Perhaps this will not be a problem for you. Perhaps you are more forgiving than I.

 

You might like The Return of the Native if:

  • you’re a fan of Thomas Hardy’s other work
  • you love anything set on a moor

You might not like The Return of the Native if:

  • you need your characters to be at least as dynamic as the scenery

Final Thoughts: Even with this flaw, the end of the book is pretty satisfying. Overall, I like it very much. Hardy’s prose is top notch in this one. There is pristine scene in which a woman looks at a heron. I read it three or four times and I got more out of it each time. Currently, I would rank The Return of the Native fourth or fifth out of the seven Thomas Hardy books I have read, which may sound low, but the three or four books ahead of it are three or four of my all-time favorite books. I think it’ll end up at the top of my second tier of Hardy novels. We shall see.

The Worst Author in the Canon

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The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope, 1875

Hold on to your hats, we are about to review the worst writer in the canon! Anthony Trollope, yes that’s his name, is a horrible writer. Perhaps someone worse will come along, but I doubt it. He packs the double punch of inept writing and racism. Yep.

This is a review of three of his novels, because they do not deserve individual posts. I read The Warden, Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now. Why did I read all three? Because the racism didn’t rear its ugly head until the third book.

The Warden is a story for those of you who have always wondered how Anglican clergymen get appointed to a parish, which I presume is none of you. But if you are very concerned about the minutiae of church politics in the 19th century, boy do I have a book for you! Briefly, a clergyman who needs more money is offered a plum position that he feels he does not deserve, because he prefers gardening to actually doing his job. His colleagues argue “See here, Old Chap, you simply must take the position. Nepotism and cronyism are the zylem and phloem of the Anglican Church. Nobody in this institution deserves anything they have, Old Boy.” The Warden replies “I really feel I shouldn’t” and the go back and forth for a while. I don’t remember whether he takes the job or not, because who even cares, honestly. I read this one over a year ago.

Now, a kerfuffle over a fairly insignificant clergy appointment seems like a situation that, once resolved, couldn’t possibly have an aftermath. Nevertheless, Anthony Trollope wrote 500 pages of just that. In Barchester Towers old enmities are resolved. New enmities are formed. Lovers are kept apart by misunderstanding, overcome the misunderstanding and get married. Games of whist are described with meticulous detail for no reason whatsoever. If you just love stories of British manor houses, you might be able to tolerate this one.

That brings us to The Way We Live Now. That title. A bit on the nose, don’t you think, Trollope? It does encapsulate the aim of most fiction by squarely declaring the author’s intent to comment on contemporary life. But, why? Every non-historical novel could have this title. Why not change Pride and Prejudice to The Way We Fall in Love? The Great Gatsby could be The Way We Crush the Lower Classes Beneath Our Expensive Shoes. ChangemGreat Expectations to The Surprising Way We Ascend to a Higher Social Class While Abandoning Our Morals. Better writers come up with symbols, phrases or metaphors that encapsulate their point of view on contemporary life, rather than simply braying their intent to make a comment. As the The Catcher in the Rye symbolizes Holden Caulfield’s doomed need to hold on to innocence and The Great Gatsby symbolizes the impossible ambitions of the 1920s. But Anthony Trollope is not a better writer.

Of course, I expended considerable mental effort puzzling out Trollope’s exact comment on life in England in the 1870s. It’s not pretty. TWWLN concerns a wealthy capitalist and the swarm of aristocrats who try to profit off him. Nobles bolstering their dwindling resources by marrying the daughters of tradesmen is central to the novel, but hardly unique to the late 19th century. Sullying your blue blood by condescending to marry new money is as old as the English novel. Older, really. It’s not possible for a family to live forever off the land granted to some ancestor by Alfred the Great. Eventually, one of your heirs will have to stop hunting and gambling long enough to bestow the title of Duchess of Wherever or Lady Somethingorother on the daughter of a man who had the good sense to earn some money. I’m not trying to endorse capitalism here. I just think it’s a bit rich of British aristocrats to be completely pointless and then whine about not having any money.

To abruptly change the tone: the “now” of The Way We Live Now is anti-semitism. It’s not that men with titles are degrading themselves by befriending someone with new money. It’s that they are befriending a wealthy Jew. It’s not that their daughters are marrying merchants, it’s that they are marrying Jewish merchants. It’s not that their sons are gambling away their fortunes, it’s that their sons must now resort to marrying Jewish heiresses. Trollope’s mightiest symbol of how far England has fallen is the admission of a Jewish capitalist into Parliament. I don’t know what to say about this. Trollope wrote a horrible book with a message of racism and xenophobia. I’m glad this guy is rarely read outside of England. Y’all can keep him. No, don’t keep him. Boot him out of your canon. He’s horrible. I’m not talking about a moment of racism in an otherwise well-written book. I’m talking about a shoddily written book with racism as its main theme. Just trash.

Final thoughts: I could continue elaborating on the flaws in Trollope’s writing, but I think you know enough by now. The only decent thing I can say about him is that his books are good soporifics. I realized when I finished reading TWWLN that I’d grown to depend on it to help me fall asleep.

Your College Professors Lied to You about the Value of Middlemarch

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Be warned: I wrote this review before I finished reading Eliot’s other works. I contend that she suuuucks and is not the feminist hero you deserve. I have receipts. More on that later. What you need to know for this review is that when you consider Dorothea’s fate in the context of Eliot’s other novels and some of the bullshit opinions Eliot professed in print in her own damn voice, you will see that Middlemarch is not the crown jewel of a shining career, but costume jewelry sitting on a dung heap. Eliot sucks. I will prove it. Later.

Before I started this project I considered Middlemarch my favorite Victorian novel. Now it doesn’t crack the top ten. Don’t misunderstand me; Middlemarch is a great English novel. Truly.  But. . .it is one of the only books I admire that I have no desire to read again. I liked it less on a second and third reading. I’m not sure I will ever make a fourth attempt.

Let’s talk about what makes this book great, then discuss where it falls down. Middlemarch is famous for being the first novel that follows a woman’s life past her marriage. George Eliot beat Thomas Hardy to that distinction by two years. To give her fair credit, Eliot’s portrays her young bride with greater psychological intimacy. Given that the English novel treated marriage as the one great crisis of a woman’s life after which she ceases to be interesting, Middlemarch is refreshing and fascinating.

Dorothea Brooke’s characterization is masterful. I especially appreciate her introductory scene. Her more materialistic little sister wants to divide up their dead mother’s jewelry, a task that Dorothea has put off, because she’s too pious and unworldly to concern herself with something so trivial. Or so it would seem. After condescendingly acceding to her sister’s whim, Dorothea becomes captivated by the beauty of the gems, “trying to justify her delight in the colours with a mystical religious joy.” Eliot very effectively sets up the contrast between Dorothea’s determination to live righteously and her sensual enjoyment of the world.

Dodo, as her sister calls her, passionately desires a life of “glorious piety.” She wants to make a great intellectual contribution to the world. Sadly, she is ruinously limited by her gentlewoman’s education. She has learned only what was thought proper for her gender and is insufficiently versed in any subject to make meaningful contributions. So, she busies herself trying to improve the lives of the people who live on her uncle’s estate, a hobby the people of Middlemarch consider eccentric. The real tragedy of the novel lies in Dorothea aspiring to a “manlier” achievement than improving the lives of others. Why did we and do we still—among many circles—value purely intellectual achievement over social justice?

Amazingly, women continue to have meaningful thoughts and experiences after marriage. However, English novelists of yesterday were not wrong in identifying choosing a husband as the most significant moment in a woman’s life. Assuming that her parents were not excessively controlling, this was the only chance a woman had of controlling her future. Men of Dorothea’s means could choose their profession. Dorothea cannot enter the church or become a politician or a doctor. So, she decides her role in life will be as helpmate for someone undertaking the type of intellectual endeavor she admires.

This compassionate, intelligent and energetic young woman picks Dr. Casaubon, a shriveled old prune of a curate, as her life’s companion. She chooses not the man, but his academic project “The Key to all Mythologies.” Everyone in town thinks “No, girl. Why? Please stop. You’ll be miserable.” Dorothea assumes that they dislike Casaubon because of his age and appearance, not because he’s secretly not a man, but a dried-up twig that is incapable of love.

They both find being married to each other a bit of a pain. Casaubon has the gall to not see much value in having a lovely young wife. Tragically, Dorothea comes to understand that Casaubon is not the scholar she thought him to be. Casaubon’s young cousin, Will Ladislaw, not knowing how much it will hurt Dorothea, reveals that his “Key to all Mythologies” is out of date and essentially worthless. It is absolutely heartbreaking to witness Dorothea’s gradual realization that she has thrown her life away on a loveless, meaningless marriage. She didn’t know! She didn’t even have the requisite education to recognize that Casaubon’s great project was pointless. It’s horrible. She wanted to be married to a Blake or a Locke, but she ended up with a prune stuck on top of a twig. It’s horrible.

Dorothea’s secondary dream in life is to be a good old-fashioned martyr. So, she smothers her bitter disappointment along with all sense of self-worth and dedicates herself to the thankless and empty task of trying to be the best wife she can be to Mr. Prune. Seeing Dorothea as some sort of angel/Madonna figure, Will Ladislaw falls in love. This is where the book jumps off the rails for me. I understand why Eliot thought it necessary for her character to be otherwise perfect, except for her one failing of not loving her husband. Her point is that an otherwise perfect woman can end up in this situation, because young women were kept in such a state of ignorance that it was nearly impossible for them to choose a spouse wisely. If Dorothea had other flaws, she might be considered simply an insufficient wife, not a paragon of virtue who fell into a trap laid by society.  The problem is that paragons of virtue are horribly dull and out of place in a work of realism. Also, Will’s worshipful love for angelic Dorothea is a bit nauseating.

Eliot’s original conception for the novel was to simply tell the tale of Dorothea’s failed marriage. She then decided to add in several other stories she was working on, combining them into the sweeping story of a few years in the life of the town Middlemarch. She further explores the theme of poorly thought out marriages with Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. Tertius is a youngish doctor and Dorothea’s male counterpart. He wants to improve the world through medical innovation. As Dorothea’s energies are wasted on her marriage, Lydgate’s energies are fruitlessly expended on petty local politics and his femme fatale of a wife. Caught up by pretty Rosamond’s charms, he imprudently marries without the means to keep his wife in the style she is accustomed to. Instead of helping her husband, Rosamond mercilessly sabotages his attempts to live frugally. Lydgate’s story is tragic. If I’d written this book, I would have killed off Rosamond and married Dorothea to Lydgate. They are perfectly suited to each other morally and intellectually. I’ll never get over my sorrow over Lydgate’s fate. Instead, Dorothea ends up with Will, whom I do not care for.

Another subplot is the 1832 Reform Bill. Ironically, Dorothea’s uncle supports this effort to raise up the common man, even though he is uninterested in expending the time, thought and money to improve the lives of the people who live on his own estate. That is the most cogent point Eliot makes about the Reform Bill. For me, the rest of her treatment of this subject fizzles out without making much impact. I won’t pretend to be overly interested in Victorian British electoral politics.

Another subject Eliot dedicates herself to is religious hypocrisy. The banker Bulstrode brays loudly about piety and abstinence, representing himself as the most righteous guy in town. Meanwhile, he fleeces his customers and business partners, has a shady past and totally kills a guy. The last sentence makes Bulstrode’s story sound interesting and potentially entertaining. It is neither of those things. He is so tiresome. Every Bulstrode scene drags. I may have mentioned before that I have a hard time stomaching heavy handed expounding on themes that seem obvious to me. I already know that pillars of the community who use religion to gain wealth and status are horrible, immoral hypocrites. I knew Joel Osteen was trash before Hurricane Harvey hit. Sure, this theme was less trodden in 1874 than in 2017, but it still bores me. I’m not Eliot’s perfect reader when it comes to this plotline. That doesn’t mean she didn’t execute it well.

As for Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. I like them. That is all.

I have many more thoughts about Middlemarch. My copy is heavily annotated. Well, one of my copies is. I have a second, prettier copy that I don’t write in. I really do admire this book. It is mostly beautifully written. What Eliot does well in this novel, she does incredibly well. Her depiction of the consequences of bad matches is innovative and important. Really. This book was revolutionary for me when I read it in my early 20s. I didn’t enjoy it as much in my early 30s as I hoped to.

You might like Middlemarch if:

  • you’ve ever wondered what Lizzy Bennet’s life was like after she married Darcy
  • you like books that are good

You might not like Middlemarch if:

  • you have a short attention span

Final Thoughts: Middlemarch is a great book. It deserves its revered status. I simply have some qualms about certain parts of it that prevent it from being an enjoyable reread. Unfortunately, these qualms knock it down several positions on the list of my favorite books. You should absolutely read it, if you haven’t. May I suggest that you also read Far from the Madding Crowd? It also follows a young woman past the point of her first marriage. The themes are very similar. FFTMD is more concise and frankly more entertaining that Middlemarch, in my humble opinion. Just kidding, in my exalted and lofty opinion. No, I’m just one lady who was read a lot of books. My thinking on this matter does not fit with the scions who determine the status of novels within the English canon. Take it for exactly what it is: the opinion of one lady.

 

Cliffhanging with Thomas Hardy

a pair of blue eyes

A Pair of Blue Eyes, Thomas Hardy, 1873

Famous for:

  • allegedly creating the term and concept of the cliffhanger

Thomas Hardy’s third novel is a simple story that I have complicated feelings for. This is gonna be a doozy.

The central concern of A Pair of Blue Eyes is the romantic history of Elfride Swancourt. As I have said before, Thomas Hardy is the king of character names. Young Elfride is the daughter of a country vicar. Here’s a summary of her love life:

  • A young farmer named Felix Jethway completely misconstrues some comments and actions of Elfie’s. He thinks she cares for him. She does not. He sneaks up behind her and kisses her. The fact that she didn’t tell her father and have him, I dunno, whipped or something, is later tossed in her face as evidence that she had accepted him as her sweetheart. Does wordpress have an eye-roll emoji? Felix dies of consumption. His mother, the Widow Jethway, blames Elfride for her son’s death.
  • A young architect, Stephen Smith, stays with the vicar while planning church repairs. He and Elfie fall in love. Her father encourages the match until he discovers that Stephen is not the London gentleman he seems to be, but the son of local cottagers. British English is perhaps superior to American English. We don’t have a word for people who live in cottages. More to the point, Elfride’s father forbids them from marrying. Stephen, determined to win the right to his sweetheart’s hand, decides to go to India where the competition among architects is less stiff and a man can rise quickly in the world. To ensure that they remain true to each other, he persuades Elfie to run away and marry him in secret. She begins the process, but has second thoughts about defying her father and begs Stephen to return her home. He does so, but the journey back to Endelstow—Thomas Hardy is also great at place names—takes so long that Elfride is OUT ALONE WITH A MAN OVERNIGHT. Her nemesis, the Widow Jethway, sees her on the train and has the power to ruin Elfride.
  • Elfie meets Henry Knight who happens to be Stephen’s friend and mentor. They play chess. She rescues him from death! They fall in love and she forsakes Stephen for Mr. Knight. The freakin’ Widow Jethway vents her ire upon Elfride by sending Knight a letter describing her overnight trip with Stephen in an uncharitable light. Knight forsakes Elfride.
  • Elfie’s handsome neighbor, Lord Luxellian, needs a mother for his children since the last one croaked. He picks Elfie because his little girls like her. He grows to love her passionately. Sadly, Elfride dies just five months after their marriage.

Elfride’s love life is a good deal less complicated than Lady Mary’s, but she certainly has more betrothed suitors than any girl in English literature so far. For me, the novel succeeds in parts and fails spectacularly in others.

A Pair of Blue Eyes Successes:

  • Elfride has some charming and unique personality traits. She is smarter than her father and writes his sermons for him. I really love that detail. She’s very good at chess. She also cares for finery and flattery, which I’m ok with, because the stereotype that smart girls don’t care about their looks is silly. I doubt there is any correlation between IQ and vanity. Hardy also succeeds at painting Elride’s romantic vacillations in a sympathetic light. Knight might judge her, but the reader is not meant to, which I appreciate.
  • The cliffhanger scene is wonderful. The book was originally published serially. Hardy left Knight literally hanging from a cliff between installments. I mean, on my second read through I was upset that I had to go to work with Knight hanging there. Elfride goes behind a bush, takes all her clothes off, puts the outer layer back on and rips up her petticoats to make a rope that saves her beloved.
  • The wild, rugged, Wessex landscape is beautifully described. Hardy’s skill as a novelist developed greatly between his second and third books. I can see elements of his capacity for working meaningful aphorisms into a text. He can be wise, but is generally so in a way that fits the story he has created so tightly that the aphorism loses most of its power out of context. Subtle details of plot, characterization and style are vastly improved over the atrocity that is Under the Greenwood Tree.
  • Hardy’s capacity for situational humor emerges. For example, in the churchyard Stephen chooses the flattest tombstone to sit on with Elfride. They have an intimate courtship conversation and plan their future. Stephen eventually asks her if anyone else has ever loved her before. She confesses that someone did (Remember Felix Jethway?) They banter on about it for a while. This conversation ensues:

‘“Where is he now?” he continued to Elfride.

“Here.”

“Here! What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that he is here.”

“Where here?”

“Under us. He is under this tomb. He is dead, and we are sitting on his grave.”’

I love my silly Elfride so much for kissing her new love on the grave of her old admirer.

  • I appreciate how Hardy humbles Stephen and Knight at the end of the story. I won’t describe exactly how he does it, but it’s quite a brilliant twist in the narrative.

 

A Pair of Blue Eyes Failures

  • Thomas Hardy wants us to see Elfride’s third suitor, Henry Knight, as an intelligent, humble, super moral guy. A hero that the reader should admire. Um, no. Nope. Henry Knight is the worst. He might be smart, but he’s an intellectual snob who publishes silly articles professing his own wisdom and moral superiority. Hardy wants us to see him as humble, but he’s actually so conceited that when he fears dying he thinks “such an experiment in killing might have been practiced upon some less developed life.” Because he thinks uneducated people are so far below him that they deserve to die more than he does. I could give many more examples of why Knight is a foul hypocrite and I will, upon request. I loathe him particularly because of his need to be “the first comer in a woman’s heart.” What is this? Why? I am supposed to admire this man for being a 30 year-old who is determined to marry a young, innocent, teenage virgin? What is there to admire in that? Nothing! Perhaps he can’t bear comparison with another lover. Perhaps he can’t bear the intellect and wisdom of a woman his own age. Perhaps he’s just a fetishist obsessed with virginity. I guess a lot of Victorians were. There’s nothing admirable in it. Nothing valuable in wanting to be with someone inexperienced. I loathe him. I love Elfride for standing up to him when he rejects her for having a previous lover with this sobbing speech “Am I such a—mere characterless toy—as to have no attract—tion in me, apart from—freshness?” She continues on from there, but that is her most cogent point. Exactly, Elfride! You got him. I will repeat, there is nothing admirable in Knight’s failure to recognize Elfride’s true value, because he is too busy being enraptured with the idea of “fresh lips” to kiss. Revolting.
  • Elfirde has significance only in her relation to men. I will provide two examples. First, her characterization changes when she is with different men. When Stephen courts her, Hardy portrays her as too smart and worldly for him. When Knight shows up, suddenly she’s not smart anymore. She becomes abjectly submissive to this “great” man. I know, barf. Other than that one despairing moment quoted above, she is nothing like the Elfride of the early pages of the novel. Secondly, after Stephen and Knight hear of Elfride’s death they bicker about who has the greater right to grieve for her. A woman has died! They are in the presence of her coffin and still using her as a chip in their male dominance game.

Here’s a little quote that I like:

He drew himself in with the sensitiveness of a snail.

 

Final Thoughts: I feel so ambivalent about this book that I can’t say whether I like or dislike it in total. I think I like it, but only a little. Anyway, I am certainly glad to have read it. Twice. Maybe three times; I can’t remember.  While I may have told you just about all there is to know about the plot, there’s a world inside this book and if you choose to read it, you’ll find plenty more than what I have described. Thomas Hardy is great and some of the elements of his greatness are on display in A Pair of Blue Eyes for all its flaws.