Little Women

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, 1868

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I’m almost nervous to share my thoughts on Little Women with you. This is one of the most influential and beloved books of my childhood. I will never be able to convey how much it means to me. Perhaps you also read and reread it as a youngster. Perhaps the March sisters mean as much to you as they do to me.

Little Women is to children’s literature what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy literature. Neither book is quite the first in their genre, but both came so early on that their respective genres had not been named and described yet. Both set the standard that all later books in their genres strove to achieve. Here’s what Louisa May Alcott did so extraordinarily well and extraordinarily early:

  • characterized a group of children simply, quickly and consistently
    • simple details that can be referenced repeatedly help children remember which character is which and help them engage in a text from the outset. Meg is the oldest, the most responsible and she likes fancy things. Jo is a boyish bookworm with a temper. Beth is sweet and shy and plays the piano. Amy is selfish, a bit conceited and her favorite color is blue. We know all of this through direct and indirect characterization within the first three pages.
  • provided the details that kids simply must know
    • she knew that before delving into plot development, her audience would need to know the ages of the girls, what they look like and who is closest with whom.
  • understood that children actually are all striving to be good
    • it might not seem like it, but they are. The engine that drives Little Women is the sisters’ desire to improve themselves, to be good and worthy little women. Their struggles, failures and triumphs are so relatable, because every child understands what it’s like to try to be good and come up short, and how dear small successes can be.
  • provided moral lessons without preaching too much
    • I can’t think of a better example of this in literature than the episode in which Amy burns up Jo’s manuscript. Jo refuses to speak to her and does not warn Amy when she is about to skate over thin ice. Amy falls through into dangerously cold water. Jo is distraught with guilt and remorse. Alcott sneaks a lesson on the importance of forgiveness and the consequences of retaliation into a story so relatable and compelling that you don’t even notice you’re being sermonized. What child hasn’t taken retaliation too far? What older child hasn’t let their frustration overshadow their sense of responsibility? It’s all so dramatic and touching.
  • included plenty of unnecessary little anecdotes
    • the plot is nowhere near as important as the sense of unity the reader feels with the March family. We witness the silly plays they put on and read their family newspaper. The book reads like letters from home, which is great. It doesn’t need to be plot driven.

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Speaking of those plays the March girls perform, this book is so entwined with my childhood memories that I’m not sure whether my friend Mary and I got the idea to put on our own plays from reading Little Women, or if we like Little Women because the sisters put on plays just like we did. We certainly read Little Women repeatedly and we certainly wrote and performed some very silly plays.

My copy of Little Women and I have been together for a long time. We both have more fine lines than when we first met. In my early teens, I was once so angry at my brother that I stormed into my room, slammed my door and flung the first object my hand could find at the wall as hard as I could. The object was Little Women. It was on a bedside table more often than it was on a bookshelf, because I reread it so often. The wall in my room was mostly taken up by a large window. The book shattered one panel and went soaring. My mood shifted quickly. I decided to retrieve it in the morning to avoid having to explain to my parents why I was going outside at night, and because I was worried it might have sailed into the neighbor’s yard. When I picked it up it was full of rollypollys. I’m still sorry, Little Women. I wouldn’t have done it if I knew what I was throwing.

This isn’t one of my best posts. I don’t have anything funny to say about Little Women. My love for it is solemn and sacred. It’s a truly wonderful and practically perfect book. I was raised by a wonderful mother, a colorful father and a handful of books: Little Women, A Little Princess, the Anne of Green Gables series, and the Little House series. I love this book like it is a member of my family. I’ve spent more time with it than I have with some of my family members.

Oh, I do want to mention that it’s enormously satisfying to have read nearly all the books mentioned in the text. The girl’s paper is even funnier now that I understand the references to The Pickwick Papers. I love that Jo and I both love The Vicar of Wakefield. I understand why Jo is caught weeping over a copy of The Heir of Redclyffe. Unfortunately, reading Pilgrim’s Progress didn’t add much to my (life) understanding of the text. To be quite honest, one motivation for starting this project was my need to have read all the books that Jo March and Anne Shirley have read. I’m always striving to have more in common with my childhood literary heroes and what’s better to have in common than a favorite book? Well, I’d like to borrow Anne’s work ethic and housekeeping skills.

You might like Little Women if:

  • you like things that are good

You might not like Little Women if:

  • you’re a black-hearted scoundrel

Final Thoughts: if you have children, give them this book.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

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The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, Mark Twain, 1867

Here he is, ladies and gentleman: Mark Twain.

An author I had not read before I started this project.

That’s not accurate. I read The Prince and The Pauper as a child, but I mostly forgot it. I have not read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. I simply haven’t. That’s why this project exists: to remedy such problems. So, here we go, scratching the surface of Mark Twain’s oeuvre.

Before we get started, can I just say that it this series of photos was not easy to achieve. This frog was difficult to knit. Tossing the frog was good fun. Focusing the camera on the flying frog was near impossible. My wonderful friend, Connor, assisted me. We did our best. Here are some blurry pictures of a “jumping frog.”

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I will not repeat the incredibly long title of Mark Twain’s first collected book of short stories. Suffice it to say that in 1867 he had accumulated enough acclaim as a journalist and short story writer (Wait, stop, that’s what George Saunders is doing. He’s a contemporary Mark Twain. People often ask me which contemporary writers I admire, and George Saunders is in my top three. I just realized he’s doing a Mark Twain thing with his short stories/journalism//children’s stories/brand new novel. I see you, George Saunders, trying to be Mark Twain. You even did travel journalism with that Dubai piece for GQ, which I loved even though I wanted it to condemn Dubai’s capitalism more openly.) to publish a book of satirical journalism and short stories. Whoa, went on a tangent there. If you’re reading this, you are amazing for putting up with the mind-vomitorium response to English literature that is my blog.

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Anyhway, Mark Twain was a funny guy who made fun of everybody. I seriously don’t have anything interesting or profound to say about Mark Twain’s first publication. The things he chose to satirize in this first volume seem…lacking in importance. We like to imagine that our political satirists will change perception, but they just preach to the choir and change nothing. “The Daily Show” doesn’t have the ear of Trump voters. Its only function is to make us laugh. The feeling that our opponents will watch and suddenly understand their own hypocrisy is false and we know it.

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My point is that Twain pokes fun at rustics almost exclusively (oh, shit, we are doing that right now, in the post-election frenzy?) and it seems empty to me. Ok, we are post-the-post-election-frenzy now, but we weren’t when I started writing this review. Yes, Mark Twain is funny. His stories are still quite entertaining. He’s a funny, funny guy. But in this first set of stories, I don’t see his merit as a satirist, unless he was satirizing contemporary journalism, which I haven’t read enough of to understand what he’s satirizing. Seriously, I’m not a history professor, so I have no reason to read lots of late 1800s newspapers. In another life, perhaps I would.

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The title story is a humorous allegory about a gambling man and his trained frog and his hubris. It’s worth a read. At some point, a literature reviewer translated the story into French to back up his claim that Twain’s reputation as a humorist was overblown. Twain translated the French translation back into English, or as he phrased it “clawed [it] into a civilized language once more by, patient, unremunerated toil.” This is all very funny and would probably be funnier if I could fully understand the French translation. Twain’s translation is a bit silly. He pokes fun at French grammar with phrases like “I no me recollect not exactly.” Which is good for a brief chuckle, but the fact that French uses double negatives while English does not is hardly an inexhaustible mine of humor. Twain does drive home his point that his humor is colloquial and untranslatable. Therefore he should not be judged based on a French translation. Fair enough, Mr. Twain, fair enough.

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“The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” refutes childhood boogeyman tales of the horrors that befall boys who behave badly. A boy is naughty, never gets caught, grows up to be “universally respected” and belong “to the Legislature” despite his litany of deplorable crimes. Sound familiar? There’s a funny tale about being ejected from your lodgings because you are trying to learn an instrument. Twain also pokes fun at the parables we teach children. He responds with extreme vitriol to questions submitted to newspapers. There are plenty of funny moments in Twain’s first anthology. There are many other moments as well.

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You might like The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Sketches if:

  • honestly, you’d need a scholarly reason to read this entire volume when you could just skip to later and greater works. Just read the title story and move on to Tom Sawyer.

You might not like The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Sketches if:

  • I think I covered it already.

Final thoughts: I’m eager to move on to the more acclaimed parts of Twain’s oeuvre. This bit is quite good, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. The Celebrated Jumping Frog is a great story and if you’re dedicated to literature enough to read this blog, you should certainly read those few pages. Seriously, don’t skip it. You can skip the Other Sketches. Download the pdf and read it right now.

Louisa May Alcott’s Scandalous Romance Novel

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A Long Fatal Love Chase Louisa May Alcott, 1866

Dear readers, kindly join me welcoming the one and only Louisa May Alcott to the blog. She has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. She has arrived. We will arrive at Little Women in short order. But first, we delve into Louisa May’s dark and mysterious early literary life as a writer of scandalous, sensational novels.

Before she wrote Little Women, Alcott authored a smattering of romance novels. It’s not quite what you think. They are a far cry from the throbbing members of contemporary romance writing, but they are passionate and dramatic. When her family encountered some financial struggles, Alcott wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase for a publisher who wanted more of the same. However, he deemed the manuscript too sensational and too long for publication. She edited it, but it was still rejected for its racy content. A Long Fatal Love Chase remained unpublished until 1995.

What makes the novel so scandalous that it had to be locked away for 130 years? Extra-marital sex! Shocking. Well, no, extra-marital sex occurs in previous Victorian novels that weren’t locked away. Adam Bede is far more shocking. The thing is that female characters who engage in extra-marital sex must repent and die of shame immediately. The main character, Rosamond fails to do so. Alcott’s unforgivable authorial decision was to portray a fallen woman as blameless and worthy of our sympathy and attention.

I’m going to tell you the whole plot, because you honestly don’t need to read this one yourself. I have done it for you. Twice. Because I’m thorough.

Young, beautiful Rosamond is trapped in some sort of rocky tower scenario, surrounded by crashing waves, with no company but her grumpy and loveless grandfather. A devilishly handsome stranger named Tempest comes to visit Grampy. Yes, his name is actually Tempest. He looks just like the painting of Mephistopheles hanging in her weird grandfather’s weird horror mansion. Tempest is a rascal and a villain! He lives for pleasure and cares for no one but himself. He is taken with fair Rosamond and wins her grandfather’s consent to their marriage in a poker game. Yep.

Tempest tries to abduct Rosamond in his yacht once, but changes his mind. He sticks around until the innocent maiden falls in love with him. Her choices were Tempest or eternal misery with Grandpa, so of course finally agrees to go away with him. Tempest tries to convince her to live with him unwed, but good Rosamond threatens to throw herself into the sea if he doesn’t either marry her or take her home. She could have drowned herself right then and saved everyone a lot of trouble, because she does end up perishing in that exact stretch of ocean a few years later. Did I give it away? So did the title.

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Tempest arranges a quickie marriage and the two of them experience a year or so of wedded bliss until a mysterious woman shows up and starts making trouble. Turns out she’s Tempest’s actual wife; he’s a bigamist. That charming young boy he keeps around is his son. Instead of dying immediately, Rosamond runs away and tries to hide from Tempest with a French actor. He finds her. She flees. He finds her. She flees. He finds her and so on and so forth.

While Rosamond determinedly evades her stalker, a monk falls in love with her. Yes, a dreamy, heroic monk. Nothing ever happens between them, because he will not forsake his vows and she will not ask him to. They are both so noble and virtuous. Tempest is driven mad with jealousy. He attempts to kill the monk, but he accidentally drowns Rosamond instead. He clutches her corpse and declares that Father Ignatius will never have her. Ignatius, the monk/lover, is sure that he will love no other and that he and Rosamond will join each other in heaven while Tempest burns in hell.

They’ll-be-together-in-heaven is my second least favorite ending for a story. There’s no consolation in that for an atheist. For the record, my absolute least favorite ending is he-may-be-dead-but-at-least-she’s-carrying-his-child.

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What makes the story too scandalous for 1866 is the depiction of Rosamond as innocent, virtuous and pure after she has had sex out of wedlock. How silly Victorian morals were. She was the innocent victim of an immoral man’s trick. She did nothing wrong, but the fact that other characters consider her to be pure and virtuous just could not be tolerated by Victorian society. We just can’t allow a way back into good society for women who have had sex outside of marriage. We simply can’t.

You might like A Long Fatal Love Chase if:

  • you just love Louisa May Alcott and Jo March so much you can’t resist checking it out
  • you need a rest from complex thoughts

You might not like A Long Fatal Love Chase if:

  • you can’t tolerate sentimental writing

Final Thoughts: A Long Fatal Love Chase is not a good work of literature. The language is dramatic and overly adjectived. It’s a bit trite and tawdry, but I’m glad I read it, if for no other reason than because it provides some context for the moments in Little Women when Jo is up in the attic scribbling her stories.

Oh, Those Quaint and Wacky Dutch

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Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865

I was surprised to see Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates pop up on Wikipedia’s list of literature published in 1865. I remember watching the movie as a kid, but I never knew it was based on a book. If I had known, I would have assumed that the book was written by a Dutch person. Nope, it’s a romanticized vision of the Netherlands written by an American.

Why? To teach children about the strange, charming habits of the Dutch with their windmills, dikes and such. Mary Mapes Dodge invites us to “take a rocking-chair trip with me to that far country where you may see, perhaps for the first time, some curious things that Hans and Gretel saw every day.” Yes, she really did name her two main characters Hans and Gretel. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published 43 years earlier, just so we’re clear on that. Mapes considers Holland “one of the queerest countries under the sun.” So, that’s the tone of the novel. Look-at-those-whacky-Dutch.

It’s pretty charming to imagine Victorian children sitting around the fire at night listening to Pa or Ma read to them from Hans Brinker from the rocking chair, though, even if the tone is. . .not ideal.

The story contains two plotlines. First we have the Brinker family: Dame Brinker, Raff Brinker, Hans and Gretel. Years before the start of our story, Raff was called to the dikes to make emergency repairs during a bad storm. Whilst battling back the sea, which threatens to flood Holland constantly (Did you know that? I guess I should have known that, because of the dikes. Will climate change eliminate the Netherlands? Kind of a scary place to live. I’m so glad I don’t live in a place that will be underwater soon.), Raff falls and strikes his head. His TBI causes him to lose his memory and most of his intellect. Also, he has a watch in his pocket that is not his and he can’t explain where he got it. Also, the night before his accident Raff suspected that a frenemy of his was plotting to steal the pile of gold he and Dame Brinker had diligently saved for their children’s education. Unfortunately, Raff moved the gold and did not have time to tell his wife, because he was called to the dikes. Without Raff’s earning power, the Brinkers have descended into poverty. They bear it nobly, but the poor children have become social pariahs, because no one wants to hang out with poorly clothed children.

The second story line involves a group of boys who decide to skate between several Dutch cities along the canals. Hans is not included, because he doesn’t have the money for food and lodging and no one likes him, because he’s poor. Of course, one boy has an English cousin visiting who needs everything explained to him so he can comment on how weird the Dutch are. The boys’ trip is a vehicle for description of Dutch history, geography, architecture and culture. Sadly, there’s a heavy dose of fat shaming. Mapes paused every few pages to poke fun at the good natured, pudgy kid in the group who can’t keep up and continually needs a nap and more food.

Both stories culminate in a race to see who is the fastest kid in this particular Dutch town. The prize is a pair of silver skates.

If you’re a sentimental sort, like me, you will find the resolution of the Brinker family’s strife quite touching.

I don’t have much else to say about this book, because there’s not much to it. Considering that the genre of children’s literature did not exist as we know it when this book was written, it’s not a bad first foray. It’s not great either.

You might like Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re dutchophile (Is that a thing. Surely it is.)

You might not like Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re not even a little bit sappy

Final thoughts: While Hans Brinker is an influential work of literature, it popularized the speed skating and the story of the Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger, it is forgettable as literature. Some aspects are well done, but it’s a bit tiresome overall.

 

How Fear of Female Sexuality Can Ruin Everyone’s Life

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Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1865

Once upon a time, a clever country doctor lost his young wife and had to raise his little daughter on his own. Dr. Gibson and little Molly get along quite well on their own. I mean “on their own” in the British sense, which includes a nanny/cook, a maid and a governess. Anyway, the father and daughter have a sweet and caring relationship. He teases her. She’s too young to understand his teasing, but she loves him and takes care of him as best she can after his long days riding through the country tending to rich and poor alike. Until one-day Dr. Gibson intercepts a love letter sent from one of his foolish interns to his sweet young daughter.

Sensible Dr. Gibson loses his mind. He can’t possibly TALK TO HIS DAUGHTER about love, sex, or romance. So, he resolves to get married as fast as he can so that his daughter’s sexuality will promptly become someone else’s problem. If you think dating is hard at your age in your city (I’m sorry. That’s rough. It’ll get better. Don’t settle.), consider Dr. Gibson’s circumstances. In his little village there are two types of people: nobles who wouldn’t deign to marry a country doctor and illiterate peasants. Given his rare social status as an educated, middle class man in 19th century rural England, there’s only one person in town he could possibly marry, the noble family’s governess.

So he marries her. And she’s the worst. It turns out marrying based on class alone is a garbage idea. The new Mrs. Gibson is a selfish, frivolous, controlling hypocrite who makes herself comfortable at the expense of making everyone else miserable. She brings her charming, lovable, frivolous daughter, Cynthia, with her. Dr. Gibson acquired a wife to shepherd his daughter safely through the perils of young womanhood, a time at which young ladies might lose their character if unguided. Among the many ironies of this inconvenient marriage of convenience, the bitterest is that Molly nearly loses her character after becoming entangled in one of her step-sister’s messes. A mess Cynthia never would have been tied up in if her mother was a halfway decent person.

Men, for the love of all things decent, it is better to have an awkward conversation with your daughter about sex and/or love than to marry the closest woman in order to avoid that conversation.

What I have written is the briefest outline of the plot of Wives and Daughters; there’s a lot more to it. You will love Molly, Mr. Gibson and Cynthia. You will despise Mrs. Gibson. There are several romances to get invested in. There are so many more characters to love and laugh at.

Gaskell is a brilliant writer and this is possibly her finest book. She has an Austenesque ability to poke fun at her characters’ foibles and to make you root for their romances. If you love a funny, romantic period piece you will love Wives and Daughters. I know I mostly give positive reviews, but this book is among my favorites. I adore it. I didn’t know going in that Gaskell died before she finished writing this book and I actually cried a little when I got to the end. It felt like she died right that moment. It’s horrible to think that Molly’s story is unfinished. But Gaskell got quite far enough. The rest was going to be falling action anyway. It’s well worth reading in its unfinished form.

Before I sign off, I’d like to provide this quote to demonstrate Gaskell’s brilliant characterization of the horrible second Mrs. Gibson.  The Gibson family has just learned that a certain child has recovered from life-threatening illness:

“I wonder how the poor little boy is?” said Molly, after a pause, speaking out her thought.

“’Poor little child! When one thinks how little his prolonged existence is to be desired, one feels that his death would be a boon.”

“Mamma! what do you mean?” asked Molly, much shocked. “Why, every one cares for his life as the most precious thing! You have never seen him! He is the bonniest, sweetest little fellow that can be! What do you mean?”

“I should have thought that the Squire would have desired a better-born heir than the offspring of a servant,—with all his ideas about descent and blood and family. And I should have thought that it was a little mortifying to Roger—who must naturally have looked upon himself as his brother’s heir—to find a little interloping child, half French, half English, stepping into his shoes!”

“You don’t know how fond they are of him,—the Squire looks upon him as the apple of his eye.”

“Molly! Molly! pray don’t let me hear you using such vulgar expressions. When shall I teach you true refinement—that refinement which consists in never even thinking a vulgar, commonplace thing! Proverbs and idioms are never used by people of education. ‘Apple of his eye!’ I am really shocked.”’

This woman just declared that it would have been preferable for a child to die, then she pretends to be shocked at the vulgarity of a cliché. One person in this conversation is vulgar, unrefined and generally wretched. It is not Molly. That piece of dialogue perfectly exemplifies her character. You will love to hate her. You will shake your fists at Dr. Gibson for marrying her.

 

You might like Wives and Daughters if:

  • you’ve read every Jane Austen book and you just want more. Really, it’s very Austenesque. More so than Gaskell’s other books which are a bit grittier and more tragic with harder hitting social commentary.

You might not like Wives and Daughters if:

  • you’re a soulless goblin.

Final Thoughts: I’ve read it three times and I’ll read it again. This book is so well written. So charming. So incisive. So wonderful. It’s a damn good piece of writing. Elizabeth Gaskell forever. She is my queen. George Eliot has been dethroned. Gaskell! Gaskell! Gaskell! Honestly, if you haven’t read something by Gaskell, stop considering yourself a well-read person. Try Ruth or North and South or Wives and Daughters. You won’t regret it.

The Best Victorian Novel You’ve Never Heard Of. The Best.

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The Morgesons, Elizabeth Stoddard, 1862

“‘That child,’ said my aunt Mercy, looking at me with indigo-colored eyes, ‘is possessed.’”

That’s the first line of The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard, the best oft-o’er-looked novel of the Victorian Era. Do you love it already? I do. There’s lots more to love, including:

  • obstinate young girls chafing against the restrictions of life in post-Puritan New England
  • fun Puritan names like Temperance Tinkham, Mehitable, Seneth, Sophrony, etc.
  • vivid description of rugged coastlines, kitchen gardens, Victorian clothing, and the sea which always matches the mood of our mysterious, changeable narrator
  • a love story, a love story, and another love story
  • a carriage accident
  • a grumpy grandfather or two
  • the sometimes tender and sometimes distant relationship between our strange narrator and her even stranger sister “We grew up ignorant of each other’s character, though Verry knew me better than I knew her; in time I discovered that she had closely observed me, when I was most unaware.”
  • honest relation of the simultaneous intimacy and remoteness between parents and children who spend every day together, yet, because of parental reserve, know very little of what lies in each other’s minds
  • apt metaphors
  • feminism
  • a plot that surprises you
  • this amazing bit of medical advice “Keep your feet warm, wont you? And read Shakespeare.”
  • realism interspersed with surreal dialogue that would fit in a fairy tale, see the quote below for an example

“See,” she said softly, “I have something from heaven.” She lifted her white apron, and I saw, pinned to her dress, a splendid black butterfly, spotted with red and gold.

“It’s mine,” she said, “you shall not touch it. God blew it in through the window; but it has not breathed yet.”

“Pooh; I have three mice in the kitchen.”

“Where is the mother?”

“In the hayrick I suppose, I left it there.”

“I hate you,” she said, in an enraged voice. “I would strike you if it wasn’t for this holy butterfly.”

Sisters. Quirky sisters.

The Morgesons is so weird and so good. I found it immensely refreshing. Stoddard has a unique voice. Her narrative is beautiful, poetic, odd, honest and surreal. I will read this book over and over, as should you. It’s short; it’s special. Get yourself a copy. It’s a female bildungsroman that takes on the oppression of women in Victorian society. So good.

You might like The Morgesons if:

  • you like Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie or other classics of children’s literature by women authors, but you’re a grown up now
  • you can see the romance in a literally and figuratively scarred woman on the rocky shores of New England gazing into the sea in search of self-definition
  • you have read so many novels that you can see a plot twist coming two hundred pages away and you’re ready to read a novel by someone who doesn’t think like other authors and is therefore unpredictable
  • you love your parents, but there’s so much you don’t know about them

You might not like The Morgesons if:

  • I don’t know, because you and I have nothing in common. I respect you, but I don’t know how your mind works.

Final Thoughts: My pathetic words can do Elizabeth Stoddard no justice. Read it. It’s wonderful. I don’t know why it’s not more widely read and highly regarded, because this book is spectacular. Spectacular.

Romola: George Eliot’s Fantastic Foray into Historical Fiction

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Romola, George Eliot, 1862

TW: rape

Mmm, George Eliot wrote a book about 15th century Florence and it’s everything you dreamed it could be. Ok, you have never dreamed about a George Eliot novel set in 15th century Florence. That’s ok, I made a wishlist for you.

Wish List for George Eliot Novel about life in 15th Century Florence:

  • heroine with a name that is somehow both very British and very Italian.
    • Nailed it. Romola.
  • well-researched
    • And how. The details of art, architecture, daily life and political life in Florence are incredible.
  • historical figures appearing as characters in the novel
    • So many. You may have heard of that evil Borgia Pope. He’s in it, kind of. So are many more obscure figures.
  • a tragic love story
    • Yes! But this is George Eliot we’re talking about, so the love story goes wrong in an unconventional way.

You don’t need any knowledge of medieval Italy to understand the story. Tito Melema, a Greek fellow who has been sailing around doing who knows what for years, makes his way to Florence after a shipwreck. Just like us, the readers, Tito knows nothing of Florentine politics. When he falls in with a savvy set of fellows who patronize the same philosophical barber, the fellows explain everything to him and vicariously to the reader. Thanks, George Eliot, for that handy literary device.

Wealth has become concentrated in the hands of the elite. The people are suffering. A French conqueror approaches. A political/religious movement centered on the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola gains momentum.

Sidebar: I just compared Romola and A Tale of Two Cities in my head for the first time and I will state the results for you. Eliot does a better job of weaving the lives of fictional characters into historical events. Yes, A Tale of Two Cities is spectacular, but it’s weirdly abstract given Dickens’ propensity for microscopic focus on his characters. His allegorical and apostrophic descriptions of conditions in Revolutionary France are stunning. I said “damn” aloud the first and second time I read a particular passage about hunger. It’s a masterful novel, but the lives of the characters recede in importance, making way for historical events. Out of all the characters in all the Dickens’ novels I have read, I care least about the characters in A Tale of Two Cities. Including whatshisname and his big sacrifice.

In Romola, historical events and events in the lives of the characters converge so beautifully that during the scene depicting Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities I found myself thinking:

  • I can’t believe this is happening/actually happened in the past. How crazy that this friar became so powerful he got mobs of people to sacrifice the signs of wealth they had accumulated. He’s running Florence now.
  • I can’t believe Romola’s vain aunt was so confused and frightened, she gave up her fake hair. Get home safe, auntie.
  • I’m very worried for poor Tessa, I hope she gets back safe.
  • Will Romola discover her husband’s secret?
  • Yikes!

I never knew I could experience so much emotion over medieval Florentine politics.

Anyway, back to the plot. Tito meets a beautiful young woman named Romola. Romola’s life centers around her father who is an aging, infirm, nearly blind scholar. When she meets Tito my heart swelled right along with hers. I thought “Yes, girl. You will finally have something in your life that brings you joy! You will get out of that dark study and into the bright beautiful world with this bright beautiful man.” I was so happy for them, but Tito is not what he seems to be. Eliot develops a profound contrast between Romola’s dutiful sacrifice for her father and Tito’s selfish shirking of his filial responsibility. He seems like such a golden boy, but one decision leads to a complete moral decline. It hurts to read. Hurts good.

Romola embarks on a transformative moral journey of her own that is not always a pleasure to read. Most of the time it is, but there is one moment that makes me want to break things. If I was afflicted with Bruce Banner’s condition, this one scene in Romola would make me Hulk-out. Romola finally sees her husband for what he really is. Distraught, she packs a few necessaries and runs away. On the road out of Florence she encounters Savonarola. The friar convinces Romola that it is her Christian duty to stay with her husband, because of blah blah blah, God, sacred vow, blah blah. Trash. Garbage. Smash it. Barf. Yuck. Shudder. “Go back to your husband” means going back to your marital duties. “Stay with your dirt bag husband who makes your skin crawl” means go be martially raped. “Go back and be raped” says the priest to the young woman. “Stay with him and be serially raped” said many Christians to many women throughout the course of history. How repulsive. This man has betrayed and abandoned Romola in every way short of permanently leaving their home, but she supposedly owes him her body until she dies. Garbage. Trash. Religion is mostly horrible.

Deep breath. Let’s move on. Despite this wretched moment, I became a bit obsessed with Girolamo Savonarola. The man, like all prophets, was a quack, but his fundamental message moves me. He was a socialist. He wanted to fix the problem of the wealthy exploiting the poor and he had a great deal of success. Then he was tortured and executed for standing up to power. How horrible. George Eliot brought him and his epoch in history to life so powerfully that I am very sad for this man who died 500 years ago. How wretched. His movement certainly does not meet contemporary standards of intersectionality—nothing does—but he fought for equality and paid a horrible price for it.

You might like Romola if:

  • you’re a student of art or Italian history
  • the thought of income inequality makes your heart thump
  • you love historical fiction
  • you’re ready to revel in the decline of a douchebag

You might not like Romola if:

  • you’re an anti-intellectual, free-market-loving, MAGA-hat-wearing turdblossom

Final Thoughts: What else is there to say? I love the book. It enrages me and saddens me, intrigues me and lifts me up. I recommend it. It is quite long and Victorian, so download the audiobook if you don’t think you have the patience for the written version. It’s worth a read or a listen.