The Worst Author in the Canon

the way we live now

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.

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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.

Lesbian Vampire!

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Sheridan Le Fanu

Horror is back! We missed you. I haven’t read a horror story since the Romantic era. I was eager to love Irish author, Sheridan Le Fanu. I tried. His most noted work is the vampire short story “Carmilla,” which is ok. Everything else I read by him was dreadful.

I was hoping he’d be great, so I started at the very beginning with his 1872 collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, which is the preferred Bible quote for people trying to be cryptic. Le Fanu sets up a narrative double blind, ostensibly one physician is providing us with his colleague’s notes. The colleague, Dr. Hesselius, treats haunted people. Nabokov uses layers of narrative to great effect. Le Fanu uses them to no effect. There is no reason to have one doctor introduce another doctor. There’s no reason for any of the characters to be doctors at all. Dr. Hesselius doesn’t save anyone. All his patients die. They are haunted and then they die. We didn’t need a special doctor to get that outcome. All Dr. Hesselius does is refer to Swedenborgian theory, which was some kind of Victorian spiritual mumbojombo that Le Fanu loved to mention but couldn’t figure out how to work into the plot or theme in any meaningful way.

Let’s talk about the story “Green Tea.” Dr. Hesselius fails to treat a man who is haunted by a demon monkey. Le Fanu does write this one effectively creepy sentence about the bedeviled man “Mr. Jennings has a way of looking sidelong upon the carpet, as if his eye followed the movements of something there.” That gives me the willies. After Jenning’s suicide, Hesselius declares that he inherited a predisposition to suicide, and that evil spirits got into his circulation through the green tea he habitually drank. Yes, friends, green tea killed him. Nice try, Le Fanu. Green tea is not scary and you didn’t make it so. This might be an expression of imperialist guilt, but it’s also very silly.

I tried out one of Le Fanu’s novels, because I’m thorough. It’s called Uncle Silas: or How to Sacrifice Your Daughter to Your Patriarchal Pride. I added the subtitle. Maud Ruthyn is an innocent maid with a wretched set of relatives. Her father is sore, because of rumors that his brother Silas killed a man who was found dead in his house. Daddy dearest refuses to believe these rumors, because, well because he doesn’t want to. Silas is generally a scoundrel. Dad isn’t on speaking terms with him, but he’s certain that he isn’t a killer, because he just can’t believe that a member of his noble bloodline could do such a thing. Oh, you nonsensical British aristocrats.

Anyway, Dad hires Maud a governess who is evil, abusive and sly enough to get away with it. She’s secretly also in Silas’ employ. Dad doesn’t believe Maud when she complains about Evil French Governess. Dad dies. Instead of sending wee Maud to live with her charmingly forthright aunt, Lady Knollys (I think Lady Knollys is her aunt, but I might have gotten the less-than-gripping minutiae of this book mixed up), he sends her to live with Uncle Silas. This fool believes in the glory of his bloodline so much, he’s willing to sacrifice. . .his bloodline to prove the value of his noble name. Get this guy a world’s worst dad mug. The thing is, if Maud dies before she reaches what’s that thing called? 21. You know. Majority! If she dies before she reaches her age of majority, her money goes to Silas. Dad’s objective was to show the world that he was so confident in Silas that he trusted his only child to him even given that Silas has a strong incentive to kill her. Which he does in fact try to do, but only after his creepy son tries to court her. I’ll say this, I was frightened for Maud. She was in a very precarious situation that could have been avoided with even the slightest measure of caution or care for her wellbeing. Thanks, Dad.

Now on to “Carmilla” the story of a girl and her vampire best friend. This one’s ok. There are some very silly elements, but it’s not complete garbage. The main character is a bit daft, which does nothing for me as a reader. There’s a very silly thing involving anagrams. Somehow, the story manages to be a bit creepy and even a bit charming despite these flaws. It’s a tale of a female friendship gone awry. Men are afraid of very close female friendships, aren’t they? The main character makes a new friend who seems to love her too much. Oh, dear. Being daft, the protagonist suspects that she might be a boy who disguised herself as a girl to get close to her. No, sweetie. I’m sorry no one ever told you about homosexuality. Or vampires. Anyway, if you read anything by Sheridan Le Fanu, let it be “Carmilla.” It’s brief, if nothing else.

You might like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • I don’t know, you’d have to be very dedicated to ghost stories. Even so, there are better ghost stories.

You might not like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • You’ve read a good ghost story.

Final thoughts: It’s a shame that the great stylists didn’t write horror stories. I do love a ghost story, just not these ones. I’m pretty sure we’ll have to wait another 14 years for Robert Louis Stevenson to get a good horror story. Sometimes if you dig deep into the short stories of great writers, you find a ghost story. Oscar Wilde has a great one. We’ll get there in good time.

The Tragic Fall that Broke a Young Girl’s Personality

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What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago, ‘bout a girl who fell off the swings and broke her will to resist patriarchy.

I think the best place to start is with Susan Coolidge’s own explanation of her tale, given in the introduction. She describes

“a Katy I once knew, who planned to do a great many wonderful things, and in the end did none of them, but something quite different, –something she didn’t like at all at first, but which, on the whole, was a great deal better than any of the things she dreamed about.”

I need you to bear that quote in mind while I describe this novel to you.

Protagonist Katy Carr is the eldest of a throng of motherless children. She’s not particularly attentive and kind to the little ones or to her lessons, because she occupies herself “dreaming of a time when something she had done would make her famous,” instead of learning her lessons or tying her bootlaces like a good little girl. She rambles in fields and meadows, and gets into scrapes including a fight with the rival girl’s school.

The setup for Katy’s character growth is the best part of the book. Katy’s inept leadership of her band of siblings is quite charming. Sure, she lacks the patience and empathy that come with time, but she’s just a kid. Merely twelve. Unfortunately, Coolidge sees Katy’s spunk as a tragic flaw and not a strength. More unfortunately, Coolidge thought that a spinal injury should be the catalyst for Katy’s character growth.

Obstinate Katy decides to use the swings after her aunt told her not to. Aunt didn’t mention that they needed repair. Katy falls and injures her spine. Four years of immobility rob Katy of her dreams and domesticate her. Conveniently, she has an angelic and permanently paralyzed cousin to guide her out of her depression with such sage advice as “get a prettier nightgown so that you don’t bum other people out with your appearance.”

Bored out of her skull, Katy decides to start taking on domestic duties like deciding what her family should have for dinner. Gradually, she becomes a mother to her younger siblings. Her spine heals and she walks again.

Garbage.

I have so many problems with this story. Do we really need Katy to be paralyzed for her to mature? She’s immobile for four years, which would have been enough time for her to start taking on household responsibilities because she saw the need, not because she literally could not do anything else with herself.

The lesson here is that instead of striving to have significance in the larger world, young girls should endeavor to be good housekeepers, because that is “a great deal better.” Shut up, Susan Coolidge. Why are you writing novels when you should be ordering servants to cook certain meals on certain days? Oh, because you want to be recognized outside your own home. . .for telling women not to look for validation, acclaim or meaning outside their homes. Shut up. You’re the worst.

 

I also really hate when characters suddenly become not paralyzed. There’s so little representation for disabled people in literature, tv and film, it’s a damn shame that authors can’t conceive of meaningful growth for disabled characters that does not involve them miraculously becoming abled. Temporary disability as a vehicle for character growth is astoundingly weak writing on many levels, especially when said “growth” means giving up your dreams and settling for your gender role.

What an absolute piece of drivel this novel is.

You might like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re a halfwit

You might not like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re fully witted

Final Thoughts: Let’s not print this novel anymore, ok? Please.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Are the Original Scooby and Shaggy

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, 1872

I did not read Tom Sawyer as a child, so I cannot give it the sentimental effusion I gave to Little Women, which is a comparable book; both are so influential that children’s literature and television still borrow techniques and elements from these seminal works. Mark Twain’s two young scamps, Tom and Huck, sneak to the cemetery at night to perform some sort of witchcraft with a dead cat. They witness a crime and spend the rest of the book wrestling with scruple and fear. Ultimately, they manage to stumble into all the right places at all the right times to thwart the villain whom adult authorities failed to apprehend. Does this not remind you of Scooby Doo and Shaggy, and a host of other children’s stories in which the kids capture the bad guy? Mark Twain invented that. He also invented or at the least popularized going to your own funeral as a plot element.

He also created or described a delightful little boy barter economy. Tom trades marbles, teeth, bugs, bits of glass, one-eyed kittens and doorknobs among other things. He notoriously exchanges a chance to whitewash a fence for a wealth of items discarded by adults in their ignorance of the value of sundry scraps to little chaps. Half the humor of the book is in the small things Tom values, such as the ability to steer the movements of a tick during a school lesson. I also appreciate the charming superstitions Tom adheres too. Very funny.

While Twain satirizes the romantic visions of knights, thieves and pirates that Tom has acquired from Robin Hood and other literature, his story is quite a romantic fantasy itself. Children thwart a hardened criminal, survive for days while lost in a cave, and we must talk about Huckleberry Finn. As the son of the town drunk, Huck is brought up by no one. He sleeps in the haylofts of kindly strangers. He doesn’t go to school. The boys in town envy his freedom. Twain does not adequately explain how Huck manages to avoid starvation. Fishing? Seems unlikely to provide year round sustenance.

When the Widow Douglas insists on giving Huck a home, Twain portrays the moment as a lamentable loss of freedom. Granted, young boys can’t be expected to recognize the value of being told to bathe and go to school. It’s natural for Huck to feel uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting. What bothers me is Twain’s depiction of the glorious liberty of being an uncared for child. I shudder to think of Huck’s vulnerability. Being unloved, undefended and unprovided for is a horrible position for a child to be in. As an allegory for freedom from the tethers of society, Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer only kind of works. I understand what he represents, but he represents it poorly in my opinion. You can take the teacher out of the school, but you can’t take the concern for the safety of children out of the teacher. I hope this trifle will be remedied in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I have enormously high expectations for. I find that books with glowing reputations in the canon tend to deserve them.

In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain evinces exactly the racial sensitivity and understanding you would expect from a Southerner in the 1870s. Not good. Injun Joe is a dark spot in the already dark history of Native people in the English canon. I could go on about race in this novel and I will, upon request, but if you have found this blog, you probably already know enough about race in America to know what to expect from this region during this era.

You might like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if:

  • you like children’s literature
  • you have a silly sense of humor

You might  not like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if:

  • your life is too short for the slightly lesser works of great authors

Final Thoughts: Certainly worth reading. Very funny and charming if not the greatest work by this author.

Early English Fantasy Writing

princess and goblin

It is the Late Victorian Era and genre fiction has arrived! I think we might be in the Late-late Victorian Era, but that doesn’t matter. A few weeks ago we covered a mystery novel, today’s book is a children’s fantasy novel and we have horror novels coming up. I appreciate this, because dressing up as a goblin is heaps more fun than getting out my tired old blue dress, middle parting my hair and forgoing makeup to be yet another Victorian lady. Bring on the genres! Bring on the murders, vampires, goblins, ghosts and demons.

George MacDonald is far more influential than he is famous. I reviewed his dense, philosophical, fantasy novel for adults, Phantastes, here. The Princess and the Goblin is another animal altogether. It retains the fairy tale whimsy of Phantastes, but as a children’s book, it is much simpler. An improvement, in my opinion, as I found his first novel a bit dull and meandering. For clarity’s sake, I should state that MacDonald professed that he wrote not for children, but “for the childlike,” which was a pretty common sentiment among kid lit writers in this era. Genres are just now emerging from under the nose of “serious literature.” Most writers didn’t want to be considered genre writers.

The Princess and the Goblin is a delightful little tale of a very young princess who shares her realm with a subterranean goblin kingdom. The princess is so sheltered that she’s unaware of the goblins at the beginning of the story. When she is nearly captured by these hideous, malformed creatures a young miner rescues her by singing. Because goblins hate rhymes. Especially extemporaneous rhymes. The miner, Curdie, and Princess Irene become fast friends, even though he does not believe her stories about her magical grandmother that no one else can see.

It’s quite evident that MacDonald significantly influenced two giants of fantasy: Tolkien and Lewis. When Irene goes wandering in her large home, she stumbles upon a mystical room and a beautiful, white-haired lady who bestows magic baubles upon her. A benevolent precursor of the White Witch in the wardrobe. Curdie, while mining, overhears a goblin conversation and is able to thwart their dastardly plans. This reminds me of several moments in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when hidden hobbits overhear their enemies’ terrifying schemes. It’s a great scene. I was simultaneously frightened for Curdie and entertained by the ludicrous goblin conversation. The underground goblin kingdom precedes both Tolkien’s dwarfish kingdom overrun by goblins, and the secret subterranean land in Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

It’s a bit silly that MacDonald resisted being identified as a children’s writer, given that he addresses many comments to “little girls I know” who don’t manage to behave as well as Princess Irene. She is very much a perfect, fairytale princess who can do no wrong. Modern readers crave a bit more nuanced characterization than MacDonald offers in The Princess and the Goblin, especially adult readers. But, it is a fun, sweet little story and breath of fresh air after all that Victorian realism.

I don’t have much else to say about The Princess and the Goblin. It is a sweet, simple fantasy story for children, but it has plenty of silly humor in it for childlike adults.

Here’s a Quote Because I Love You:

“The princess got tired. So tired that even her toys could no longer amuse her. You would wonder at that if I had time to describe to you one half of the toys she had. But then, you wouldn’t have the toys themselves, and that makes all the difference: you can’t get tired of a thing before you have it.  It was a picture, though, worth seeing—the princess sitting in the nursery with the sky ceiling over her head, at a great table covered with her toys. If the artist would like to draw this, I should advise him not to meddle with the toys. I am afraid of attempting to describe them, and I think he had better not try to draw them. He had better not. HE can do a thousand things that I can’t, but I don’t think he could draw those toys.”

You might like The Princess and the Goblin if:

  • you’re a fantasy aficionado or simply a fan of Tolkien and Lewis
  • you like fairytales
  • you don’t mind allegory

You might not like The Princess and the Goblin if:

  • you detest allegory and require all of your characters to be nuanced and gritty

 

Final Thoughts: I liked it. It’s not soaring to the top spot in my heart, but it’s a good piece of writing. It’s nice to get out of the Dickensian poorhouse and into a magical world populated by princesses and goblins and gold-hearted miners.