Silly Novels by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

Warning: I am going to insult Robert Louis Stevenson right now. If you went online today intending to yell at some chick for failing to appreciate Treasure Island, I am that chick; you have come to the right site. @me in the comments.

I love The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I love it so much. Everyone should read it at least three times. See my review of that story here for more on why I respect and adore it. I think that if Stevenson hadn’t written that one little story he would have been entirely forgotten. Nothing else he wrote is good.

I just don’t understand what is supposed to be great about Treasure Island or Kidnapped. I found both stories so under-stimulating that I am reviewing them together, because I cannot possibly scrounge up two posts worth of thoughts about these books. There just isn’t much to them. I imagine that some people appreciate the scary pirates in Treasure Island and the romantic highland setting of Kidnapped, but these books are Tom Sawyers they are not Huckleberry Finns. Well, they aren’t even Tom Sawyers, because Tom Sawyer is much funnier. Twain’s writing style is much quirkier and more engaging than Stevenson’s. What I mean by the metaphor is that like Tom Sawyer, Stevenson’s tales of childhood adventure are just that and nothing more. They do not have the emotional or thematic weight of Huck Finn.

Treasure Island concerns a young boy who comes into possession of a treasure map and falls in with a sordid set of pirates in his quest to recover the booty. This novel was wildly popular and influential. Half our silly ideas about pirates come from this book. Treasure maps marked with an X. One-legged pirates. Foul-mouthed parrots. Crazy marooned sailors. All that is very nice and imaginative. I admit the characterization is great. Long John Silver is a very creepy conman. Poor marooned Ben Gunn is simultaneously unpredictable, sympathetic and eerie. However, our protagonist, young Jim Hawkins is a thinly sketched everykid who could be swapped out for the main character of Kidnapped with no discernible difference. They’re just a couple of kids with no character traits in strange circumstances. I guess they’re both resilient and determined, but that describes every kid in every adventure story. I forgot their names immediately after setting down their respective volumes.

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David Balfour is the kid in Kidnapped, which is about getting shanghaied. Were you hoping for a plot less plausible than a kid getting his hands on an actual treasure map? Here you go: David Balfour has recently been orphaned. For some reason, his father died without once mentioning that David is the heir to an estate that is currently occupied by an evil uncle. Everybody has one of those: a secret, evil, rich uncle who lives in a rundown castle on the border of the Scottish Highlands. It’s so plausible that you should call your father right now, if you can, and ask him if he has a rich brother he has never once mentioned. Anyway, it turns out that David is the real heir. His uncle tries to kill him, but David is too clever. So, Evil Uncle enlists the help of a corrupt captain to shanghai David and sell him into indentured servitude in the Carolinas. David manages to avoid this fate through a series of absurd events that leaves him crossing the Highlands with an outlaw named Alan Breck. Breck has a few character traits, thank goodness. Stevenson drew inspiration for the plot and for Breck from real people and one real event, the Appin murder. Although the murder is more of an unnecessary tangent from than a meaningful backdrop for the plot. Briefly, England had just squashed the Jacobite Uprising and were working on further squashing the spirit and culture of the Scotts. Some important fella on the British side was murdered, so the local justice system gathered a biased jury and convicted the closest laird of the murder even though there was no evidence against him and everyone knew he didn’t do it. Think of all a skilled author could do with such an example of injustice in such a romantic time and location. Stevenson has his characters visit the laird who has not been arrested yet, but fears he might be. Then they leave. He never even mentions him again. I only know that he was later falsely convicted and executed because I looked it up.

What a waste.

I could forgive every literary sin I have mentioned if Treasure Island and Kidnapped excelled in one critical element. The most important element for any adventure tale. Pacing. These stories are both approximately 200 pages long, which is so short for a novel from this period. Yet, they both manage to drag on. While reading Kidnapped I found myself bored and feeling no sense of emotional connection to the characters or events. I thought “please just get to part where our two buddies have a fight, one of them almost dies and then they reconcile.” After two more chapters of nothing significant, we got to that exact point. Because every tale of two dudes adventuring together contains that element. David’s near death and Alan’s concern for him was the only moment that elicited an emotional reaction, but it was a weak response, because I’ve experienced it before while watching any number of predictable children’s movies.

Come for me in the comments, RLS fans. I am ready to hear how ignorant and obtuse I am. Make sure to criticize my punctuation while you’re down there.

 Final thoughts: George Eliot published an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in which she opines the publication of formulaic, unrealistic novels written by women. (Yeah, George Eliot kind of sucked. More on that when I have fully processed how disappointed I am in her.) She was not alone in this sentiment. I think Treasure Island and Kidnapped belong in a category of Silly Novels by Male Novelists. There’s just not much to them. They are not great novels. If Stevenson hadn’t written Jekyll and Hyde, I don’t think these stories would be read today. They are worth pilfering for inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean, but that’s it. No other value.

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Henry James Was Essentially a Men’s Rights Activist

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The Bostonians, Henry James, 1886

I don’t know why Henry James thought satirizing late Victorian feminism would be a good idea. It wasn’t. The Bostonians, the result of this misguided endeavor, is a truly worthless book. I don’t know who he imagined would want to read it. Maybe Men’s Right’s Activists. I stumbled across a review of this book on what turned out to be an MRA website. That’s the type of book this is.

The plot concerns two cousins who get into a fight over a young woman. Olive Chancellor is a well-to-do Bostonian and very active in the Women’s Movement. She invites her Southern cousin, Basil Ransom to visit. At one of Olive’s meetings they are both introduced to a beautiful young woman named Verena Tarrant who is a talented speaker. They didn’t have Netflix in the 1880s, so the ability to deliver some stirring oration was quite a talent. Olive and Basil become locked in a battle for lovely Verena’s soul.

James depicts Olive as cold and joyless. He shows her the type of disrespect that activists are often shown by assuming that her efforts are more a result of her personality than her convictions. She tries to change people’s behavior because she is an egotistical, controlling nag, not because these behaviors are harmful. She is obsessed with the suffering of women, not because women have truly suffered, but because the more downtrodden they are the greater her glory in lifting them up to a higher life. James continually indicates that he sees no merit in Olive’s cause, equal rights for women, by depicting Olive as someone who believes “whatever is—is wrong” and who would “reform the solar system if she could get a hold of it.” Barf. That attitude is so dismissive. James draws feminists as meddlers who want to reform for reformation’s sake. At no point does he demonstrate respect for the idea that all people should be equal.

That disrespect got him in trouble with the literary community. Nobody was interested in his backwards, even for the time, opinions. One doddering old feminist character, Miss Birdseye, was clearly based on Eliza Peabody, a relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne and friend of the Alcotts. Here’s a segment of James’ description of Ms. Birdseye “she belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatsoever.” Cuz, you know, all these loud women talking about feminism don’t even care about equality, they just like being in a club together. To continue with the quote “this did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.” Also, she’s ugly. Yep, Henry James did just depict humanitarianism as inconsequential. I want that on the record. The scorn in that phrase “iniquity of most arrangements” is at the heart of what makes this book worthless. Who the hell is James talking to? Who does he think his audience is? Society had already acknowledged that arrangements were iniquitous. Mocking that idea will appeal to no one except for reactionary assholes like Basil Ransom.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t gotten to the worst part of Ms. Birdseye’s characterization. James states that she is less busy since the end of the Civil Wa, “before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.” Uhhhhhhhhhhh. Where to even start with this one. Yet again, James sees no sincerity in activism. Abolitionists were just in it for the thrills. Now, it is hard to know if James is being dismissive of the efforts of everyone involved in the Underground Railroad or if Ms. Birdseye really did only fancy that she helped slaves escape. Potentially, he could mean that she was so ineffective that she couldn’t bring about an escape. However, he doesn’t have much benefit of the doubt left. So, probably not? The idea that she might wish for the reinstatement of slavery smacks of that dumb philosophical argument that there is no true altruism, because if you feel pleasure when you help someone, you aren’t being truly selfless. I believe it was John Stewart Mill who rolled his eyes hard and said “Wtf do you care if someone who does a good deed feels pleasure? Someone was helped. Someone else felt happy. These are both good things. Shut up, Henry James. What part of feeling good about doing good is objectionable to you, you twisted ratbag?”

This is not to say that feminists and abolitionists are too sacred to be criticized or even mocked. You don’t have to do much digging to find objectionable behavior in either camp. But this is not an instance of one humanitarian holding other humanitarians to a higher standard. This is just one twisted ratbag making fun of people for promoting equality. Yes, the people that these characters are based on were not the intersectional heroes we wish for. However, that’s not what James is lampooning. He’s not mocking them for doing a bad job of striving for equality. He’s just mocking them. The Bostonians was published serially. James’ depiction of Ms. Birdseye was so poorly received that he had to change direction and write a touching death scene for her near the end of the novel.

Woof. 1,000 words already. I’ve covered the first 5% of the book. We need to talk about Basil. He is a Southern gentleman who lost his family fortune when his slaves were freed. Basil has such reactionary political opinions that he cannot get them published. A newspaper editor rejects his “paper on the rights of minorities” because his “doctrines were about three hundred years behind the age; doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them.” So, Olive and Basil are both ideologues. Basil has the upper hand in their fight for Verena, because he is charming and persuasive, while Olive is the incarnation of an MRAer’s mental picture of a feminist. Basil falls in love with Verena and wants to rescue her from the taint of public life, because women should be hidden away at home. Doing some baking.

Long story short, Verena chooses Basil, because I don’t know, the innate superiority of men? James depicts her as young and impressionable. She only became involved in the Women’s Movement, because of her father’s influence. She sways from one influence to another. James cannot conceive of a young woman who genuinely believes in equal rights or has any convictions whatsoever that won’t fly out of her silly little head as soon as someone mildly persuasive starts talking to her. Verena is clay to be molded by the stronger characters; “it was in her nature to be easily submissive, to like being overborn.”  Which describes exactly zero of the young advocates I know. Although, I can’t claim that a prominent feminist falling in love with an anti-feminist troll and losing her way is absolutely unrealistic. Remember Laci Green, the feminist, sex-positive youtuber who “reached out to the other side,” started dating an anti-feminist troll and immediately started tweeting transphobia? It can happen.

But do we need a novel about it? No.

We have to talk about the book’s queerness. There is an obvious implication that Olive is in love with Verena. They live together, an arrangement that lead to the coining of the term “Boston marriage” meaning a same-sex couple that live together ostensibly as platonic friends, but who are really romantically involved. I can understand how even a tacit acknowledgement of the existence of same-sex relationships during this era is significant, but this book is not the queer classic you deserve. Not by any stretch. James promotes the stereotype of homosexual love as the corruption of malleable young person by a misguided older lover. I don’t need it. You don’t need it. It’s trash and I don’t want to think about it anymore.

You might like The Bostonians if:

  • You’re a Men’s Rights Activist or whatever they’re calling themselves now.

You might not like The Bostonians if:

  • See above.

Final thoughts: Barf.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Luis Stevenson, 1886

I LOVE THIS BOOK. If you have never read it, go read it three times. If you haven’t read it in the past month, go reread it right now.

Ok, we’re back from reading Jekyll and Hyde? Excellent. Isn’t it perfect? There are so few truly great horror stories from this time period, but J and H has it all. The writing is atmospheric and spooky like an old house in a horror flick. The plot is intriguing and well-conceived. This is not one of those early horror stories that seems great, because later artists repurposed and improved the concept. Jekyll and Hyde is an excellent piece of writing, especially thematically. The allegory is clear, but complicated enough that many possible interpretations are valid. Most impressively, Stevenson maintains a level of focus throughout the novella that wordy Victorians with their 600 page tomes rarely achieved. Every line is purposeful. Stevenson continually pings little flecks of meaning at the reader that reinforce the mood and the theme.

I love how Stevenson hides nuggets like “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” in the second sentence of the story, which is merely introducing the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. I get a little shiver from that fragment, because I know something not eminently human will appear later in the tale. So clever. I can’t handle how great that detail is. You know what, Nabokov wrote that good readers “fondle the details” of good fiction; so let’s do that. You don’t need a summary of the characters or plot of this one. It’s too famous for that. Let’s get into some details.

Utterson is worried about his friend Jekyll’s connection to the odious Mr. Hyde, but does not want to pry because, as his friend Mr. Enfield states it “You start a question and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name.” Such a quaint way to introduce the idea that proper, refined, well-regarded families are harboring dark secrets. Secrets that their friends would rather not know. Gentlemen are willingly looking away from the dark side of their fellows’ natures.

The maid states that moments before she witnesses Hyde committing a violent murder, she was enjoying a lovely moonlit night and “never had she felt more at peace with all men or felt more kindly of the world.” I just love that. By transforming himself into Hyde, by indulging the evil tendencies of his nature, Jekyll violates not just laws of nature, but the social contract. This romantic maid has her sense of peace and goodness permanently disturbed by witnessing a moment of pure evil. Jekyll has broken her faith in mankind, just as he has broken the unspoken compact shared by Victorians to repress their forbidden desires.

It seems so appropriate that this allegory about repression should come near the end of the Victorian Era. It fits nicely with our image of Victorians as tight-lipped, pleasureless and obsessed with respectability. Jekyll is driven to create his alter-ego, because he has never been able to reconcile his desire for pleasure with his need to maintain a gentile public face. He was already living a double life and felt a “morbid sense of shame” at his secret pleasures. Sex and drugs, right? I’m not sure what else it could be. Gambling, perhaps. General drunken carousing. I guess that’s beside the point. Jekyll has a dual nature, but feels that “both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I labored, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” Oh, there’s so much in there. I love that Stevenson wrote “eye of day” rather than “light of day” to emphasize the watchful eye of society. He suggests that to get along in society one had to divide one’s true self into one acceptable public aspect and one hidden sinner. Go ahead and pause to think about the aspects of your true nature you’ve had to hide away so that you could feel accepted. Really, the duality of public versus private is more interesting than that of good versus evil. What we hide from the eye of day is rarely a desire to harm others. Call me naïve, but I think there’s enough room in society to indulge self-serving tendencies, that the part of ourselves we hide is not destructive or evil. What we hide is a failure or lack of desire to fulfill a role society wants from us. We hide emotions that others don’t want to see. Anger, depression, not wanting to do our gender roles. That’s the secret self we hide. Not evil. I know my Mr. Hyde doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s just a vulnerable Goth who doesn’t want to wear a bra. I think. Anyway, I didn’t mean to spin off in that direction. There’s just so much scope in this novella.

One last little thought. I appreciate Mr. Hyde being smaller and younger than Dr. Jekyll. The evil side of Jekyll’s nature is not as developed as his full self. So, it is shorter and younger. That’s such a great sci-fi-esque detail. So good.

You might like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • You like a good horror story.
  • You like a good story of any variety.

You might not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • I cannot think of a reason.

Final thoughts: Is it a cautionary tale about the peril of letting your dark side out or is it about the danger of squashing an aspect of your true self? I dunno. Both. It’s everything. So good.

Hardy on Surviving Toxic Patriarchs

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The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy, 1885

Are you getting tired of Thomas Hardy yet? I’m not!

The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy’s take on the Greek tragic hero archetype. I loved Ancient Greek drama in high school and college. At age thirty-something, I found on my first read through that I have no time for an aggressive patriarch whose fits of pique threaten to destroy the lives of everyone he encounters. Gee, I wonder why I’m feeling particularly frustrated by that personality-type?

I couldn’t enjoy the book the first time through, because I was so aggravated by Michael Henchard’s string of selfish, destructive actions. I was too pissed off to have any fun. However, on my second read—I read pretty much every deserving novel at least twice before posting about it—I knew what was coming. No longer shocked and surprised by the protagonist’s behavior, I was free to expend my mental energy on admiring Hardy’s handiwork.

It’s a good’un, folks. I love a twisty, curvy, complicated plot and The Mayor of Casterbridge sure has one. I’ve always found the descriptors “plot driven” and “character driven” too facile. Sure, “plot driven” can be used to mean a novel is all action with weak characterization. However, a story can have a great plot and great characterization. I think Victorian readers would be baffled by that supposed dichotomy, because all good Victorian novels focus heavily on character development AND have compelling plots. The Mayor of Casterbridge takes the reader on quite a ride, plotwise, but every turn is propelled by the beautifully elaborated characters.

I almost don’t want to tell you a single other thing about this book. It’s so great; you should discover everything for yourself. I can’t even describe the relationships between the characters without misleading you or giving something away. After some contemplation I’ve decided to try to tell you a few key things.

Michael Henchard begins as a grumpy man with too little money, too great a fondness for alcohol, a wife and a daughter. He commits a spectacularly strange act that separates him from said wife and child. Many years later, they reappear and discover that he has risen from a lowly hay-trusser to a position of such wealth and influence that he has become the mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy describes this semi-agricultural and semi-urban town so masterfully that I have profound feelings about the bridges, the market days, the villagers who carouse at the secret pub, all of it. I’m not kidding about the bridges. If you read this book, you will have strong emotions about the bridges of Casterbridge.

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Henchard has a foil in the character of Donald Farfrae, a young Scottish fellow he hires to help him manage his grain business. Farfrae is everything Henchard is not: forgiving, reasonable, thoughtful. Henchard soon torpedoes their friendship because of jealousy. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Oops, one more. Hardy establishes that Farfrae is indisputably the better man of the two, yet they both commit the same disastrous mistake: undervaluing Henchard’s daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.

Oh, Elizabeth-Jane. My queen. She’s a steady woman, whose impoverished childhood instilled a keen sense that injustice and suffering are inherent to human existence. Yet, she is compassionate and selfless. She aspires to refine herself, not so that she can make an entrance in society, but to attain a greater degree of personal dignity, something she lacked in her early life. She attempts to do this by reading rigorously. Do you see why I love her? Here is just a snippet of her lovely characterization “Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness […] But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who deserved much more.” I could cry. My only criticism of this book is that I could have used so much more Elizabeth-Jane.

There are other actors in the cast, but I won’t go into it further. Just know that Hardy puts them all in such intense and odd, yet plausible situations. If you can get past what a jerk Henchard is, and I think you can, you will enjoy seeing these characters react to their fascinating circumstances.

Just as a bonus, this book contains my favorite Brit Lit trope: someone goes out into the wilds to consult a mystic. Love it. Hardy, of course, describes this character with his typical incisive wit. Ostensibly god-fearing Anglicans, his clients put on a show of not truly believing in his prophetic powers. “Whenever they consulted him they did it ‘for a fancy.’ When they paid him they said ‘Just a trifle for Christmas,’ or ‘Candlemas,’ as the case may be. He would have preferred more honesty in his clients, and less sham ridicule; but fundamental belief consoled him for superficial irony. As stated, he was enabled to live; people supported him with their backs turned. He was sometimes astonished that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house, when at church they professed so much and believed so little.” I cackled at that one. Got ‘em.

You might enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:

  • you like things that are good

You might not enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:

  • you have no time for stories about toxic patriarchs. Which is how I felt at first, but I realized that the story isn’t just about him. It’s about the way that he fails to destroy anyone but himself. It’s about the way that the people around him endure his toxicity and remain compassionate, giving people. True to themselves to the end. That’s a story worth reading. In these trying times.

Final Thoughts: The more I think about this book, the more I love it. It is considered one of Hardy’s masterpieces for good reason.

My Favorite Novel!

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Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874

I was nervous the night before I started rereading Far from the Madding Crowd. I felt like a vessel unfit to receive Thomas Hardy’s glorious words. I knew I’d soon be sitting at my computer trying to explain why I love this book so much and I felt unworthy of the task. I’ll try anyway. This is my very favorite book; I must attempt to do it justice.

Hardy’s fourth novel has all the wit, wisdom and cynicism of his later great works, but with more drama and less heartrending tragedy. It’s as if you ordered your insightful literary martini with a dry sense of humor, spiked with a soap opera plot, hold the bitter tears, and add a side order of sweet romance.

The plot concerns a proud, independent young maiden who inherits her uncle’s farm and proceeds to wreak havoc in the neighborhood with her beautiful face. Dear Bathsheba Everdene—yes, her last name was lifted for Katniss Everdeen—doesn’t instigate the havoc. Men just see her face and proceed to destroy their own lives. Hardy loves not a love triangle, but a love square. Three men fall for her: humble shepherd Gabriel Oak, staid middle-aged Farmer Boldwood, and dashing young soldier Frank Troy.

I rate these four characters among the best in the canon. Let me tell you why. But first, just go read it and then come back and see if you agree with me. Discover all this wonder on your own.

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Bathsheba Everdene

I love a proud, independent woman. When she discovers her father’s bailiff stealing from her she dismisses him and instead of hiring another man to run the farm, she decides to do it herself. Shocking! She goes to market. She buys grain and sells sheep. She gets up on the ricks with Gabriel in the middle of the night with lightning flashing all around to protect her harvest from the coming rain.

Bathsheba may be vain, but she is not a flirt. I absolutely love this description of her “From the contours of her figure in its upper part she must have had a beautiful neck and shoulders; but since her infancy nobody had ever seen them. Had she been put into a low dress she would have run and thrust her head into a bush. Yet she was not a shy girl by any means; it was merely her instinct to draw the line dividing the seen from the unseen higher than they do it in the towns.” Early in the progress of the tale Gabriel sees her lay back on her horse with her feet on its neck to avoid a low hanging branch. His infatuation for her began there and so did mine. I dare you to read Hardy’s description of this moment and not fall in love with Bathsheba.

Frank Troy

               This handsome soldier is careless with women. Not a novel character, but one so well described by Hardy that he stands out. He has a changeable nature usually reserved for female characters. He fluctuates from rakish to repentant to rascally and back so easily that he’s quite fascinating.

Farmer Boldwood

               This fucking guy. His progress from steady, predictable bachelor to psychopath is gripping and horrifying. The next farm over is a new place to find a villain. This gentleman farmer slowly turns mad. You pity him and then you loathe him, which is the reverse of how we like to handle psychos these days. What’s most chilling about Boldwood is that you recognize him. He’s every man who feels so entitled to a woman that he’ll wheedle and bully her into being with him out of a sense of obligation. It’s repulsive and compelling to read.

Gabriel Oak

               My favorite. The best. I love him. He does none of the nonsense to Bathsheba that Boldwood does, even though he loves her just as well. His kind, gentle devotion to her is my relationship goal. If you’re drawn to The Office, you might be drawn to Gabriel Oak as a romantic figure. After all, long term love is about making each day easier and better for your partner, not about doing creepy dramatic shit like asking the gravedigger who just opened her grave to put her husband in it to walk away for a bit so you can lay down with her corpse. This is a friendly reminder that Heathcliff is a kidnapper and rapist, not a romantic hero. Gabriel Oak is a romantic hero. Because he takes care of his lady’s sheep. That’s useful and kind. I know, I’m old and practical about love, but whatever. Life happens day by day and so does love. I’d happily spend my days with Gabriel. He can tend my flocks anytime.

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The book is not perfect. The middle is not as strong as the beginning and end. Hardy strays a bit long amid his pleasant rural scenery and his pleasant rustics, but he has almost entirely shed the obnoxious condescension of Under the Greenwood Tree. I don’t mind spending some time on Bathsheba’s farm. Any writer who can make shepherding incidents as dramatic and moving as Hardy can deserves acclaim for his depiction of rural life.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book. You should read the entire novel, but I will provide this longish quote for your enjoyment.

“At last the eighth day came. The cow had ceased to give milk for that year, and Bathsheba Everdene came up the hill no more. Gabriel had reached a pitch of existence he never could have anticipated a short time before. He liked saying “Bathsheba” as a private enjoyment instead of whistling; turned over his taste to black hair, though he had sworn by brown ever since he was a boy, isolated himself till the space he filled in the public eye was contemptibly small. Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction to a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the imbecility it supplants.”

Hardy would later express a far less positive view of marriage.

You might like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you like a rural story
  • you appreciate wit
  • you appreciate writing aesthetically, but are not opposed to a compelling plot

You might not like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you need your romances a bit more torrid

Final Thoughts: It’s the best book. Go read it! It is fun and beautiful. My favorite.

Robin Hood: Toxic Masculinity Can Be Delightful?

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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle, 1883

Look who it is! Robin Hood himself. What’s he doing here in the 1880s? I will explain.

The earliest surviving mention of the name Robin Hood dates to the 1370s. The legend was maintained in a slew of separate ballads composed in the two proceeding centuries. Originally Robin was simply a clever outlaw, not a kind, generous socialist. Walter Scott, in the unreadably racist Ivanhoe, recast Robin Hood as a hero. The original Robin was a yeoman, a farmer who owned his land. Scott changed his motivation, status and time period. Robin became a Saxon knight and Social Justice Warrior who stole from evil Norman conquerors to return England’s native wealth to its native people. Oopsy, Scott forgot that the Saxons were also Germanic conquerors.

Anyway, Scott’s 1820 novel initiated the long tradition of reimagining the medieval outlaw in whatever form of heroism happened to jive with the time. In 1973 Disney knew the people needed a sexy, anti-authoritarian fox. We still do. We can thank Howard Pyle for that fox. In 1883 he did his best to combine the various Robin Hood ballads into a continuous narrative called The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. The text still seems episodic, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the tale. Pyle attempted to preserve the humor, rhythm and some of the fun language from his source material. I think he did a smashing job. He generated renewed interest in the Robin Hood myth that never died out. Thanks, Howie!

You will recognize Pyle’s Robin. He is kind and generous to his friends, always ready to prank an enemy, the best archer in the land, and he has a keen sense of economic injustice. He relieves wealthy travelers, especially fat friars, of their riches. Sorry, he does not redistribute to the poor. Instead, he uses the money to maintain his gang of outlaws. He needs this troop to protect him from arrest, because he’s a murderer, arguably in self-defense. No one can serve a warrant on Robin Hood, because he is a mafioso and his thugs will give you “cracked crowns and broken bones.” So, maybe you wouldn’t entirely recognize him.

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The murder Robin committed weighs heavily on his heart, so he and his gang perform elaborate jests upon their enemies rather than harm them, which is fun for us. Not content with the number of scrapes they get into with the Sheriff of Nottingham and his minions, Robin and his Merry Men are quick to perceive insults and start bashing random people with staves over silly disputes like who will cross a bridge first. This is how Robin jumps doughty fighters into his gang. Little John and several others join the group after proving their fighting prowess against Robin or another Merry Man. It gets a bit repetitive. Although, I do appreciate Robin’s ability to laugh at himself when he is bested.

In between bashings, Robin maintains his horde in style. They feast in the forest on the King’s deer—naughty boys—and use the riches they steal to keep themselves well provided with ale. Have I already gone on a rant about the unimaginable horribleness of the British royalty not allowing poor people to hunt? Evil. Anyway, when the Merry Men tire of their comfortable lifestyle they wander around Sherwood until they find someone to bash with a stick or prank or both. Now, you may be thinking that you don’t want to read about men who can’t stop bashing sticks into each other. I did get frustrated with them. Medieval medicine was mostly nonsense. One shouldn’t walk around cracking crowns and breaking bones, especially in this era. But wait, the story has a saving grace: Pyle’s writing style!

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Pyle’s prose has a lovely rhythm. It reminds me of footsteps. Thus, you feel as if you are walking through the woods with Robin. Combining that rhythm with pseudo-medieval language, he achieved such a charming effect. For example, “So saying, he strode away through the leafy forest glades until he had come to the verge of Sherwood. There he wandered for a long time, through highway and byway, through dingly dell and forest skirt.” Ah! Doesn’t that just make you want to quit your job to go wander through a dingly dell? His tone is so jolly and fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, in spite of the goofy men constantly trying to prove their manliness. Isn’t that weird? It’s ok though. It’s ok to turn off the intersectional feminist part of your brain for a moment to enjoy jolly tale. Take a break. Turn it back on right after, though. We need you in the fight. Or, if you’re not comfortable with that, give this one a pass. You do you.

The most objectionable part occurs in the epilogue, when Pyle had the difficult task of disposing of a character who is too pure, noble and manly, and far too stout a fighter to be defeated by any man. So, of course, Robin is undone by the treachery of women. A vile Prioress bleeds him to death. Blergh.

Excepting the ending, I really enjoyed this one. It’s as charming as the fox in the Disney film. The story may be full of men attacking each other, but it’s also full of joie de vivre, a certain sweetness, and a vibrant appreciation of the beauty of nature. I almost forgot to tell you that the men refer to each other as “sweet chuck.” Just a cute little pet name. They call deer “dainty brown darlings.” Here’s another fun quote for you: “The bright light faded from the sky and a glimmering gray fell over all things. From the deeper recesses of the forest the strange whispering sounds of night-time came to the ear.” Just an small example of what I liked about this novel.

You may like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood if:

  • you’re a nature lover
  • you like mischief

You may not like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood if:

  • there are absolutely no circumstances under which you would consider reading a story that is mainly about men bashing each other with sticks

Final Thoughts: I liked it! Robin Hood is a fun character. I’m glad Pyle helped repopularize him.

P.S. Thank you, thank you, thank you to my wonderful friends Rachel and Alex for being completely perfect at portraying Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.

A Country Doctor is not the Book about Women Doctors that You Deserve

 

img_7352A Country Doctor, Sarah Orne Jewett, 1883

I had such high hopes for A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s about a Victorian lady doctor! Hooray! And it is set in Maine, where I currently live. And it’s written by a woman. I was so ready to love it.

But it just isn’t good.

Firstly, there is a grand total of one, just one, pitiful sad lonely one scene in which our hero Nan—or whatever, I finished reading this book today and I already forgot the main character’s name, but we’ll call her Nan. I’m 90% sure it’s Nan.—actually practices medicine. Just that one scene. She relocates a man’s shoulder. Which is probably not the medical term for fixing a dislocated shoulder. I don’t care about this book enough to look up medical terms.

The beautiful, eerie, shimmering spirit of a good book haunts this novel, but Sarah OJ tragically murdered it. I want to know about the fiery, wild spirit of the young girl who would grow up to defy society and become a doctor. Unfortunately, OJ just hints at Nan’s wild youth through long and tedious conversations that adults have about her. Ugh. Imagine if Little Women or Anne of Green Gables was just conversations among adults and the scrapes the girls get themselves into were never directly narrated. I thought I was done with long conversations about the politics of Victorian medicine when I finished Middlemarch, but I guess not.

OJ focuses most of her wordcount on Nan’s peculiar family history. Nan’s mother was an uppity farm girl who married above her station. Mom’s in-laws were cruel. Dad died young. Mom took to drink and tuberculosis. After contemplating doing away with herself and her young child, the drunk, consumptive Momma delivers the child to her grandmother before expiring from her illnesses. Mom asks the attendant country doctor to look after her child. Her own mother is standing right there, but she asks the doctor to take on this random baby. Apparently, that was something you could do in the 1880s.

In time grandma passes away and the doctor takes little Nan to his own home. She takes to medicine. Thus commences the debate as old as women in the work place “can she have it all.” Obviously, in the 19th century a woman could not have a job and a husband. Obviously, a man appears and falls in love with Nan. Spoiler: she loves him too, but decides she is unsuited to marriage and that her one duty is to become a doctor. The shoulder relocation scene occurs during their brief courtship. Which means that the only example OJ gives of her protagonist’s medical prowess serves to demonstrate the effect of that skill on young men who wish to marry her. Nothing to do with personal accomplishment or utility to the greater good, just “what will the boys think?”

We know from the title of the book that Nan is going to choose medicine over men, so OJ’s attentiveness to this crisis in Nan’s life has no urgency. Her actual medical career serves as an epilogue to the central question of will she choose marriage or a career. Granted, this is an important topic to see inaugurated in literature. Sadly, Sarah Orne Jewett threw Can-She-Have-It-All a rather inept debutante ball.

My favorite part of the novel was the moment when two wives discuss how much easier cooking is with their newfangled stoves while their husbands discuss how much they miss the old-fashioned stoves. Too true, OJ. Too true. Often, men don’t understand how much work the women are doing to keep the house in order.

OJ’s most profound moment lies in Nan’s assertions that she is unfit for marriage. While it is unfortunate that her relatives cannot simply accept that she’d rather be a doctor than a wife, OJ takes some time to consider the idea that not all women are suited to being wives, home makers or mothers. Men at that time could choose whether they wanted to be husbands and fathers. However, women without independent means had no choice but marriage. When marriage is your only choice, marriage is not truly consensual. Neither is the sex within that marriage.

You might like A Country Doctor if:

  • You need it for your Ph.D. thesis on Victorian women in literature.

You might not like A Country Doctor if:

  • I think I laid that out for you already.

Final Thoughts: The topic and the themes of this novel are all I could ask for, but the execution is poor. I would be very interested in reading a history of women in medicine, though. Fascinating topic.