Love Among Outlaws

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Lorna Doone, Richard Doddridge Blackmore, 1869

Before she was a cookie, Lorna Doone was a lady. A beloved literary heroine. Heroine is a strong word for Lorna, though. If being sweet, innocent, pretty and passive while men fight over you qualifies you as a heroine, Lorna is certainly one. The subtitle of Lorna Doone is A Romance of Exmoor. Before we launch into criticizing the romance aspect, let’s talk about what make this book great.

Blackmore borrows classic elements from earlier decades in literature, including:

  • bleak and beautiful English moors for the setting
  • romanticized highway men: armed horsemen who rob nobles as they travel in their coaches
  • Gothic elements, such as a witch and a ghostly mystery with a practical explanation
  • a complicated plot involving secret identities and historical events

I suppose you could consider the first person narration a throwback to Tom Jones or Wuthering Heights, but the narrator of Lorna Doone is too special for me to classify him as an homage. John Ridd is his own man and a truly special voice in the English cannon. He is a hyper-masculine hero who is embarrassed by the attention his exceptional height attracts in his small, rural community. What I love most about John Ridd and Lorna Doone is the humble tone of John’s narrative. He is modest and not quite comfortable sharing the details of his life and his great love with us. He’s sorry for taking up so much of our time. It’s quite heartwarming.

The central drama of the book revolves around the tension between a band of robbers and the community they prey upon. A tension only John Ridd with his height, strength, work ethic, and humility can resolve. I’d mention his charm, because social relationships are key to his eventual overthrow of his nemeses, but he doesn’t so much charm people over to his cause as win them through his undeniable merit. Are you starting to see why a self-effacing tone is critical to this novel’s success? John Ridd is too perfect to be stuck on himself. Everyone around him admires him so much, if he admired himself even a bit, he’d be tiresome.

Back to this band of robbers. A gentleman named Sir Ensor Doone lost his land and wealth in a legal reversal of fortune. He settled in a remote valley in Exmoor with his extended family. After his neighbors grew tired of providing food for a group who were too noble to farm their own land, Sir Ensor Doone and his clan took to raiding the local farms. The locals cannot or will not seek legal recourse when they are wronged, because they either believe that the noble Doones are entitled to pillage whatever they desire, or they find that the legal authorities believe so. At first the concept of outlaws being tolerated because of their aristocratic status seemed outrageous and decidedly English to me. But, do we not allow the rich to make off with our earnings in this country? Are the rich not growing richer at our expense? They are. Even the foulest behavior of the Doones’, carrying off farmers’ daughters to provide new Doone children, has its contemporary counterpart. Do we not allow rich men to harass and assault women? We do. And, like the people of Exmoor, even though we find this behavior repellent, we allow these men to retain their status.

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We meet our hero, who is destined to overthrow the Doones, on the day that they murder his father. He is still a schoolboy, so we must see him through a bout of fisticuffs with a larger boy before he can launch into his life’s journey. Because it’s just not a British bildungsroman without boys punching each other.

John returns home to the terrible news of his father’s death and to his mother and sister. In his grief he feels “although they were my dearest loves, I could not bear to look at them until they seemed to want my help,” which is a statement typical of the sweet familial sentiment Doddridge does not shy away from. Many authors are afraid of sentiment; it takes a brave writer to write to write openly affectionate moments.

The early parts of Lorna Doone are my favorite. I have mentioned the Victorian fetish for rusticity in my George Eliot posts, and I will discuss the travesty that is Thomas Hardy’s early bowing to this fetish in an upcoming post. Doddridge gets it right. Yes, his Exmoor peasants are romanticized, but he does not condescend to them. My absolute favorite passage in the novel is when a duck is rescued from a flood. John Ridd knows every animal on his farm personally. When he returns from a trip to  London, he has a touching reunion with a ram that ventures to the outskirts of the farm to great him. The potential loss of the beloved patriarch of his duck clan is dramatic, tense and humorous. Not to worry, the duck is rescued by his cousin, Tom Faggus. Faggus is a highwayman, but a noble one. A Robin Hood type who rides a nearly human strawberry colored mare. Anyway, the duck tale perfectly encapsulates what I love about Lorna Doone, while it is certainly romantic and rustic, Doddridge takes his rustics seriously. He delivers vernacular prose and dialogue that does not endeavor to trivialize the lives and concerns of rural folk. This cannot be said of Charles Dickens, George Eliot or of Thomas Hardy’s early work. The book is rustic, humble, humorous and sentimental without falling into the trap that most educated Victorians who wrote about country people fell into.

For example, John Ridd meets the love of his life, Lorna, while he is searching for loaches, a fish that his mother loves to eat. She hasn’t been eating much since the death of her husband. Her sweet, caring son is worried, and determined to find loaches for her, even if it means traveling dangerously close to the supposedly impregnable Doone valley. He nearly drowns while attempting to scale a…waterfall type situation. I’m not sure I quite understand the geography or geology of what Doddridge describes. Suffice it to say, he scales a slippery and dangerous thingy to discover not just loaches, but a beautiful young maiden. Lovely Lorna is the “Queen” of the Doones. For detailed and spoilery reasons, she is destined to marry the heir apparent of the Doone clan, Carver Doone, who happens to be the man who shot John’s father.

That is only the beginning of the long, complicated and dramatic love story of John Ridd and Lorna Doone, but it’s the end of my favorite part of the novel. In John’s opinion what’s notable about their romance is that he could ever get someone of such high birth to fall in love with him. In my opinion, it’s more remarkable that a practical and useful farmer would repeatedly risk his neck for a woman who has nothing to offer other than beauty and a genteel manner. But if we know anything at this point in this reading project, it’s that the only way Brits have of demonstrating that a character is worthy and deserving is to reward said character with a rich spouse of very high birth.

The rest of the book retains the characteristics I enjoyed in the early bits, but with a lot of fighting and “oh, Lorna, oooh, my Lorna, how I love the way she trembles in my arms.” Given the thriving market in romance novels, I suppose there are plenty of people who actually like to read about innocent maidens trembling in the arms of very tall farmers, but I am not one of those people.

If you’d like to know anything more about Lorna Doone, go on and read it. It’s pretty darn good in spite of Lorna’s trembling. I have read it twice and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Also, the Brilliance audio recording is delightful. The narrator’s accent is perfect.

Here’s quite a long quote from the duck story that I love. John and his sister Annie are alerted to the perilous position of the patriarch duck by the quacking of his family:

“Annie began to cry ‘Dilly, dilly, einy, einy, ducksey’ according to the burden of a tune they seem to have accepted as the national duck’s anthem; but instead of being soothed by it, they only quacked three times as hard, and ran round till we were giddy. And then they shook their tails together, and looked grave, and went round and round again. Now, I am uncommonly fond of ducks, both roasted and roasting and roystering; and it is a fine sight to see them walk, poddling one after another, with their toes out, like soldiers drilling, and their eyes cocked all ways at once, and the way that they dib with their bills and dabble, and throw up their heads and enjoy something, and then tell the others about it. Therefore I knew at once, by the way they were carrying on, that there must be something gone wholly amiss in the duck-world.”

Duck joy is about universal.

You might like Lorna Doone if:

  • you like Walter Scott
  • you can’t get enough of the moors
  • you like Robin Hood
  • you like stories about farm life in which farmers are looked down on

You might not like Lorna Doone if:

  • you’re just not going to read a book with a trembling maiden no matter what else there is to recommend it

Final Thoughts:

I’m happy the words and characters of Lorna Doone are in my brain. They are quite welcome to my headspace. It might be a niche interest, but it’s a good book and well deserves the reputation it held and continues to hold in the British literary landscape.

True Crime Poetry: Murder of a Child Bride

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The Ring and the Book, Robert Browning, 1869

Forgive me, ghost of Robert Browning, for what I am about to say.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do sometimes pretend that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, are watching me from beyond the grave. Just for fun. Because I love them and want them to be my guardian angels. Even though I don’t believe in angels or in any concept not supported by good data. Sometimes it’s comforting to let go of logic and just pretend.

I cannot, however, pretend that I enjoyed Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book. It was a chore to read. Quite frankly, I skimmed parts of it.

Once upon a time, Robert Browning bought a Yellow Book, as he called it, from a street vendor in Italy. The book contained records of the 1698 trial of Guido Franceschini for three murders. The tale captivated Browning. After his wife’s death he set to writing a verse novel about the trial. Browning is famous for writing dramatic monologues: poems comprised entirely of a speech by the narrator. He sometimes chose figures from history and wrote speeches for them that revealed intimate psychological quirks and motivations. So, he naturally composed The Ring and the Book in a set of dramatic monologues in the voices of the characters involved in the trial.

This is a true crime verse novel, so I must tell you the sordid details of the crime. Guido Franceschini was an aristocratic Italian nobleman whose family was out of money (which is what happens when you don’t work, dummies). The age old answer to this problem is to marry someone rich, but far beneath your station. In his search for someone stupid enough to marry a broke, evil, 50-year-old Count, he found Pompilia who is twelve. Twelve. He married a twelve-year-old girl. 1698 not 698. Post-Enlightenment. Not the Dark Ages. Twelve. Here is a link to a charity dedicated to ending child marriage.

Pompilia and her parents move in with Count Guido. They discover that he is poor and cruel. He abuses them. Pompilia’s parents run away back to Rome. In an attempt to rescue their daughter or their money from Guido, they reveal that Pompilia is not their daughter by birth, but the adopted daughter of a prostitute. Theoretically, this will nullify the part of the contract that entitles Count Guido to all their money. Optimistically, perhaps they hoped that this information would cause Guido to annul the marriage and give them their daughter back. Instead, he took them to court on the grounds that they were lying and still owed him their money. Meanwhile, he tortured Pompilia to avenge himself on her unforthcoming parents.

Pregnant Pompilia convinces a priest, Giuseppe Capponsacchi, to help her escape her abusive husband by taking her back to Rome and her parents. Guido catches them enroute. Husband and wife plead their case to local authorities. They decide to send Pompilia away from her husband to a convent. They send Capponsacchi away as well.

Months later the nuns at the monastery decide to send Pompilia back to her parents “for her health,” meaning to give birth. Guido hears of this. A clause in his inheritance mumbo jumbo and his marriage contract entitles Guido to a rack of money if he has an heir and if Pompilia and her parents are dead. So, Guido enlists some friends to find the three of them and stab them to death. They are caught and arrested, tried and convicted. They appeal to the Pope. The Pope refuses to save Guido. He is executed.

This is a horrible story. It is true and it is sad. This might seem like quite a lot of plot. Trust me, it isn’t. Browning rehashes the entire story ten times. Ten. He tells the story in the intro, then we hear it again from the perspective of eight different people, twice from Guido makes ten. Ten times over the same details. We hear from the half of Rome that sides with Guido. Yes, half of Rome sided with him because…well because a husband has a right to murder his wife, if she’s unfaithful. (I am snarling at my computer screen as I type this.) Then we hear it from the half of Rome that sides with Pompilia, then a neutral third party, Guido, Capponsacchi, Pompilia on her death bed, two lawyers, the Pope, and Guido again on the verge of his execution.

This is hard stuff to read. Not just because reading 21,000 lines of poetry is arduous. I read Bryon’s verse poem, Don Juan, and loved it. It’s hard to read people justify murdering women because of adultery. Men can’t be legally murdered for this reason. Not that they should be. Just an example of the violent forms sexism can take. It’s hard to read that the only reason some people did not consider the murders justified is that they didn’t believe that Pompilia slept with Capponsacchi. They believed her when she claimed that he only helped her escape an abusive husband. It’s hard to read about domestic violence and spousal rape perpetrated against a teenager. It’s hard to read about a teenager treated as a pawn in a game for money. It’s hard to see her appeal to the religious authorities around her to rescue her from her abuser and have them reject her appeals, because she is not noble and he is. It’s a truly wretched story to read ten times over.

Browning, being the poetic genius that his is, of course reveals in each book psychological elements unconsidered in the previous books. It is chilling to hear Guido state that he could have mutilated his wife for her faults against him, but he was too kind. Pompilia’s testimony is sympathetic. Capponsacchi, under interrogation by church elders, correctly points out that the church knew Pompilia was in danger and did nothing to help her, so he did. And why should he be blamed? Browning’s poems are complex and deep. I prefer them in smaller more digestible chunks. There is a limit to the amount of philosophizing on one murder trial that I can personally stand. That limit lies somewhere between a Jack McCoy closing argument and The Ring and the Book. Much closer to Jack McCoy.

You might like The Ring and the Book if:

  • you’re a rare combination of Italian history expert, verse novel adorer, and true crime addict.

You might not like The Ring and the Book if:

  • your attention span has been shortened by television. Is that a real thing? Show me the data.

Final thoughts: I so often pretend the Brownings can hear me that I now must convince myself they cannot. If what Robert Browning wanted to do was bury himself so completely in a complex project that he lost sight somewhat of his grief over his wife’s death, I think he may have succeeded. This is a complex and profound book, if you find legal and religious waffling to be profound. I do not. To give him his due credit, I assume that Browning’s criticism of religion seemed cogent and relevant at the time. I don’t need to be convinced that religious men of power are hypocrites. I didn’t get much out of this text, except sadness for all the child brides who have lived, are living and will live in this world.

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.

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.

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.