Early English Fantasy Writing

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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.

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Victorian Literary Critics Tried to Destroy My Favorite Author!

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Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy, 1872

When his first published novel was harshly criticized by the Spectator, Thomas Hardy was deeply stung and wished he “was dead.” Hoping for commercial and critical success, Hardy focused on the one aspect of his writing that won universal praise: his charmingly rendered rustic dialogue.

I have written about my dislike of the Victorian penchant for condescending rural literature before. I wish I could stop writing about it. I’m weary of this trend. But, when those absurd Victorians take their love of feeling superior to quaint country people so far that they nearly ruin my favorite author, I must protest.

Hardy dutifully churned out exactly what his audience desired: a trite depiction of country folk doing, thinking, and discussing nothing of consequence. Under the Greenwood Tree is awful. The Victorians liked it, though. I just can’t fathom why.

The novel concerns itself with two questions. Will the church choir be canceled in favor of the more modern organ? Yes, it will. But, tradition! Will Dick Dewey get Fancy Day to marry him? Yes, he will. But, he hasn’t got much money! That’s it. Nothing else happens in this novel.

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I do feel a bit sad for the men who really enjoy being in the choir together. As for the romance, yuck. I’m insulted that Hardy thought fit to waste my time with the details of this courtship. Imagine that a young person who you’re only kind of friends with comes over and starts boring you with every trifling thought they have ever had about their significant other. I’m quite brusque enough to tell said young person that they and their lover are clearly both too immature and jealous to get married. Also, I’m too old to listen to this piffle. Alas, I can’t say that to Dick Dewey and Fancy Day, because they don’t exist.

I’m so dedicated to Thomas Hardy, that instead of chucking the book out the window, I read it twice. Yes, twice. It did not improve with a second read. Dick gets angry if Fancy cares about her appearance when he’s not there to see her. She doesn’t exist only for you to look at, Dick! Fancy gets jealous when he dances with another girl. That is the substance of this book. Long conversations centered on two adults behaving obnoxiously childish.

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The dramatic climax of the book occurs when the local Reverend, unaware of her engagement to Dick, asks Fancy to marry him. He describes all the lovely material goods he can provide her with. Little Fancy’s head is swayed and she agrees. She later backs out, because she just couldn’t hurt Dick so horribly. Well, I think she should have. She’s a frivolous girl who cares greatly for comfort. Dick wins her by appealing to her vanity. I suppose I’m meant to feel anxious for Dick’s possible broken heart, but I don’t care. He only loves Fancy for her beauty. He’ll get over it. I think Fancy would have been happier with the Reverend. Even though the point of the novel was the romance, I was not at all invested in it. My head was swayed by the idea of that carriage too, and, you know, generally not living in poverty just because some man tells you you’re pretty. The significant crisis of the book seems insignificant and my emotions run contrary to what Hardy would like. He’s still my favorite author, but I’m not his perfect reader for this book.

Anyway, I’m glad the book was a success during its time, because Thomas Hardy continued to write. In this novel, he succumbed to the Victorian need to laugh at quaint rustics. However, he was indeed from a rural area and he managed to write about such places without looking down on the inhabitants in his later novels. In fact, the next novel he wrote is possibly my favorite novel. His audience tried to squash his talent, but they couldn’t manage it. Take that, literary critics of yesteryear! You might have liked this tripe, but Thomas Hardy was just waiting to scandalize you with his advanced views of sex and marriage. He who confronts moral hypocrisy through literature laughs last.

You might like Under the Greenwood Tree if:

  • I don’t know, but if you do like it, I’m sorry for the strength of my dislike for it. I still respect you. To each her own.

You might not like Under the Greenwood Tree if:

  • It takes more than quaint words like “mumbudgeting” to impress you as a reader.

Final Thoughts: This ain’t a good book, friends! Here’s the only sentence I truly enjoyed “Dick said nothing; and the stillness was disturbed only by some small bird that was being killed by an owl in the adjoining copse, whose cry passed into the silence without mingling with it.” This is while Dick is about to ask Fancy’s father for her hand.

Thomas Hardy is Here. Favorite Author. Happy Day!

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Desperate Remedies, Thomas Hardy, 1871

Tralala. Whoopee. Thomas Hardy!

Today is a good day. I get to introduce you to my favorite author, Thomas Hardy. Imagine me doing back handsprings. I can’t actually do back handsprings, so we will both have to use our imaginations. Also, we have entered a new decade. This is the first post about a book written in the 1870s. Progress. Hurrah!

Because TH is my favorite author, I intend to review every last one of his novels. All seventeen of them. We will also cover much of his poetry and a few collections of short stories. Before we get started, I must mention one feature of his writing. He created an imaginary region in southwest England, called it Wessex, and set most of his novels there. The towns mentioned in his novels are real towns, given new fake names. For example, important events in Desperate Remedies take place in Budmouth, Wessex which is actually Weymouth, Dorset. I’m not exactly sure how this information would be useful to you, dear reader, but if you hear me mention Wessex, you will know that I am referring to Hardy’s fictional county, not to the ancient kingdom. His books are set in the Georgian and Victorian eras, not the Viking Age.

Ok, let’s dive into Desperate Remedies. . . with a spirit of generosity. This is Hardy’s juvenilia, after all. His great works are yet to come. It’s actually Hardy’s second novel, his first one was lost. After The Poor Man and the Lady was rejected by five publishers, he abandoned and later destroyed it. Apparently it was too politically controversial. If I remember correctly, Hardy yearned for commercial success, because he felt that earning money by his writing would win his wife’s respect. He had a rocky marriage. I usually don’t spend much time learning about the lives of authors, because why waste time reading a biography when you could read another novel? However, I intend to listen to an audiobook of a Hardy biography, because he’s my favorite and while I don’t believe that context is necessary to enjoy good art, I also don’t believe that it detracts from understanding or enjoyment.

Anyway, after the ill success of his first novel, Hardy attempted a sensational novel that he hoped would sell. It didn’t and it was not well received by critics either. It is my opinion that those critics were very silly and they almost ruined Thomas Hardy as a writer, which would have been a tragedy. I think Desperate Remedies is quite good. Sure, it doesn’t have the substance of his great later works. Sure, it’s plot driven, but the plot is fabulous. Also, Hardy has the best words. Furthermore, one can see the seeds of his characteristic social criticism. Little seeds that will sprout and grow into giant sequoias of artistic merit. Those seeds are scattered lightly throughout Desperate Remedies, but they are there. There they are. I love them.

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I was going to summarize the plot for those of you who do not have time for the lesser works of great authors, but I decided against it. That’s how much I believe in the merit of this book. It’s not the greatest, but it’s certainly good enough to be worth reading. Instead of the plot, I offer you this list of its merits:

  • Scandalous secrets.
    • so many, so scandalous. I’m talking children out of wedlock. That’s huge in the Victorian era and probably the reason the novel wasn’t received well.
  • A dramatic opening sequence in which the poor, darling heroine witnesses the sudden, accidental death of her father.
  • That heroine is named Cytherea Graye. Because Thomas Hardy is the best at naming characters. Absolute best. Prepare yourself for the character names that will come at you from his other novels.
  • Without their father’s income, Cytherea and her brother, Owen, are forced to make a living for themselves. What? A novel in which the lovely heroine must concern herself with such sordid mundanity as money? Yes. Thomas Hardy actually writes about a woman earning a living. Who else in the English canon thus far draws a wage? Jane Eyre, that’s who. Just Jane and Cytherea as of yet. Oops, and the other Bronte governesses. They wrote about three total governesses. Still a rarity to see a woman earning her way in the world.
  • Cytherea stands up for herself. . .until her brother’s life is on the line, which is the only inducement that makes her go against her own will. To be fair, she’s not a brilliant heroine. She’s quite likable and more self-driven than many others, but she won’t blow you away. This is meant to be a commercial, sensational novel. Such novels require sweet, innocent heroines to be tossed about by fate. Cytherea fits that bill better than I could wish, but I try not to hold it against her too much.
  • A sex worker is portrayed sympathetically in this novel. Yes! 1871. We struggle to do that in 2017. A character shows up who is clever and resourceful with a sordid past. Hardy does not pass judgment. Quite refreshing.
  • A sweet romance that is forestalled by circumstance and the cunning machinations of two opportunistic characters.
  • A mystery so complicated that at one point a man attempts to hide his crime and is followed by not one, not two, but three different people who intend to uncover that crime.
  • Smatterings of insightful prose. Not as dense as in his later novels, but not to be overlooked. For example: “Graye did a thing the blissfulness of which was only eclipsed by its hazardousness. He loved her at first sight.” or “There is in us an unquenchable expectation, which at the gloomiest time persists in inferring that because we are ourselves, there must be a special future in store for us, though our nature and antecedents to the remotest particular have been common to thousands.”
  • The book is meant to be a romance, but Hardy can’t help letting his cynicism about love sneak in. Such as when he eloquently suggests that Cytherea becomes infatuated with Edward Springrove because her life was relatively empty and she had little else to think about. Or when he expresses a lover’s longing thusly “He looked at her as a waiter looks at the change he brings back.”
  • Hardy has a talent for expressing the significance of small moments. That talent is evident in this as well as his later novels. This might be a sensational novel, but it is symbolically rich.
  • A hint of Hardy’s later criticism of gender roles “Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched for the sake of his company.” That being said, I must admit that Hardy was not as woke when he wrote Desperate Remedies as he was later in life. You will be frustrated when Cytherea demonstrates that she considers herself less important than the men in her life.

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You might like Desperate Remedies if:

  • you like a scandalous, thrilling plot, but you also like good writing

You might not like Desperate Remedies if:

  • your standards are very, very high

Final Thoughts: It’s not the best Thomas Hardy book, but it’s still very good. It contains a number of thrills for people who are thrilled by excellent prose and for those who are thrilled by intrigue and mystery. Let me stop equivocating. I love this book. If you can’t handle Thomas Hardy at his worst, you don’t deserve him at his best.

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.