Villette by Charlotte Bronte

 

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I am not sure why I have never read Villette until now but I have a vague recollection of starting it before as a teenager and, not finding it as immediately engaging as Jane Eyre, not getting far enough in to give it a fair chance. This time around I became engaged with it almost straight away and really enjoyed it, although it is a more difficult read than Jane Eyre – I think because the central character is more difficult to engage with than Jane.

Villette is set in a fictional French town where our heroine, Lucy Snowe, journeys almost by chance after her family and employer die. Lucy finds herself employment at Madame Beck’s boarding school and it is here that the majority of the novel is set. Lucy soon progresses from a governess to Madame Beck’s children to an English teacher in the school and the novel deals with her time at Madame Beck’s establishment as well as her, often complicated, relationships with those around her.

Lucy Snowe, as her name suggests, is outwardly quite a cold character although she confides in the reader that she lives “two lives – the life of thought, and that of reality”. It is this which makes her a fascinating protagonist, but also sometimes an unreliable and seemingly unfeeling narrator. Often Lucy admits that she has withheld information from the reader and she does not always share her feelings with anyone. Yet I found that this made the moments when she confided in the reader to be more striking:

“I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present it was better to be stoical; about the future – such a future as mine – to be dead. And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.”

I found that the moments when Lucy spoke candidly revealed more about her character for being rare and, although sometimes I became frustrated at her apparent lack of feeling and the iron control of her emotions, underneath I believe she was full of feeling which only occasionally found release. It also has to be remembered that at the time the novel was written heroines such as Jane Eyre were rare, and Lucy Snowe I found to be a much more life-like character in a way despite (or because of) her solitary nature. She is held back by her gender and class, finds herself in a foreign land full of people who distrust her because of her nationality and religion, as well as battling with depression.

For me, the book’s main interest was in the particularly well-drawn and often eccentric characters. Madame Beck, the mistress of the school where Lucy teaches, was a particularly striking character in her surveillance of staff and pupils alike through underhand means. My favourite character was M. Paul – a eccentric literature teacher who suffers from ‘unreasonable moods’ and whom Lucy compares to Napoleon Bonnaparte. These two characters are wonderfully well-drawn and provide many instances of humour within the novel.

Although not as easy to read as Jane Eyre (sorry for the comparison but it seems an obvious one to make), there was so much that I enjoyed about Villette and the vivid characters made it an extremely engaging read. I also enjoyed the ambiguous ending, but my Penguin Classics edition had an excellent footnote and section of the introduction which dwelt on this for anyone who detests being left in the dark. I have recently started to note down passages and words from books that I found striking, so I will end my review with a few of those that I didn’t mean to fit into this review:

“…the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones.”

“Silence is of different kinds, and breathes different meanings…”

“I was full of faults; he took them and me all home.”_35

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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A Farewell to Arms follows the story of Frederick Henry (referred to by other characters as Tenente which, I learnt after finishing the book, means ‘lieutenant in Italian), an American who is serving in the Italian army in the first world war. Henry begins a relationship with a nurse who is working in a hospital close to where he is stationed, and the story follows the continuation of their relationship against the backdrop of the war.

For me, the real strength of this novel is in its depiction of the war. Unlike many war novels, this book does not try to shock the reader with numerous bloody descriptions of war wounds or atrocities, but is rather more subtle. The opening sentence of the novel could almost describe the view from a holiday home:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and plain to the mountains.”

It is only when the troops are mentioned passing by the house that we realise there is a war. At first it seems as though Henry has an easy role to play in the war. When he returns from his leave at the beginning of the book he realises “evidently it did not matter whether I was there or not”, and a lot of time is spent drinking and visiting women. Only later in the book does it become apparent that this laid-back approach is a way of dealing with the horrors and fear that the war has thrust upon him:

“Listen. There is nothing as bad as war… When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them that war is made.”

It is evident throughout the novel that Hemingway has had first-hand experience of war, but it is his understated style of writing that really gives this book its power.

However, there were some aspects of the novel that I disliked. I found Catherine, the nurse who Henry falls in love with, to be a very one-dimensional character and I did not find their relationship convincing. You could argue that this perhaps was Hemingway’s point, that Henry uses Catherine as an escape as an alternative (or more likely compliment) to his drinking, as he describes their relationship at first like a ‘game’:

“This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge, you had to pretend you were playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.”

Despite Henry’s intentions to not fall in love, he does so and the pair have a very intense relationship and the stakes become very high. Without giving anything away, the other part of the book I disliked was the ending. I found it gratuitous and it made me come away from the novel feeling very hugely disappointed. Again, you could argue that Hemingway has chosen such an ending on purpose – after the subtle approach to describing the horrors of the war the ending certainly is a powerful one, and perhaps befitting to a novel set during war time. Yet I did not like it, and felt let down by this part of the book.

I remain undecided about whether or not I liked A Farewell to Arms, as some parts I loved but the others I cannot forgive. I have only read one other of Hemingway’s novels so far, when I was much younger, and I remember really enjoying it but I wonder how I would feel if I reread it now. It certainly has something to do with becoming older that a weak female character seems so grating, and that the ending of the book was so objectionable to me has a lot to do with my recent experiences. I think on reflection that my dislike of the ending is a personal one, but that Hemingway is at fault with his depiction of Catherine’s character. Either way, the book is one which will remain with me for some time and that is always a sign of a classic whether it was enjoyable or not.

 

 

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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Rushdie’s classic is a grand and ambitious novel spanning many centuries and many, many characters. It is narrated by Saleem Sinai, one of ‘midnight’s children’, who is born on the stroke of midnight as India becomes independent from British rule. Saleem’s fate seems to be intertwined with that of his mother country from his infancy, and his often fantastical adventures lead him all over India and into the presence of both major and minor characters in India’s history as well as those of the author’s invention.

There is much to admire in this ambitious and far-reaching book. I really enjoy magical-realism, and there is plenty of that in this book:

“My aunt Alia had begun to send us an unending stream of children’s clothes, into whose seams she had sewn her old maid’s bile… wearing at first the baby-things of bitterness, then the rompers of resentment.”

I don’t think I have ever been struck by a phrase as much as “rompers of resentment”, and these turns of phrase are scattered liberally through the book making it a novel to be linguistically savoured (although there are also many references to mucus, bile and such-like which have the opposite effect). The way that the events of the narrator’s life echo the history of India is breathtaking, and nicely encapsulated in this beautiful line:

“To understand just one life you have to swallow the world.”

I did feel as though I had swallowed a history book after reading this novel, as before reading this I knew very little about India’s history. The imagery in this book was particularly strong, and Rushdie conjures on every page the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of Saleem’s world.

So to sum up so far, Midnight’s Children is an epic and exquisitely written book. Yet, I found it very difficult to engage with. To begin with, the narrator irritated me beyond belief. Saleem is a character with little to recommend him, and as a narrator I found him almost intolerable at times. He admits very early on that he is taking liberties with the truth – beginning his narration with his grandfather’s childhood of which a lot of the events are conjectured from the briefest of facts, but even within his own story Saleem admits that the truth has been forgotten:

“‘I told you the truth’, I say yet again, ‘memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also… and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.'”

This method of pointing out within a story that it is, in fact, a story and not true is something I have come to loath wherever I encounter it – I pick up a work of fiction to lose myself in a story and not to be reminded that is all it is.

As well as elaborating on the ‘truth’ of his story, Saleem often repeats himself or digresses on a path which seems to have little relevance. This I felt distanced me further from the story as every time I felt myself engaging with the plot it was broken off with a digression. And, to put it bluntly, by the end of the novel I thought that Saleem was a pretty vile character – self-pitying, self-serving, full of his own self -importance… I know that not all heroes are likable, but I think in a novel this size it would certainly have helped.

In short, although Midnight’s Children is in many ways a great work of literature it is a book which I could only admire rather than enjoy.

(Image from Goodreads)

Reading highlights from the year so far…

I am going to make this a quarterly round-up from now on, as I don’t always have time or energy to review all the books I have read but I have discovered some brilliant new authors this year which I feel I can’t fail to mention. A few of these I have reviewed, so I’ll post a link rather than writing something new. So, without further introduction, here is what I have enjoyed reading so far this year:

The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall – a beautifully evocative book which follows the fortune of Cy Parks, a tattoo artist. The story is split into two halves – the first showing his growing up and apprenticeship in Morecombe Bay to an alcoholic, who is nethertheless a master at his trade, and the second as his emigrates to America and sets up a tattoo parlour on a slowly fading Coney Island.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – an incredible story of a strong female friendship set in Naples which perfectly captured the competitiveness and complexity of relationships between young women.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – A series of short stories which follow the fate of retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge. Olive is such a complex and interesting character and the stories all made me think hard about the meaning of life and how people respond to certain crises (there were some humourous moments too in case I’m making it sound too heavy!) Although each story could be read separately, together they work almost as a novel of Olive’s later life.

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies – these short stories blew me away. Not only are they brilliantly written, they each have a twist which – despite knowing after a few stories that there must be one coming – I could never work out in advance! There were also a few ‘that is so true’ moments, especially one couple’s argument whilst one of them is trying to navigate on a car journey!

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Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

It is a testament to how much I enjoyed these books that I only have one of them left in my possession – the rest have been loaned out to various friends as a ‘you must read this immediately’! Have you read anything so far this year that you can’t stop talking about? Have you read any of the books I have mentioned? I have just finished ploughing through Midnight’s Children so a review on that is forthcoming…

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

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I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while and it’s a measure of how much I enjoyed this book that, although I finished it some time ago, it has stayed with me. I had come close to buying the book when I saw it in my local bookshop but was lucky enough to win an audio copy on Ann Morgan’s blog, and can definitely say that I will be buying anything she writes in the future without hesitation. Just a quick note before I continue my review – usually I would include quotations from the book but as I listened to this book rather than read it I didn’t record many and I’ve had to take liberties with the punctuation for those which I did note down.

The book is about twins Helen and Ellie, who one day play a game where they swap clothes and identities. But the game backfires when Ellie refuses to swap back and has dire consequences for Helen who is forced into playing the role of her ‘stupid’ sister. The story is told from Helen’s viewpoint, both as a young girl growing up with a mistaken identity and as an adult where we see how far-reaching the consequences of this childhood event were. Rather than a linear narrative, the plot unfolds through Helen’s childhood narrative told from the point of the swap until she reaches adulthood and is interspersed with chapters showing Helen as an adult which begin with the book’s present and go back in time. The way the story is told leaves the reader with constant questions whose answers are slowly revealed, and had me racing to reach the end of the book.

A story of mistaken identities is not a new one and sounds simple, but the book deals with so many complex themes that I was guessing what the outcome would be until the very end. The book put the reader through many moral conundrums and I think that in this way I was hooked from the beginning. The first complication is that Helen, who takes the reader completely into her confidence, is not wholly likable. She has a poor opinion of her sister Ellie; “I’m the good one because I was born first” and likes to invent harsh punishments to discipline her. When the identity swap went wrong I found myself more sympathetic towards Ellie but as the events of the novel unfolded it was impossible not to sympathise with Helen. There were points in the novel where I almost felt unable to carry on listening as I felt so sorry for her, but it never became unbearable and I loved watching as the many pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I’m not sure how Morgan did it, perhaps because I felt encouraged to censor Helen for her cruel treatment of her sister early on in the story and therefore had a vested emotional connection to the characters, but I really felt an emotional tie to Helen and, eventually, Ellie which was more much powerful than my usual involvement in a book.

Another particularly strong point of the novel was in creating an extremely powerful narrative voice, and I also have to commend the narrator of the audio version I listened to – Lisa Coleman – in doing such a good job. As a child, Helen made so many observances that made me think ‘yes, absolutely!’ and I think that capturing a child’s voice can be such a difficult thing to do well. Some of her statements also cast a light on her thoughts in a new way, such as when she says: “I want to get away and out of there, to unzip my skin and step into another me.” This moment was especially poignant as it happens just before the swap, and before Helen realises that she most definitely does not want to be someone else!

It’s difficult to find the words to do this book justice, so all I can do is to heartily recommend that you go out and read this (or listen to it) in order to see what it is I’m trying to say! I am still finding myself thinking about the themes and characters in this book many weeks after finishing it, and feel there is so much to discuss but I will end my review here to enable you to go out and discover it for yourself.

(Image from Goodreads)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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I had absolutely no preconceptions about this book before I began it save that it’s an Australian classic and that the author was a young girl (as the preface to my edition of the book remarked in an extremely patronising way). The author’s introduction was intriguing, and I found it extremely easy to get into this book with its vivid descriptions of the protagonist’s childhood in the bush. The novel is easy to read but well-written and one which I read through really quickly.

Sybylla is nearly nine years old when her family move to Possum Gully; a poor, drought-ridden region where “time was no object and the days slid quietly into the river of years, distinguished one from another by name alone.” Life is difficult and Sybylla’s father soon loses his wealth and becomes an alcoholic, leaving her mother and the children to do all of the work on the farm and in the home. Eventually Sybylla is forced to give up her schooling so that she can work for her family, and she rebels against the mindless, monotonous labour with all her might:

“This was life – my life – my career, my brilliant career! I was fifteen – fifteen! A few fleeting hours and I would be as old as those around me.”

Just when she thinks she can go on no longer, her grandmother offers Sybylla the chance to stay with her indefinitely at Caddagat (where she grew up). For a time, Sybylla is happy and able to indulge all of her cultural whims. It is here that she is able to be herself, and she also attracts the attention of several suitors. But here I will stop so as not to give away the plot.

One of the strongest features of the novel for me was in dealing with the ambitions and desires of a young woman who is unlucky in her circumstances and who herself knows that given the right chances she could achieve something brilliant:

“It came home to me as a great blow that it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy.”

Sybylla acutely feels the constraints placed upon her by her poverty in the beginning of the book, but soon comes to realise that her sex has as much a part to play. Women were expected to pass from their parents’ care directly into the hands of their husband, and Sybylla has very strong views about this:

“Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love, but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.”

Feminism is a strong theme throughout the book, and I found the observances made by the protagonist to be very astute. Sybylla is very mature for her age in many ways, although her stay at Caddagat allows her to regain her youth somewhat and we are often reminded of how young she really is through her behaviour or emotional outbursts. She is an extremely passionate character and an utterly believable one.

Many aspects of the book reminded me of Jane Eyre, although whether this was consciously done by the author I am unsure. The protagonist is not an orphan – although she has a difficult childhood and has a strained relationship with her mother who doesn’t understand her. She does however share many of Jane Eyre’s qualities – fiercely independent, able to stand up for herself, intelligent, and strong – and the gentleman she meets whilst at Caddagat immediately brought to my mind Mr Rochester. Despite these similarities, the book has plenty of differences too and in no way follows the plot of Jane Eyre apart from in these respects. My only gripe with it was the amount of space in the book given over to the will they, won’t they courtship but that doesn’t prevent me from recommending it as a thought-provoking and enjoyable read.

(Image from Goodreads)

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

My reading choices over the past month have left me feeling somewhat deflated, and so this month’s classic came as a timely reminder of what great literature can make me feel. First published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s feminist classic felt as fresh as any contemporary literature and was easy to read yet full of subtext and rich imagery. It is the kind of book where I wanted a notebook by my side to scrawl down particularly moving passages (and there were many).

The book is about Edna Pontellier, an American housewife and mother who, whilst on holiday with her family, falls in love with a young man and experiences an ‘awakening’. After realising that she is unhappy with her role as mother and wife, Edna strives to alter her fate but struggles against the confines of the society in which she lives.

I understand that The Awakening was not enthusiastically received when it was first published as it deals with extramarital affairs, but I think that the book’s focus goes much further beyond this to look at the expectations put upon women to conform. Edna is ‘fond’ of her husband and children but no more, and after her awakening she realises how much she deplores the role of mother and wife that she has assumed unthinkingly over the years:

“An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day.”

I loved Chopin’s prose as much as I loved her themes, and I could easily go back and read this novel again for phrases such as these that I may have missed.

Within the first few pages of the novel it is clear that feminism is at the forefront of the author’s themes, as Mr Pontellier is seen “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” Mr Pontellier is quite liberal towards his wife’s behaviour, not really minding too much what she does so long as she does not cause disgrace to his name. But it is clear that he does not understand her or work out why she cannot be happy as she is. As the novel progresses we see that he cannot even recognise the changes that come upon her for what they are:

“He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”

I love the way that Chopin phrases this, and draws the reader in with her conspiratorial ‘we’. The question posed throughout the book is whether Edna does possess the strength to fight against her role as a woman, a wife and her place in society, and if she can truly be herself. I won’t give away the ending, but it was a particularly memorable one.

I absolutely loved this book, and would thoroughly recommend it. I found The Awakening gripping, thought-provoking, intelligent and very easy to read. In its exploration of feminism the book is certainly a classic and one which is very relevant today. Read it if you haven’t already, and if you have then please tell me what you thought.

 

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