After a sneaky absence in reviews last month, and finding the sheer amount of books consumed by others in October to be very edifying, I return in November with some over-indulgent thoughts about some remarkable pieces of fiction! Do prepare yourself with a large cup of tea and a carry on bag of refreshments (this one is a long-haul).
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
It is long, slow and rambling, stripped down from any plot, and there are lengths at which the women are so idle that they go months at a time moving only from the bedroom to the sitting room and back again. Oh! It is like this book was written for me!
I knew this would be my favourite Gaskell. What I didn’t know was that this book would crack my top three favourite novels of all time! Cranford seems to have been a trifle too funny for anyone to have taken it serious, and North and South is generally agreed upon to be absolute dynamite (and quite deservingly too). But the low, lingering perfume of Wives and Daughters never died out, and I found myself being drawn to it, phantom like, over the course of many weeks. “Life is but a quick succession of busy nothings” says Jane Austen. I don’t think any other sentence could more perfectly encapsulate Wives and Daughters.
The novel follows Molly Gibson from about the age of sixteen, when her only parent and father (Mr Gibson, a country doctor) sends her off to visit the neighbouring Hamleys. Molly thinks she is there to help the ailing Mrs Hamley but this is mostly a guise. At home, she had unknowingly attracted the attentions of the young Mr Coxe, one of Mr Gibson’s apprentices, and after an intercepted proposal, she is sent away at once so that the one-sided love affair can die down. Whilst Molly enjoys the books and gardens and company at the Hall, her father unwittingly becomes heart-entangled himself! to a widowed single-parent at the Towers—the utterly abominable Mrs Kirkpatrick. They marry, and the novel begins to follow a Cinderella-esque narrative as Molly must live with her new ‘mamma’ and her beautiful and charming new sister, Cynthia.
There is something that this novel does intimately well, and it is not very surprising, because the book is called ‘Wives and Daughters’. It does women well. Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick and Mrs Gibson are so like the three sides of the same coin that they form the holy trinity of womanhood! Molly Gibson is hot-headed and passionate but fundamentally moral, and her outbursts—though they are kind and good in her early youth—become fewer and even more selfless when she becomes a woman. Save for Dorothea Brooke and Anne Elliot, I don’t think I have ever liked a character arc more than that of Molly Gibson. But they, all of them, are trumped again by the absolutely litigious, two faced, supreme ninny that is Mrs Gibson.
Oh! She is such a pleasure to read! It’s as if all her thoughts and actions and morals are tossed about in a bag, and she draws from them with no real logic. She is very close to being a Mrs Bennet—nearly everything she says flies loose like a dart, giving acute pain to anyone who is in range of her voice. She is a complete duplicity; each sentence is likely to disagree with her very next one, and she affects what she says with such gravitas that she is able to convince even herself of her false truisms. One of my favourite scenes in the whole novel was the one in which Lady Harriet asks ‘Claire’ whether it is immoral to lie. Claire says it is! Most certainly! I have never lied myself! and when Lady Harriet confesses that she has lied many times throughout the course of her life, Mrs Gibson shifts tactics and talks Lady Harriet out of thinking that she had lied at all. Mrs Gibson is selectively simple in understanding; she cannot understand sarcasm when it is said to injure her, but she is able to extract meaning from others about her virtuousness when it was never there to be had. The reason she is different from Mrs Bennet is that she is able to ‘delight in smooth ways’ and, much to her credit, she never loses her temper or patience and loves Molly in her own way. It’s pretty safe to say she is one of my favourite people ever now. I do love a ninny!
This novel is beautiful and languid, impossibly funny, wise and light-hearted. Time passes, but not obviously. It is about the ups and downs of life, it is about conceit and concealment, about love, life and death, hope and depression, and, most importantly, I think it is a story about women. Like Middlemarch, it is extremely rich in psychoanalysis—actions and manners are separated from hidden thoughts and feelings—but Gaskell is more nuanced than George Eliot. Her characterisation is so good that we know what Molly is thinking without having it explained. The novel also has a natural science element in Roger that is extremely enjoyable and unique for a novel of the period.
I was scared to begin a novel that remained unfinished (Mrs Gibson would say something like: ‘how unkind of that Mrs Gaskell, who had energy enough to write 800 pages and able to die before the final ten or so could be out!’) But this novel remains a masterpiece without an ending. In fact, it comes monstrously close to the end, and if you have any trepidations about it, I would recommend that you didn’t, because if you are anything like me and are so enthralled and in love with a story that you do not want it to end, the good news is that this one doesn’t! This is one of the greatest novels ever written. I am only short in calling it ‘the very best’ as it contains a throwaway line that is very offensive to cheese.
Lots of love and high fives to Gaskell, the funny, witty, smart and pretty lady who wrote my newest prized possession, and for letting me read women like Molly, Cynthia, Mrs Gibson, Mrs Hamley, Lady Harriet, the Miss Brownings and so on
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There were so many passages in this little novel that were so marvellous that I found it difficult to lift my pencil from the page and cease underlining them. I usually don’t get on well with novels that are less than one hundred and fifty pages but, like Animal Farm, The Sorrows of Young Werther is a very notable exception.
Werther, a passionate and effeminate young man, is writing letters to his friend Wilhelm about his visit to the idyllic German village of Wahlheim. When he is there, he meets and falls in love with Lotte, who is already engaged to be married to Albert, a kind and steady-hearted business man. The novel shifts from Werther’s complete and profound joy to the vast depths of depression—and both are described in a feverish ecstasy. Werther’s story describes what it is like to battle the extremes of humanly feeling and the dangers of tying one’s thoughts and physicality to the absolute freight train that is tireless idealism.
Throughout the novel you sense that Werther is valued by others in his own right—the village children look for his company, he is among intellectual equals with nobleman as well as paupers and simple workers, and he is honest and outspoken to his friend and correspondent Wilheim. He is so attuned to sympathy that he loves Albert with quite as much soul as he does Lotte and, perhaps most astonishingly, he tries hard to free a man who has just murdered a woman out of passionate love.
I understand why this was such a hit when it came out, and I am not surprised that this type of romanticism was explored in all the novels that came after it. It seems that even in 1774, mental sicknesses were as ripe and pungent as ever, and Goethe has taken pains to write them with uncanny acuteness. I should also point out to its next reader, that The Sorrows of Young Werther makes some very heavy foot-falls into the realm of mental illness that could be extremely triggering and if this relates to you, to go at it with caution.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Markham. Graham. Boarham. There are so many hams in this novel it is like a Christmas dinner!
Charlotte seems to think quite poorly of her sister Anne’s literary pursuits, and though she’s gone throwing this opinion about quite deplorably, she is not altogether wrong. For me, Tenant is the lesser of the two major Bronte works: it is more likeable than Wuthering Heights but has not, and frankly, could not, supersede the astronomical calibre of Jane Eyre. It doesn’t have the same punch, it doesn’t fondle details and it does not have the same density of thought that Charlotte and Emily inspire. But there is something wonderful about it, and it is the way it denudes raging alcoholic men.
More than any other Bronte novel, I feel this has been influenced by the touch of other writers. It has themes of Evelina by Frances Burney and the framing of Wuthering Heights and the lightness of Austen. I am sure it has gone on to influence the floating realism in du Maurier and more recently, The Essex Serpent. Tenant is one prolific beast!
The novel is framed by the writings of Gilbert Markham who is recounting the story to his brother-in-law from some retrospective vantage point. When the dark and frosty new tenant of Wildfell Hall has neglected to show up to Sunday communion, the talk of Linden-Car swings into action. By forcing an acquaintance, they find out that the widow, Mrs Graham, has moved away from her society in –shire to live alone with her little boy Arthur and her servant Rachel. Mrs Graham is full of sobriety and is distrusting of anyone who comes within a three-mile radius of her son. That is, until Gilbert saves little Arthur from what would have been a very mild fall.
The first two hundred pages are sublime. Gilbert’s voice is impassioned and brimming with youthful honesty. The ‘whipping’ scene is absolutely masterful and is very likely the thing I will remember about this novel for years and years to come. It was so dramatic and so powerful that it makes you stop and remember that Anne was no southern lassie, and quite frankly, would have made the whole of the regency era readers quake in their boots. I was enjoying the dirtiness of Linden-Car so immensely that I heard myself let out a very audible “oh no” when the novel shifts perspectives.
The middle third is certainly one of the most brutally honest analyses of alcoholism, domestic abuse and 19th century feminism. In truth, it is the most important work in the Bronte oeuvre and it remains a very important piece of literature, portraying the unrelenting policing of women’s voices (as is scarily the case today). Unfortunately, Anne has tread the same dangerous ground as Emily Bronte; we have multiple point of view characters and these characters recount their exact ‘animadversions’ to a scarily accurate and impossible degree. Each voice bleeds over into the next, using the same words in repetition or the same style of speech. As in Wuthering Heights, this is a severe breach in realism and pulls me well away from any of that stark believability in other novels of the period. In comparison, Jane Eyre packs a whopping punch by letting Jane be the sole purveyor of her own story, and she makes a point of addressing the reader— Jane purposely breaks the third wall that Tenant pretends is not there. Honestly, some of the best parts of Jane Eyre are when she is telling us that she is holding off from some crucial plot point, and who can forget ‘Reader, I married him’? The middle third of Tenant becomes frustrating and banal. We don’t need to see Mr Huntington court Helen, we already know he is a rake! The narrative falls away from the dramatic and concise scene structure of Gilbert and his whip and made me focus on the unbelievability of the thing. Save for one fleeting scene where a woman is knocked over, the novel never recovers steam and becomes trite and predictable.
More than any other review, I can feel myself being ruthless with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and it is because I wanted to like it so much. Out of the sisters, Anne has intrigued me the most, and I am certain were I to have read this before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights it would have been my favourite. I loved it in parts and there is no denying how well it subverted the romance novels that came before, but I hope Agnes Grey is a better fit for me (and that there are whips in that one too).