This is my third Hardy novel, but I’m getting the feeling I should have stopped after my first. Both A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far from the Maddening Crowd are very different to the more nuanced, and at times dark, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The former two read more like very typical Victorian-era, romantic fiction, where as the latter is much richer in both its content and gorgeous prose.
That said, I enjoyed A Pair of Blue Eyes much more than Far From the Maddening Crowd. The heroine Elfride Swancourt (who was based on Hardy’s first wife Emma Gifford) is flawed, but immensely likeable. The male leads are slightly annoying though, especially Henry Knight and his rather possessive and condescending nature. Knight’s views on women certainly highlight the oppressive and sexually-prejudiced atmosphere women existed in during that time. His attitude comprises one of the main themes of the novel and provides plenty of material that will aggravate modern readers, but is interesting from a theoretical perspective.
The bulk of the plot was pretty predictable and didn’t really grasp my attention that well. But this meant I was taken by complete surprise when Hardy chose to end the story in a way totally contrary to my expectations, which I loved.
Having gorged myself on a literary diet of predominately young adult and vampire fiction for the past few months, last week I felt it was time for another classic. I’ve always wanted to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and was lusting after the pictured new penguin classics hardcover edition, so I settled on it. Hardy’s gorgeous writing, tragic heroine and moving story did not disappoint.
All I’d ever heard about the plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was that involves a rape, and I assumed wrongly that this was to be the crux of the story. Tess of the D’Urbervilles opens on John Durbeyfield’s discovery that, despite his current poor state, his ancestors were the D’Urbervilles, who are descendants of one of the Knight of The Royal Oak, and that Durbeyfield is a corruption of this grand name. He informs his family and, following a tragic event further depleting the Derbeyfield’s income, his wife hatches a scheme to send his daughter Tess to a nearby rich branch of D’Urbervilles to claim kinship and hope for help in forging an advantageous marriage. In doing so Tess is put at the mercy of the abhorrently amoral Alec D’Urberville, who takes advantage of her situation and forces himself upon her, obliterating her maidenhood and perhaps any chance she had of happiness in her conventional society.
Challenging conventional values is a major concern of Hardy’s and he uses Tess’ fall to call them into question. The following passage conveys both this theme and the rich writing he utilises to convey it:
“A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other. But this encompassment of her own characterisation, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’ fancy – a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.”
Years pass and eventually Tess takes a position as a milkmaid at Talbothays Diary, set in a luscious part of the country side. There she finds relative mental peace, until attraction blooms between her and Angel Clare, a pastor’s son learning the art of farming. Hardy’s descriptions of the settings in the narrative are always artful, but never more than at Talbothays Dairy, where he mingles love with milking cows, leafy green trees, vast pastures and the hum of nature. Here are two of my favourite passages from the section:
“They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily between that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three… The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degrees of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse. Being so often – possibly not always by chance – the first two persons to get up in the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, going outside at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead, impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve.”
“How very loveable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s teeth and lips which forced upon his mind with such a persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filed with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no – they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.
But how will Tess’ past affect Angel’s feelings? Should she tell him of her violation at the hands of D’Urberville?
I wish I’d had the time to post about Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates immediately after reading it because now, a month later, it’s nowhere near as fresh in my mind. At the beginning of the year I bought a copy after watching the movie left me in tatters, for months after that it sat untouched on my shelf because I knew it would be a heavy-going experience emotionally, so I was waiting for the right mood. I was right, it did turn out to be an oppressive and upsetting read. But it was definitely worth it, Yates’ writing is so beautifully crafted and he depicts the characters in such a realistic way, to the point that at times his descriptions are downright nasty.
The story revolves around the Wheelers’ tragic marriage in 1950s American suburbia. From the outside everything seems perfect; Frank is known for his cleverness, April is a beautiful housewife and together they have two young children; a boy and a girl. But they’ve both always assumed they were destined for great things and are bitter at the turns their lives have taken. They plot an escape to Paris to save themselves from a life of mediocrity, and from there things start to crumble for the Wheelers.
I’ve read a few reviews of the book and many readers seem to find all the characters completely repulsive and can’t empathise with them at all because of the abhorrent, selfish things they do. But to me they felt like real people and I can’t help but feel an incredible sympathy for them all, trapped by society, their choices and their own shortcomings and ultimately meeting a tragic end through attempting to change their lot in life. To me Revolutionary Road is a critique of 50s society; a study of a marriage and a warning against conventional gender roles and the importance of women having other options in life than getting married and starting a family. I finished it at midnight one night and felt so shaken by it I had to watch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother in order to get to sleep. It really falls into the “books that wound and stab us” category Kafka so highly recommended.
Here are some of my favourite passages from the book:
“Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort. ‘Synchronize watches at oh-six-hundred’, says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of brining two tiny pointers into jewelled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels. Looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.”
“I had this idea there was this whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere ahead of me as the seniors of Rye when I was in sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans… It’s the most stupid, ruinous kind of self-deception there is, and it gets you into nothing but trouble.”
“Oh for a month or two, just for fun, it might be alright to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what they other one most wanted to hear – until he was saying “I love you” and she was saying “Really I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way!”
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell was first published in England in 1955 and is a bit like a Jane Austen novel (Gaskell called it an industrial rewriting of Pride and Prejudice), but in my opinion more complex; both emotionally and due to its political facets.
Here is the plot description from the back of my Vintage edition:
“Milton is a sooty, noisy northern town centered around the cotton mills that employ most of its inhabitants. Arriving from a rural idyll in the South, Margaret Hale is initially shocked by the social unrest and poverty she finds in her new home town. However, as she begins to befriend her neighbors, n her stormy relationship with the mill-owner John Thornton develops, she starts to see Milton in a different light.”
I enjoyed North and South, but I think I would have liked it much more had I not seen the fantastic 2004 BBC miniseries. As a 550 something pages long book the storyline really dragged on in places, by contrast the BBC adaption was taut, polished and full of sexual tension, while remaining largely faithful to the book. Margaret and Mr Thornton FINALLY getting together was so drawn out in the book that it felt very anticlimactic, but because the series was much faster paced its conclusion didn’t give off that impression. It’s very unusual an adaptation of something would overshadow it so much for me!
I’m not sure I liked Margaret’s character in the book, she had very little insight into her own feelings and into the hearts of those around her for the majority of it. Thornton, on the other hand, was very likeable. He was strong, decisive and steady.
The politics surrounding the mills and the manufacture of cotton were very interesting in places, but could drag on at times. One character, Bessie, was dying from the fluff that got into her lungs while working in a mill. Apparently this was common in the mills in England during this time period. Gaskell mentions how some masters would install fans to prevent this, but some of the workers would complain because the lack of the cotton filling their lungs left them hungrier and meant they would have to spend more money on food. Apparently this was the reality for a lot of mill workers at that time.
The book was first published in serialised form in Charles Dickens’ Household Words magazine. According to the introduction, Gaskell was furious when Dickens wrote Hard Times, also about cotton mills. She felt he was ripping off her work. I thought this was an interesting piece of trivia!
The following are my favourite quotes, the first two show the ongoing motif of hands throughout the book, and all of them show Gaskell’s poetic way of writing.
“She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr Thornton watched the replacing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening – the fall. He could almost have exclaimed – “There it goes again!””
“She handed him his cup of tea with the proud air of an unwilling slave; but her eye caught the moment when he was ready for another cup; and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar tongs.”
“These dinners were delightful; but even here Margaret’s dissatisfaction found her out. Every talent, every feeling, every acquirement; nay, even every tendency towards virtue, was used up as materials for fireworks; the hidden, sacred fire exhausted itself in sparkle and crackle. They talked about art in a merely sensuous way, dwelling on outside effects, instead of allowing themselves to learn what it has to teach. They lashed themselves up into an enthusiasm about high subjects in company, and never thought about them when they were alone; they squandered their capabilities of appreciation into a mere flow of appropriate words.”
In short, enjoyable, worth a read, but encapsulated pretty well in the BBC mini-series.
I finished Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh this evening and I absolutely loved it. Told from the perspective of Charles Ryder, it focuses on his relationship with the wealthy, intensely Catholic Flyte family in England during the 1920s.
Ryder strikes up a close friendship with the troubled but lovable Sebastian Flyte at Oxford, whether this was a physical relationship or not has been hotly debated by critics, but from my reading of the book I’ve been thinking maybe not. I think the character Cara explained this well by saying something along the lines of it being a romantic affection between them common in English and German adolescent men and their fervent friendship being part of their development. She offers the opinion that she thinks these friendships are good, as long as they don’t go on too long. Although on the other hand maybe there was something homosexual to their relationship, as Ryder’s love for Sebastian seems to be the very basis on which his later romance with Julia is formed. But I like that it’s not clear, that it requires thought and some analysis.
Throughout the novel the different spiritual beliefs of the characters grind into one another causing conflict and distance. The house is almost a character in itself, sprawling and decadent, rebuilt from the stones of an old castle. I enjoyed the romantic, nostalgic tone of Brideshead Revisited, and as someone raised as a Catholic but who now identifies themselves as agnostic I found the religious themes particularly interesting and thought-provoking, especially as they were presented through the interactions between Catholic and agnostic characters because I can relate to each perspective. Evelyn Waugh himself converted to Catholicism and I think it’s interesting that, in spite of his faith, in this novel he has painted the Christian denomination in what I felt was quite a negative light for the majority of the story. But ultimately the work is hopeful on the subject, while not being entirely positive, because (beware spoiler) despite the way religion dooms Julia and Ryder’s romance, the epilogue hints that Ryder has converted to Catholicism when he kneels down to pray “an ancient, newly learned form of words.”