I sought this out because Susan Hill hails it as a forgotten classic and it’s included on a list of books to read in your thirties in The Novel Cure.* It’s a gentle and rather melancholy little 1924 novel about Mary, the plain, unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in the undistinguished East Anglian village of Dedmayne. “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” That is, until she unexpectedly falls in love. We follow Mary for the next four years and see how even a seemingly small life can have an impact.
I expect Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin chose this as a book for one’s thirties because it’s about a late bloomer who hasn’t acquired the expected spouse and children and harbors secret professional ambitions. The struggle to find common ground with an ageing parent is a strong theme, as is the danger of an unequal marriage. Best not to say too much more about the plot itself, but I’d recommend this to readers of Elizabeth Taylor. I was also reminded strongly at points of A Jest of Godby Margaret Laurence and Tender Is the Nightby F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a short and surprising classic, one well worth rediscovering.
Some favorite lines:
“she had written almost as a silkworm weaves a cocoon, with no thought of admiration.”
“after three years in one place, suburban people, whatever their layer in society, become restless and want to move on.”
“She had found self-pity a quagmire in which it was difficult not to be submerged.”
Note: Flora Macdonald Mayor (1872–1932) published four novels and a short story collection. Her life story is vaguely similar to Mary Jocelyn’s in that she was the daughter of a Cambridge clergyman.
*I’ve now read six of the 10 titles on their list. The remaining four, which I’ll probably try to read by the end of next year, are London Fields by Martin Amis, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope. I own the Sinclair in paperback, the Jaffe is on shelf at my local public library, and I can get the Amis and Trollope from the university library any time.
My classic for September was one of those books that are so ingrained in the canon you most likely know the basic story line even if you’ve never read a word Gustave Flaubert wrote. I’d happened to read a fair bit about Madame Bovary (1857), mostly via Julian Barnes, and had also encountered some modern novels that might be said to be updates (Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum and perhaps even George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl), but never picked up the book itself until earlier this month. While the essential turns of the plot were indeed familiar to me, there was also plenty that surprised me in terms of the details and the mechanics. I’ve set this out in nine points below; if you’re determined to avoid anything that seems like spoilers, I’d suggest skipping over #6–8.
#1. We open with Charles Bovary.
And in the first-person plural: “We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy”. I suppose I assumed the book would open immediately on Emma Bovary, already married to Charles. Instead, we get a quick tour through Charles’s adolescent schooling and independent medical studies.
#2. There are two “Madame Bovarys” before the one we’re interested in.
The original Madame Bovary, and the only one to survive the book, is Charles’s mother. Charles also has a brief first marriage to Heloise, an older widow. Conveniently, she dies by the end of the second chapter, in which Charles met Emma when he went to set her farmer father’s broken leg.
#3. There’s a lovely Hardyesque flavor to the novel.
Flaubert’s original subtitle was “Provincial Morals,” and the scenes set among country folk – especially Emma and Charles’s wedding procession and reception and the later agricultural fair – reminded me of Far from the Madding Crowd.
#4. Emma has a child.
Despite all I’d absorbed about the book, I never knew Emma had a baby girl, Berthe. They lodge the infant with a wet nurse and servants do most of the hard work of raising her, so Berthe has only a tiny role. The scene in which Emma violently pushes the little girl away from her is meant, I think, to reflect her fundamental unfitness for motherhood.
#5. In the world of the novel, literature is a danger and religion is no balm.
On the advice of Charles’s mother, he cancels Emma’s lending library subscription lest novels exacerbate her discontent. Manual labor is what Emma needs, Old Madame Bovary proclaims. When Emma goes to the parish priest for advice about her angst, he tells her she must be ill if she benefits from all the physical comforts she could need yet cannot be happy. (An excellent and wrenching scene.)
#6. There’s a strong medical theme.
Charles is a doctor, of course, but I didn’t know his profession would enter into the plot. There’s a crucial sequence in which he performs a groundbreaking operation on a stable boy with a clubfoot, but gangrene sets in and the leg has to be amputated. (Emma guiltily buys the boy a false leg.) Emma’s somewhat prolonged death by poisoning, and the appearance of her corpse, are also described in recognizable medical detail.
#7. Emma’s death isn’t the end.
There’s still two more chapters to go, and things only get worse. It’s as if Emma is still a negative influence after her death: pushing Charles on to extravagances he can’t afford, and sending him deeper into despair when he finds undeniable evidence of her two affairs.
#8. Homais, the arrogant pharmacist, is triumphant.
Monsieur Homais is one of the key secondary characters in Yonville, this small town near Rouen. He’s a middling community member who’s gotten above himself, yet he succeeds whereas Emma is crushed. The very last line of the novel goes to him: “He has just received the Legion of Honor.” In the introduction to my Signet Classic edition, Mary McCarthy suggests that Homais is “not just Emma’s foil; he is her alter ego.”
#9. Madame Bovary went on trial.
Appended to my copy is a 78-page transcript of the novel’s trial. As I skimmed it, I was reminded of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case, which took place just over 100 years later (1959–60). Flaubert and his publisher were accused of “offenses against public morality and religion,” specifically of portraying Emma as lascivious and making adultery appealing compared to the banality of marriage. The defense countered that Charles receives all the reader’s sympathy and Emma all the reader’s revulsion. Flaubert was acquitted (as was Lady Chatterley), but the judge’s ruling was essentially “Naughty boy, don’t you know literature has a mission to exalt the spirit, not to hold up vice as an object of horror?”
Now for what doesn’t surprise me about Madame Bovary: the beautiful writing and the enduring power of what is ultimately a rather commonplace story line. The percentage of novels with an adultery subplot must be very high nowadays, but Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina were two of the first to consider the female experience.
Flaubert famously declared “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”), and I think every reader must see something of him-/herself in this character: the lure of a romantic and luxurious life, the boredom of the day to day, the longing to make something more out of existence, and an increasing desperation to cover up one’s mistakes. A book that has had meaning for generations, Madame Bovary is a true classic.
Some favorite lines:
“But her life was as cold as an attic with northern exposure, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in all the dark corners of her heart.”
“Mealtime was the worst of all in that tiny room on the ground floor, with the smoking oven, the creaking door, the damp walls, and the moist flagstones; all the bitterness of her existence seemed to be served up to her on her plate, and the steam from the boiled beef brought up waves of nausea from the depths of her soul.”
“No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.”
(Isn’t that last sentence incredible?!)
I read a Signet Classic edition of Mildred Marmur’s 1964 translation.
See also Susan’s review of Sophie Divry’s recent update, Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, at A life in books.
This was my first experience with Arnold Bennett’s fiction; I’d previously read his Literary Taste. (He is not to be confused, as I’ve done in the past, with novelist and playwright Alan Bennett (An Uncommon Reader, etc.)!) Bennett (1867–1931) was from the Potteries region of Staffordshire and moved to London in his early twenties to work in a law office. Anna of the Five Towns (1902) was his second novel and first moderate success, but it was The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910–16) that truly made his name.
Bennett was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy (though Hardy had given up on novels by that point), and Anna reminds me of each of these authors to an extent – but particularly of Lawrence, what with his working-class Midlands roots. I also frequently thought of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (religious angst) and Far from the Madding Crowd (a heroine who faces romantic entanglements and financial responsibility for the first time).
Twenty-year-old Anna Tellwright is a Methodist Sunday school teacher and lives with her twelve-year-old sister, Agnes, and their ill-tempered father, Ephraim, in “Bursley” (Bennett’s name for Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent). The family is well off thanks to Ephraim’s canny property investments and inheritances he and his late wife received. Yet Anna is still dumbfounded to learn, on her twenty-first birthday, that she’s worth £50,000. Ephraim, generally referred to as “the miser” – there’s no nuance here; he’s typecast and never rises above the label – is happy to turn over certain aspects of the business to Anna, like hounding their tenants the Prices for late rent, but doesn’t give her autonomy over her daily spending. She must meekly approach her father each time she wants to purchase something for herself.
Anna has a suitor, Henry Mynors, whose business Ephraim supports as a sleeping partner. She loves the idea of being loved – and the suspicion that she has unwittingly wrenched a desirable prospect away from pretty Beatrice Sutton. But she doesn’t seem to be truly in love with Henry, just like her heart isn’t fully committed to the local revival put on by the Methodists. After all, she hasn’t had the emotional conversion experience that would prove irrefutably that she is saved. Much as she beats herself up over her so-called sins, the desired transformation never arrives. Instead, the closest thing she has to an epiphany comes when she’s standing atop a hill on the Isle of Man on her first-ever holiday:
She perceived that the monotony, the austerity, the melancholy of her existence had been sweet and beautiful of its kind, and she recalled, with a sort of rapture, hours of companionship with the beloved Agnes, when her father was equable and pacific. Nothing was ugly nor mean. Beauty was everywhere, in everything.
The Prices take on unforeseen significance in the novel, and in her dealings with them Anna is caught between a wish to be Christlike in her compassion and the drive to act as the shrewd businesswoman her father expects. Though she is eventually able to wrest back something like financial independence, she remains bound by the social convention of marrying well.
Anna is more timid and introspective than your average heroine; I felt great sympathy for her not in spite of but because of those character traits. I recently took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and wondered if Anna could be an ISTJ like me – she dreads having to visit her pupils’ homes and make small talk with the parents, comes across as curt when nervous, and can’t seem to turn her brain off and just feel instead. (Kate Scott of Parchment Girl runs a blog series about characters who exemplify the different Myers-Briggs personality types.)
There’s a lack of subtlety to Bennett’s writing, something I particularly noted in the physical descriptions (“She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the lenient curves of absolute maturity”) and some heavy-handed foreshadowing (“It was on the very night after this eager announcement that the approaching tragedy came one step nearer”). But I can let him off considering that this was published 115 years ago. It’s an excellent example of regional literature (can you think of another book set in Staffordshire?), with Anna’s visit to Henry’s pottery works a particular highlight. Bennett takes an unpromising setting and rather humble people and becomes their bard:
Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is even here—
Several miles away, the blast-furnaces of Cauldron Bar Ironworks shot up vast wreaths of yellow flame with canopies of tinted smoke. Still more distant were a thousand other lights crowning chimney and kiln, and nearer, on the waste lands west of Bleakridge, long fields of burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence. The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air.
The tea, made specially magnificent in honour of the betrothal, was such a meal as could only have been compassed in Staffordshire or Yorkshire—a high tea of the last richness and excellence, exquisitely gracious to the palate, but ruthless in its demands on the stomach. At one end of the table … was a fowl which had been boiled for four hours; at the other, a hot pork-pie, islanded in liquor, which might have satisfied a regiment. Between these two dishes were … hot pikelets, hot crumpets, hot toast, sardines with tomatoes, raisin-bread, currant-bread, seed-cake, lettuce, home-made marmalade and home-made jams. The repast occupied over an hour, and even then not a quarter of the food was consumed.
I enjoyed this for the pacey plot, the religious theme, the sympathetic protagonist, and the loving look at an industrial area. I’ll certainly be looking out for copies of Bennett’s other novels in secondhand bookshops; meanwhile, Project Gutenberg also has a good selection of his writings. (My copy was withdrawn from Lambeth Libraries stock and sold for 10 pence.)
I’ve attempted two Dickens novels in the last five years, and left both unfinished. I at least got about 200 pages into Dombey and Son in 2012 before I gave up, but my recent attempts to get past the first couple of chapters in Our Mutual Friend have been utterly unsuccessful. I finally gave myself permission to set it aside at page 41 – and I didn’t even read all of that; I’d started skimming in a last-ditch attempt to get myself hooked by the story. Have I lost my Dickens mojo? Do I not have sufficient patience to read Victorian triple-deckers anymore? I truly hope this is just a phase and I’ll be able to get back into Dickens someday. I certainly intend to read his whole oeuvre eventually, even the obscure ones.
So I don’t have a classic for April, nor a true doorstopper (I’ve classified David France’s How to Survive a Plague as such – a bit of a cheat since I only skimmed it). Instead what I have to offer are a modern classic and a graphic adaptation of another Dickens novel.
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, which I mostly read during our trip to Hay-on-Wye earlier in the month, is worthy of being called a modern classic. It has echoes of D.H. Lawrence and especially Thomas Hardy, and it’s a pleasantly offbeat look at the developments of the twentieth century as seen through the lives of Welsh identical twins Benjamin and Lewis Jones. Opening in the 1980s, when the brothers are eccentric old gents sleeping side by side in their late parents’ bed, the book then retreats to the beginning: at the turn of the last century ornery Amos Jones fell for an educated rector’s daughter and their volatile relationship played out at The Vision farm. One son was caught up in the First World War, one had love affairs; neither “ever strayed further than Hereford.” Through sickness, community scandal, and the rise and fall of fortunes, they remain wedded to Welsh village life.
I especially loved Chatwin’s descriptions of the natural world (he’d visited Radnorshire as a boy and considered it a kind of spiritual home), and the glimpses he gives into the twins’ preternatural closeness:
Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit-droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every now and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid. They liked to pretend they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms’ fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. … They lay on their backs and gazed on the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky … they would press their foreheads together, each twin losing himself in the other’s grey eye.
(Clearance book from Blackwell’s in Oxford. )
TheDavid Copperfield graphic novel by Jacqueline Morley (illustrated by Penko Gelev) is part of the Graffex series of graphic novel literary retellings issued by Salariya Book Company. It’s remarkably faithful to Dickens’s original, with just a bit of condensing in terms of the plot and a few secondary characters cut out or greatly reduced in importance. Although this is no substitute for reading David Copperfield itself (my favorite book), I could see it being useful for high school or college students who need a quick recap of what happens when preparing for a quiz or essay. The three main young females are amusingly similar and idealized, but all the other characters’ looks are true to the novel’s descriptions (and previous adaptations). The end matter – a brief biography of Dickens, commentary on the novel, a timeline of stage and screen versions – is particularly helpful, though in the chronology of Dickens’s works they forgot Dombey and Son!
(Remainder copy from Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye. )
Next month: I’ve pulled out a couple of short (~210 pages each) classics from the shelf. I recently read a graphic novel about Gauguin that I’ll be reviewing on Monday, so I fancy following it up with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which is said to be based on Gauguin’s life. It’ll be only my second Maugham after Of Human Bondage, which I loved in 2015. Anna of the Five Towns will be my first taste of Arnold Bennett’s fiction (though I’ve read his Literary Taste).
This is the first post in a new monthly series intended to encourage myself to read more of the classics I own. In January I read two works of classic literature: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy and No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.
Between college and grad school I read Hardy’s five major novels, but it’s probably been ten years or more since I tried a new one. Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite books of all time, so I couldn’t help but compare Under the Greenwood Tree* to it – unfavorably, alas – as I was reading.
Greenwood was Hardy’s second novel, published in 1872. That’s just two years before Madding Crowd, and the two are quite similar in a few ways: the main female character is a conceited flirt who has to decide between three potential suitors; the supporting cast is made up of “rustics” who speak in country dialect; and the Dorset setting, including the landscape, weather and traditional activities, is a strong presence in its own right.
But where Bathsheba Everdene, though periodically maddening, is ultimately a sympathetic figure, Greenwood’s Fancy Day is a character I could never warm to. As the new schoolteacher and organist in Mellstock village, she puts on airs and imagines she’s too good for Dick Dewy, a salt-of-the-earth peddler. She’s also incurably vain. “Yes, I must wear the hat, dear Dicky, because I ought to wear a hat, you know,” she says, even though Dick calls the hat “Rather too coquettish.”
A bare-bones summary of the novel makes it sound more entertaining than it actually is: A set of country musicians (the “Mellstock Quire”) learns their services are no longer required at the local church; they are to be replaced by an organ. The novel opens on Christmas Eve and in the early chapters proceeds by way of caroling, cider drinking and dances. It’s rather jolly, but where is it all going? Then, once the plot takes over, Fancy’s weighing up of the wooing attentions of Dick, Mr. Shiner and Parson Maybold soon grows tedious.
Whereas the passages about the rustics are brief, welcome interludes in Madding Crowd, here they are nearly constant and start to feel overpowering. “You are charmed on condition that you accept Hardy’s condescension towards his characters,” Claire Tomalin observes in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. They are harmless folk, but their rural way of life will soon be superseded. The novel is set a generation back, in about the 1840s, so has an elegiac tone to it, and Hardy’s subtitles suggest he was trying to freeze an image of a bygone time.
Fancy’s directives for her wedding reception make clear the divide between old and new:
The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an additional precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter [Dick’s father] to carefully avoid saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste; also that they were never to be seen drawing the back of the hand across the mouth after drinking—a local English custom of extraordinary antiquity, but stated by Fancy to be decidedly dying out among the upper classes of society.
This is a pleasant enough book, and at just 160 or so pages goes by fairly quickly, yet I found myself losing interest at many points and often could not bear to read more than one short chapter at a time. At this rate, will I ever get to decidedly minor Hardy novels like The Hand of Ethelberta, The Trumpet-Major, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and A Laodicean?
*“Under the greenwood tree” is a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Favorite unrelated line: “Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em.”
No Signposts in the Sea (1961) is my second taste of Sackville-West’s fiction (after All Passion Spent). It was her last novel, published just one year before her death, and was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. She was at this point already ill with the cancer that would kill her, though it was as yet undiagnosed.
That context goes a long way towards explaining the preoccupations of No Signposts, set on board a cruise ship and narrated by fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist who has been told by his doctor that he has just a few months to live. He’s embarked on the voyage to be close to the woman he loves, forty-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. She has no idea that he’s ill, and as the weeks pass and they share tender moments – dinner on shore at an island based on Macao, a lightning storm viewed from her private balcony – he dares to hope that she might return his feelings but still doesn’t tell her about his imminent death, even as she makes tentative plans for excursions they might take once they’re back in London.
The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his eventual death. It’s full of his solitary musings but also his conversations with Laura, who is refreshingly unconventional in her approach to relationships:
I can’t abide the Mr. and Mrs. Noah attitude towards marriage; the animals went in two by two, forever stuck together with glue. I resent it as much for other people as I should for myself. It seems to me a degradation of individual dignity.
She also tells a story about a lesbian couple she knows who are aging happily together; it feels a bit out of place, but its inclusion is striking given Sackville-West’s history of lesbian relationships.
I’d recommend this short novel to anyone who’s looking for a quick women’s classic with plenty to say about what matters in life.
Next month: I’ve never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and it seems to be having something of a resurgence in popularity at the moment, so perhaps now is the time?