Tag: epistolary novels

Classic of the Month: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Thank you to those who recommended Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my classic for March. I’m glad I read it, not least because, like Narcissism for Beginners, it’s an epistolary within an epistolary – bonus! I imagine most of my readers will already be familiar with the basic plot, but if you’re determined to avoid spoilers you’ll want to look away from my second through fourth paragraphs.


The chronology and structure of the novel struck me as very sophisticated: in 1847, gentleman farmer Gilbert Markham is writing a detailed letter to a friend, describing how he fell in love with the widow Helen Graham – the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, a painter who’s living there in secret – starting in the autumn of 1827. (I even wondered if this could have been one of the earliest instances of a female author writing from a male point-of-view.) Their interrupted and seemingly ill-fated courtship reminded me of Lizzy and Darcy’s in Pride and Prejudice: Gilbert initially thinks Helen stubborn and argumentative, especially in how she refuses to accept neighbors’ advice on how to raise her young son, Arthur. Gradually, though, he comes to be captivated by this intelligent and outspoken young woman on whose “lofty brow … thought and suffering seem equally to have stamped their impress.”

And indeed, at the heart of Gilbert’s narrative is a lengthy journal by Helen herself, starting in 1821, explaining the misfortune that drove her to take refuge in the isolation of Wildfell Hall. For, as in Anne’s sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, there’s an impediment to the marriage of true minds in the form of a living spouse. Helen is still tied to Arthur Huntingdon, a dissolute alcoholic she married against her family’s advice and has ever since longed to see reformed. In a phrase I was highly bemused to see in use in the middle of the nineteenth century, she defends him thusly: “if I hate the sins I love the sinner, and would do much for his salvation.” The novel’s religious language may feel outdated in places, but the imagined psyche of a woman who stays with an abusive or at least neglectful partner is spot on.

For the most part I enjoyed the story line, but I must confess that I wearied of Helen’s 260-page account, filled as it is with repetitive instances of her incorrigibly loutish husband’s carousing. I had a bit too much of her melodrama and goody-goody moralizing, such that it felt like a relief to finally get back to Gilbert’s voice. The last 100 pages, though, and particularly the last few chapters, are wonderful and race by. I loved this late metaphor for Helen’s chastened beauty:

This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear. The cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, … it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals.


Anne Brontë c. 1834, painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (restored version).
I moved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall up my to-read pile because it’s on the “Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure. I imagine Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin included it because the main plot and some subplots revolve around the unsuitable relationships people often find themselves trapped in: perhaps after the passion and idealism of one’s twenties, one’s thirties are more likely to be blighted by regret as the consequences of poor choices come to light.

As always, I’m dumbfounded by the Brontës’ profound understanding of human motivation and romantic love given their sheltered upbringing. Theirs were wild hearts. I’ll always be a Charlotte fan first and foremost, but I was delighted with my first experience of Anne’s work and look forward to trying Agnes Grey in the near future.

Lest you think Victorian literature is all po-faced, righteous ruminating, I’ll end with my favorite funny quote from the book. This is from Gilbert’s snide, sporty brother Fergus (I wish he’d had a larger role!), seeming to mock Jane Austen with this joke about needing to know everything about Helen Graham as soon as she arrives in town:

“mind you bring me word how much sugar she puts in her tea, and what sort of caps and aprons she wears, and all about it, for I don’t know how I can live till I know,” said Fergus very gravely. But if he intended the speech to be hailed as a masterstroke of wit, he signally failed, for nobody laughed. However, he was not much disconcerted at that; for when he had taken a mouthful of bread and butter, and was about to swallow a gulp of tea, the humour of the thing burst upon him with such irresistible force that he was obliged to jump up from the table, and rush snorting and choking from the room.

My rating:


Next month: Eleanor of Elle Thinks recommends Our Mutual Friend as the book that will finally get me back into Dickens, so I plan to make it do double duty as my Classic and Doorstopper for April.

Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh

Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.

Why would I be missing you so violently?

We’re all the hero when directing the scene,

But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.

(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)

I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.

The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.

Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.

Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.

This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.

I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”

Jim Jones in 1977. By Nancy Wong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”

For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)

Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.

My rating:


Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (Peirene)

Originally published in 1910, The Last Summer is a suspenseful epistolary novella by Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), one of the first German women to earn a PhD. She wrote widely across many fields – history, poetry, fiction, and religion – and had an asteroid named after her, earning Thomas Mann’s accolade of “the First Lady of Germany.” I’m grateful to Peirene for resurrecting this German classic as I have a special love for epistolary novels – traditionally told through nothing but letters. You have to be on the lookout for little clues dotted through the correspondence that will tell you who these characters are, how they’re connected to one another, what you need to know about their pasts, and what’s happening now.

last-summerSet across one May to August in the early 1900s, the book joins the von Rasimkara family at their summer home. In response to student protests, patriarch Yegor, the governor of St. Petersburg, has shut down the university and left for the country. With him are his wife, Lusinya; their three twenty-something children, Velya, Jessika and Katya; and Yegor’s new secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu. What the family don’t know, but readers do from the first letter onward, is that Lyu is in league with the student revolutionaries and is in on a plot to assassinate the governor at his summer home.

This central dramatic irony is what fuels much of the book’s tension. All of the von Rasimkaras persist in believing the best about Lyu, even when the evidence seems to point to his deception. Both daughters fall in love with him, Velya calls him their “guardian angel,” and Lusinya is sure of his loyalty even after odd incidents she can’t explain, like finding him standing in their bedroom doorway in the middle of the night and a mysterious letter appearing under her pillow. “In case of doubt, one ought to hold back with one’s judgement,” Lusinya opines.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “psychological thriller,” as the back cover blurb does, but I do think it’s a compelling picture of how different groups and ideologies can be fundamentally incompatible. In my favorite passage, Lyu describes the von Rasimkara family to his friend Konstantin:

My stay here is fascinating from a psychological viewpoint. The family has all the virtues and defects of its class. Perhaps one cannot even talk of defects; they merely have the one: belonging to an era that must pass and standing in the way of one that is emerging. When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch; you stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief until it comes down. It is undeniably a shame about the governor, who is a splendid example of his kind, but I believe that he has already passed his peak.

As I sometimes feel about novellas, the plot is fairly thin and easily could have been spun out to fill a book of twice the length or more. But that is not what Peirene Press books are about. They’re meant to be quick reads that introduce European novellas in translation. This one has a terrific ending – which I certainly won’t spoil, though the title and cover could be read as clues – and is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a winter evening.


[Peirene issues books in trios. This is the first of the three books in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series. The other two, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Last Summer was published in the UK on February 1st. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Other Peirene titles I’ve reviewed:

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. If you have read Ivey’s 2012 debut, The Snow Child, you’ll remark once again on her skill in bringing the bleak beauty of Alaska to life on the page and blending magic realism and folktales with a nonetheless realistic view of history.

In March 1885 Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester sets out with a small team – including brash Sergeant Bradley Tillman, melancholy photographer Lieutenant Andrew Pruitt, native guides, and Samuelson, a trapper who serves as a go-between – to navigate a previously unmapped portion of Alaska. Back at Vancouver Barracks he’s left his wife of four months, Sophie. Bold and curious, she intended to travel into Alaska with Allen until she learned she was pregnant. Now she passes the months of her confinement – and raises eyebrows among the military wives – by pursuing her amateur hobbies of birdwatching and photography.

JacketThrough alternating passages from journals by Allen and Sophie, Ivey contrasts the big adventures of surveying new territory with the smaller adventures of domestic life. Along their perilous journey Allen and his men encounter many legends and incidents they cannot explain: shape-shifters, like the women who morph into flocks of geese or the shaman who takes the form of a half-lame raven; a baby born out of a tree trunk; and a prehistoric creature that guards a lake. As Allen writes in a letter to Sophie towards the end of his journey:

I can find no means to account for what we have witnessed, except to say that I am no longer certain of the boundaries between man & beast, of the living and & dead. It has been a strange experience indeed. All that I have taken for granted, of what is real & true, has been called into question.

A framing story sets the historical narrative in the context of the present day: Walter Forrester has sent his great-uncle Allen’s letters and journal to a small Alaska museum for safekeeping. Initially the young curator, Joshua Sloan, is annoyed at the unwanted donation and the extra work it creates for him, but gradually – right alongside the novel’s readers – he starts to be sucked into the story the documents reveal. Through their correspondence, Josh and Walt develop a touching friendship despite their differences.

Ivey fits the pieces of her epistolary together in a sophisticated manner and makes you care about each of the characters. Sophie and Pruitt, especially, have traumatic backstories that help you understand their behavior. Sophie reminded me most of Meridian Wallace in Elizabeth J. Church’s The Atomic Weight of Love – both are self-taught scientists with a deep love for birds and a determination to live interesting lives even if others disapprove. The novel also brings to mind Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place in that it skips back and forth in time and intersperses a central narrative with other documents, including an auction catalogue of relevant objects.

I found Sophie’s voice instantly more engaging than Allen’s shorthand-like style, and it took me a while – maybe 60–80 pages – to warm up to the storyline and characters. I would have appreciated an Author’s Note at the end of the book explaining what, if anything, was based on a true story and which documents are authentic. (As it is, I assume that all the characters are fictional but the explorers’ journey is based on the historical record.) Nonetheless, I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.

With thanks to Katie Brown at Tinder Press for the free review copy.

My rating: 4 star rating