Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

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Rating – 4*

Wives and Daughters is the first Gaskell book I’ve read and certainly won’t be my last as I really enjoyed this book. I won’t lie, I purchased this book solely for the cover – I think it’s absolutely beautiful and honestly one of the prettiest of the Penguin English Library editions. The fact I enjoyed the content was just an added bonus!

After reading a lot of non fiction,  I decided it was time to get back in to fiction. I have a list of 12 classics I want to read before the year is out and so far I’ve read two – this was the third from that list. After reading non-fiction I wanted something which, while a classic, was a more easy read and I’m really glad I picked this up because, honestly, it’s a really good place to start with classics in my opinion.

The story follows Molly, who we are introduced to as she is a young girl and we then see grow into a woman. Molly has been raised by her widowed father, and I think this was actually quite a nice thing to be seen in fiction from this era for it isn’t very often you get a single father narrative in a book (least of all in a classic!) Molly is quite a sheltered young woman, having grown up relatively isolated and her naivety comes through, but it’s not all that frustrating for me, it was actually quite endearing.

A lot happens in this book, and I don’t want to give it all away. But Molly’s world does get turned upside down when her father takes a new wife, she finds herself with a ‘wicked step-mother’ – though not all that wicked, she is quite shallow and conniving. There is love for Molly too, this is after all a classic and what classic doesn’t have love in store for the protagonist? Again, I didn’t find the romance in this book too shabby – it was for me quite believable (even though much of the book was cliched).

I found there were so many references to fairy tales. For a start, this book does open up with this passage:

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.”

That frankly oozes fairy tale. Then there is the widowed father, naive young girl, step-mother, step-sister, and ultimately a romance for the protagonist. As I said, overall I found this a very charming, endearing, and very spring-like read and the fairy tale quality of it just added to that enjoyment.

However, this book is unfinished. Elizabeth Gaskell sadly died before she could finish it; though there are several sources which do outline what her original ending intended and as a reader it was pretty apparent what the story was building up to. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to finish it in her own words, rather the ending had to come from several sources and be more word of mouth. I would have really enjoyed to have read the ending in her own words.

This was a lovely break from all the non-fiction I’ve been reading lately, and definitely got me back in to classics. I think I would have maybe enjoyed this more had I been younger when I read it – as I said I feel this would be a good place to start with classics if you’re unfamiliar with them.

Review: Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

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Rating – 4*

Today it is time for a wee break from the Wellcome Prize and on to a classic. Moll Flanders. Personally,  I couldn’t think of a better way to break up all the non-fiction than to take a romp in the 18th century with a woman who was once portrayed on screen by Alex Kingston. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book and have Alex Kingston at the forefront of their mind?! Anyway…

Moll Flanders is the story of Moll Flanders. Moll starts off a girl, a girl who wants to make her own fortune in the world. She comes from a working class origin, and dreads the thought of going in to service (which is apparently the only option for a girl of her origin). She wants to be a lady. She wants to find Mr Right, settle down, and have financial security. After all, life in the 18th century wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, especially as a woman. London itself was not exactly the nicest place to be either, and Moll tries to make the best of the bad situation she finds herself in.

I really liked this book. Moll is probably one of my favourite characters in classic literature. She’s fun, she’s refreshing, she’s not a chaste, or girly, or swooning imitation of a woman from the Austen world of writing which drive me mad. She was ballsy, bawdy, and downright hilarious in parts. And reading this I could only picture Alex Kingston – and that made her even better in my opinion!

I found this really easy to read, and in places I was laughing out loud. It was genuinely good fun – which is something I rarely get to say about a classic. The plot was sparse, but I whacked the book up a star because Moll is amazing and I truly wish there were more women like Moll in classic fiction. She’s a gem, and I found myself rooting for her throughout even if she did make dubious decisions.

I’m looking forward to reading more Defoe. Not sure he’s top of my list to read, but one day I will read more!

Review: Romola – George Eliot

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Rating – 3*

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know I adore George Eliot. This book, however, was a bit of a miss for me unfortunately.

Romola takes place in late 15th century Italy; Florence mainly. While Romola is the titular character of this book, as I have come to expect with Eliot’s work this book is much more of an ensemble piece and there’s so much more to it. Tito is, for me, definitely the main character – and an interesting, deep character he is! This book is an exploration of his character, how he descends in to morally ambiguous behaviour; Tito is truly one of the most well explored ‘villains’ in literature. Even though he was the bad guy, following his journey through this book to see him get to that point was complex, and on the whole enjoyable. I’m glad I read this book if only to ‘meet’ Tito.

On the other side of the coin we have Romola. Romola herself was disappointing for me, compared to Tito – who was portrayed in Technicolor –  she was very grey-scale.  I found myself getting frustrated; with characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss I knew that she was capable of creating a female protagonist who fights against societal norms. I thought, at points, we would see Romola rebel, but we didn’t. Instead she submits to Tito, endures his abhorrent behaviour. She feels like a caricature of Victorian virtue – and that frustrated me to no end. She didn’t feel fully formed, she felt very halfhearted and where there was a deep study of Tito, I don’t feel as a reader I ever got any insight in to Romola.

The scope of this novel is amazing, and the research that she must have put in to it is incredible. Italy came alive, and when reading this I did feel like it was a sunny afternoon on the continent. I felt like I was in 15th century Italy. And while this had all of the key things I adore about Eliot’s work; beautiful prose, locations that come alive, (on the whole) interesting characters, I felt a lot of it was lost on me. While I admire the amount of research that went in to this book, it often lost me or frustrated me. I can understand why she is thought to have said this was her best book, her favourite book – because it is incredible – but to enjoy it fully I think you have to be a 15th century scholar.

George Eliot is still my favourite 19th century female author. The woman can do no wrong in my eyes. However, this is definitely not a place to start with Victorian literature, George Eliot, or classics in general. It’s definitely a book which required patience, and a dedication that only someone who loves either the Victorian novel generally, or George Eliot more specifically, can get a modicum of enjoyment out of. That and maybe 15th century scholars.

So, yes, I liked this book. Not my favourite Eliot by far, but one I may revisit in the future!

Review: Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

After Bleak House I decided I couldn’t wait any longer for another Dickens and this is the one which caught my eye. Dombey and Son was one of the first Penguin English Library editions I bought because look at it, it’s gorgeous and I’m a glutton for a pretty book. Sadly, after Bleak House, this fell a little flat for me.

It is over 1000 pages. This isn’t an issue normally, but the problem is that for me personally it could have been done in half that number. Initially I loved it, I got through the first couple of hundred pages in a few days and I was really enjoying it but then it just became more of a chore than anything. I kept going, because Dickens is like that and I was hoping so hard it would get better, but for me it didn’t. While the final chapter was somewhat redeeming, it wasn’t so mindblowing that it made this book better for me.

My main issue is that I didn’t feel much connection to the characters, which did make the story a little harder to invest myself in. Compared to Bleak House this just didn’t meet the mark on the plot or character front. Florence, while a wonderful protagonist, was too insipid and sickly sweet for my liking; Mr Dombey I just couldn’t get a handle on and struggled to understand. The background characters didn’t come to life quite like they have in a number of Dickens’ other books that I have read – even London wasn’t as vibrant in this book.

On the whole this was okay. Not the best Dickens book I have read, but by no means is it the worst (for it’ll be hard for any of Dickens’ books to be as ghastly as A Tale of Two Cities, and should one of his books surpass that feat it’ll be pretty awful indeed). I would say of his long books, this is my least favourite so far – Bleak House is by far a better place to go, or even The Old Curiosity Shop if you’re interested in picking up a monster of a book!

This time, however, I am not going to be put off from reading more. A Tale of Two Cities put me off Dickens for about 18 months and I’m not going to let this one get me down! If you have any recommendations of where to go next – I’m thinking Little Dorrit or David Copperfield maybe – let me know. I’d love to have input from people who have read more Dickens than me!

Review: Black Beauty – Anna Sewell

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Rating – 3*

Most people know the story of Black Beauty, or at least an overview of it. It’s the story of a horses life as told through his eyes. Interestingly, I always assumed this was a children’s classic, however it wasn’t intended as one. The primary purpose of this book was to induce kindness, sympathy, and understanding – particularly in the treatment of horses but I think it just applies to anything who doesn’t necessarily have a voice of its own. Not having a voice does not mean an animal does not have feeling, which I think is the take home message of this book.

It’s a very simple book, which is probably why it has ended up becoming a children’s classic. I think I would have enjoyed it much more had I actually got around to reading it when I was a child myself. The fact it’s narrated by a horse is quite a fun one and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I love a story told from an unconventional point of view, but whereas – for example – Flush by Virginia Woolf had an animal with a very mature voice, Black Beauty is told with a simple and more childlike quality. I feel that it could have had more expanding to make it a more ‘adult’ book. Instead, I found it was more a collection of moments in the life of the horse, which is perfectly fine, however it did become a little repetitive.

There were a vast array of characters, which was something which surprised me! The animals were much more well rounded than the humans, that’s for sure. Out of all the characters, the one who was most fleshed out for me was Ginger. The back story to Ginger really tugged at my heart strings!

It was a very enjoyable read though, and a nice one to read one evening as it’s quite short and easy to follow along with. I really wish I had read this when I was younger because I think I would have got so much more enjoyment out of it. I would recommend this if you haven’t read it, and maybe if you haven’t read many classics – or children’s classics at least – this would be a good one to pick up as it is quite easy to read.

Review: Bleak House – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 5*

I don’t even know where to start with this book. It was a beast but my goodness it was an incredible one. I had been putting it off for so long, especially after my last Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) really disappointed me, and a reading slump left me very intimidated as this book is over 1000 pages. But I don’t know what I was scared of. I read this in under a week, and also managed to watch the entirety of the 15 part BBC adaptation as I went along – which was also amazing!

Bleak House is alternatively narrated by the orphan Esther Summerson, and an unknown third person. Personally I preferred the tone of Esther’s narrative and found it much easier to read than those parts which focused more on the court case which is ultimately the crux of this book and the thread which tied all the characters together. However, for me it was Esther’s development through the book, and her personal growth, was actually the most interesting part of the story and I felt she tied the story together more than the court case ever did.

The plot is so complex and intricate, there are stories within stories which are all wrapped up beautifully by the end. The court case itself is pretty insane, and has been going on so long that at least one generation of the Jarndyce family has expired while waiting for a judgement, and not even the lawyers have any grasp on its intricacies. As for characters, not one felt surplus to requirements for me. Yes, there were a lot of characters but they all had their moments of importance and all had their imperfections and flaws which made them stand out – some more than others it has to be said! What I liked was the two different views you get of some of the characters from both streams of the narration, it’s quite a simple thing really but I found it really added to the depth of character for me.

To sum it up, I adored this book. And I when reading it I knew I had to watch the TV series. BBC adaptations never fail to take my breath away and this one was no exception. The cast is incredible, the way the story is put together on screen just made me appreciate the book all the more. Not only that, it was visually beautiful! I would seriously recommend reading and watching the series simultaneously as I for one feel it made my reading the book less daunting! Also, it’s very good to break up a burst of reading with a bit of period drama.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself rereading this book before the year is out. It’s amazing, it blew my mind quite frankly and I cannot wait to read more Dickens! Definitely don’t be put off by the size of this book, please, because it’s a masterpiece. Naturally, this is a 5* book. No doubts.

Review: Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

I decided it was about time I finally picked up Great Expectations, I had wanted to read some more Dickens for a while and this one was just staring at me. After A Tale of Two Cities being a huge disappointment, I had a little block in place when it came to which Dickens to read next. I’m glad it was this one.

Most people know the bare bones of Great Expectations, a young orphaned boy – Pip – dreams of stepping up in the world and becoming a gentleman. On the way to him discovering his “great expectations” he meets some very interesting characters, and one of the most iconic Dickensian characters of them all, Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham, having been left at the altar as a young woman now spends her days in her wedding dress with all the clocks in her house stopped at 8:40. I found myself drawn to her, and I do wish this book was about her not Pip because damn, Pip is boring.

The biggest issue I have with this book is Pip. He is self absorbed and, as the story is told from his perspective, it’s very hard to enjoy. It is told in three sections, and while the first story about his younger years is quite interesting – mainly due to the presence of Joe and Miss Havisham – the second part following his journey to his expectations in London was so dull! However, come part three, after finding out who his benefactor was and the fallout from there it does become more interesting and the pace picks up considerably. There was some intensity to some chapters which really made up for the drab chapters which came before it. I also like that Dickens does wrap everything up, it’s quite satisfying (if a little contrived)! On the whole, I liked the way this book went, even if I did find Pip insufferable.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed The Old Curiosity Shop, but it was still enjoyable. I will be giving it some time before picking up my next Dickens! I will, however, be watching both the TV Miniseries and the 2012 movie adaptation of Great Expectations as reading it, I could see how well it would translate on to the screen and I’m pretty excited about that!

Review: Adam Bede – George Eliot

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Rating – 5*

Adam Bede was Eliot’s first published novel and that youth in her writing is tangible throughout. But like most debut novels, what it lacked in literary rigour, it made up for with passion in the writing. This was, I felt, a novel which the author put her heart in to and I really, really enjoyed it. The more I read of Eliot, the more I love her work, and I found it very difficult to find fault with this because I just love every word.

It has echoes of Far From the Madding Crowd in the start – maybe because it’s a quiet farming community – and pre-dates it by 20 years. For me, I preferred Eliot’s take on the quiet farming town life to Hardy’s, Eliot was a lot more brutal in plot and her characters were far superior. While Adam is the titular character of this novel, Hetty Sorrel is definitely equally as much of a main character, and the side characters are equally as rich and full of life – something which I have found a theme across all of the work of Eliot’s I have read so far.

The plot is quite sparse in the first half, it is instead full of life and the hustle and bustle of everyday village life. We follow the hard-working Adam, and he’s quite a dull man, but is diligent and, unfortunately for him, madly in love with the narcissistic Hetty – who is aware of his feelings but does not reciprocate. Hetty has longings for the finer things in life and desires to get away from the village; this is a common theme among books of the era and I imagine it was a (sadly) common theme in reality. Hetty was definitely the shining show of this book, even though intensely dislikeable in terms of how she treats Adam, I empathised with her and felt her pains, especially in the second half. If it wasn’t for the first half, where as a reader you build a relationship with the people of this village, that intense building of character made the second half hit me, as a reader, so much harder. I don’t want to spoil it, so I urge you to be patient if you decide to try this and work your way through the slow burn of character building in the first 300 or so pages.

One thing I’m noticing about Eliot’s work is her focus on religion – in Daniel Deronda she focused heavily on Judaism. In this book, she focuses in on the Methodist faith with the character of Dinah, and in part Adam’s brother Seth. I find the insights in to religion in different periods of history really interesting, and while some people found this book a little preachy I actually found it really interesting.

While not as enormous as Daniel Derdonda, or indeed Middlemarch, this book is nonetheless incredible for very different reasons. I find it hard to do anything but give a George Eliot book 5* now, I really do. So naturally, this was a 5* read. After a really pretty bad beginning with Middlemarch (which I must reread this Summer, after reading nearly all the rest of her work this year!) George Eliot has fast become one of my favourite authors of all time – and I intend to finish her bibliography this Summer and do a bit of a spotlight on her.

I leave you with parting words: do not judge this book by its cover because – frankly – this edition is hideous; just do not let that detract from what is inside.

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Review: Daphnis and Chloe – Longus

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Rating – 4*

This is one of the new Little Black Classics that Penguin have released after the success of their first 80. The second batch are a little bit longer, which makes me incredibly happy as they published this little gem. It came on to my radar a couple of years ago after seeing a couple of booktubers /bloggers recommend it and I’m so glad I finally got around to it.

Daphnis and Chloe follows Daphnis (a goatherd) and Chloe (a shepherdess), who fall in love without actually understanding what these feelings they have for each other are. They learn about what they’re feeling through a frankly baffling series of events, some of which involve nymphs and pirates! Both were found abandoned as infants by their respective families, and along the way they both come to learn of their origins. It is really, really quite a sweet tale and it just warmed my heart a little bit!

One thing I wasn’t expecting is that it is actually quite a hilarious book. I found myself openly laughing at certain parts of their absolute confusion, at some of the situations they somehow got themselves in to. It was actually quite refreshing to be able to get in to a classic book without any effort. I’d seriously recommend this to anyone who wants to just try something new, this series of books is so good for that! So, this book I’ll happily give 4* to, it wasn’t quite perfect but I loved it nonetheless.

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Review: No Surrender- Constance Maud

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Rating – 3*

No Surrender is a very rare find – an out and out suffragette novel. It is billed on the Persephone catalogue as just that, which doesn’t seem something outstanding but really, there aren’t any suffragette novels so this one is something special.

This book is something remarkable. It is a multi-faceted look at the suffragette movement of the early 20th century; from the mill workers to the upper levels of society. It looks at how the movement impacted on them and why they were passionate about it. It wasn’t just about gaining a vote as many people think, it was so much more than that and sadly so much more still needs to be done.

The primary character is Jenny, a young mill worker who wants so much and not just for herself, very little of it is for herself, but it is for the people she loves. She wants her sister to have rights to her children, her mother to have right to finances, and she wants equal pay for equal work. When Jenny meets Mary, a young, upper class girl, their joint skill-set proves powerful. Their different perspectives represent the cross section of women who fought for this change to the lives of women and children.

There is no doubting it, this book is powerful. It really brings home how determined and passionate these women were. Some of the passages in this book, particularly when the girls are subject to force feeding, are hard reading. But however uncomfortable it was, I kept reading because the fictional women in this book give voice to the hundreds of nameless women who fought for the freedoms that we, as women, have today. Sadly, there is a lot that needs to still be done even 100+ years on for equality, in both Britain and across the rest of the world. But this book really brings it home how lucky women today are.

However, this book wasn’t without flaws and while it really made me think I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing. I found it clunky, I found it hard to get through, when I put the book down I had to force myself to pick it up again. I am so glad I read this and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a brutal, albeit fictional, account of the early Suffrage movement in the UK. But it has to be 3* as I didn’t enjoy the writing all that much.

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