Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Rating – 5*

I was in the mood for a classic, but rather than pick one of the many on my shelves I haven’t read, I reached for one of my all time favourites – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is by far my favourite Brontë because of this book. And I honestly urge anyone to pick this up.

While this story opens with a letter written by Gilbert Markham, and is bookended with one at the end too, this is ultimately Helen’s story. It’s told through letters and diaries, which is something I find hard to get through when not in the right hands. Epistolary writing is incredible for just really getting in to a characters head, understanding their thoughts and feelings, and when done well it can be absolutely amazing.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a rare gem in classic fiction in that it deals with very complex issues and has very few tropes of 19th century literature with a female protagonist. Helen Graham is one of the strongest women I’ve ever come across in fiction, and Anne Brontë is an incredible author who was ahead of her time for writing her. What we experience through Helen’s diaries in this book is a story I’ve still to this day never seen handled as well as this, especially for the time period in which this was written (and set). The most incredible thing about Helen is that while she’s been through hell and back, and has experienced abuse that no woman should ever experience, she keeps her head high and is so poised throughout; she retains her dignity which is something I never thought I would say about a 19th century female protagonist!

What makes this novel so incredible is how real the depiction of alcoholism is, and how it impacts a family. This is, I know, the most autobiographical of any Brontë novel as I believe that Helen’s husband is based on the only Brontë brother, Branwell. It also depicts a rarity of a woman living independently, causing scandal, living under a pseudonym and not doing her husbands bidding. The different take on women in Anne’s world to Charlotte and Emily’s is, frankly, astounding. This book caused a rift between the women, and after Anne’s death, Charlotte took the executive decision to suppress this book and disallow a reprint to “protect” the family name as Anne didn’t hold the same, more pious, opinions as her sisters.

I originally read this book in 2014 – and it holds a very special place in my heart because it was the book I read on my last holiday with my grandmother before she died only a few months later. We read it together, and for that I think I will always love this book a little bit more than all other Brontë novels. If anything I loved it more on a second read, I really did. And if you’re to read one classic this year, or ever, I’d urge it to be this one because it truly is incredible.

Review: Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

026 - Doctor Zhivago

026 - Doctor Zhivago

Rating – 3*

I decided to pick this book up at long last after I saw that Ange (Beyond the Pages on YouTube) was hosting a really informal readalong of it – informal in that it was “read at your own pace in the month of March”. That suited me perfectly and gave me just the kick up the backside I needed to finally pick it up. Unfortunately, I think it was a case of it wasn’t the right time for me to read this book, as I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

The book itself is incredible and it’s often said that this is one of the greatest love stories ever told (if you believe love to be tragic, I guess you could agree). It is essentially a story about a man who is considered a tragic hero who has been separated from the woman he loves due to civil war. I had no time for the love story, Zhivago as a character was not one I enjoyed reading – which is a bit pants given this is a book pretty much dedicated to his tragic life. Throughout the book we’re told that Zhivago loves both his wife and Lara, but he runs between the two. I never felt that he loved either of them from words or actions (until the final section which I will discuss later).

I found so much of this book improbable, most notably the series of increasingly unlikely coincidences where characters just seemed to bump in to each other in a country the size of Russia like it’s a village the size of a postage stamp. I don’t bump in to my neighbours as regularly as all these characters happened upon each other! If there were more explanation, maybe I’d accept it, but it just seemed to be a case of Pasternak needing a particular character in a particular place without any thought of how they got there! The first few times it’s acceptable, but then it becomes a bit absurd!

What makes this book so good for me though is the prose – the pages on pages of description of the surroundings. When the characters start talking it becomes stilted and frustrating again, but if this was just a meandering book about Russian mountains and snow, I’d have probably enjoyed it more. And whenever I stumbled upon a passage describing the surroundings I found myself falling a little bit more in love with the book and forgetting all the issues I had with it just a page before.

I think it’s also worth saying that in the edition I read there is a further part at the end which contained the poetry that Zhivago wrote – this was a much needed reprieve after the heft of the book, and was a more condensed version of what I enjoyed in this book. Pasternak’s prose (and kudos to the translators for doing such a beautiful job) is wonderful, it was just the main character and the plot that I didn’t enjoy. The poetry at the end was what lifted this book back up to 3* for me – and maybe it’s the poetry which makes me even slightly agree with the sentiment of this being one of the greatest love stories ever told.

So yes, unfortunately this book didn’t quite hit me how I hoped it would. It wasn’t bad, and I can understand why so many people love it, but for me the clunky dialogue and a series of unlikely coincidences detracted from the enjoyable bits. Still, I’m glad I read it.

 

Review: Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens

021 - Little Dorrit

021 - Little Dorrit

Rating – 4*

After Britain being covered in snow last week, and not being able to go to work because I had 2 foot of the stuff outside, it seemed only appropriate to dig a Dickens’ novel off of my shelf. Cold snaps like that, I thought, are very Dickensian, which is why I picked this up. When it’s cold out I always feel more inclined to read a classic, something about them is cozy and comforting, no matter what the subject and I felt like a big book after reading so many shorter ones last month, so I chose Little Dorrit.

Little Dorrit follows the intertwining stories of Amy ‘Little’ Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Amy was born in Marshalsea Prison – a notorious Debtors Prison. Amy is the youngest of three children – and as with all books by Dickens we get a real insight to the entire family and all their faults (of which there are many!) As with a lot of Dickens’ female protagonists she is pure of heart, but while she is quite ‘innocent’ and childlike I do think she is actually one of his more rounded female characters because she isn’t absolutely flawless. Arthur returns to London, after living abroad with his father who has recently died, to live with his disabled mother – as with the Dorrit family, you get a real insight in to all of the characters from his mother to the maids and each of them, while a little cartoonish, have their own personality.

I really enjoyed this. I found the development of Amy believable, I found the relationships between the characters believable (to a degree) but I also found the ‘moral’ of the story a good one. Money doesn’t always buy happiness, and I really liked this take on it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character like Amy in, and I think that’s why I’m slowly growing to love Dickens – his characters are the other side of historical society and the voices that rarely got heard. I think I understand why his books are considered classics, and why they were just as loved when they were published as they are now.

The reason I gave this book 4 stars is that while I liked it, it didn’t grab me quite as much as Bleak House did. I feel it unfair to compare every Dickens novel to Bleak House but I find it really hard not to! It’s up there, it is, it was a blooming good read and I’m glad I finally got around to it. It just didn’t quite meet the 5 star mark for me!

Review: Felix Holt, The Radical – George Eliot

004 - Felix Holt

004 - Felix Holt

Rating: 4*

It’s no secret that I think George Eliot is one of the most incredible female authors of all time, and Felix Holt: The Radical only solidifies my feelings. It was the last full-length Eliot work I had to read, and while it was by no means my favourite of her books it was an enjoyable read, and very relevant in today’s political climate – something which I really wasn’t expecting.

This book is set around the Reform Act of 1832 and the local politics of the fictional town of Treby Magna. If there’s one thing Eliot can do it is capture a small town absolutely perfectly – she is so good at writing a novel which focuses in and around a whole community, with several people at the forefront of attention. As with Adam Bede though, the titular character isn’t really the main character (nor is he the most interesting), in fact as with all Eliot novels it is the female characters that take the crown as the most interesting character. Mrs Holt and Mrs Transome – the mothers of two of our main, male protagonists, are far more interesting than their respective sons. And Esther is, as with most of Eliot’s young, female protagonists, a young woman who want’s independence – she’s highly educated, some would argue too educated, for a preacher’s daughter in a small town.

Aside from it being a character study of life in a small town on the brink of political change, it does bring the question of do the electorate always get things right in to a Victorian setting. Obviously, that makes the book highly relevant to even today’s political climate – what with the result the electorates in the US and the UK in the last 18 months! Much as with today, the political climate is all over the place in this novel – the working class are frustrated and don’t agree with the ‘establishment’ but have no means to change it. Which is where radicalism came in to play. Felix Holt is one of our radicals, and he is an interesting character. He believes in empowering the working class from the bottom – starting with education. The coverage of the Reform Act is such a poignant reminder of how lucky so many of us are to have a vote. The Reform Act gave power to the people, not just land-owning, white men. Although it did still take 100 years for women to get an equal vote, education and the ability to vote was a start.

It is by no means her best book, and of her novels it definitely falls bottom-to-middle in my list of favourites but it was actually one of her most thought provoking for me personally. It falls in the middle of her career, and was succeeded by (arguably) two of her best books Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda – and that’s very clear for me when reading it.

So, if it wasn’t clear, while it was far from perfect, I can comfortably put it up there close, but not quite equalling, my two favourites – Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. I still want to re-read Middlemarch, because having read the rest of her works I do feel that that book will have a better impact on me. I will be doing a whole spotlight on my beloved George Eliot in the not so distant future, so if you’re interested, look out for that!

Review: In A Glass Darkly – J. Sheridan Le Fanu

051 - In A Glass Darkly

Rating – 3*

Firstly I will apologise as reviewing a book read over a month ago is quite a task for someone with memory problems! This is probably going to be quite brief because of it, but I think the fact I can’t remember much of it says everything about the content – it wasn’t overly memorable.

I can’t lie, I picked this collection up purely for Carmilla (lesbian vampires people. Lesbian vampires.) as I thought for the price it was a better deal – and while the stories in this collection were interesting, I can’t say they were entirely my cup of tea. In a way, I wish I wasn’t such a bargain hunter and just read Carmilla as a standalone because it was by far the stand out of the collection.

I can understand why the stories in here were ground breaking – they predate the more well known classic ‘horror’ novels like Dracula by over 20 years, which is frankly quite impressive. And in a time before electricity I can imagine that all of the stories in this collection were pretty terrifying, now they were more humorous than scary.

What I did enjoy is that all the stories were connected in that they were all found in the papers of Dr Martin Hesselius – a character who was a sort of hybrid between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the 19th Century – a strong belief in the occult but also in possession of a very level head and medical expertise. I found the voice quite an easy one to follow, while there were the typical, over wordy elements of 19th century literature I was able to plod along quite happily and read each story in one sitting without feeling tired (which is often the case with Victorian novels!)

On the whole though, this was a 3* read. I loved the first story – Green Tea – about a reverend and a demon monkey, and I loved Carmilla. Those two aside it was all very meh and forgettable – to the point where a month on they’re the only two stories I can remember in the collection.

If you like Gothic literature, or have an interest in lesbian vampires or demon monkeys, I’d definitely give this collection of short stories/novellas a go!

Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

049 - Dracula

Rating – 5*

Dracula has long been among books I class as my favourites. I first read it 10 years ago, when I was but a girl of 14 (reading that review back was horrifying, let me tell you) and I remember loving it. I’ve not read it since then, but it’s always been a book that has stuck with me, and when asked to name some of my favourite books I always say “Dracula” without hesitation. I read it because of all the Twilight hype, I hated that book so decided to read the ‘original’ vampire novel and I remember being swept away in the dark, mysterious lore that Stoker created – and the same happened all over again on this reread.

While I seem to have remembered a lot of the novel in the 10 year gap since my last reading, on reading it this time around I think a lot of it did go over my head. I did say in my review that I would have to read it back to fully appreciate it, it seems that 14 year old me actually knew I was in over my depth because I definitely enjoyed it more this time around.

One major change in my opinion in 10 years is the fact I absolutely loved the fact this novel was epistolary this time around. The fact it was told through letters and journal entries, it builds such a better picture and you see each character through different sets of eyes. The story has so many layers in being told this way, because there is overlapping between the characters narratives. I’ve never been one for an epistolary novel, but Dracula certainly nails it. The story really works told in the way it was, and I honestly don’t think that a traditional narrative would have given the story such a profound impact, or even the longevity.

I can say without any hesitation this is one of my favourite books, and I feel I can say it with more confidence as I have read it both as a teenager and an adult without any change in my feelings towards it. I can see it becoming a book I reread quite a lot in my future, as it is a perfect, Autumn read when enjoyed with a cozy blanket, pyjamas and a cup of coffee.

Review: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

040 - War and Peace

This is the only book I’ve read for the best part of two months. It’s been a journey, it’s been long and difficult but I am so, so glad to have finally read this gargantuan book. I stuck with the schedule in the Goodreads group that was on, which really did impact my enjoyment I feel. I think I could have enjoyed it more if I had read more when I had momentum rather than sticking to the 6ish chapters a day to get through it.

It’s not going to be a long review, or even much of an overview, because trying to pin my thoughts down is nearly impossible and something I don’t feel I can do after just one read. This is a book I know I will want to read again in the future – not immediately, but in a couple of years for sure. Only then do I think I’ll be able to give a more rounded view.

I’m not going to go in to depth because honestly, I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of the finer points. Two months is a long time to be stuck in the same book and reading about the same people, and I did feel completely entwined with their lives, but come the end of the book I was tired of the company. I fell in love and out of love with so many characters; those we see through to the end I have such conflicting feelings towards.

There are a lot of issues for me; mostly in how women are represented in the book. I know many people use the excuse of “well it was just the done thing in that time period” – yes, I know, but it still makes me angry because there are so many interesting women in this book who were just objects or tropes, while they did have character I felt the women a lot more stereotypical than the men which, for me, just lessened my enjoyment. That is especially true given the nature of Anna in Anna Karenina – because she’s a pretty great female character, and knowing Tolstoy could create her just makes me frustrated with the endings the women got in this.

As for the story, I loved the ‘peace’ sections of the book; I loved following the lives of so many varied people in a period of history I know so very little about. The lack of knowledge of the history is something I know I want to fill at least a little bit before I reread the novel if only so I can understand the ‘war’ segments of the book a little more fully. For me, they dragged and I lost interest and motivation, which in turn made the whole book a lot more of a chore than an enjoyment.

It’s not my favourite Russian classic I’ve read. I preferred both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment – both of which are long, but not quite this long. And if I am entirely honest, if I am going to dedicate 2 months of my life to a book and read over 1200 pages, I want it to blow me away much like The Count of Monte Cristo or Bleak House – and keep me engaged, make me want to keep going, which this just didn’t unfortunately.

Ultimately, I’m not going to be rushing back to it in the immediate future, but I am so proud of myself in actually finishing it. It’s one of those books I have wanted to read for an absolute age, and to say I’ve finally done it is just such an achievement. While I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I had hoped, I think the satisfaction in reading it far surmounts anything I’ve felt from reading a book in a long time. It’s also made pretty much every other book in existence much less daunting to approach!

Also, this was the last book in my 50 books of 2017 challenge on goodreads – so I don’t even care it took me 2 months!

Review: Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

037 - Crime and Punishment

Rating – 5*

Trying to compose a review for this book has been difficult because it is so momentous, and so fantastic, I’m struggling to find words. Finishing this book felt like an achievement, there’s not many books I can honestly say that about (Bleak House, Anna Karenina and The Count of Monte Cristo are the only others which come to mind, all of which are nearly twice the length of this).

I have to admit, I was a little scared going in to this book. It’s not that it was the longest book I’ve read – it was 520ish pages. It wasn’t even that it was translated. I think, for me, this book just has such a place on the literary cannon that I felt scared that I wasn’t going to like it.

The first time I heard of this book I was about 14 or 15, I was watching a TV show on the BBC called My Life In Books and Sue Perkins mentioned Crime and Punishment as one of her favourites. Now I love that woman and I knew, from that day, I was going to read that book. I tried, when I was younger, but I didn’t have the patience for it. I thought it was pretentious and hard work, so I threw it aside. Until this month where I picked it up and could scarcely put it down.

Crime and Punishment is simply the best character study I’ve read. Raskolnikov, our main character, is a young man, formerly a law student who was unable to continue studying due to the poverty he finds himself in. In order to remove himself from that poverty, he commits a crime and this book follows the fall out of that. As a reader you follow him in to the darkest pits of despair, the punishment is the mental torture that he finds himself going through after committing the crime. Raskonikov is on the brink of insanity for a large portion of this book, and as a reader that’s a very intense place to be. However, even though what he does is heinous, as a reader I still felt compelled to have empathy for him, he was not inherently a bad man he just made a bad choice and in spite of it all I was rooting for him.

This book is about so much more than Raskolnikov, his sister is one of my new favourite supporting characters in a book. Dunya seems on the surface to be meek and mild, but she’s pretty amazing in her own right and I’d have loved more from her perspective if I’m honest. Aside from his sister there are numerous interesting characters, who there is such depth to that they just jump from a page. The names do get a bit complicated – some go by 3 or 4 different names, but I soon found myself adapting and recognising each by their personality more than anything else.

There is a lot of navel gazing in this book, a lot of it is philosophical thoughts or long monologues but I found myself actually enjoying that. Some probably would say it’s a bit pretentious, 14/15 year old me certainly did! But I loved it, and honestly it’s one of the most readable classics I’ve read in a long time – I found myself constantly wanting to read “just one more chapter” – but I paced myself a bit so I could properly process what I was reading and enjoy it to it’s maximum.

I think a lot of my enjoyment has to be due to the translation because this flowed so, so well for me. I am intending to read War and Peace over the next couple of months, and this book has me so excited for that because it’s done by the same translators and I really love what they’ve done with Dostoyevsky, I can’t wait to see how they handle Tolstoy. Based on my enjoyment of this I may have to go back and re-read Anna Karenina.

Naturally, this was a 5* read. And it has actually changed my perspectives on some of the other books I’ve read this month! I honestly think this is going to be one of those books which stays with me for a long time; I know I’ll be thinking of it quite a lot over the coming weeks!

Also, just a side note, if anyone is interested in the TV show with Sue Perkins that I mentioned above, it is still available (at time of writing) on BBC iPlayer. So if you are able to get BBC iPlayer, it can be accessed here and she begins talking about Crime and Punishment at around 6:55.

Review: My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

034 - My Cousin Rachel

Rating – 5*

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you will know of my unyielding love of Daphne du Maurier. She’s probably my favourite author of all time. This is one of the few of her books that I have read more than once, though my first – and only previous read – was at least 6 years ago! As a result, rereading this was like reading a whole new book and I absolutely loved it.

Our narrator, Philip, was orphaned at a young age and grew up with his Uncle Ambrose running a family farm on the Cornish coast. Due to his ailing health as he ages, Ambrose spends Winter abroad and it is one Winter, in Florence, that he meets Rachel. From there, we end up back in Cornwall and we go down a path of suspicion, intrigue, and quite honestly some madness.

I don’t want to give too much away, because the beauty of du Maurier’s work is the mystery and the intrigue that’s there, it’s that what keeps you turning the pages. Come the end, you still don’t really know what happened and it is up to you as a reader to decide what the truth is. Daphne du Maurier masters the unreliable, and at times dislikeable, narrator in this book. Philip is misogynistic, he is rash and harsh at times but throughout it all I did feel empathy for him and I did connect with him.

The titular character, much like in Rebecca, remains a bit of an enigma. Even at the end you never know her true motives, what she’s done, what she is intending to do. She is described as petite and delicate, but she can command a room better than any of the men in this book! At times I loved her, at times I loathed her, and by the end of the book I still don’t know which of those feelings is overriding.

I never thought I’d say this, but I may have enjoyed this more than Rebecca. Throughout the entirety of the novel there is tension and suspense which I have loved in all of du Maurier’s work. The ambiguity is also there, which is something I felt was mastered in this book compared to Rebecca – which while good did have undertones which if you look hard enough point you in the right direction. As a reader I was constantly swaying between theories, I didn’t know which characters to believe, which to doubt and that was happening throughout the book on the basis of individual sentences and intonations.

Honestly, this book is a masterpiece from my point of view. I’m maybe a bit bias in that du Maurier can rarely do wrong in my eyes, but this book had me on tenterhooks and I read it in 2 sittings. I could have read it in one, had I not needed to sleep. I adored this – and it has me so excited to finish reading du Maurier’s bibliography.

Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

026 - Wives and Daughters

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.