Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Book #932

Reviewer: Ange P

NAI really enjoyed this, because I like light fluff.  Its much lighter than any other Austen novels. I also think that I enjoyed it so much because there is so much mockery of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I reviewed earlier.

I also think that Austen wrote Northanger Abbey to be ‘fun’ and it is fun, but its lack of deep themes and complex characters means that there is little to review. The fun is provided by mockery of romantic novels of the time and Austen did give my romantic streak a little shock right at the end, by letting her pragmatic spirit shine through with a truth that I couldn’t deny, but that I think every true romantic tries to ignore:

I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity…

The plot is pretty basic.  Catherine  goes to Bath with some family friends.  She doesn’t know anyone but soon makes some new acquaintances.  Soon her brother arrives and forms an attachment with one of Catherine’s new friends, causing Catherine to learn some much needed life lessons.  Catherine herself finds Mr Tilney of particular interest.  Catherine is invited by General Tilney to stay at the family estate, where she hopes to further her acquaintance with Mr Tilney.  However, she is quickly distracted by the mystery created by General Tilney’s demeanour and ‘odd’ behaviour.  This leads her into a bit of a scrape.  Soon after, General Tilney ejects her from the house.  Will she ever be reunited with Mr Tilney?

One of the most amusing aspects of Northanger Abbey was my realisation that teenagers being stupid and annoying and chattering away aimlessly is not a recent phenomenon.  They’ve been doing it forever.  And Austen really is one of the most talented authors I’ve ever read.  She provides a beautiful parody of teenagers that, 200 years later, I can still relate to.  How cool is that?

They met by appointment; and as Isabella had arrived nearly five minutes before her friend, her first address naturally was, ” My dearest creature, what can have made you so late? I have been waiting for you at least this age!”

“Have you, indeed! I am very sorry for it; but really I thought I was in very good time. It is but just one. I hope you have not been here long?”

“Oh! These ten ages at least. I am sure I have been here this half hour. But now, let us go and sit down at the other end of the room, and enjoy ourselves. I have an hundred things to say to you. In the first place, I was so afraid it would rain this morning, just as I wanted to set off; it looked very showery, and that would have thrown me into agonies! Do you know, I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine, in a shop window in Milsom Street just now—very like yours, only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green; I quite longed for it. But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning?”

I suspect that many readers would find Catherine annoying in her naivety.  But I found that Austen balanced her character beautifully by providing her with the ability to learn from her mistakes. At various times I cringed from her stupidity but at least Austen doesn’t let the situations drag on and on.

Austen’s comment on themes is:

I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.

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Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Book #902

Today’s book has the privilege of being a first for this blog – two reviews at the same time!  Many thanks to Ange P and Sweetp for the dual review.

Reviewer: Ange P

Warning 1: probably not a very helpful review, for reasons I explain below
Warning 2: there is a spoiler in one paragraph, which I have labelled.
Plot
The Earnslaw family brings up a young foundling, Heathcliff.  The daughter of the house, Cathy, and Heathcliff form a romantic attachment/grand passion, however, gradually Heathcliff finds that he is badly treated by all around him and he gradually becomes surly and sullen to all but Cathy.  When he believes that Cathy fails to return his love he runs away.  Cathy marries a neighbour, Edward Linton.
Heathcliff returns and sets himself up as a man of substance in the neighbourhood.  He plays on Cathy’s love for him regardless of her marriage and contributes to her gradual decline, followed by her death, giving birth to Linton’s child.
Heathcliff ardently resents Linton and in an effort to hurt Linton, marries his little sister, Isabella Linton.  In time, it is Heathcliff’s intention to revenge himself on all who have harmed him by completely damaging and destroying the next generation so that they are beyond redemption or happiness.
 Wikipedia’s Wuthering Heights entry has a selection of reviews from the time the novel was published and these were quite fascinating for people who like this type of thing.
Negative comments
Full of people being nasty to each other (gets a bit depressing).
Lacks a gripping climax.
Occasionally, I found the narrative techniques confusing so I wasn’t sure who was saying what.  There is a lot of indirect narration where the housekeeper tells a 15 year old story to a convalescent patient.
Positive comments
Amazing love story – never seen its like in literature before (and I’ve seen a read a lot of romantic fiction).  I just love this monologue from Cathy:
‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know who I love him; and that, not because hi’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’
Well written with few plot holes.
Atmospheric.
In many cases Wuthering Heights relies on human foibles such as kindness, or sympathy or a desire for material gain for plot development and this is a strength.  The foibles of Heathcliff, though, are so awful and unyielding that he is inhuman.
Summary:
I can’t get a grip on it, and I suspect that this is my failure rather than Emily Bronte’s.  It was a good read and I wanted to know what happened with it.  But I’m not sure I fully understood it all. Hence the general nature of this review.
[SPOILER:  I am particularly confused about why Heathcliff had a sudden change of heart about his revenge in the final two or three chapters. Was it because he knew he was going to be with Cathy again soon and he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the happiness of a young couple when he knew he would be restored to his love soon?  It seems so out of character.]
I’d love to know what other 1001 book people think of this novel and any guidance to help me get a grip on it will be gratefully received!

Reviewer: Sweetp

I actually finished this book sometime ago but have found myself procrastinating on writing a review -it’s somewhat intimidating to be writing a review for such a well-known classic!

Even if you have never read Wuthering Heights, you may well still recognize the names Heathcliff and Cathy. This dark and angst-ridden gothic novel is one of the most famous of the Bronte sisters’ works, and is perhaps the one that divides readers the most. If you do a quick internet search of reviews, you’ll find most people either fall into the love it, or the loathe it, camp.

Synonymous with windswept moors, heartbreak and misery, Wuthering Heights is not a happy book. The love story is not a sweet or ardent chaperoned romance, but a stormy obsessive love that consumes the lives of all involved. Heathcliff is not a gracious romantic figure, but is brooding, often cruel and is driven to the edge of insanity by his love for Cathy. Cathy is selfish, has a wicked temper and is often just as unlikeable as Heathcliff, and yet, despite often reflecting on how totally despicable all the characters in this novel are, I couldn’t help being swept away on their passion.

Because Wuthering Heights is at the heart of it, a novel about passion. Even if you hate everyone involved, it is hard not to be moved by the powerful emotions that make the characters who they are. Take Cathy’s speech about her love for Heathcliff:

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it…Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

Quite a declaration! Heathcliff too is totally consumed by Cathy, and when she decides to marry someone else it sets in motion a series of events that will see characters dying of broken hearts, driven to madness and the engineering of a most dreadful revenge on the next generation. Hate is just as a powerful motivator as love.

Dark and melodramatic this book certainly is  – with liberal sprinklings of violence and narcissism too. If you appreciate a bleak and gothic atmosphere, and flawed characters then this could be the classic read for you.

While I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, I can see why some people find this book difficult. The storytelling device itself is a little odd – an elderly housekeeper, Nelly, is telling the story to a visiting Mr Lockwood. Written before the use of third person omnipresent narrators, the style is a little clunky and at times confusing, and removes the reader somewhat from the intimacy of the story. This will be a roadblock for some readers. Add to the confusion the fact that there are two Cathys, the Linton and Heathcliff names are used both as a first name and as a family name and the similarities of the names Hindley, Heathcliff and Hareton, and it is easy to see why at times it is hard to keep it all straight.

Those that cannot get past the violence and the selfish nature of most of the characters will also find this book infuriatingly bleak. Others, like myself, will read it again, purely to wallow in the misery and angst. Perhaps it is one of those classics you simply have to read for yourself and decide whether it’s love or loathe. Either way, there is no denying that Wuthering Heights is a true classic, rightfully earning it’s place on the 1001 books list.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe

Book #948

Reviewer: Ange P


The Mysteries of Udolpho
is described as a Gothic novel.  It is filled with villains, mysteries and castles.  It has lashings and lashings of melodrama.

It is important to remember that it was written over 200 years ago and that the audience had very different expectations of entertainment than we have today.  But, only twenty years after The Mysteries of Udolpho was written, so was Pride and Prejudice and the difference between the quality of the two could not be more distinct.

Ann Radcliffe seemed to be interested in three things:

  1. a theme of being satisfied with your place in life
  2. a plot that involved as many twist and turns as possible
  3. alpine scenery

Pages and pages of the 600 are dedicated to setting out the prerequisites to a happy life.  And this comes back to avoiding the temptations provided by big cities, being benevolent and living quietly without ambition.  The first 50 odd pages of the book sets out how Emily and her family have achieved this.  I found it repetitive and sickening.  The impression was quickly formed that Emily was the author’s ideal of womanhood.  I did not need it repeated ad nauseam.

The plot.  A lot happens in the plot.  A lot.  I’m not going to try to set out the plot in any detail.  At a very high level.  Emily meets the hero Valencourt; both her parents die; she comes under the guardianship of her Italian uncle who owns the castle Udolpho.  They travel to Venice and the Italian uncle tries to marry her off to a Count.  Then, suddenly, she is whisked off to Udolpho and confronted with a range of badly behaved men and a range of mysteries and trials that would shake the resolution of a lesser woman.  She manages her way through her tribulations with tears and fainting fits. Her troubles are increased when it becomes apparent that Valencourt is not worthy of her admiration and love.  Despite a lot happening, the only interesting part was in Italy, which is the central third of the book. The parts in France take several pages to say nothing at all.

Finally, the scenery.  I tried to remind myself while reading the scenery sections that the book was written during a time without TV’s, cameras or magazines, let along travel that was affordable to the masses.  Therefore reading descriptions of scenery was the only way that many people could experience it.  I estimate that 20% of the book is devoted to scenic descriptions.  It is overwhelming.

I knew before I started this book that Emily was a watering pot and not a modern woman.  Her main weapons are tears and her integrity.  Consistent with the theme of the book, the integrity enabled her to come out on top.   I couldn’t even detect a hint of intelligence.  She has an annoying habit of being vague rather than specific that repeatedly creates issues.  She also makes ridiculous assumptions.

Many of these bad habits are obviously plot devices.  This was probably my biggest criticism, that I found the writing clumsy.  I did not consider it to be a well written, well structured novel. Emily would find out things that weren’t revealed to the reader; or the solution to a mystery was completely unrelated to the main plot, just a simple solution to a mystery that didn’t actually contribute to the story in any way at all.  Disappointing.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t think that Mysteries of Udolpho deserves its place on the list. And I would only recommend it to people interested in literature of that period such as Jane Austen aficionados.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Book # 825

Reviewer: Ange P.

Notice
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

So begins The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and if I obey the author my review will be limited in scope.  However Mark Twain tended to ignore rules he didn’t like and so I will follow his example rather than his dictates.

The character Huckleberry Finn was first introduced in Tom Sawyer, which I haven’t read for several years.  I remember him as a disreputable boy who liked to live wild with little respect for others.  In the beginning of this book that is the boy we meet, however by the end the character is much more developed and hence much more interesting without losing any of his charm.

The plot is that Huck escapes life with his father by pretending to be dead and sets off down the Mississippi in the company of an escaped slave, Jim.  He encounters many adventures on his travels including a feud between two families that has killed more people than anyone cares to remember; a band of murderous robbers on an abandoned steamboat; a floating house; a hopeful lynch mob; and a ‘duke’ and a ‘king’ who are two of the biggest charlatans you could ever be unlucky enough to meet.  The last two sell Jim, which upsets Huck mightily since he considers Jim to be ‘his slave’ or at least that of Jim’s escaped owner, a widow in Tom and Huck’s hometown.

And rights to own humans is what a fair chunk of this book is about.  Huck is under no illusions by the end that Jim is a friend, but he can’t let go of the fact that Jim is also someone’s property. Huck has been taught that his loyalty lies with the owner, but deep down inside he is uncomfortable.  Twain clearly outlines the moral choice presented to a good person in a society where the slave owner’s rights are paramount.  In the end Huck, abetted by Tom Sawyer. decides to help Jim escape from his imprisonment.

Twain also cleverly balances his (non) message with his sense of fun, which runs throughout the entire book.  In places I was laughing out loud – and that’s unusual.  Tom’s ‘help’ is more of a hindrance because of his insistence that all aspects of the escape must be consistent with tradition.  In particular, readers should watch out for the exchange between Tom, Jim and Huck about suitable animals to provide companionship to Jim during his interment.

…Tom thought of something, and says:

‘You got any spiders in here, Jim?’

‘No, sah, thanks to goodness I hain’t, Mars Tom.’

‘All right, we’ll get you some.’

‘But bless you, honey, I doan’t WANT none.  I’s afeard un um.  I jis’ ‘s soon have rattlesnakes aroun’.’

Tom thought for a minute or two, and says:

‘Its a good idea, And I reckon its been done.  It MUST have been done; it stands to reason.  Yes it’s a prime good idea.  Where could you keep it?’

‘Keep what. Mars Tom?’

‘Why, a rattlesnake.’

I have two minor criticisms of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The first is that some of the characters, while entertaining, are just too ridiculous and especially too credulous.  The second is that it took at long time for the book to develop a sense of direction.  This might be why Twain warned against looking for a plot.  There were no clear signposts of what was to come and I found this slightly disconcerting.

Overall, an excellent read with interesting thoughts to ponder and a great sense enjoyment.

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Book # 831

Reviewer: Ange

Welcome aboard to our newest reviewer, Ange.  She is about to take us on a rollicking sea-faring adventure.

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest –Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil did for the rest — Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Treasure Island was a surprisingly good read! In fact, it’s a rip roaring yarn! Because of its age I thought it would be difficult to read, but it moved along at a good pace and while there was some old fashioned language and syntax, the meaning can be easily discerned by a confident reader.

The basic plot is that Jim and his mother run an inn and a disreputable sailor comes to stay. The sailor is scared of outsiders – particularly a man with one leg. The sailor dies in unusual circumstances and Jim becomes the owner of a map – with an X marks the spot! So of course he and his companions risk life and limb to find the treasure. Sadly, one of his companions is less than perceptive and so hires a ship full of corrupt sailors. Luckily the Doctor and the ship’s captain are full of integrity and, when added to Jim’s courage and luck, a mighty battle ensues over mastery of the ship, Treasure Island and the Treasure itself. There are shootouts, bonfires, men marooned for years, booby traps,being cast adrift on the sea, drunkenness, skeletons and even a bit of digging for treasure.

The highlight for me was that the one legged man was Long John Silver, who I’ve heard of all my life, but I had failed to connect him to Treasure Island. In particular I was interested to see how many times he could change sides, how long he could retain control over the pirates and how many different plans he could have going at once. Stevenson’s handling of Long John Silver is perhaps most masterful because I know people with similar characteristics and so I could relate to him. And he really does have a parrot that cries: ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’

Treasure Island is justifiably famous. The imagery is good and Stevenson was great at adding atmosphere.

If the conduct of the men had been alarming in the boat, it became truly threatening when they had come aboard. They lay about the deck growling together in talk. The slightest order was received with a black look and grudgingly and carelessly obeyed… Mutiny, it was plain, hung over us like a thundercloud.

I found the baddies much more menacing than Voldemort.

‘Come now, march,’ interrupted he; and I never heard a voice so cruel, and cold, and ugly as that blind man’s. It cowed me more than the pain, and I began to obey him at once, walking straight in at the door and towards the parlour, where our sick old buccaneer was sitting, dazed with rum. The blind man clung close to me, holding me in one iron fist and leaning almost more of his weight on me than I could carry. ‘Lead me straight up to him, and when I’m in view, cry out “Here’s a friend for you, Bill.” If you don’t, I’ll do this,’ and with that he gave me a twitch that I thought would have made me faint. Between this and that, I was so utterly terrified of the blind beggar that I forgot my terror of the captain, and as I opened the parlour door, cried out the words he had ordered in a trembling voice.

I also found that compared to modern day writing the baddies were much more human by being bad for personal gain (when the risk was worth it), rather than just being evil for no reason at all.

I’m looking forward to reading Treasure Island aloud to my son when he is older.