back to the classics challenge 2012

Back To The Classics Challenge 2012 – Completion

I love the classics and I loved this challenge. It wasn’t hard but things could have been easier if I wasn’t so pressed for time in 2012. Thanks to  Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much for hosting it!

Completed Books: 1. A Classic Play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. William Shakespeare.

2. Read a Classic set in a Country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime  – Twelfth Night. William Shakespeare.

3. Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction – The Big Bow Mystery. Israel Zangwill.

4. Reread a classic of your choice – The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

5. Read a Classic that has been translated from its original language to your language – Aslauga’s Knight. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. 

6. Any 20th Century Classic – The Railway Children. Edith Nesbit.

7. Any 19th Century Classic – Bleak House. Charles Dickens

8. Classic Award Winner  The Plague. Albert Camus.

9. Classic Romance – Evelina. Fanny Burney.

Evelina by Fanny Burney

Cover - Evelina

Frances Burney (1752 – 1840) or more popularly Fanny Burney was an English novelist and playwright. Her sharp wit and keen observation prowess were celebrated in her own time.

Evelina: Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World was first published in 1778. At that time period it was unthinkable for a woman to become a published author. Fearing negative publicity and the wrath of her father Burney first published Evelina anonymously.

Evelina is an epistolary novel. It tells the story of Evelina, a naive young woman from an isolated village, as she takes her first steps outside her sheltered home to the great big world. Through a series of lengthy letters her trials and tribulations, often funny and sometimes unpleasant, are related to the readers. A satirical version of the norms and fashions of the 18th century English society serves as a background to Evelina’s adventures.

Burney’s writing reminded me very much of Jane Austen’s (1775 – 1817) works. Austen was said to have been an admirer of Frances Burney’s books. In fact, the title for Austen’s celebrated Pride and Prejudice apparently comes from the final pages of Burney’s novel Cecilia.

This is a lengthy book but it didn’t feel long. I fairly flew through it.

The book does contain some irritating qualities. There is a certain repetitiveness in the untoward situations Evelina keeps getting into. Even the dialogues and the way she gets rescued are the same. The only saving grace is she mostly saves herself by running away from her tormentors (even though it does seem a little unbelievable after a while). If she was the type of heroine who depends on a man to rescue her every time and faints at the drop of a hat, I would have hated this book.

Among the main characters the protagonist, Evelina, is good. Her character does have the requisite ‘good woman’ traits but she is not irritating like so many other classic heroines.

Most of the male characters are reckless or boorish or both. The only two exceptions are Reverend Villars and Lord Orville. But they are more like cardboard cut-outs than real characters. Sir Clement Willoughby should be labelled as the villain of this piece but his character does have some ambiguous traits. The character of Mr. Macartney feels superfluous.

Both the characters of Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan I didn’t much care for. They are both insufferable. The way Captain Mirvan treats Madame Duval is outrageous to say the least. The Branghtons are more caricatures than anything else and some of the situations involving them are funny but they are infuriating nevertheless.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Evelina. This is my kind of book. A classic with a simple story, good characters and a happy ending. Recommended.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House by Charles Dickens was published as a serial during 1852-1853 and as a book in 1853.

Bleak House is the story of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a cripplingly long case running at the Court of Chancery. Young lives wither away, people lose themselves and their lives but Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags on. It is also the story of Esther Summerson and the secret behind her birth that ultimately brings about the ruin of a noble family.

I love Charles Dickens and I really wanted to read Bleak House for a long time. But I kept putting it off because I was afraid of lugging around this mammoth of a book. At over 1036 pages, this is now officially the longest book I have ever read. But the book didn’t feel long. I enjoyed reading it and didn’t notice how long it was taking me to finish it.

Dickens’ biting satire on the futility of the British judiciary system especially the system of Chancery is simply brilliant! At times the senselessness of it all made me burst out in laughter and at times it made me sad.

After finishing Bleak House, I realized how dark the book actually is. It has the typical Dickensian comic moments (for example, the antics of the Jellyby family and the Smallweed family, Mr and Mrs. Snagsby’s married life, Mr. Guppy’s romantic adventures; etc) but all of them have darker undertones. The Jellyby children are dreadfully neglected and some of that neglect borders on child abuse. The Smallweeds are grasping and cruel people. Mr. Snagsby is an unhappy man. Mr. Guppy is pompous and greedy.

Bleak House is essentially a character driven novel. All of the characters, even the minor ones, play an important part. I would have loved to discuss all of the characters of the book but of course that’s not entirely possible.

Esther Summerson is one of Bleak House’s main narrators and central characters. She is the archetypal ‘good’ Victorian woman, dutiful, ever understanding, uncomplaining and patient. She is so angelically good that she is awfully bland. However, I liked Esther. She is better than those whimpering, fainting and naive heroines that were so widespread in Victorian fiction. Esther’s romance with Allan Woodcourt reminded me of Jane Austen’s stories.

And once again Dickens’ love for curly, golden haired but dim-witted young women comes to the fore! Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities and Dora Spenlow from David Copperfield are other sterling examples of this species. This time the gold haired young woman is named Ada Clare. Esther serves as a mouth piece for Dickens and remains unnaturally attached to Ada. We are told innumerable times how pretty Ada is, how golden her hair is, how angelic she is; etc, etc. The good news is Ada is less insufferable than Dora Spenlow(Oh how I hated her!) and a bit more proactive than Lucie Manette.

Richard Carstone is the average inept, short-sighted man who ruins not only himself but also his family. Even though Dickens paints him in a sympathetic light there is not much to like about him in my opinion.

The lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn is an opportunistic and often cruel man who barely flinches while blackmailing and ruining people’s lives. He is one of the best literary villains I have ever come across. Dickens certainly shows no love towards lawyers as Mr Tulkinghorn along with Mr. Vholes are two of the most despicable characters of Bleak House (although Grandpa Smallweed and family certainly give them a run for their money).

Harold Skimpole is an irritating character. Every time he came into the pages with his constant refrain “I am a child…” I felt a strong urge to smack him!

Sir Leicester Dedlock started out as an old aristocratic man without much depth but his behaviour near the end of the book surprised me. Lady Dedlock’s secret past life is a major plot point but I felt her character lacked depth.

Dickens, as usual, creates vividly alive settings for his story. The ugly squalidness of Krook’s shop and lodging, the miserable existence at Tom-All-Alone‘s and of course the eponymous Bleak House, all create the perfect background for his long, multithreaded tale. I could actually see those places with my mind’s eye. That is one of the reasons I love reading Dickens’ books so much.

Bleak House was a long but worthwhile reading experience. It is now definitely among my top three books by Dickens.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

Lately I have been making up for lost time. Growing up, I have missed out on a lot of children’s classics. The Railway Children is one of them.

The Railway Children written by Edith Nesbit was serialised in The London Magazine in 1905. It was published in book form in 1906.

After their father is sent to prison, siblings Bobbie (Roberta), Peter and Phyllis along with their mother move into a house near a railway station. The railway station soon becomes the focus of the children’s lives as they become friendly with the local people and the mysterious ‘Old Gentleman’ who always rides the 9:15 down train.

I liked how the children in the book seem real. They do have a lot of adventures and are at times insufferably good but they are also impatient and immature a lot of the time. Things like their everyday fights and trivial shenanigans are also given importance in the narrative. Like the exchange between Peter and Bobbie after Peter gets hurt during their fight over a rake or Phyllis’s honest (and often hilarious) thoughts and opinions on things,

‘He called me un-un-ungentlemanly,’ sobbed Phyllis. ‘I didn’t never call him unladylike, not even when he tied my Clorinda to the firewood bundle and burned her at the stake for a martyr.’

Nesbit was accused of plagiarism in 2011. Apparently a lot of the plot points of The Railway Children were very similar to that of The House by the Railway (1896) by Ada J. Graves. These accusations notwithstanding, I would love to read more of Nesbit’s books, particularly The Enchanted Castle.

Even though I might have enjoyed children’s classics such as The Railway Children more if I really were a child, I do still find joy in them. Other than a few parts (like the chapter The Pride of Perks) I have greatly enjoyed reading The Railway Children.

Aslauga’s Knight by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777-1843) was a German writer. His works mostly belong to the genres of romance and fantasy. Undine (1811) remains Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s most enduring work.

Fouqué’s writing influenced many. Louisa May Alcott and Robert Louis Stevenson were among those influenced by him. In her novels Little Women and Jo’s Boys, Undine is mentioned. In Jo’s Boys, there’s even an entire chapter called Aslauga’s Knight.

Aslauga’s Knight is an archetypal Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué story. Froda, a model knight, reads the century old legend of Lady Aslauga and falls in love with her. Soon he receives a visit from a spectre that is revealed to be the legendary Aslauga and he is bound forever with her.

The story has all the elements of a fairy tale. The brave knights, the fair princess, the wicked witch but at the same time this reads more like a horror story. Froda is in love with a dead woman, Aslauga. The vision of a ghostly Aslauga appears at every opportune moment. Sometimes it is loving but most of the time it seems a bit malevolent. The spectre both aids and hinders Froda. As long as is toiling for honour it helps him but as soon as he has any thoughts of a personal nature it thwarts his plans.

The ending is also, in keeping with the mood of the rest of the story, slightly dark.

The story is very short. It took me less than an hour to finish it. But somehow it didn’t seem short and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The story, despite its shortness, had so many different elements packed into it. Proclamations of love and friendship, songs, warfare, dark magic, ghosts and witches, all the ingredients of romance and fantasy, are abundant among its 50 or so pages.

The characters of young Edwald and the fair Hildegardis are unimpressive. Edwald comes across as a bit of a wimp.

The friendship between Froda and Edwald irritated me at times. It is overly romanticised. The flowery exchanges between them got on my nerves.

I enjoyed reading Aslauga’s Knight and would  recommend it to classic lit lovers, even though it is not really like what I had expected it to be. It is darker than I had anticipated. At times the over-righteousness of the characters annoyed me. But overall Aslauga’s Knight is a good, short read.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)