British

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.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James

M. R. James (1862–1936) was a scholar on the medieval period. He was the Provost of King’s College at Cambridge. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) is a collection of eight supernatural tales by him.

The edition I read contains only the original eight stories. Some editions of the book combine James’ 1911 book More Ghost Stories with it under the same title.

The book opens with Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A man is persuaded to buy a strange manuscript volume with an odd looking illustration. Soon he finds out why the sellers were so keen on getting rid of the book.

In Lost Hearts, a young boy is disturbed by visions of two children in terrible distress, looking for their missing hearts.

The Mezzotint is the story of a painting that reveals a dark secret about a country house’s past.

The Ash-tree is a morbid tale of witchcraft and vengeance from beyond the grave.

In Number 13 a man staying at a hotel decides to investigate the mysterious, and apparently non-existent, room number 13.

Count Magnus recounts the unfortunate story of a traveller who in his mischievousness sets free a terrifying monster from the past.

In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ an academic finds a strange whistle on the beach and ends up questioning his long held scepticism.

The final story of the collection is The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. A priest goes in search of the hidden treasure of Abbot Thomas but what he finds is more than he can handle.

I cannot really pinpoint my favourites but I liked Number 13 and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.  Some stories like Lost Hearts, The Ash-tree and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas were rather sickening.

Most of the stories are very, very similar. A lonely scholar goes to visit a rural area; he finds ‘something’, foolishly tampers with it and unleashes some kind of dreadful being in the process. In some stories his friends come to his rescue, in others he has to face his doom. In other words, the stories are predictable. You’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

Having said that it doesn’t mean I was not spooked by the stories at all. Some like The Mezzotint, Count Magnus and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ were fairly creepy.

M. R. James’ brand of horror is very subtle. The supernatural events and beings, barring a few exceptions, are fully revealed. However, the effect of the events on the characters’ minds is vividly portrayed in each of the stories.

On the whole, I can say Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a good Halloween read. It may not be ‘blood curdling’ scary but it provides a few good chills along the way.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

A desperate group of men want to eliminate one of the most influential leaders of the world. An elusive killer waits for one last big hit before retiring from his dark calling. When their paths cross disaster is undoubtedly around the corner.

Published in 1971, The Day of the Jackal’s heady mix of fact and fiction makes it a pioneer of the thriller genre.

It took me quite a while to get into the story. Some parts of the book are really boring which is not a good sign for a thriller. In addition, the book at times feels kind of dated. This feeling comes not so much from the story (which is innovative for its time) but rather from the way Forsyth ‘tells’ it.

The most interesting parts of the book were those focusing on the inexorable Jackal’s swift movements through France.

Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel’s patient, unexciting routine investigation provides a good balance against the equally patient but cold-blooded preparations of Jackal.

I liked how the changes in the Jackal’s appearances are detailed. It was like I was watching it all unfold right in front of me. Forsyth focuses quite a bit of attention on how the colour of the Jackal’s eyes change with changes in his moods. It is kind of the only ‘sign of life’ his character ever shows. I found that to be rather intriguing.

In my mind there weren’t much difference between the good and the bad in The Day of the Jackal. The good guys are almost as ruthless as the bad guys. They kidnap, torture and murder without batting an eyelid. A torture scene in the first part, Anatomy of a Plot, I found to be particularly nauseating!

The twist at the end is in keeping with the mood of the rest of the story. I liked it. I guess the twist is nothing novel nowadays but it must have been so when the book was originally published.

Overall, The Day of the Jackal is a good thriller. Recommended as a classic of the thriller genre.

The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham

At the edge of the estate of The Beckoning Lady there lies a dead man. The timing couldn’t be worse as it is just before Minnie and Tonker Cassand’s big party. It’s a good thing that Albert Campion is a friend of the Cassands. Campion investigates while the preparations for the party of the year go on in full swing.

The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham was published in 1955. In the US the book was published under the title The Estate of the Beckoning Lady.

Starting smack in the middle of a series is never a good idea. The Beckoning Lady is the fifteenth novel in Allingham’s Albert Campion series. I know I am probably missing a lot of the background information. Besides I am not used to Allingham’s style of story telling. But I always read what I can find. When I found this book I decided to read it first of all because it fit in perfectly with my 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge’s Golden Age Girls category. Secondly, the book synopsis intrigued me.

Margery Allingham’s writing style doesn’t suit me well. I found her writing kind of confusing. It was as if I were in a dream, where the people were speaking in a language I knew and yet I couldn’t understand them.

The plot felt thin and at the same time bewildering. All the details about tax, property, ominous little men, dead elderly relatives, sending signals through flower bouquets; etc, etc left me feeling bored and puzzled.

I didn’t enjoy the relationship between Minnie and Tonker Cassand. They fight a lot and their fights left me feeling irritated. Tonker is responsible for a lot of the trouble in Minnie’s life and to top it all off he beats her on more than one occasion. Now maybe beating your wife was okay back in the 50’s but I am still not okay with it.

The preparation for Tonker and Minnie’s extravagant party takes up most of the narrative, the details of which left me exhausted. Why must the party go on despite multiple deaths is beyond me.

The actual crime, criminal and the motive behind it left me feeling unsatisfied. After spending so many dreary days reading a rather disjointed narrative with characters I didn’t really care about the solution seemed inadequate.

The book’s conclusion is odd. People casually forging evidence and letting things slide is just a bit too much.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy my first Margery Allingham. The narrative was disjointed and the solution unsatisfactory. I don’t feel to eager to continue with the adventures of Albert Campion.