little known classics

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.

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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 Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy

Today Baroness Orczy is mostly remembered as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel but she also wrote quite a few mysteries. The Old Man in the Corner (1909) is possibly the best known among her mysteries.

Polly Burton, a young reporter, encounters a strange old man at a tea shop. He offers simple solutions to the most perplexing of unsolved mysteries. All the while the man toys with a piece of string, making knots and unravelling them. Annoyed by the man’s smugness but at the same time fascinated by his solutions Miss Burton keeps visiting the tea shop, as a new mystery is unravelled each time.

I had read The Fenchurch Street Mystery a long time ago in a mystery anthology. I wasn’t much impressed with it as I found it kind of dull. As a collection, Baroness Orczy’s mysteries, with an interconnecting central narrative, work better.

The Old Man in the Corner contains twelve short mysteries, The Fenchurch Street Mystery, The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace, The York Mystery, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway, The Liverpool Mystery, The Edinburgh Mystery, The Theft at the English Provident Bank, The Dublin Mystery, An Unparalleled Outrage, The Regent’s Park Murder, The de Genneville Peerage and The Mysterious Death in Percy Street.

Most of the mysteries are easy to figure out once you’ve read the first few stories. After a while I managed to pin point the culprit pretty easily. I read on only to find out how they did it.

Many of these mysteries are rather twisted. I say twisted because none of the criminals are caught or punished by the authorities. The eponymous old man’s sympathies lie mostly with the criminals and he shows unconcealed delight as the criminals get away with their crimes. Also, there is something gruesome about many of the stories. For example, the murders in The Fenchurch Street Mystery, The Dublin Mystery and The de Genneville Peerage. Some of the perpetrators, like those in The York Mystery and The Edinburgh Mystery, are abnormal people with a warped view of love and loyalty.

Among the stories The Fenchurch Street Mystery, The York Mystery, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway, The Edinburgh Mystery, The Theft at the English Provident Bank, The Dublin Mystery and The de Genneville Peerage are pretty good. Mysteries like The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace, The Liverpool Mystery, An Unparalleled Outrage and The Regent’s Park Murder are pretty bland. The last story, The Mysterious Death in Percy Street, left me surprised.

The end of the central narrative left me fairly shocked. I really didn’t see this coming.

Overall, I enjoyed The Old Man in the Corner. I would definitely want to read more of Baroness Orczy’s mysteries.

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

The Lodger by Marie Adelaide Belloc

*The following review may contain spoilers.*

The Lodger was published in 1913. It is arguably the most well known work of its author Marie Adelaide Belloc (1868 – 1947). The Lodger famously became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), although the movie differs somewhat from the book.

The new lodger at the Buntings’ home is a dream come true. So generous with money and such a gentleman! He is just what Robert and Ellen Bunting needed. So what if he is a little ‘eccentric’? Surely, he means no harm. Or does he?

The Lodger strangely oppressed me. It’s not so much the crimes but just the unbearable suspense of it all. Is the lodger the serial killer everyone is looking for?  Will some harm come to the Bunting family?

I don’t understand Ellen’s attitude. Why does she become so agitated? Why does she want to know for sure and yet tries to ignore the possibility of her lodger being a serial killer & tries to cover for him? If it was fear, I would have understood. If it was pure sympathy for the lodger, that could be explained too. But she shows both repulsion and compassion. All her life she had maintained her distance from ‘crudities’ such as murder. She wouldn’t even let her husband talk about them. But her tenderness for the lodger contradicts all that. She forgets her scorn for crimes & criminals and becomes unhealthily obsessed with the ghastly murders in spite of herself.

The characters of Robert and Ellen Bunting are interesting. The way they both react to their forebodings about the lodger was interesting to read. Their dilemma also stems from the fact that the lodger had brought them the financial security that they needed so badly. But surely no amount of money can ever make up for the fact that they are harbouring a possible serial killer?

The characters of Robert’s pretty but vacuous daughter Daisy and his young friend Joe Chandler seemed promising but nothing comes of them. I thought the young policeman Chandler would turn out to be useful somehow but he simply spends his time wooing Daisy, who in her turn contributes very little to the story.

The book builds up the suspense and keeps building it up until I felt as jumpy as Ellen Bunting! The part that really creeped me out was when Robert Bunting bumps into his lodger in the streets after midnight.

The book got on my nerves after a while. It stretches on and on and Ellen keeps getting worse and worse. How much more of that could I take? I longed for the conclusion.

After so much nerve-wracking suspense nothing really comes of it. The ending felt very abrupt. I kept anticipating some terrible ending to Ellen’s unfounded sympathy for her lodger but that never comes.

Overall, reading The Lodger was a weirdly unsatisfying experience. The suspense quotient of the story was so high at times that I couldn’t breathe but in the end it was all rather hastily wrapped up. The book made me feel strangely depressed and discontented. I don’t think I will be re-reading this one.

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

The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The After House written by American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was published in 1914.

Ralph Leslie, a young doctor, is recovering from a bout of Typhoid. Partly to earn some money and partly to stay close to a girl he has espied through his hospital window, he gets a job on board a yacht named Ella. What promised to be a tranquil voyage soon turns into a nightmare as three of Ella’s passengers are found hacked in to pieces. With land nowhere in sight, the crew of Ella do all they can to reach the nearest port before the unknown assailant strikes again.

I read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase (1908) last year and was not impressed. I still decided to give Rinehart another chance. I must say that I enjoyed The After House more than The Circular Staircase.

The atmosphere created by Rinehart is perfectly chilling! After the multiple homicides occur, I could totally feel the fear felt by the crew and the passengers.

I also loved the supernatural touch Rinehart added to the story. Floating in the lonesome sea on an isolated boat with dead bodies on board, people are bound to be more than a bit inclined to believe in the paranormal. It was quite effectively scary.

I read a lot of Classic literature, Mystery and Detective novels especially Golden Age Mysteries. By now I should get used to the attitudes from a different era. But for some reason I can’t. Racism and sexism bother me to no end. It gnaws at my brain until I cannot see straight. A lot of good and some very good mysteries are ruined by this problem of mine. The same problem plagues The After House.

In the story the protagonist treats the women like some sort of dumb dolls who should be protected from the ‘horrors’ of the crime at any cost. Most of the crucial evidence is cleared away so as not to offend their ‘delicate’ senses. They are ordered about and herded together like animals. They are portrayed as pigheaded individuals who see only one thing at a time and act accordingly. All of them want to protect one person it seems and they try to accomplish that by any means (destroying evidence, perjuring themselves, using their ‘feminine wiles’). I could understand if one of them was like that but nearly half a dozen women all acting alike is a bit too much to take.

And don’t even get me started on the racism! George Williams, the coloured butler, is used as a punching bag (both metaphorically and literally). He is portrayed as a cowardly snivelling fool. The ‘N’ word and ‘d…y’ are commonly used to describe him. This made me really uncomfortable and at times angry.

The romance, as usual, annoyed me. Well, at least the heroine wasn’t some pretty as a doll blonde who just says sweet things and faints. The conclusion of this romance is also unnecessary and irritating.

The court room scenes were pointless. They basically repeat everything we already know. I have seen Rinehart do this before in The Circular Staircase where the rather thin plot is stretched to the breaking point. She liked using fillers to draw out her stories it seems.

I enjoyed The After House more than The Circular Staircase but the two books share some common problems. Rinehart creates some really amazing spine chilling situations and parts of the books are great fun to read. But she also tries to extend her stories through tedious repetitions and needless twists, a practice that ultimately leaves the reader exasperated. I only wish her books stayed taut and thrilling throughout without all the superfluous parts. Then I definitely would have wanted to read more books by her.

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