Victorian Challenge 2012

Victorian Challenge 2012 – Completion

Another challenge finished only with hours to spare! I had finished most of the books for this challenge long before but got stuck with the last book. Well, I have finished the challenge and am glad to have participated. 🙂

Completed Books: 1. The Big Bow Mystery. Israel Zangwill.

2. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

3. The Prestige (2006). (Movie set during the Victorian era)

4. In the Fog. Richard Harding Davis.

5. Bleak House. Charles Dickens.

6. Framley Parsonage. Anthony Trollope.


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.

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis

In the Fog (1901) is a mystery novella by Richard Harding Davis. Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was an American journalist and popular fiction writer at the turn of the century.

At the exclusive Grill Club, five strangers have gathered. In order to prevent the mystery loving Sir Andrew from making a speech in the parliament, the other four hatch an ingenious plan. They will give Sir Andrew a real life mystery to deal with, a mystery that has even the Scotland Yard baffled. Each member will provide a piece of the puzzle, the final piece of which will ultimately lead to the solution.

In the Fog, quite obviously, reminded me of the Arabian Nights. The aim of the stories is to keep Sir Andrew occupied much like it was Scheherazade’s intention to keep King Shahryār occupied. Also, a lot of the tales from the Arabian Nights are framed like this where one person tells one part of the story with another one filling in with another part.

I am kind of surprised with how much I have enjoyed this. I usually do not enjoy early detective fiction. Most of them feel disjointed to me but In the Fog has a definite structure to it. The story managed to keep me engrossed.

The description of a house where most of the occupants lay dead as an impenetrable fog engulfs the entire city was creepy. If you are lost in the fog and accidentally find yourself in such a house keeping your nerve steady must be one of the toughest things ever!

The end also did not disappoint me. The final twist worked for me.

The novella is really short and as I was totally gripped by the narrative, it took me under an hour to finish it.

On the whole, I can say that I enjoyed reading In the fog much more than I thought I would. Recommended for all mystery buffs.

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

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(The review may contain some mild *spoilers*)

When I was 13-14 years old, I received Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories (Volumes 1 & 2) as a gift. I started reading Volume 1 and before long I was hopelessly hooked. Thus, began my lifelong love for the genre of Mystery.

Re-reading The Hound of the Baskervilles has reinforced one of my old convictions; I love the Sherlock Holmes stories but the novels? They leave me feeling quite underwhelmed.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1902. It was serialised in The Strand Magazine in 1901-1902.

Set in the year 1889, The Hound of the Baskervilles tells the story of a family haunted by the legend of a supernatural hound. The previous owner of Baskerville Hall is found dead under suspicious circumstances. His heir and the last of the Baskervilles, Henry Baskerville, is coming home after spending many years abroad.  Apprehensive for his safety, family friend Dr. Mortimer calls upon Sherlock Holmes and urges him to take the case. Will Sherlock Holmes be able to keep Henry Baskerville safe? Or will the legendary hound claim another victim?

The setting of the novel,Dartmoor, is like another character of the book. The bleak but beautiful moor is both dangerous and inviting. The entire novel is centred around the mysterious moor. The chilling climax of the story would be nothing without its setting. The way Conan Doyle describes the surroundings is also brilliant. I could feel the atmosphere of the moor; the dampness, the rising mist and the falling rain.

The climax is very good. The description of the approaching fog really helps enhance the sense of suspense.

Holmes and Watson are their usual effervescent selves. I never feel dull when these two appear together in any of the pages. For much of the novel Sherlock Holmes remains behind the scene while Dr. Watson takes centre stage. Without the presence of Holmes we, the readers, are even more in the dark.

Henry Baskerville is a bland character. It was hard for me to feel any sympathy for him. In fact, that is the problem with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Most of the characters are like nondescript entities. I just didn’t care about them. As I read the book I found my mind wandering away from their predicaments.

The bland characters and motivations that are shaky at their best (vague promises of marriage, roundabout ways of getting an inheritance; etc) is what makes me merely like but not love the book.

The Sherlock Holmes mysteries have a special place in my heart. These are what got me curios about mysteries in the first place. I read them as an adolescent and they captured my imagination like nothing else. I do like The Hound of the Baskervilles but I still prefer the stories to the novels.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

When Mrs. Drabdump fails to wake up her tenant Arthur Constant after hours of frantically trying, she seeks the help of her neighbour, retired detective George Grodman. Her worst fears come true when Arthur is found in his room with his throat slit open. But with the windows securely closed and the only door locked, how could Arthur have died? Is it a simple case of suicide? Or can there be a more sinister explanation?

As an avid mystery reader, I am interested in the origins of the genre. Locked room mysteries hold a certain fascination for me.

The Big Bow Mystery  (1892) by Israel Zangwill is often considered to be the first ‘true’ locked room mystery ever written.

 Israel Zangwill (1864 – 1926) was a political activist and humorist. Though not primarily a mystery author, his  The Big Bow Mystery continues to be an influential work in the genre of crime fiction.

Zangwill was a humorist. His wit shines brightly in some of the dialogues of the story.  For example, when Mrs. Drabdump philosophises about love and breakfast,

…she bore the tea-pot downstairs with a mournful, almost poetic, consciousness, that soft-boiled eggs (like love) must grow cold.

There is another hilarious passage about how people fight over the possibility that a monkey (à la The Murders in the Rue Morgue) could have committed the crime.

The detectives in the book are all too human and not the usual crime solving machines that generally populate stories like this. They seem more interested in stroking their egos than solving anything. Both George Grodman and Edward Wimp are not likeable. I found this approach to be interesting.

The characters of Denzil Cantercot and Peter Crowl irritated me. Their conversations often seemed pointless to me.

The narrative is wordy and full of digressions. It is full of dull speeches on politics, the class system, the working man’s problem; etc. If all of this had something to do with the story I wouldn’t mind but they don’t. Israel Zangwill was a very politically conscious person and he was not really a mystery writer anyway so I do understand the reason behind such deviations. But just because I understand it doesn’t mean I like it.

The solution is simply bizarre. It is unique but at the same time it left me feeling kind of annoyed and disappointed.

The solution left me feeling unsatisfied and the wordiness does not help the book either. But I am glad I read The Big Bow Mystery as it occupies an important place in the origin of crime fiction. Overall, a so-so experience.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.