Anthony Trollope, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Fiction, Literature, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 27


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable

The Warden is a little book with a big story.  It tells the tale of Mr. Harding, a clergyman and Warden of an almshouse in Barchester.  The twelve old men who live in this almshouse hear that they might be entitled to a certain monthly or yearly stipend, of which the Warden (and all wardens before him) has been keeping for himself.  The Church sinecure suddenly finds itself at the center of a larger public outcry against Church corruption in general, and our poor, good-hearted Warden, who wants nothing more than to follow the law and do what is right, even at the cost of his wealth and his employment, is exposed to great ridicule in the county newspapers, who care nothing for the truth or for Harding’s laudable attempts at settling issues amicably and fairly. 


Characterization:ng>
3 – Characters well-developed

Perhaps the greatest moment in the book is when the narrator is railing against purely evil and purely saint-like characters (in reference to Charles Dickens’s oft cut-and-dry characterization).  Trollope clearly appreciates characters who are more realistic, with elements of good and bad – shades of grey – within each.  He achieves this here, with the possible exception of Archdeacon Grantly, who seems to be, simply, a jerk.  Take, for example, Mr. Harding’s dear friend, the Bishop.  While he is a kind and generous man, he is also too soft, at times.  Mr. Harding, while genuine and honest, has a nervousness and self-consciousness which sometimes restricts him from confronting more forceful personalities, even when he knows he is right.  Harding’s daughter is devoted to her father, but in such a way as to be almost blinded to the possibility that he is capable of making mistakes, too.  So, each of the characters, the good and the bad, have elements of the opposite in them.  None are perfect – all are flawed.  This makes a believable story even more realistic, because every reader can find something of him/herself in these characters.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story

While the story was interesting and the characters were believable and fun, the narrative itself sometimes dragged.  Trollope’s style is not quite grandiose, but is somewhat dry and dense.  Trollope tends to take a mile to describe what could be explained in a yard – he will go on about, and revisit, the same scene or theme over and over again, so that it sometimes feels like the story is going nowhere or, while it is moving, it is moving in circles.  This made a rather short novel (about 180 pages) feel like a thick tome and it took far longer to read than would be expected.  It reminds one, in a way, of a less-flowery Proust or a less-suspenseful Radcliffe; Trollope, like these formers, is a writer who seems to like the sound of his own pen.    


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Trollope’s story is interesting, in that it simultaneously ridicules both the Church of England and the Church’s foes, the “reformers.”  One of the most delightful elements of the story is its use of satire and parody.  Readers will find, for instance, characters who have been enlarged for parodies sake, but who are distinctly recognizable as popular writer-reformers of the period (he pulls no punches against Charles Dickens, for example, in his characterization of “Mr. Popular Sentiment”, and he does the same of Carlyle, who is written in as “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.”  Apparently, Trollope is well-known for satirizing the Church, and he certainly does so here – from the poorest alms men to the general clergy, and right on up to the sweet but bumbling bishop.  Leaving this grand element and general setting aside, though, what one finds is an exploration of the human conscience.  Trollope places his main character, Mr. Harding, in direct opposition to characters who exemplify different elements of the human nature; where Harding is honest and sincere, we find the newspaper man, Tom Towers, to be hypocritical and conniving; where Mr. Harding is simple and self-sacrificing, we find his son-in-law the Archdeacon to be bombastic, domineering, and selfish.  These personality contrasts and the exploration of humankind is the heart of the novel.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Satire, Parody, Victorian Literature, Church of England, Anti-Press


Notable Quotes:

“One evening call is worth ten in the morning.  It’s all formality in the morning; real social talk never begins till after dinner.  That’s why I dine early, so as to get as much as I can of it.”

“A man may have the best of causes, the best of talents, and the best of tempers; he may write as well as Addison, or as strongly as Junius; but even with all this he cannot successfully answer, when asked by the Jupiter.”

“A clergyman generally dislikes to be met in argument by any scriptural quotation.”

“Velvet and gilding do not make a throne, nor gold and jewels a scepter.  It is a throne because the most exalted one sits there – and a scepter because the most mighty one wields it.”

“There are some points on which no man can be contented to follow the advice of another – some subjects on which a man can consult his own conscience only.”

“What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?” 


–The Warden was Book #6 completed for the Victorian Celebration.


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Adelaide Anne Procter, Book Review, Charles Dickens, Compilation Fiction, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, George Augustus Sala, Hesba Stretton, Literature, London Literati, Short Story, Victorian, Victorian Celebration, Wilkie Collins

Review: The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

Final Verdict: 2.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 24

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens is actually a compilation work, with contributions from Hesba Stretton, George Augustus Sala, Adelaide Anne Procter, Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell.  Each writer, including Dickens (who wrote the opening and closing segments, as well as a middle segment) writes one “chapter” of the tale.  The premise is that a group of people have come to a well-known haunted house to stay for a period of time, experience whatever supernatural elements might be there to experience, then regroup at the end of their stay to share their stories.  Each author represents a specific person within the tale and, while the genre is supposed to be that of the ghost story, most of the individual pieces fall flat of that.  The conclusion, too, is saccharine and unnecessary – it reminds the reader that, though we came for ghost stories, what we leave with is a mirthful Christmas story.


Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

Because this is a compilation of separate short stories, one would not expect much character growth and development (short stories are, after all, more about the theme/event/plot than they are about the characters).  Still, because they were interconnected via the primary story (a group of folks coming together to the same house), there could have been at least a bit of time spent developing those guests, so as to better understand the stories they ultimately told.  Gaskell’s story, being the longest, did allow for some characterization and what was done, was done well.  The characters remain generally flat throughout, but they are recognizable characters – a mother who would act like a mother, a father who acts like a father, etc.  Still, when coming to this collection, it cannot be for its interesting characters because they just are not very interesting (and this could be even more acceptable if the stories themselves were thrilling ghost stories, because then there is something else to entertain and occupy the reader, but….). 


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Dickens, Gaskell, and Collins are clearly the masters here, but in my opinion Dickens was in fact out-shone by the other two in this one.  Dickens’s portions read too much like someone trying to write a thriller but not quite knowing how (it felt like someone mimicking Poe – getting the general mechanics right, but not quite being Poe).  Gaskell’s piece is the longest, and her narrative brilliance – use of dialect in particular- are clear.  Collins has the best paced and most appropriately toned prose which, from the author of The Woman in White, probably should have been expected.  Salas’s writing seemed pompous, arrogant, and long-winded; it was funny, at times, but a bit too self-serving.  The inclusion of Procter’s verse added a nice element to the overall scheme, and a nice break from the various competing proses.  The verse itself was haunting and reminded me quite a bit of the pace and scheme of Poe’s “The Raven.”  Stretton’s short piece was perhaps the most enjoyable, because it was so well-written and more intricately layered than the rest. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Dickens himself was reportedly underwhelmed and disappointed by his peers’ contributing portions of this serial Christmas tale.  I believe his hope was that each of the authors would put into print a certain fear or terror particular to each of them, as Dickens’s story did.  The “haunting,” then, would be something personal and, while not necessarily supernatural, could still be understandably frightening.  Like Dickens, I was left disappointed by the end-result of this ambition. For Dickens, the fear was in revisiting his impoverished youth, the death of his father and the fear of never escaping the “ghost of [his] own childhood.”  Gaskell’s story revolved around betrayal by blood – the loss of a child and lover to the darker elements of humanity.  Again, understandably frightening in its way.  Sala’s story was a dream within a dream within a dream, but while the dream could have been unnerving, there seemed little that was truly frightening about it, supernatural or otherwise.  Wilkie Collins’s story is the one in this compilation which could actually be considered a “suspense” or “thriller” story.  Hesba Stretton’s story, too, while not necessarily scary, is romantic, somewhat suspenseful, and well-accomplished overall.  When considering the group of tales in this compilation, it is Stretton’s which leaves me wanting to read more of her work.  Ultimately, though it is called “The Haunted House,” this compilation of ghost stories is not really a ‘Halloween’-type read.  If one reads this collection as a study of these individual writers, their thoughts, and what they considered haunting, then it is quite interesting.  But as a ghost story, it is no extraordinary achievement, possibly because Dickens (and presumably the other writers) was a skeptic and found the popular interest in the supernatural rather silly.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Victorian Literature, London Literati, Creative/Fictional Autobiography, Short Story, Compilation Fiction.

Notable Quotes:

“The women (their noses in a chronic state of excoriation from smelling-salts), were always primed and loaded for a swoon, and ready to go off with hair-triggers.” – Dickens

“On some subjects it is better to have a silent understanding than an expressed opinion.” – Stretton

“No star is ever lost we once have seen, / We always may be what we might have been.” – Procter

“The hopes that, lost, in some far distance seem, / May be the truer life, and this the dream.” – Procter

“No other ghost has haunted the boy’s room, my friends, since I have occupied it, than the ghost of my own childhood, the ghost of my own innocence, the ghost of my own airy belief.” – Dickens

“What ardently we wish we long believe.” – Gaskell

“But the broken-hearted go home, to be comforted of God.” – Gaskell


–The Haunted House is Book #5 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

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1001 Books, Book Review, Classics Club, Emile Zola, Fiction, French, Literature, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: Germinal by Emile Zola

Germinal by Emile Zola

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 23


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

If you ever want to read a book about miners, or a book about family, or a book about unions, or a book about poverty, or a book about the whole wide-world and how awful and wonderful, hopeful and disappointing, romantic and coldly real it is – if you ever want to read a book about humanity and everything that it means, Germinal is that book. The book is one in Zola’s famous twenty-book series, Les Rougan-Macquart.  It is considered to be the best of the series and also Zola’s crowning achievement – a masterpiece. Its purpose is to expose and lament the horrendous and inhumane working and living conditions of miners in rural France during the 1860s.  Germinal vilifies the excesses and indulgencies of the bourgeoisie, while lauding Socialism and Darwinism.  Etienne Lantier, the main character (who first appears in Zola’s L’Assommoir), is an outsider – a wandering mechanic who is searching for employment.  His rise to leadership in the mining community is almost accidental and highly unlikely, in that he never intended to become a worker, nor did he plan to stay in the community.  Yet, as he spends time with these poor creatures, he realizes that someone must force a change – soon, after hours of study and correspondence with strike leaders in Paris- he unites the miners and leads a revolt, with heartbreaking consequences.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Germinal has a host of characters, primarily Etienne and the Maheude family, with whom he lives after his decision to stay at the mining colony.  There are mining women and mining men, managers and invalids, wealthy owners, Parisian visitors, and revolutionaries of all types (including simple strikers and also full anarchists).  There are bar owners, retirees, abusive husbands, whorish daughters, and every imaginable person in-between.  While Zola certainly creates a great and diverse community, with nearly every conceivable character, few of them truly stand out on their own.  Chaval, in his animalistic brutality is one, as is Etienne as the primary focus.  La Maheude, the sensible mother and ultimately one of the most tragedy-stricken of the cast, is interesting particularly in contrast to the other female-mother figures of the village (in that she, for the most part, seems more responsible, less prone to impulse, and, on the whole, a genuine person).  Still, the downfall to such a large cast of characters is that not much time is spent developing many of them, even the major ones.  Etienne certainly has a journey and he changes somewhat over time – but, in the end, it is the community itself, as a whole, which is being characterized.  The community is what is alive – what is awakened.  The miners, as a group, are the story – it is their journey, their oppression, their battle, their failure, which constitutes the growth and development, here.  Their larger story is more interesting to witness than any single story within it.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

For the longest time, I was nervous about reading Zola.  I find French literature to be either extraordinarily appealing (Victor Hugo) or almost impossible to bear (Marcel Proust).  Fortunately, Zola reads to me similarly to the greatest Russian writers – like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It is simultaneously beautiful, self-reflective, and transporting.  The language of Germinal is warm and real, it allows you to feel enveloped, but never loses sight of the fact that it is the means to an end – its purpose is to guide the reader through an instructive, meaningful story.  There are moments, such as in the description of the miners’ final revolt, where all sense of restraint has been cast off, when the story seems to press onward with a fierce intensity, like a tidal wave rolling mightily onward, unstoppable – dangerous.  And there are moments of pure tenderness, as when Etienne and Catherine come together after being held apart for so long.  The dialogue is well-crafted and the voices of the bourgeoisie and the managers are distinctly different from that of the miners.  The story itself is powerful, but the prose takes it to a transcendent level.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

When Emile Zola passed away, his funeral was attended by masses of people.  At the ceremony, they began to chant: “Germinal! Germinal!”  It is telling that the crowd would call out the name of this one book, even though the author had been such a prolific writer – it is telling and it is understandable.  Germinal, similar to its peers (such as Les Miserables, War and Peace, and The Grapes of Wrath) is an epic tale about “the people.”  It’s a story of desire and passion, working life, family, friendships, and community.  The nature of humanity, from its most noble capacities to its darkest, most dangerous possibilities, is explored in microscopic detail, painful and wondrous to witness. It is, quite literally, a tale about germination – the planting of a seed, an idea, and the birth and growth of a movement.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School/Adult
Interest: France, Labor, Working Class, Mining Life, Revolution, Sexual Desire, Politics, Philosophy, Class Studies.

Notable Quotes:

“Coal transmits sound over great distances with the clarity of crystal.”

“He went away calmly like an exterminating angel, headed for anywhere that he could find dynamite to blow up cities and the men who live in them.”

“There’s no pleasure in life when you’ve lost your hope.”

“You’re better off on your own, there’s nobody to disagree with.”

“When the men and the girl came back from the pit, they’d have to eat again; for nobody had yet discovered how to live without eating, unfortunately.”

“If people can just love each other a little bit, they can be so happy.”

“Blow the candle out, I don’t need to see what my thoughts look like.”


–Germinal is book #121 completed for the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.

–Germinal is Book #4 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

Germinal is Book #4 completed for The Classics Club.

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Giveaway, Giveaways, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

A Victorian Celebration Contest!

Greetings, Victorian Celebration Participants!

Giveaway Closed: Congratulations to the Winner:

Jean from Howling Frog Books!

Jean chose to receive a copy of the Penguin Clothbound Edition of The Mill on the Floss.

The Mill on the Floss

Welcome to A Victorian Celebration Contest!  This Contest is open ONLY to registered participants of “A Victorian Celebration,” hosted by A Literary Odyssey.  

The contest is simple!  Starting today (Wednesday, June 27th) and until 10pm on Wednesday, July 3rd, participants in the celebration can Take This Quiz on Victorian Literature.

After the deadline, I will review the answers and the person with the highest score will receive a prize!  

If there is a tie for the highest score, I will randomly select a winner from that group.  The winner will be e-mailed and will have 48-hours to respond, before a new winner is selected.

Simple Rules:

1. Be a participant in Allie’s “A Victorian Celebration”

2. Take the Quiz (You can use any available resources to help you find the answers).

The Prize:

Any Victorian novel of your choice (to be shipped from the Book Depository) up to $15 USD!

If more than 25 valid (i.e. from registered participants) entries come in, I will add a second winner!

Good Luck, Challengers!


My Victorian Celebration Reading So Far:

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Germinal by Emile Zola (currently reading)

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1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 21


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Cranford tells the tale of an oft-overlooked portion of Victorian population, the middle class.  Many novels of the Victorian era focus exclusively on the aristocracy or on the poor; Cranford, however, is similar to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in that there are a few upper-middle or upper-class characters, but the primary characters are struggling just to survive in that solidly middle zone (or even in the lower middle-class). The ladies of Cranford put on airs, so as to seem far more dignified and “to do” than they really are. Part of the charm of the novel is witnessing these ladies hold fast to rules of decorum and propriety which would be best suited for lords and nobles, but seems rather out-of-place in their suburban neighborhood.  The story itself revolves around Miss Matty, a single middle-aged woman who is left to fend for herself, after her sister passes away, and their friend, Miss Deborah, who is narrating the story and who hopes to find a way to care for Miss Matty, when she is unexpectedly ruined, financially.  There are minor mysteries and slight intrigue, all of which are blown out of proportion by this community of old hens.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The main character of this novel is not any one particular person, it is the community of Cranford.  The most interesting action takes place in coordination with various individuals or groups of individuals who come together throughout the tale – be it interactions between Miss Matty and her sisters (polar opposites in many ways) or between Miss Matty and her maid (who she has no real idea how to command), or between certain of the members of the ladies’ circle – be it Mrs Jamieson, the “Lady” of stature and leader of the group, or the poor Hogginses, who become outcasts for love (but perhaps not permanently).  The relationships between the members of this inner-circle are interesting and hilarious enough to watch, though there is very little growth or change from any of them (certain minor growths are hinted at, after Miss Matty’s fall, but nothing spectacular).  Still, this keeps the story realistic, on the whole.  The addition characters external to the group, such as the mystic-man and his family and, near the end, a long-lost family member of one of the ladies, also adds an interesting layer or two to the story, because it forces the group and individuals to react in their own (and in their collective) ways to new stimuli.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

While I found Gaskell’s language fluid and engaging, and her prose easy to follow and certainly well-constructed, the story itself seemed somehow rushed at times, possibly due to a disconnect or disjointedness in the narrative’s construction.  In the beginning, particularly, it was easy to get a bit lost – hard to remember, exactly, who the characters were and what their relationships were to one another.  The narration pulls itself together eventually, with minor slips here and there right through to the end, but all-in-all, the sense of humor and lightness of the story is matched in its prose, which makes for an enjoyable reading experience.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most appealing about this novel is its close scrutiny of a segment of the population that seems relatively left-out of popular Victorian literature (particularly the Canon).  Viewing life through the eyes of the lower-middle and typical middle-classes is somehow exciting, because it is uncommon – after all, what could be interesting about the “average” class?  The town of Cranford, though, is one steeped in tradition – taken seriously, yet not quite.  The narrator, certainly, seems to find the strictly regimented rules of society rather amusing, and with good reason.  In addition to the examination of class and society, though, are explorations of family, international relations, friendships, economics and world/local trade.  For such a small and seemingly simple book, Cranford and its ladies definitely surprise.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Victorian Literature, British Middle-Class, Family, Friendship, Love/Romance

Notable Quotes:

“I’ll not listen to reason . . . reason always means what someone else has got to say.”

“She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior.”


–Cranford is book #120 completed for the “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.

–Carnford is Book #3 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

–Cranford is Book #3 completed for The Classics Club.

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Autobiography, Mark Twain, Non-Fiction, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: The Autobiography of Mark Twain

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 20

 Charles Neider considered Twain’s Autobiography to be “a classic of American letters, to be ranked with the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams.”  While I haven’t read the Adams autobiography, I absolutely agree that Twain’s is comparable in importance and substance to that of Benjamin Franklin; and, as The Modern Library says, it is probably “one of the best 100 Nonfiction books of the 20th Century.” 

One of the benefits of reading an autobiography, and their primary appeal for most, is that they allow readers an opportunity to learn more about a historical figure’s life and work – things that could only be guessed at or inferred by reading their fiction, watching their movies, examining their politics, etc.  Twain’s autobiography fulfills this promise, in that it reinforces what one might learn about him through his fiction, but also reveals so much more about his private life, his personal ambitions, and his deep, deep pains.  Most who are familiar with Twain’s novels know that he was considered (and is still considered) to be one of America’s greatest humorists and satirists.  But Twain did not look at himself that way – he believed himself to be a moralist and a sermonizer – one who allowed humor into his stories when it occurred naturally.  Twain cared deeply about the human race, but was also so disappointed by it.  

When reading Twain’s works in chronological order, it is clear that the nature of his texts change over time.  In the beginning, his stories can be characterized by a youthful innocence – a playful, all-American view of the world (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer).  The future stories become more complex and delve into more delicate territory (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Prince and the Pauper) when he begins to look at race and class issues, social and economic inequalities.  Ultimately, his late works are almost despairing in nature – the early hopefulness and joyful themes becoming distilled, to say the least (The Mysterious Stranger).  One might wonder why – but the Autobiography explains.  Twain had been a trusting, almost naïve person for most of his life.  He put his finances into the hands of publishers and lawyers who would ultimately betray him.  He speculated and invested in “certain” ventures, only to watch those ventures disappoint and nearly ruin him financially.  In addition to his financial losses and the deceptions he endured, he also suffered through the loss of many of his closest friends and family – including his wife and three of his children.  Twain even felt personally responsible for the death of his only son, who died an infant.  These losses and disappointments seemed to haunt him throughout his entire life and, throughout the Autobiography, there is a heartbreaking desire for death – a respect and appreciation for it which only one who had suffered enormously could truly feel or understand.  Repeatedly, throughout the passages, Twain describes bluntly his envy for those who have passed on from this world and expresses an anger toward those who helped him survive, when he himself was at death’s door.  It is a private despondency not often exposed in his public persona or in his writing.

Ultimately, I found Twain’s Autobiography to be wonderful and painful.  Anyone who is already a fan of Twain’s writing will certainly enjoy this text; however, conversely, those who do not enjoy his books may have difficulty with this, because his style and approach in narrative and essay form are similar (also some credit must be given to the editor, Charles Neider, who put some structure and organization into this edition of the work – Twain had dictated the entire thing, so its original form was far from fluid or cohesive).  It was incredibly rewarding not just to learn more about the man and his private life, but also about his writing process, his relationships with other prominent writers and figures of the time (William Dean Howells, Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bret Harte, in particular).  Baring witness to some of the more intimate moments and relationships – especially, for instance, Twain’s friendship with General Ulysses S. Grant, adds so much to my appreciation of Twain as a person.  Similarly, witnessing him lose his cool and blast certain people who he held in the highest contempt is, of course, hilarious.  Twain clearly tried his best to be respectful and considerate of all people (at least in his adulthood), so when those rare moments occur when Twain describes dealing with people he truly despised – it is a (guilty) pleasure to witness!

For fans of Twain – do yourself a favor and read his Autobiography.  As much as I thought I knew about Twain, I now realize that I can approach his works with a deeper and renewed appreciation. 

Notable Quotes:

“It is an odd and curious and interesting ass, the human race is.”

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”

“Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts and feelings and opinions.”

“It seems a pity that the world should throw away so many good things merely because they are unwholesome.”

“Doctor Meredith removed to Hannibal by and by and was our family physician and saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well. Let it go.”

“But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most…?”

“I have always preached. That is the reason that I have lasted thirty years. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not.”

“It is the will of God that we must have critics and missionaries and congressmen and humorists, and we must bear the burden.”

“I was not able to convince her that we never do any duty for the duty’s sake but only for the mere personal satisfaction we get out of doing that duty. T he fact is, she was brought up just like the rest of the world, with the ingrained and stupid superstition that there is such a thing as duty for duty’s sake, and so I was obliged to let her abide in her darkness.”

“I do like to hear myself talk.”

“The sweet placidity of death! It is more beautiful than sleep.”


Read as part of the Victorian Celebration
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Anne Bronte, Book Review, British Literature, Literature, Uncategorized, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 18


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Agnes Grey is the first novel of the youngest Brontë sister, Anne.  It is based in large part on Anne’s life and was created with the use of Anne’s personal diary and letters.  It was also the first of the sisters’ works to be written/completed, although all three sisters (Charlotte, Emily & Anne) would publish their first works within the same one-year time period.  The story is essentially a failed bildungsroman; Brontë intends to send her heroine, Agnes, on a coming-of-age journey, which would be developed through her tenure at various households, where she is employed as governess.  But because Agnes never truly develops (partly because she started her journey as a positive person in the first place, and partly because growth was stunted by the families she served – horrid folks!), the story never reaches true bildungsroman potential.  The purpose of the story, though, is to expose certain deficiencies in the class system and in human nature, which is ultimately achieved despite the main character’s lack of growth.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Perhaps the primary failing of this novel is that there is little concern for character growth and/or development.  Neither Agnes, nor her sister or parents, nor the members of the families she works for, nor her love interest ever change in any way, except  that Agnes develops a slight awareness for the darker side of human nature (to which she had been sheltered, having come from a loving home and positive community).  There is some change in a secondary character, Rosalie, after she departs from home, where she is being instructed by Agnes, to become the wife of Sir Ashby.  Rosalie, a serious flirt, had one goal in life: to marry a wealth man and become a Lady.  That accomplished, she soon realizes that her dreams had not come true after all, and she tries, in some small way to make amends with Agnes.  Of course, this change is not truly growth, because it is ultimately self-serving; Lady Ashby has been essentially imprisoned at home, with no friends, so the minor changes in her manner towards Agnes are the result of desperation, rather than real emotional or moral development.   Despite the characters lacking any major transformation, they fit well with the story being told and their simplicity in a way aids in making the primary themes of the story more apparent.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

George Moore, an Irish novelist, praised Agnes Grey as being “the most perfect prose narrative in English letters.”  He even compared Anne Brontë’s prose & ability to her predecessor, Jane Austen.  It is not difficult to understand why he thought so highly of her abilities, as the style and prose of this novel are its greatest achievements.  The prose is similar to Austen in its subtlety and its ability to be witty/ironic without being necessarily overt.   The style is simple but effective, it progresses the story smoothly and naturally, without much fanfare, but never feels stunted or boring.  At times, I was comparing themes to Clarissa, but where Richardson is often repetitive and overbearing Brontë tends to make a point and then move on.   In addition to effective prose and style, there is an employment of dialogue which is more than competent – it is natural and in many ways imperative to the story, as many of the elements, such as characterization, are revealed through dialogue.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Although certain elements of the story are underdeveloped (primarily characterization but also, to an extent, plot arc and setting), it is clear that Brontë knows what she wants to say, and says it well.  She tackles multiple themes, but at the forefront of these are oppression of women and mistreatment of governesses/maids.  In both of the families that Agnes serves, she is treated not just as an inferior, but almost as a non-entity.  The male children are also clearly favored over the female and the maids are treated with no respect or consideration.  It is clear that Brontë is driven to expose and refute the “natural” superiority of men over women, but also of one class over another.  In addition to these primary themes are also those of isolation and tutelage.  Anne, upon leaving home, finds herself entirely without friends or significant relationships of any kind.  While there is some despair in this, Brontë also posits the idea that isolation can be an opportunity for self-reflection, study, and intellectual/spiritual growth.  This theme carries on to one of tutelage, wherein Brontë, through her narrator’s isolation and experiences, can instruct the reader on certain ideals – particularly her beliefs of right and wrong- without breaking from her prose into narrative sermonizing.  Another prominent theme is one of Empathy, for mankind and animals.  Brontë is clearly disturbed by those who treat animals cruelly, as she is disturbed by people who treat others (particularly their servants or “inferiors”) with disdain.  Brontë clearly views empathy as a virtue, but one which is difficult or perhaps impossible to instill in others (as demonstrated by Agnes’s inability to impart this virtue on her charges).


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Bildungsroman, Victorian Literature, Governesses, Family, Caste System, British Literature, Empathy, Women, Education


Notable Quotes:

“All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”

“Reading is my favorite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.”

“It is foolish to wish for beauty.  Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others.  If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.”

“I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise.”

“I wondered why so much beauty should be given to those who made so bad a use of it, and denied to some who would make it a benefit to both themselves and others.”

“The end of Religion is not to teach us how to die, but how to live; and the earlier you become wise and good, the more happiness you secure.”

“Alas! how far the promise of anticipation exceeds the pleasure of possession!”

“To think that I could be such a fool as to fall in love! It is quite beneath the dignity of a woman to do such a thing. Love! I detest the word! As applied to one of our sex, I think it a perfect insult.”

 

Read as part of the Victorian Celebration
Standard