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, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Detective Novel, Epistolary, Mystery, Sensation Lit, Victorian, Wilkie Collins

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 8 


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is widely accepted to be one of the first –and best- mystery and sensation novels.  The main character, Walter Hartright, is also considered to be one of the earliest literary detective characters – one who later inspired the development of mystery/detective genres (Hartright’s investigative techniques, for example, are later employed by private detectives in mystery novels that followed this one).  The story revolves around a few characters who are at first drawn together by chance, but then become involved in an elaborate plot of deception, orchestrated by the ingenuous Count Fosco and his cold-as-ice wife, who just happens to be the slighted aunt of our main character’s love interest, Lady Glyde.  Lives are threatened, identities are stolen, and more than one man’s (and woman’s) place in the world is in jeopardy.  How are Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick’s (The Woman in White) destinies intertwined – and why do they look so strikingly similar?  When Lady Glyde and Marian are doomed by the devious count, will Walter – a simple art teacher with no resources and no friends- manage to piece together enough evidence to vindicate the unfortunate women – before it’s too late?  


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

The range and depth of characters in The Woman in White is impressive, to say the least.  If Collins has one advantage over Dickens, it is that his characters are a bit richer – a bit more interesting and realistic than Dickens’s characters, who often become grotesques.  Count Fosco is perhaps one of the most brilliantly drawn characters in literature – ranking along-side Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in the perverse, unpleasant yet satisfactory enjoyment he brings to the reader’s experience with the story.  Collins has a way of creating characters that are downright evil, but with intermittent, surprising bits of good – or genuinely good, with moments of badness.  He writes truly human characters, flawed but perfect in the same breath.  Drawn thusly, the mystery aspect of the novel is further richened because one can never be entirely sure that we are seeing the true nature of any character at any given moment – after a few hundred pages of wondering just how dastardly  a character can get, he suddenly surprises the reader with a moment of genuine sensitivity or compassion.   Minor characters, too, such as Anne Catherick’s mother and Mr. Fairlie, Lady Glyde’s uncle, bring additional elements – like comic relief or historical significance, to Hartright’s narrative, increasing the complexity of the story while simultaneously further committing the reader to the main characters and their destinations.  Ultimately, the dénouement –beautiful as it is – could not have been achieved without clever assembly of characterization throughout the entire story, which is finally realized in a final letter, written by Count Fosco himself.


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

In my experience, 600-pages of Victorian literature can amount to one of two things:  transcendent literary genius, or a mentally exhaustive torture device.  In the case of Collins and The Woman in White, the prose was far from prosaic (Haha… get it?).  Okay, jokes aside, this is one of those pieces of literature you could recommend to someone who doesn’t read literature.  The style and language are just that good, and the story just that engaging.  The pace is well-measured, so even though there is plenty of description and flushing out of details, the story rarely, if ever, stalls.  Something in the way Collins has designed the tale (perhaps in large part due to the multiple narrators, who pick up the story as ‘main character’ while it advances) makes these 600-pages flash by as if there were half as many.  The narrative voice(s) is engaging, the language is substantive without being overwrought or lofty – finishing this book is like having enjoyed a piece of gourmet cheesecake, garnished with just the right amounts of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce, and maybe even a dash of warm caramel (getting hungry yet?).  Each bite is a delight to be savored and the story as a whole, when finished, is satisfying – so much so that the reader might be licking that dessert plate clean.    


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

First – one minor issue.  The edition I read was the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, pictured above (which, incidentally, I won in a giveaway from the awesome Allie at A Literary Odyssey).  I love the edition and I love the footnotes (although I do much prefer footnotes to appear at the bottom of pages, rather than in the back – I hate having to flip back and forth).  What I discovered from the footnotes, though, was that Collins, while a fantastic writer and an even better storyteller, was not too concerned with historical and/or legal accuracies.  This is a common pitfall with serial novels that often needed new installments to be completed quickly, to meet magazine/newspaper deadlines.  So, there were frequent mentions of things Collins got wrong, usually because certain things he described (laws, inventions, etc.) were not yet in place at the time the story takes place.  Now, without the footnotes, I would not have known the difference – so it is a small complaint and not much to dwell on, considering none of the “mistakes” impacted my enjoyment of the story.  That aside, the elements that were interesting and which added to the story include:  the examination of the rights (or lack thereof) of women in the 19th century; perception of foreigners by English natives; isolation; identity theft and the legal process (thank goodness for the discovery of DNA!); fine arts and the craft of writing; hereditary rights to income and property; secret societies and politics; and, of course, love – revenge – and the nature of family.   What makes a good story a great story is not just that it is enjoyable or entertaining, not just that it is written well, with interesting content, but that all of these elements come together seamlessly – that the reader can learn about a time, place, or culture while also being entertained.  The Woman in White achieves all of this, and how.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult

Interest:  Epistolary novels, Victorian literature, Gothic novels, Sensation novels, Mystery/Amateur Detective novels, Law and justice.


Notable Quotes/Excerpts:

“Where is the woman who has ever really torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it by a true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures have existed – but what does our own experiences say in answer to books?”

“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”

“I sadly want a reform in the construction of children. Nature’s only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise.”

“Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than our own.”

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty of women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls.”

“The best men are not consistent in good– why should the worst men be consistent in evil.”

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