The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

It has been a long, long time since a book has made me angry, yet A Good Soldier has managed to disturb my normally cheerful and placid demeanour.  It was part of a buddy read yet most of the participants dropped out after reading the beginning of the book.  Sadly, I persevered and I don’t think I’m the better for it.

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The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native Thomas HardyThe Return of the Native: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.”

Oh my, I was laughing after finishing this novel, which perhaps wasn’t the reaction that Hardy had envisioned.  But the drama!  The high drama!  I was beginning to wonder what other circumstance of fate (which actually didn’t seem like fate but a deliberate thwarting of anyone’s happiness) was going to occur to cause yet another catastrophe.  It was a medley of characters making the same mistakes over and over again and never learning one thing from them.

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

“Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;….”

Twenty-nine pilgrims and the narrator meet in Southwark, in Harry Bailey’s Tabard Inn, before setting off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, where they will behold Thomas Becket’s shrine.  On the journey each pilgrim will tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back.  A free dinner will be awarded to the one with the best story.  And so begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem, a medley of lively stories that gives the reader a captivating window into 14th century England.

Gateway at Canterbury
The Gateway at Canterbury (1889)
Childe Hassam
source Wikiart

 

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Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald

Phantastes George MacDonaldPhantastes: A Faerie Romance: “I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness.”

I read Phantastes for the first time in 2012, and while reading it, I was very confused with the progress of the story.  So many questions swirled around in my head as to the plot, such as why Anodos, the main character, decided to go to a particular place and why he didn’t listen to advice and what was the point of his wanderings?  I approached the book as I would a book like The Lord of the Rings where I was expecting an obvious quest in the culmination of something grand. What I received was a sort of lazy, fanciful wandering by Anodos as he continually encountered faerie princesses and maidens, along with a knight, giants and other evil malefactors.  While there were instances of adventure and situations where he had to employ his strength and good sense, these instances seemed solitary experiences that did not connect to the whole.  I just couldn’t figure out the point of the story.  When I couldn’t find it, I was left somewhat disappointed and unimpressed.  Flash-forward to my second reading this year and an epiphany! ….

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Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Christmas at Cold Comfort FarmFor someone who has read Cold Comfort Farm, I was so excited to find this book, however I was disappointed to discover the title is misleading.  Instead of being further adventures from Cold Comfort Farm, it is actually a compilation of short stories by Stella Gibbons and Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm is only one of them.  And to add further disappointment, only one or two of them even remotely mentions Christmas.  Fool me once, and all that ……

In any case, for a book of short stories they were quite interesting, even if they were mostly missing the Christmas theme.

 

The Little Christmas Tree

Thirty-three year old Miss Rhoda Harting is a single spinster who makes her living as a writer.  Retiring to a cottage in Buckinghamshire one Christmas season she finds herself lonely, a stark contrast to her usually reclusive yet positive character. On Christmas Day she encounters three children at her door who are attracted by her tiny Christmas tree in the window of her cottage.  After lunch and a wild story, the arrival of their father sets up a question: is Rhoda destined to live life as a spinster or will love rearrange her carefully ordered life?

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens“Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

We all know this treasured Christmas story.  Scrooge, a cantankerous old bachelor who lives a solitary life and whose sole purpose is to increase his wealth, initially has a vision of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, on his doorknocker.  Not one for fancy, Scrooge humbugs his daydream, but when he is visited by Marley’s ghost, which is then succeeded by three other spirits – the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, Scrooge learns many lessons of what he has lost, what he has become, and his fate if he continues on his selfish and merciless path.

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The Pickwick Papers or The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens

“The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brillancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.”

It’s hardly believable but O’s 2 year read-along of the Pickwick Papers has finally come to a close and I have her to thank for finally being able to finish this 800-page marvel.  We read it in installments mirroring its original release which was an enlightening experience in itself. Looking back, I enjoyed reading only 2 to 3 chapters at a time, but the space between them, for me, was too long.  It’s not that I necessarily forgot what had happened, but I found that when I picked it up again, I was somewhat disengaged with the characters.  It was almost like starting a book over and over again and never really getting traction.  If I was to do it over, I’d read a chapter per week instead of three at once and that way hopefully remain more present in the story.

Mr. Pickwick slides on the ice
source Wikimedia Commons

And the book itself ….. ?  I quite enjoyed Mr. Pickwick and his marvellous, and at times unbelievable, adventures.  At the beginning of the book, Mr. Pickwick, founder and president of the Pickwick Club, decides that he and fellow members, Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman, will leave London and travel the countryside to discover the wonderful qualities of life, each reporting to the others what they find. Their adventures lead them to saving ladies in distress, getting embroiled in circumstances they only want to avoid, courting offers of marriage, unwanted offers of marriage, interaction with criminals, jail and even love itself. Dickens imbues this novel with his own brand of humour by having an old confirmed bachelor find himself in all sorts of uncomfortable circumstances.  From finding himself unexpectedly sleeping in a lady’s bed, to being sued for breach of promise of marriage, poor Pickwick finds his dignified sensibilities tried by unexpected challenges yet he always manages to respond in a measured and honourable manner that increased our respect for this lovable character.

Mr. Pickwick’s first interview
with Sergeant Snubbin
source Wikimedia Commons

In Chapter XVI, Pickwick attempts to catch a swindler, Jingle, who is slipperier than an eel.  Jingle plans to run away with an heires and by hiding in the bushes outside the girls’ boarding school, Pickwick attempts to subvert the scheme and expose the criminal.  But through various misadventures and bumbles, he manages to find himself locked in a cupboard by the headmistress and the ladies of the establishment. Rescued by Sam Weller, his valet, and his friend, Mr. Wardle, Pickwick rains imprecations upon the head of the absent Jingle.

Even more amusing, was the incident of the mistaken beds.  Late at night at an inn, Pickwick returns downstairs to retrieve his watch and upon returning, enters the wrong room!  He is just settled into bed when a lady enters and begins her own toilette. Horrified, Pickwick reveals his presence and attempts to assure her of his mistake and innocence, but the woman is frightened senseless, and Pickwick makes a quick exit. Not wanting another repeat of the disturbing and undignified experience, Pickwick plans to sleep in the hall, but is once again rescued by Sam.  The novel has so many amusing anecdotes, that is has to be read to enjoy them all.  And I finally managed it!

Mr. Pickwick, picnics
source Wikimedia Commons

At the time of the writing of this first novel, Dickens was working as a roving journalist and a reporter of Parlimentary news.  After his successful Sketches by Boz, Dickens was called in to write copy for certain illustrated sporting plates created by illustrator Robert Seymour.  Dickens soon began to write the instalments before the plates were produced, therefore changing the illustrative focus of the project to storytelling and he never looked back.  We all know of his illustrious writing career following The Pickwick Papers and I still have to read quite a few Dickens’ novels yet, as I’ve only completed The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, A Tale of Two Cities, Dombey and Son, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and, a long time ago, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  So many great novels of his still to go.  Perhaps a project for 2018 ……???

 

 

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

“Of course there was a Great House at Allington.”

Lily (Lilian), Bell (Isabella), and their mother, Mrs. Dale, live in a cottage on the estate of her brother-in-law, Squire Dale.  The squire, their benefactor, is a stern implacable man who feels a responsibility to the family, yet does not exhibit affection or understanding towards them or their plight.  In spite of the strained relations, the Dale women live a contented, happy life.  However, their cousin, Bernard, one day brings his friend, Adolphus Crosbie home to visit and an attachment grows between him and Lily.  Crosbie is a charming young man, without name or fortune, but with a charisma that captures Lily’s heart, despite his flaws of selfishness and worldliness.  Does Crosbie love Lily?  He certainly convinces himself that he does and as he proposes he anticipates a respectable dowry that he assumes will be bestowed upon Lily by Squire Dale.  But assumptions can go awry and when Crosbie learns that Lily will be the benefactress of nothing but goodwill, her charms begin to diminish in his materialistic eyes.  All attempts to convince himself that love will overcome practicalities fail and he is lured away by a daughter of an earl, Alexandrina deCourcy, of whom he once was an admirer.  Weak and irresolute, Crosbie soon finds himself engaged to the girl despite his own misgivings and the threat of censure that he is certain to receive from various aspects of society.

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Doodles in the Dictionary by Aldous Huxley

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikimedia Commons

Ah, my first essay by Aldous Huxley and I didn’t know what style to expect.  He first begins by lamenting the insufferable boredom experienced by having to learn Greek and Latin in school.  Even the mention of these subjects he still finds tedious and can only find one benefit of having been forced through hours of searching for words in his Lexicon:

“I hate to think of all that wasted time.  And yet, in view of the fact that most human beings are destined to pass most of their lives at jobs in which it is impossible for them to take the slightest interest, this old-fashioned training with the dictionary may have been extremely salutary.  At least it taught one to know and expect the worst of life.  Whereas the pupil in a progressive school, where everything is made to seem entertaining and significant, lives in a fool’s paradise.” 

When his bookseller friend requested his presence to view an item that he was extremely thrilled to purchase, Huxley was dismayed to find that it was a Latin dictionary. However, when he found it wasn’t just any Latin dictionary, but the one owned by the famous painter, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, his interest was piqued.

source Wikipedia

Toulouse-Lautrec created these “doodles in the dictionary” when he was sixteen years old, a mere two years after two accidents which would change his life forever.  First, he broke one leg, and then the other, and neither leg grew again, therefore upon adulthood, he had the legs of a fourteen year old and the body of a man.  Having to live as a “dwarfish monster”, Lautrec immersed himself in his drawing and painting.

Aristide Bruant on His Bicycle (1892)
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikiart

Huxley muses that up to the age of ten, the muse of genius is within every child, but with instruction that muse disintegrates until only one in four thousand people have any talent for art.  He calls this fact an “unsolved riddle” and hopes one day to learn the answer, whereupon education will be able to be transformed into a “social and individual reconstruction”.  Hmmm …….  who would decide what needed to be reconstructed and why?  Who would be doing the reconstructing and under what premise?  It’s all very vague and rather disturbing.

Artilleryman Saddling His Horse (1879)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikiart

In any case, early on it was evident that Toulouse-Lautrec had rare talent for drawing and he was also proficient in Latin, earning prizes for translation and composition.  While his drawings at sixteen showed a maturity and flair that was unsurpassed for his age, his first master Bonnat was lukewarm with his praise.  In a letter to his Uncle Charles, Toulouse-Lautrec communicated his teacher’s comments:  “Your painting isn’t bad; it’s clever, but still it isn’t bad.  But your drawing is simply atrocious.”  Judging from a comment from another student, Huxley believes Toulouse-Lautrec had a propensity to exaggerate his subjects, to “prettify” them in a way that was perhaps not pleasing.  Yet Huxley believes that facts are perhaps not so immutable as we perceive them, and that everyone can view each reality differently.  And facts can also cover a variety of disciplines: for example, he says, the H-bomb can at once be involved in physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, genetics, psychology, politics, economics, ethics and even be an aesthetic fact, as the cloud it makes is quite beautiful.  Toulouse-Lautrec simply chose to communicate in his art the aspects that preoccupied him and “found no incompatibility between truth to nature and distortion.” His exaggeration perhaps brought life to his art, which would align with Hsieh Ho, the fourth dynasty Chinese artist who stated that the First Principle of Chinese Painting “…. is that, through a vitalizing spirit, a painting should possess the movement of life,” and the sinologist, Osvald Siren agreed, “that the First Principle refers to something beyond the material form, call it character, soul, or expression. It depends on the operation of the spirit, or the myserious breath of life, by which the figures may become as though they were moving or breathing.”

Fishing Boat (1880)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikiart

Huxley brings the subject of the horse into his essay, lamenting its passing into the history of transport and surmising that it was heading towards extinction.  It embodied the expression of life from its splendid grace, from the thoroughbred down to the old hack; in modern times we are only left with man who is a graceless uninteresting creature.  The advent of the automobile, and in fact all technology, detracts from life and therefore from our enjoyment of it.  Lautrec’s father had advocated for the health of the outdoors but sadly, Lautrec was not destined for such a life because of his accident and became, instead, fascinated by the race-track, Montmartre known for its public dancing and cabarets, alcohol and prostitutes.

“The drunks and tarts, the lecherous gentlemen in top hats, the sensation-hunting ladies in feather boas, the stable boys, the lesbians, the bearded surgeons performing operations with a horrifying disregard of the first principles of asepsis ……. these became the subject matter of most of Lautrec’s pictures, the environment in which he liked to live.  He portrayed them simply as curiosities, passing no moral judgment, but simply rendering the intrinsic oddity of what he saw around him.”

His interest in the theatre grew, of which sketches can be seen in the dictionary of jesters, actors and actresses.  He did not portray women in a sexual way nor with any discrimination, only executing them as he would any other subject, “from memory and with appropriate distortions, rendered their life-movement, now graceful, now grotesque, and the underlying rhythm of the mysterious spirit that manifests itself within that movement.”

And so concludes an essay that I thought would be an educational treatise and ended up being about the creation of art, and secondary the sad demise of a creative talent. Huxley did not reveal that Lautrec died from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis at the age of 36 years old.

Next up is classic children’s book, The Finn Family Moomintroll.  I absolutely love this book; it is tied for my all-time favourite children’s classic.  I can’t wait to read it again and share some unique Moomintroll adventures!

Week 9 – Deal Me In Challenge – Two of Spades

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

“When young Mark Robarts was leaving college, his father might well declare that all men began to say all good things to him, and to extol his fortune in that he had a son blessed with so excellent a disposition.”

In Framley Parsonage, the fourth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope gives us a lively romp through the lives of the inhabitants of East Barsetshire, introducing us not only to their whims and follies, but through their actions, the culture and society of a 19th century English town. 

Mark Robarts, a parson of the village of Framley, and a beneficiary of Lady Lufton whose son was his schoolmate, is married to Fanny, a genteel lady of respectable birth.  Yet his patroness is at times difficult to please, and Robarts must navigate the storms of friendship, duty, and financial matters, often muddying the waters that he is trying desperately to clear.  When his father dies and his sister, Lucy, comes to live at the parsonage, an unexpected complication develops that was unforeseen by all and upsets the carefully calibrated balance of societal acceptance.  Robarts encounters further obstacles when he embroils himself with a member of parliament, Nathaniel Sowerby, and his financial dealings.  His trusting, artless, clerical nature is in sharp contrast to the Machiavellian intrigue of men of enterprise, and it appears nothing good will come of the connection.

The Parsonage Farm, Rickmansworth (c. 1840)
John White
source ArtUK

In Mark Roberts financial dealings with Sowerby, one wonders if Trollope was offering a subtle indictment as to the interactions and associations of church and state.  The innocent perceptions of one is unable to account for the devious machinations of the other and, because of Robarts’ influence on those around him, they are affected by the imprudent alliance as well.  Add to that Lady Lufton’s displeasure at the Duke of Omnium’s vulgar societal group and a possible marriage between a peer and a commoner, and you have class conflict at its finest, a subject of which Trollope is most adept at exploring with a light-heartedness that often belies the deeper implications.

Trollope reintroduces characters from the previous Barsetshire books: The Warden, Barchester Towers and Dr. Thorne.  Miss Dunstable displays her wily financial prowess, Dr. Thorne his ability to be influenced, the Grantley’s are in top form with not one, but two suitors in their daughter’s wake, and even gentle old Septimus Harding makes a brief appearance.

The Houses of Parliament (c. 1844?)
George Chambers II
source ArtUK

Two years it took me to complete this novel.  Isn’t that ridiculous?  For some reason, the first part of it just dragged, but as soon as I hit the half-way point, I was completely hooked and drawn in to the characters and their stories.  Next in line is A Small House at Allington, which I’ve heard is excellent.  It won’t take me two years to read through this one, I promise!