Batch Review #13

The Jane Austen HandbookThe Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England
by Margaret C. Sullivan

This book is awesome, people! If you like reading classics but have always felt that you were somehow missing out some insider information, you need to read this! The Jane Austen Handbook gives you background information of the social and economic circumstances of the Regency era, and the next time you read an Austen novel (or any other Regency novel), little details will suddenly make sense!

The book has a small format (it’s as big as my hand) and about 200 pages. It’s divided into four sections – Jane Austen’s World, A Quick Succession of Busy Nothings, Making Love, The Best Company – and each subjects has many subjects that are covered by two pages or a bit more.
For example – how to ensure a good yearly income; how to provide for your daughters & younger sons; how to spend each season; how to write a letter; how to get around (aka transportation)
how to keep house; how to treat the sick; how to dress; how a lady might spend her leisure time
how to indicate interest in a gentleman without seeming forward; how to marry off your daughter; how to be a bride; how to elope to Scotland
how to pay a morning call; how to behave at a dinner party; how to attend a ball; how to converse with your dancing partner

And yes, since the book is titled as The Jane Austen Handbook, you guess correctly when you assume that this book will reference a lot to Jane Austen’s works. It is preferable to have read at least some of them first, but not a must. For instance, there is a two-page article titled ‘Who Died & Made Mr. Collins the Heir of Longbourn?’ or ‘Worst (And Funniest) Proposals in Jane Austen’s Novels’.

The language is easy, there are visual aids enrich the text, the layout is elegantly old-fashioned. Recommended for Jane Austen fans & people interested in the Regency era.

Night BrokenNight Broken (Mercy Thompson #8)
by Patricia Briggs

This time, a disaster storms into the Columbia Basin Pack (or whatever the name of the local werewolf pack in Tri-Cities is) in the form of Christy aka Adam’s ex-wife and her stalker. Even though we know how pathetic, selfish and deceptive Christy is, apparently the rest of the pack (that is everyone except for Mercy, Adam, Jesse even though she is strictly speaking not in the pack, and a couple more werewolves) lacks the insight.
So the focus is back on the pack, which is awesome, and Mercy struggles to be at ease with Christy’s presence without giving up her place as Adam’s mate. Keeping her place in the pack is harder than ever, especially because most of the pack members want Christy back. Gah. I am occasionally frustrated that the pack never wants to fully accept Mercy as part of the pack (and what’s more, second-in-command).

I enjoyed Night Broken more than Frost Burned, mostly because CANTRP makes me grumpy – all the politics. We also meet the Coyote again! And find out more about his sort of magic. Tad and Kyle are also more or less steady companions and we have new characters, some of whom are going to be a permanent fixture in the series. (Although Fire Touched seems to be the last book in the series. Oh man, I’m sad.)

All in all, even though the highlight of the series for me remains Bone Crossed, Mercy Thompson is, like, the only long urban fantasy series that doesn’t decline in quality in the later books. And I feel some of the threads getting ready to be knotted in the final installment (unless the author makes another contract for more Mercy books!).


Classics Club Challenge #6: Persuasion

Persuasion (Wordsworth black2)Persuasion
by Jane Austen

published posthumously in 1818
First read February 5th – 8th 2015

Since there are quite a number of families involved, kindly allow me to sort them out at first:
Elliots of Kellynch Hall: Sir Walter Elliot, his deceased wife Lady Elliot, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Anne (protagonist) and Miss Mary, later Mrs Musgrove; cousin William Elliot, heir-apparent; Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Anne move to Bath
Musgroves of Uppercross, a neighboring estate: Mr and Mrs Musgroves as family patriarch/matriarch; their children, Charles (who married Mary), Henrietta, Louisa
Hayters: Mrs Musgrove’s family by birth; Charles Hayter is a cousin of Charles, Henrietta and Louisa’s
Crofts: Admiral Croft and his wife; tenants of Kellynch Hall; Mrs Croft is a sister of Captain Wentworth’s
Harvilles from Lyme: Captain Harville and his wife are friends of Captain Wentworth’s
and many more characters who are connected in an intricate way.

My last full-length Jane Austen novel. It is a bittersweet sentiment indeed. Reading Persuasion was a most enjoyable reading experience when it comes to reading classics – excluding children’s classics, I can’t remember ever reading a classic so quickly – devouring, really – and without being bored at all. I think reading Margaret C. Sullivan’s The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England contributed to that enjoyment a lot. It’s the little details that flesh out the overall story. Thanks to this handy guide I could understand why Mary Musgrove was miffed when the Crofts hadn’t offered to take any letters with them to Bath, or why she relished in it when they did offer and said that now she could write as much as she wanted to. The casual mentions of bathing and Pump Rooms were no longer foreign to me, nor the daily routines of Regency ladies.

Alas, I am getting ahead of myself.
After having read all six of Jane Austen’s “mature” full-length novels with varying degrees of understanding, it is my opinion that Persuasion is quite different from the others. The sometimes comical, often amused observations of the society and its inhabitants were rather pushed into the background. It’s emotionally charged, quite direct in its narration and story development, and more forthright and honest. It was – very raw.
The narration observes and remarks at Anne Elliot’s vain and selfish family members – Sir Walter, Miss Elizabeth, Mrs Mary – who are concerned with ranks and superficial etiquettes, etc. Even Lady Russell, who is a dear friend of Anne’s and has her best interests at heart, tends to judge people from their surface – their initial mannerism, their looks, their sense of propriety, etc. In contrast we have the Musgroves at Uppercross, a family by marriage (Anne’s younger sister Mary married Charles Musgrove) that is a bit chaotic and less – refined? – but warm and affectionate. But all of this is cloaked in Anne’s internal agitation of having to face her ex-fiancé eight years after she had broken off their engagement, and the tension between them when they do come face-to-face.
Unraveling that tension is really exquisitely done. Like a frustrating knot in a thread coming slowly and patiently undone, buried resentments and feelings, along with rational and reasonable approach disengage and entwine them, and it all ends in – what else? – a passionate reunion.

Around the stories of two people and their shared past, present and future are other interesting threads adding to the story. Or rather, Anne and Frederick’s story often doesn’t feel like it’s the main plot. Maybe it isn’t, and it wasn’t meant to be. Because around and underneath and over it are all the other things Persuasion has to teach us: deception in characters, being blinded by familiarity and superficial impressions, vanity, money-managing problems, hopes and pitfalls of love, snobbery (and lots of it!), walking the line between much-craved solitude and being rude to company, and this one interesting dialogue between Anne and Captain Harville:

Anne: “We [the women] certainly do not forget you [the men] so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always professions, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.”
Captain Harville: “Granting your assertion that the world does all this so soon for men […], it does not apply to [NAME REDACTED]. He has not been forced upon any exertion. […]”
A: “True, very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man’s nature, which has done the business for [NAME REDACTED].”
Cpt H: “No, no, it is not man’s nature. I will not allow it to be more man’s nature than woman’s to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved. I believe the reverse. I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather.”
A: “Your feelings may be the strongest, but the same spirit of analogy will authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. […]”
Cpt H: “We shall never agree I suppose at this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. […] I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
A: “Perhaps I shall. […] It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle […]. I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives […] so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”
Persuasion, Volume II, Chapter Eleven

Interesting theories (a letter disproves Anne’s latest theory immediately afterwards, by the way) but I dare say I am not the only one who reads other allusions between the lines! Gender inequality! Gender roles! Gender privileges!
The situation has changed so much since 19th century – women can and do work alongside men, even though we still suffer from hidden inequality and prejudices. I wonder whether Anne’s theories would still be applicable.

All in all, I can only recommend you to read, feel and think about Persuasion and what it offers.

P.S.: Here is a video review of Persuasion by Claire (readingbukowski) that made me curious about the book in the first place – a year and a half ago. It’s funny how we use the same words to describe the feelings inspired by the book (she talks about the letter specifically) – “passionate, forward, raw, truthful”. She gives a more extensive overview of important themes portrayed in the book.

Classics Club Challenge #5: A Little Princess

A Little Princess (Wordsworth white cover)A Little Princess
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
as an expanded story on a previous short story called Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s (1887 – 1888)
first published in 1905
first read Dec 20th – 25th 2014

Sara Crewe, the only daughter of Captain Crewe and his deceased wife, was born in India and lived with her father until she was five years old. The book opens when Captain Crewe reluctantly places his dear daughter and uplifting companion in Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Sara, even though only seven years old, is a quiet, steady and serious child who loves to read and make up wonderful stories. Her father delights in her “queer” remarks.
Sara is treated as a “show pupil” at Miss Minchin’s because the headmistress (Miss Minchin) knows her father is a young, wealthy captain willing to pay a lot to the school that sees his daughter comfortable and well-settled. She has the best rooms, beautiful clothes, a lot of expensive toys and adults who shower praises. Yet she does not grow up a spoiled, selfish child – just the opposite. Instead, she sees through Miss Minchin’s fakeness, finds a friend in the school’s scullery maid, Becky, becomes a substitute mother to a five-year-old girl, and becomes best friends with Ermengarde, who is shunned because she is physically not attractive and can’t keep her lessons in her head. Sara continues to make up delightful, enticing stories to amuse herself and her friends.
The tragedy strikes (more than one-third into the book but less than one-half) when her father dies in India after having lost his entire fortune, leaving Sara a penniless orphan. Miss Minchin bans her to the attic so she can be ordered around as a maid for everything.

Sara Crewe was and is not an easy character to relate to. For a young girl of seven and later nine years old (the latter when her papa dies), Sara is remarkably well-composed, polite, intelligent, and wise beyond her years. She is what one might called “old soul, I suppose. At the same time, she has a vivid imagination and is a wonderful storyteller – the kind that draws even the most reluctant people in. With so much goodness in one person, how believable can the person be?
Of course, there’s the turning point when she loses all her privileges and has to work hard and hungry. I wanted a more in-depth examination of Sara’s feelings and reactions towards the downright nasty Miss Minchin and the downstairs staff. She is worn out, tired and sometimes cross, but all in all Sara bears these hardships quietly and with dignity. She pretends that she is a prisoner in the Bastille, that she is a penniless princess who gives bread to even hungrier children when she herself is so hungry she can feel a constant gnawing ache in her stomach. She is polite to the people who say mean, harsh things and make her work like a slave. She never admits to anybody how exhausted, hungry and weepy she feels inside because of her “proud little heart”. … and she is still only nine years old.
A Little Princess was directed at children, so I understand Frances Hodgson Burnett wanted to simplify human emotions and human nature, and that she wanted to set a sort of example for the children, or something. But I still wish Sara were a bit more flawed like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden.

But even though my inability to fully embrace Sara Crewe as a fleshed-out character, A Little Princess has its charms. The descriptions of both materialistic and the nature is both simple and beautiful. There are many small, odd moments that leave sharp impressions and can be pieced together to recall the story to my mind.

I don’t think Sara fully realizes this, but as her situation becomes bleak and she becomes emotionally deprived, she starts to emotionally rely on living creatures instead of her doll, Emily. The sparrows, Melchisedec and his family, even the monkey. And of course Becky, Ermengarde and Lottie. Even the people she keeps tabs on by observing their lives. It’s quite heart-breaking. And I have to think of Becky, who has had it worse than Sara and who is just as emotionally deprived. But her struggles are kind of dismissed as secondary because… because what? Because her life has been constantly hard? Because she can’t read and write and thus doesn’t feel the emptiness as acutely? Because she’s “stupid”?
I would like to have Becky’s character to be more than the stereotypical “simple, hard-working and protagonist-worshipping maid”. Same goes for Ermengarde, although she is the daughter of a wealthy man.

November Reading Theme

What-ho, people! Since The Classics Club is hosting a Victorian Literature Month and coupled with The Pickwick Papers read-along over at An Armchair By The Sea, I suddenly had an idea how to shape my reading in November.

The read-along starts mid-November but since I will try to finish the book by the end of this month, I’ll have to start reading The Pickwick Papers earlier. It’s a huge book, so that will have to be the only classic for the month. Going along with the Victorian theme, however, I will (obviously) reading Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger as well as The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y. S. Lee. So I’ve got three books to look forward to that are all set in Victorian England – one classic, one steampunk, one historical fiction!

Who needs the present anyway? Right?

The Pickwick Papers (Wordsworth Editions, black)Waistcoats & WeaponryThe Traitor in the Tunnel

Classics Club Challenge #4: Jo’s Boys

Jo's BoysJo’s Boys
by Louisa May Alcott
as a sequel to Little Women, Good Wives and Little Men
first published in 1886

Sich zu lieben, heißt, dass man manchmal auch streng mit sich selbst sein muss…
(No, it’s not a quote.)

Jo’s “boys” and “girls” are grown up, and we follow them as they manage to navigate in the big, somewhat scary world of being “adults”. Curious about how Nat, Demi, Daisy, Josie, Bess, Tommy Bangs, Franz, Emil, Rob, Teddy, Dan, Nan, Stuffy and Dolly turned out? Then look no further. Although it is really a lot of kids, Louisa May Alcott manages to keep tabs on everyone. Let’s see – Nat is studying music in Germany, Demi tries his hand at journalism, Daisy is faithfully waiting for Nat, Josie and Bess are invested in their artistic careers/hobbies/lives, Tommy still pines after Nan and goes even to the detested med school with her, Nan meanwhile is flourishing in her studies, Franz is a merchant in Hamburg, Emil a sailor, Rob still the “little professor”. Teddy is restless and full of mischief, Dan sets out to the wide world, Stuffy and Dolly are studying law, of all things. Oh, and there is a love bug in the air, too.
Now, the older generation is quite a bore (as it has been since Little Men) because they are the responsible, wise grown-ups doling out wisdom to the kids whenever they need it. Despite the sarcasm you hear in that previous sentence, I didn’t mind this as much. It’s just that I’m terribly fond of the Marches (who isn’t?) and wish that they had been portrayed more realistically – with problems and struggles of their own.

The terrific thing about Jo’s Boys is that it manages to reach across the continent, culture, language and time – its words, written more than a hundred years ago, find their way to this Korean girl in the twenty-first century as she struggles to juggle her studies, hobbies and taking care of herself. It addresses issues that are still relevant today – Nat’s careless spending of other people’s money, Dan’s temper, Teddy’s restless spirit, feminism (and lots of that, too!), Stuffy’s laziness, Dolly’s fastidious obsession with the surface. Almost unrealistic in its simplicity (do good, and you’ll end up well; do bad and you’ll end up bad), Jo’s Boys gave me the push to resolve to be a better person. Because trying to be a better version of yourself is a timeless challenge. It doesn’t matter that instead of theater, opera and afternoon teas, my distractions are my smartphone, the internet and my fear of being alone. This book, coupled with Ashley’s video (seriously, where would I be without her insightful words?), has made me realize where the focus of my concentration should be: with my studies. I should be trying to absorb as much as I can from the many opportunities that my university offers. My time and energy shouldn’t be wasted trying to read as many “quick” books as possible and staying up till 3 AM playing games on my phone.
If you strip all of this away, an unpleasant truth emerges. I’ve been staying up as late as possible to exhaust myself so I’ll fall asleep right away, so that I won’t have to spend the few minutes in the dark because I’m afraid to be left alone with my thoughts without anything to distract me from them. My fear to be myself. Although “being oneself” is such an abstract concept I think you know when you are faking your personality. I was taking the easy way out. Telling myself, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to finally read the classics you wanted? To write a review about that book that is still haunting my thoughts? To go over my exam to see what I did wrong? To prepare for the upcoming semester? To write that twenty-page paper? I thought about all the things I could do to improve myself, to feel better about myself. Thinking isn’t doing. And at the end of the day, I “consoled” myself by saying that I hadn’t given a 100%, so I could have been better. That I still had that potential. Fuck the potential. You could have the potential to bring world peace about, but if you don’t do anything with that potential, it’s more wasted than a rotten apple. Stop thinking about all the glorifying potential you might or might not have. Just do it. That’s what I needed to hear (from myself, as there is no Mother Bhaer or Father Bhaer in my vicinity), so that’s what I eventually did. It gave me courage to see all the young people from Jo’s Boys fall into the pits of temptation, and to see them crawl out of them again.

Lastly, feminism. There are different sorts of girls represented in this novel. Daisy has her heart set on being with Nat and becoming an excellent house wife. Nan is determined to become a doctor and help people, and doesn’t really want to have to take care of a family, too. Josie and Bess are absorbed in acting and sculpting, respectively, but they assume they will marry sometime. Of course, there are also Mary and Dora who embody the “virtues” that girls at that time were praised for having – you know, being delicate and humble and looking up to the males nearest to them. But there is that scene in which Bess quietly disses Dolly when he tries to “teach” her and Josie how “young ladies in good society” ought to behave. And there’s another in which young girls realize that marriage isn’t everything and that they could “become noble, useful, and independent women, and earn for themselves some sweet title the grateful lips of the poor, better than any a queen could bestow.” (p. 258, end of Chapter 17)

There’s one criticism linked to the last paragraph, and that’s the 18th century’s equivalent of slut-shaming. Mrs Jo differentiates between “frivolous girls” and girls who love studies and wish to be treated like reasonable human beings, not “dolls to be flirted with”. There are other instances in which she vilifies other women for being greedy creatures and temptresses. Well, that takes the humanity right out of them, doesn’t it? So it’s okay not to treat those other women as reasonable human beings? If a person succumbs to a temptation, only the person who poses the temptation is at fault? That’s some wacky logic there, Mrs Jo.

The book actually ends on a slightly fed-up tone of the narrator, who half-jokingly says that “[i]t is a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present tale with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield and its environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no youthful Schliemann could ever find a vestige of it.” But to spare the gentle readers’ feelings, the historian flippantly ticks off what has become of all the characters. The last line says it all, really: “And now, having endeavoured to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall for ever on the March family.” Well, someone seems to have had it enough.

P.S.: The chapter about the three plays – the middle play was dedicated to Marmee, it seems.

The Classics Club Challenge (5)

So I haven’t done an update in three months (shocked gasp!) mainly because I haven’t read much classics. Or hardly at all.

News #1: I’ve started Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons, read the first two chapters, got fed up with his obsession with virgins, and haven’t touched it since.

News #2: I finished another classic! It’s a novella of 70 pages, but I decided to let it count. Quite enjoyable, lots of tongue-in-cheek moments. Oh, and it’s called Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. Some people say it’s a fore-runner to Cranford.

News #3: I’ve started and finished The Doom of the Griffiths, which was tragic and engrossing and had a chillingly beautiful landscape. Review will be up with other two Gaskell short stories, which all will count together as one “book”.

News #4: I’ve started Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is another novella contained in my edition. I’m somehow stuck in the middle, though.  I don’t remember much of details already. Manasseh is the creepy older brother/cousin. Prudence is an occasionally evil brat. The Indian servant likes to scare children. Lois’ uncle is soon dead, and her aunt-in-law is not very welcoming. Faith, the middle cousin, is unlucky in love, I believe? And through all this, the witch craze is going through the country. Oh, Lois is an orphan from England, of course, who sailed across the ocean to the New World after her parents died. Gah, still have a lot to go.

News #5: I’ve started Shirley by Charlotte Brontë. The warning in the first sentence is true, you know. It truly is not another Jane Eyre. Instead, Shirley plays off of another angle – and historical background knowledge is needed here. Napoleonic Wars, industrial unrest in England, United States cutting off trades, Luddite attacks, what-have-you. All of this made it harder to sludge through the book, and the only main character we’ve met so far – Robert Moore – well, isn’t he a bright personality. NO, he’s not, he’s quite sharp and focused and a smart businessman, it seems, but he’s also a little… dull. So far. The heroine that gave the book its name hasn’t even been mentioned, and won’t grace us with her appearance for some time to come, I hear.

Classics Club Challenge #3: “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”

Cranford & Other Stories

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions by Elizabeth Gaskell
originally published in 1851

first read on May 22nd 2014

The arrival of a bachelor doctor in the small town Duncombe causes for an internal uproar for its inhabitants – it seems young ladies find themselves more frequently sick now that they have a new doctor in town. Matrons are keeping a sharp eye out for a possible match with their young female charge and/or sharp ears out for possible gossip. What Mr. Harrison does not expect is that every gesture he makes and every word he says will be carefully analyzed and carelessly blown out of their proportion. Generally understood as Cranford in miniature or a prequel to Cranford (although the characters and settings are in no way related to each other), Mr. Harrison’s Confessions is a delightful story – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant (as the narrator is a doctor, and he can’t cure everything) – that captures the comings and goings of a small town in a witty and exaggerated way.

I have to confess I am not a lover of short stories. I prefer full-length novel to 20-page short story out of various reasons, one of which is that 20 pages (or 30, or 40) are way too short for me to get acquainted with, and attached to, the characters. Also, reading one short story after another will inevitably cause the effect of you scratching your head at the end of the day, wondering what exactly happened in this story, and did this detail belong to that one?
These were the reasons why I was wary of reading the six short stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are contained in this volume (Mr. Harrison’s Confessions being the first of the lot). But I have to say I am pleasantly surprised! It played in my favor that Mr. Harrison’s Confessions is categorized as novella and not short story regarding the length (on Wikipedia, anyway; also, compared to the next story, The Doom of the Griffiths), allowing me the room and time to get to know the narrator, Will/Frank Harrison (in the first page it’s Will, then all throughout the novella Frank), and the “secondary” characters – Mr. Morgan, Mrs. Rose, Miss Caroline, Miss Sophy, the Bullocks, Miss Horseman, Mrs. Munton, and so on.

The story is told in retrospective; Mr. Harrison, now married to someone whose name is not revealed (yet), and with a baby, is entertaining his friend Charles, who asks Mr. Harrison to pray tell how he got himself such a pretty wife and domestic bliss? So Mr. Harrison starts his narration, which does have a feel of “story within the story” if it weren’t for the occasional reference to the presence. The ending is rather abrupt although everything is wrapped up, as his narration stops once his wife comes back from having put the baby to sleep (which took awfully long if you consider Mr. Harrison had about 70 pages to tell his story).

I can see why this novella is compared to Cranford – small town, fast spreading rumors, female population in abundance etc. – but I rather delighted in the different details that Mr. Harrison’s Confessions had that Cranford didn’t. For one, we have a male narrator who is rather dense and insensitive, yet not boring in narration. His colleague/supervisor/advisor Mr. Morgan made also a welcome addition that sometimes fueled the conflict and other times soothed Mr. Harrison. Jack, who caused most of the strife in the short amount of time of his visit, I still remember with fondness, even though if he did the same thing to me, I wouldn’t be as forgiving.

It was also very fascinating to observe – and confirm my observations of real life – how being told that someone is in love with us changes our opinion of that person. Like, you might think you are just very fond of this person, but once another person tells you – mumble mumble mumble – that s_he is sure that that person is in love with you, your opinion of that person changes. First you are flattered (it might stop there, but it rarely does in my limited experience of the world), then you become flustered until you’ve convinced yourself in love with that person also. Fortunately, once the (in this case) the mistaken information is corrected, you huff and puff for a while and then calm down. *Wink* I’m looking at you, Mrs. Rose. Although not only you, to be fair.

Classics Club Challenge #2: Emma

Emma (Wordsworth previous edition)Emma by Jane Austen
originally published in December 1815 in three volumes by John Murray (which is now owned by Hachette UK)
dedicated to the Prince Regent, by his own suggestion

I bought Emma in the summer of 2009 – on August 28th, to be exact, as my scrawl shows. I was fifteen and stupid, and this book was collecting dust until last year.
I started reading Emma around December 2013; I made it past Chapter 10 and a couple more until I set it down. I picked it up and started where I’d left off on March 11th 2014. I finished it eleven days later, on March 22nd.

Like Pride and Prejudice, I have watched a movie adaptation of Emma (some years ago) before reading the book, so I knew vaguely the most important plot points. Because of this, I was never really surprised, but I don’t think it has robbed me of the first-time reading experience, either. In fact, knowing the story beforehand has enhanced it. I couldn’t tell you how or why; I’m puzzled myself.

Emma is about a young woman named Emma Woodhouse (20), who has wealth as well as social rank, and the events that happen in her village, Highbury (which has three big estates – Hartfield, Donwell Abbey and Randalls): there are weddings (in the beginning, middle and end); new people enter the village and cause excitement; Emma makes a new friend in Harriet Smith, an illegitimate daughter of someone and who was abandoned as a baby or small child; Emma acquires a taste for match-making that causes some disastrous results.

Emma is intelligent but lacks the discipline or avid interest to develop her intellect further. She is independently wealthy and since her mother’s death (when she was an infant), she has been acting as the mistress of Hartfield. Emma has an elder sister, Isabella, who has married John Knightley of Donwell Abbey, which makes his older brother, Mr George Knightley, and Emma brother- and sister-in-laws. George Knightley is considerably (17 years, Wikipedia says) older than Emma, and is her friend, confidant and critic.
Emma cares for her old father who is a bit of a hypochondriac, but in a very sweet way. He worries about the health of others, saying that it is too cold or too warm, that people shouldn’t eat so much sweet stuff or drink too much wine, etc. Mr. Woodhouse can be a little bit annoying sometimes, but he was very endearing to me, the way he didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings and worrying too much. Emma is extremely fond of him, and she and George Knightley are the ones who usually smooth over his worries.

Emma is different from the other Austen heroines I’ve encountered so far (who are Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Catherine Morland). Emma’s a rich heiress, as opposed to the poor (especially Fanny’s situation is dire) or impoverished (Lizzie’s family is just hanging on) situations the other heroines find themselves in. Emma is also the character that Austen has pronounced that no one will like but herself, and it’s easy (for me, at least) to see why. Lizzie is witty and sarcastic, prejudiced but quick to redeem herself; Elinor is a very steady character, the kind of calm woman you look for when in distress; Marianne lives passionately, the kind of burning fire that quite some of us experience in youth; Fanny might be “boring” but she draws a clear line between right and wrong, and sticks to it, which I appreciate; Catherine is naive, but endearingly so.

And Emma?  Emma clearly assumes an air of superiority that comes as much from her heritage as from her pride for her witty, clever self. She meddles with other people’s affairs and thinks she can pierce through their soul to see their feelings. Once she decides she doesn’t like someone, she’s quite definite about it, although maybe not as much as Lizzie.
Her opinion of Harriet Smith also switches back and forth as it suits her. At first she pronounces Harriet to be a beautiful young woman (albeit not especially bright-minded or clever), and she’s flattered by Harriet’s naivety and her female, friendly worship of Emma. She advises Harriet to decline Mr. Martin the farmer’s proposal, saying she can do much better. Then Emma proceeds to play the match-maker between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar, which turns out to be a very bad idea. Still, Emma keeps telling herself and Harriet that Mr. Elton is not the man they thought he was (which is true). And then, when Harriet starts looking up to Mr. Knightley and sets her eyes on him, Emma swiftly announces that action as imprudent and calls her vain. She says something to the effect of How dare she set her eyes on the wealthy, kind, and superior in mind, generosity and intellect gentleman! She’s only an orphan, and an illegitimate daughter of who-knows-whom! And quite stupid. Oh no, I have encouraged her vanity! That’s kind of a double standard. When Emma ruins the marriage prospect between Mr Martin and Harriet, Mr Knightley is at first furious, saying that with Harriet’s status, Mr Martin would have been a very good match for her. Emma argues that it isn’t so; She say that Harriet is still a gentlewoman although her origins are not clear, and that she shouldn’t settle so low. Now Emma’s at despair because Harriet wants to marry a rich, nice and kind man. Well, I’m at loss. I get that Emma has just realized that she’s in love with Mr Knightley herself, so that must have gotten her churned up.
But still, this is the only aspect of the novel I genuinely disliked. Harriet Smith, who is an individual with thoughts and feelings, is tossed around by the characters as it suits them. Instead of guarding her innocence and trying to guide her into developing her own sense of mind so someday she will be able to depend on herself, she is either the sweetest person ever or a fifth wheel. Yes, she sometimes says stupid things. But if everyone who says stupid things should be married to a farmer because of that, the world would need a whole lotta more farmers.

All this aside, I have to say that I did enjoy Emma as a whole and also Emma herself. Yes, she’s sometimes carelessly mean just because she wants to be witty. Yes, she just tolerates “lowly” genteel people because she’s the star of Highbury, a position she wants to keep.
I like Emma, but not because she redeems herself a bit towards the end. No, I grew to like her even before that because she’s human. So full of life and funny, and so petty and ugly sometimes. Isn’t that how we all are? We have agreeable days on which we manage to be compassionate, quick to help others, have a spring in steps, prone to smiles. Then there are other days on which we are irritable, impatient and feeling just a little bit cruel. Some of us regret after lashing out on others. Some probably don’t. Emma never particularly used to regret thinking ill of someone until the Box Hill picnic day. And that’s okay. We weren’t born self-criticizing and regretting our actions. Either we learned to do it gradually, or we had a catalyst like Emma.
So yeah, I like her.

There are other individuals I’d like to briefly touch upon: Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax (I won’t waste my words on Frank Churchill), the Eltons.

Miss Bates is an older lady and a chatterbox. Not in a gossip-y way, but she is a running monologue-holder whose narration exclaims every little detail. Mr. Woodhouse is quite fond of the Bates, and he and Mr Knightley might be the only ones outside the family who listen to her patiently and with interest. Miss Bates used to be quite well off and in a good social standing but now she lives in a small house with her old mother. Yet Miss Bates (who is in her 40s or 50s herself, I think) is never resentful about her situation. She’s quite grateful for what she’s got, and for the people who visit her and her mother. She probably hasn’t been trying much of my patience because her page-long monologues were mentioned only three or four times; but I still admire her cheerful, I-see-only-the-good kind of quality.

Jane Fairfax, niece to Miss Bates, is quite the opposite of Emma. After her parents’ death, she grew up with her father’s friend, the Campbells. But she has no fortune, so she resolves to work as a governess after the summer spend in Highbury. Jane is quiet and reserved, and quite patient with everyone, even with that Mrs Elton. Emma assumes an instant dislike to Jane even before the novel starts (because Jane is no newcomer to Highbury) but the quiet introverted me didn’t mind Jane one bit. Maybe it’s because I knew the reason behind her cold-shoulderedness to Emma.

Now we come to the Eltons, whom I dislike as much as I do Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice. They are all three so full of themselves, but Mr Collins has the misfortune of being stupid, too. So he has no idea how he sounds when he says egoistic, condescending or stupid (very often all three at the same time) things. The Eltons, however, or conscious of their social surroundings, and adjust their self-compliments and digs at others accordingly. So while I did not have to endure comments as inane as Mr Collins’, knowing what they were actually thinking made me more mad at them. Of all the self-interested, vulgar women he could have married! Really, Mr Elton, your smarmy self has never appealed to me, but after your marriage you got even worse. A lot worse.

Before I put an end to my long, long rambling (and thus your agony of reading it, if you actually have made it so far), I’d like to mention a tiny scene from Chapter 10. It’s when Emma and Harriet go visit the poor people.

“Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little […]. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and […] she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away, ‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear! I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind? (Chapter 10 of Emma, or p. 69 out of 390)'”

This scene can be interpreted in many ways, I suppose. It could be Austen’s way of showing Emma’s kind and compassionate side. It could be a subtle criticism at rich people that their problems are indeed small and mundane ones compared to the ones of the poor. Or it could be a criticism aimed at Emma herself that while she vows she should never forget these sights (those lines follow the paragraph above), she very soon does. But then again, maybe Austen used Emma as a personification for the careless wealthy, which would in turn be a Criticism #2…
There are many ways for intepretation, I reckon, but for me it was – and is – a personal hit as well.

Classics Club Challenge #1: Little Men

Little MenLittle Men
by Louisa May Alcott
originally published in 1871 by Robert Brothers, later bought by Little, Brown
(thus the caption “From the Original Publisher”)

It took me a few weeks or a year to read this book, depending on how you count. I started Little Men about a year ago on my Kindle. I finished it on March 7th this year. I made it through about three-fourth of the book before switching to the paperback edition – a wise decision, too. I just don’t like the font type of my Kindle.

I didn’t go into Little Men expecting it to be like Little Women. In Little Women, and to a certain extent also in Good Wives, Part II of Little Women, we meet the March girls as they go from young, creative, blundering girls to mature women who go their own path – although many grumble that the separate ways all led back to marital bliss. In the back of my edition of Little Women, there is an essay about how Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to write a sequel and thus “married [them] off in a very stupid style”.

Little Men is about Jo and Fritz Bhaer’s school for boys (and a few girls) in Plumfield that the readers saw as established at the end of Little Women (or Good Wives, if you have separate editions of these two). We meet a bunch of new characters, some more important and some less so. They study, play and learn to be amiable and good. Sometimes it’s very touching, often cozy and every now and then rather dull.

My only(?) complaint was that Little Men was so set on making good men out of these little lads that the adults around them who acted as inspiration were just too good. Too saint-like. Not at all realistic. Mother and Father Bhaer, as they are called, had a bottomless well of patience and pocketful of second chances. They knew just what to say, or do, to make the boys realize their mistakes, and ingrain the lessons with love.
Same goes for all the other adults whose teenagerhood we had watched in the previous book(s): Meg and John Brooke, Amy and Laurie. I grew up reading and re-reading about their struggles to overcome, or at least deal with, their faults: Meg with her vanity, Amy with her primness, Laurie with his laziness, and Jo with her temper. Now they were adults with no faults at all, which made me sad because they weren’t real anymore. They had become robots who say the right thing at the right time.
Especially Laurie and Amy just fell flat, flat, flat. They are sponsors for young, struggling artists but other than that they have no remarkable characteristics.
Meg was serene and a dutiful mother, wife, woman and Christian. Her husband’s more so – he is like the most disciplined man in the world. He didn’t make much money but he saved all he had, without indulging himself in any way except for the charity (which is an indulgence per se), so he could pay back all the debts he had and secure an independent future for his wife and children should he die early (which he did). And Meg takes all this quite calmly – no dramatic heaving fits, no despair over the loss of her beloved husband. No, it’s more like: He’s at a better place now. We should all be happy for him. Ugh.

That’s another point that bothered me – the whole Christian lecture in every chapter. It’s not like a Bible study, or even preach-y. In Little Women Marmee told her girls to be good and how to overcome their ego and be helpful, all the while leaning on the Christian values. It’s similarly done in Little Men, but amplified by times ten.
I don’t have anything against Christianity as a religion (what some people do in the name of Christianity – or any other religion – is another thing), and I accept Christian values as something people should remind themselves of, or even aspire to be. But I draw a line at remaining realistic, and being true to yourself and your nature.
I’m no Hobbes, I don’t believe humans are doomed from the moment of birth, but I do see that most of them (the humans) grow up to be rather self-centered and greedy. Greedy for love, material goods, attention, you name it. Maybe Louisa May Alcott was trying to beat these tendencies down at the young age, but to me Plumfield was a utopia.
The boys themselves are no angels. They make mistakes, they are sometimes spiteful, they tease each other. They are children still – carefree and childish, full of excitement. Especially the new characters – Nat and Dan, bless them both – had trouble adapting to Plumfield. But the way how they all came to understand the morals of the events in the end of the chapters was just too good to be true.

Here is what I did like: the boys. Jo’s boys with their foolish jokes and tender hearts, ignorant remarks and helpful hands. Especially Dan, Demi, Nat and Tommy Bangs took to my heart in all different ways. I also appreciated the character of Nan, who is a tomboy, loud and opinionated, but also a free spirit and aspiring to become a doctor. Her character represented a part of the female population whose ambition isn’t to settle down and live in domestic bliss (there is nothing wrong with it if you do). Later in Jo’s Boys she is studying Medicine and I just really like Nan’s independence and her way of thinking.

Louisa May Alcott also values the nature greatly – or at least Mr and Mrs Bhaer do, anyway. For them, growing up and learning don’t mean studying textbooks only. It also means going out, taking walks, learning the cycle and system of the nature. Being a bookworm like Demi isn’t always a good thing according to them. It was a different perspective compared to the time period and culture I grew up in.

Should you read Little Men?
Only if you 1) have read Little Women, 2) like reading stories about children, and 3) wish to go back to a childhood you didn’t have.
But please do not expect the same atmosphere as Little Women. You are bound to be disappointed if you do. Little Men is part charming and part frustrating all on its own way.

Book Review: A Spy in the House (Y. S. Lee)

A Spy in the HouseTitle: A Spy in the House
Series: The Agency #1
Author: Y. S. Lee
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication year: 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction; Victorian-era
Rating: 4/5

Sentenced as a thief at the age of twelve, Mary Quinn is rescued from the gallows and taken to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, Mary acquires a singular education, fine manners, and a surprising opportunity. The school is the cover for the Agency – a top secret corps of female investigators with a reputation for results – and at seventeen, Mary’s about to join their ranks. She must work in the guise of a lady’s companion to infiltrate a rich merchant’s home with hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the Thorold household is full of dangerous secrets, and people are not what they seem – least of all Mary.
(from the blurb – because it’s a well-written one and I’m too tired to think)

I remember reading A Spy in the House for the first time about two and a half years ago and being slightly thwarted by terms like “drawing-room”, “lady’s maid”, “skivvy”, “footmen”, “Lascar”, etc. Thanks to my education in British upper-class society through Downton Abbey, I was able to put the story into a richer context the second time around.
The year is 1858, and the author has actually Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture, so her description of the Victorian society Mary lives in is not only vivid but also accurate – I suppose. The setting is London, and the Great Stink of Thames makes it not the most romantic stage – and it’s not meant to.

The story is not just one of detective story. I rather found the underlining sub-plots more interesting: gender roles, women’s positions in the society (even James Easton undermines Mary’s ability every now and then although he has seen firsthand what she can do), the gap between the employers and employees, the trade with India, Chinamen and the discriminations they have to face. These finer points are emphasized and brought to life through Miss Thorold’s restlessness with her life without even consciously realizing it, through men’s comments on women and “what they are supposed to do” (shop and admire wedding dresses, if you are a middle class girl, apparently), through the life of the scullery maid, Cass, through Mary’s conversation with Mr. Chen (that had a personal touch to it – at least to me), and more.

The investigation itself is rather slow-going, but it is fueled by the assistance of one James Easton, a character you will soon meet – about 50 pages into the novel. As I have mentioned before, James did frustrate me sometimes with his careless remarks but I did enjoy his and Mary’s easy banter. James Easton is a character that is easy to like although he can be pig-headed, because he does not dismiss the notion that women can be as intelligent and sharp as men. The difference between him and the “normal” behavior of a Victorian gentleman is shown in the scene where he, his brother, Miss Thorold and Mary discuss the Crimean War. Miss Thorold plays the “typical” (I assume) role of a clueless Victorian middle-class girl while George Easton is indignant at Mary having an actual opinion on such matters as wars. James is not fazed though, and continues to debate the matter with Mary, each provoking the other.

The language the author employs is a little hesitant and simple at first, even a bit repetitive. It gets better as the story progresses, creating a mix of Victorian terms and expressions and modern language to help the readers’ understanding.

All in all, the book started out as a 3.5 and progressed into a solid 4, and if you like historical fiction and/or interested in the Victorian era and women’s positions and the opportunities they had (or the lack thereof), A Spy in the House is for you.
To the readers who have already read this book: I’m happy to inform you that the few loose ends in the book are wrapped up in the upcoming final book of the series, Rivals in the City.