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The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins

A Review

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Published in 1860, The Woman in White, in its language and style, is very much a novel of its time, adopting first person multiple narratives, melodrama and bizarre coincidences in its telling. It is a mystery thriller, almost gothic in tone, combining themes that resonate even today: the equality of women (or rather absence of equality), and their treatment in Victorian society; attitudes to marriage, to mental illness, illegitimacy and, above all, the hypocrisy of Virtue.

For all its nineteenth century ‘feel’, The Woman in White is nevertheless a page-turner of a story that belongs in any century, a story of love, betrayal, corruption and ultimately natural justice. Many of its elements have been copied in modern literature, giving twists to the original that would have been incomprehensible to an 1860s readership. I am thinking here, for example, of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, with its near-Dickensian plotline.

Walter Hartright meets Anne Catherick for the first time in London, on the eve of his journey to Cumbria to take up an appointment as drawing master to two young ladies. Anne has escaped from a private asylum and is being pursued by two men with the objective of unjustly reconfining her there. Walter helps her escape.

Arriving at Limmeridge, the country home of Frederick Fairlie, Walter begins teaching his two nieces, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. He falls in love with Laura. However, she is betrothed by her late father’s wish to Sir Percival Glyde and despite her feelings for Walter refuses to withdraw from the match. It is clear from early on that Glyde is a villain, cares nothing for Laura and is only interested in her inheritance – which will come to him if she dies childless.

‘I hate Sir Percival! I flatly deny his good looks. I consider him to be eminently ill-tempered and disagreeable’ [Marian Halcombe]

The sinister scheme devised by Glyde’s equally grasping associate Count Fosco (related by marriage to the Fairlies and having thereby a financial interest himself) is brilliant in conception and execution. It has only one flaw, one that Walter, with Marian’s help, must discover if he is to save Laura.

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Wrapped up in the main plot is a second mystery, a secret shared by Glyde, Anne Catherick’s mother and (possibly) by Anne herself. Glyde will go to any lengths to protect it. This element, along with the unusual physical resemblance between Laura and Anne, provides additional suspense throughout.

Collins does his best to give his characters individuality in their narratives but only partly succeeds. Many of their names are wonderfully onomatopoetic in a Dickensian sense. However, some of the players in The Woman in White, even the main ones, may be seen as types rather than true individuals. Despite this, the author succeeds in engaging his reader with his hero and heroine(s). We want to know what happens to them, that they get out of their predicament and are united in the end. And Glyde, Fosco and Eleanor (Fosco) are suitably despicable and villainous.

The one true original among the cast is Count Fosco with his corpulence, striking wardrobe and menagerie of exotic birds and mice. Despite his scheming he is not without good qualities.

‘There sat the Count, filling out the largest easy-chair in the house, smoking and reading calmly, with his feet on an ottoman, his cravat across his knees, and his shirt collar wide open.’

‘… he is immensely fat.’ [Marian Halcombe]

‘The same livid leaden change passed over his face … The deadly glitter in his eyes shone steady and straight into mine. He said nothing. But his left hand opened the table drawer, and softly slipped into it.’ [Walter Hartright]

‘Deplorable and uncharacteristic fault! Behold the cause, in my heart – behold in the image of Marian Halcombe, the first and last weakness of Fosco’s life!’ [Count Fosco]

One cannot admire Fosco; he is not a lovable rogue like Fagan. But there are few more unique, more colourful, and more scary villains in all fiction.

*****

 

 

Tempus Fugit!

Second Anniversary

It seems I’ve just passed the second anniversary of my blog here on WordPress.  I’ve written 51 posts in the past year, but have fallen behind my Classics Club reading, managing only 5 classics book reviews against a target of 10. There are so many other interesting and compelling books to read and to write about, from detective thrillers to historical fiction, biographies and other non-fiction (and even two books about economics!) that I don’t feel at all guilty at the lapse.

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Of course, I can’t predict where fancy will take me in the next twelve months so, meantime, a grateful thank you to all my readers out there. Thanks for reading, for liking or for following – or indeed for all three.

And a happy Independence Day tomorrow to friends in the United States!

******

Lucky Strike

silkwmThe Silkworm

by Robert Galbraith

In her second novel in the persona of Galbraith, JK Rowling’s war hero detective Cormoran Strike takes on a case involving missing writer Owen Quine. Quine has written a novel entitled Bombyx Mori in which he seems to have maligned and slandered most of his colleagues in the book industry. In one particular section, the novel describes a particularly brutal and gruesome murder and when Quine turns up dead in the exact same circumstances, the ‘disappearance’ takes on a more sinister aspect.

[Incidentally, for the benefit of friends untrained in Latin, Bombyx Mori is the zoological term for the silkworm!]

‘The stench of decay grew stronger with every step Strike took. It reminded him of the time they stuck long sticks into the ground in Bosnia and pulled them out to sniff the ends, the one fail-safe way of finding the mass graves. ….He had expected death, but not this.’

Strike and his enthusiastic assistant Robin Ellacott set out to solve the murder and to catch a sadistic, twisted killer. Their efforts sometimes bring them into conflict with the law in the shape of Inspector Anstis, a former army buddy of Strike in Afghanistan, who suspects Quine’s wife of the crime. After interviews with a host of colourful characters and an eventful journey with Robin to Devon, Strike puts together a solution that seems so incredible that even he can’t believe it. However, with the help of Robin’s investigative skills and a few close friends, he eventually unearths the proof he needs to catch the murderer.

As I wrote a few months ago in my review of the first Galbraith novel The Cuckoo’s Calling [https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/the-cuckoos-calling/ ], after disappointment with Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy [https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/its-not-harry-potter/ ], I was looking forward to read about Cormoran Strike again. I wasn’t disappointed. Peopled with exotic characters from the literary world – authors, agents, publishers, The Silkworm is set mainly in London, the cold, snow-bound London of 2010’s Big Freeze. Both are subjects one presumes Galbraith/Rowling knows well, and her descriptive scene-setting as well as the manners and speech of the literati and pseudo-literati seem to confim the presumption.

The novel has a few subplots too. In addition to the developing professional relationship between Strike and Robin, we get a further glimpse of the romantic one between the latter and her disapproving fiancé. We see Strike in his family circle and get an insight into his dealings with his half siblings. No longer the rather sorry figure of the early chapters of the previous book, he is a man with a first rate analytical mind and one who can call in favours at the most unexpected moments.

I have the feeling that JK Rowling in her incarnation as Robert Galbraith has found a new world of wizardry and another outlet for her talents. I hope she writes more Strike novels.

*****

A Thoughtful, Studious Man

A Fathers’ Day Tribute

John Lockhart Junior, February 1905- July 1987

(adapted and abridged from my family history book Tapestry)

My father, John Lockhart Junior, was born in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, in 1905, the third son of John and Georgina Greenfield Lockhart. My grandfather had grown up in London but, with his parents, emigrated to the Garden State in his teens. Georgina, related through common great-grandparents Andrew and Georgina Scott, left Edinburgh and sailed for Cape Town when she was orphaned at the age of seventeen. They married in 1901.

dad2When my father was still a child, the family decided to return to Great Britain and settle in Scotland. John Senior and Georgina had made a life for themselves in the colony. They were not without kin in their new country. The climate in Natal is pleasant; the summers are hot and sunny, the winters warm. Why would they give it all up for the uncertainty and relative poverty of cold, damp Scotland? Yet, had they not done so, I probably would not exist.

My father had almost no memories of South Africa. I cannot recall him ever speaking of life there. He was a thoughtful, studious man, not prone to emotional outburst. I can remember him giving way to anger only twice and, on both occasions, the provocation was extreme. However, I also remember seeing him many times reduced to helpless laughter to the point of tears as he joined in family games. He enjoyed a glass of wine but had an aversion to Scotch, not I think because of a temperance upbringing but because he disliked the taste. His formal schooling ended when he was fourteen but he went on to study at night school, as it was then called, gaining qualifications in business and accounting.

In middle age, he went back to night school to learn French and took singing lessons. In his spare time, he wrote poetry, plays and pantomime, some of it performed. He was fond of literature and would read anything from history, travel and the classics to detective thrillers. He also loved music and had a patient talent for passing on his knowledge and experience.

My father’s tastes and wide range of his interests are reflected in some of the books in my own library. A translation of Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek metre, published in 1911, is still in  my possession. I now know that he inherited it from his father. It is a large, heavy book, with uncut pages and hard leather binding, now sadly showing its age. Another volume is a little-known work by Charles Dickens, The Life of our Lord, bound in blue leather with marbled end papers and having a foreword by the author’s daughter-in-law. Other books include Shaw’s Plays, leather-bound copies of Shelley’s Poems, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and works by Hardy, Stevenson and Scott. (My sister owns his Dickens novels.)

Religion was a subject on which my father and I often disagreed. His certainty over matters of faith was disturbing to a teenage boy intent on changing the world, yet he was a moderate Christian, even a progressive one compared with others of his generation. I must say however that he did not approve the more vigorous diversions of the local church youth club nor some of its extramural activities that were rites of passage into the adult world.

My father died in 1987 at Broxburn, West Lothian, Scotland. I’m sure he would have smiled at the coincidence which took him there, had he but known it. Broxburn is less than five miles from the Hopetoun Estate of Abercorn, where his maternal ancestors had lived and worked.

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Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!

 

Rich And Over Here

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is one of those classics I always meant to read but never got around to it. It came up at last as essential reading on a lecture course on the English novel, so I felt obliged to tackle it. Though it has some merit in its depiction of the (mostly) idle rich and in its introspective handling of character, I found it over-long and rather tedious.

Isabel Archer, the ‘lady’ of the title, is a young American who arrives in England to stay with the family of her aunt, Mrs Touchett. Isabel is befriended by her cousin Ralph, who is an invalid. She also attracts suitors, the wealthy English peer Lord Warburton and the rich American businessman Caspar Goodwood. Both propose. Isabel declines, not only on the grounds that she does not love either but because ‘…[she] was fortunate in being independent, and that she ought to make some very enlightened use of that state.’

Ralph persuades his banker father to amend his will in Isabel’s favour  and she inherits seventy thousand pounds. [This is 1881, so £70,000 goes a long way!] When the old man dies, Isabel embarks on a tour of Europe. Through the intrigues of Mme Merle, another friend of the Touchetts, she meets Gilbert Osmond, an American who lives in Rome, and is persuaded to marry him and be stepmother to his daughter Pansy. Isabel’s reasons for accepting are rather obscure and, it seems to me, anything but enlightened. Osmond is a cold fortune hunter, a collector of people and things, and before long Isabel realises her mistake. She becomes desperately unhappy. Her husband hates her. However, despite being made aware of the deception practised on her – which she might have recognised for herself had she been less independent and more intelligent, Isabel appears to take the view that marriage vows are marriage vows. She is genuinely fond of Pansy and plays the role of the loyal wife. When the opportunity presents itself, she refuses to leave her husband for good. The ending of the novel is open yet we are left wondering whether that decision is irrevocable.

Although he finds a place among English writers like Trollope, Dickens and Hardy, Henry James was an American by birth and became a British citizen only in 1915, about a year before his death. His brother William, an eminent psychologist and philosopher, is credited with the invention of the term stream of consciousness and Henry was one of the first novelists to make use of it in his character studies.

Readers demand two things from a novel, that it should be a damn good story, and that they can identify with well-drawn protagonists. The first has to be very good indeed if it is to offset a failing in the second – and vice versa. Despite Henry James’s innovative stream of consciousness approach, for me the story of The Portrait of a Lady was not quite good enough. It wasn’t so much that James forsook the traditional happy ending of earlier English fiction but that he failed to grab my interest in the first few chapters. The pages are peopled with useless, idle or devious (or a combination of all three) characters who seem to do nothing except wander around Europe hatching mischief. Even Isabel, the heroine, when not frustrating, is unappealing. Only Ralph engaged my sympathy. It doesn’t help that James’s work is full of tightly-packed prose, weighty paragraphs and much simile, metaphor and circumlocution.

The final third of the book is much more interesting than the rest. James finally gets inside Isabel’s mind to give us an understanding of her decisions and actions but it is too late. To be fair, there is some excellent prose and a few vivid scenes, such as the one at the end when Isabel realises it is the dying Ralph she should have listened to all along: ‘ “Oh Ralph, I’m very happy now,” she cried through her tears. “And remember this,” he continued, “that if you’ve been hated, you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel -adored!” he just audibly and lingeringly breathed.’

There are some fine speeches yet much of the dialogue lacks clarity. I found myself wondering whether  people ever spoke like this, even in 1881. And again, I found it difficult to believe in Isabel Archer  as in any way representative of American womanhood of her day. It may be my ultra-modern literary perception but I wanted to tell her to ‘get a life’.

The Portrait of a Lady, for all its literary acclaim, is just not my sort of novel at all. I find myself rather at odds with my course lecturer regarding its merits. My one consolation is the beautiful edition, with marbled endpapers, that I bought for one pound at a charity sale.

***

 

Möbius Lips

bookheathen:

Thought I’d share this!

Originally posted on Mathemagical Site:

Möbius Lips

View original

Elections and Economics

Numbers to Deceive

The unexpected result of the recent British general election set me thinking about statistics, and polls, and how (un)reliable they are – and how people love to lie. I also wondered what Steven Levitt would make of some of the numbers.

For those who don’t already know, Steven Levitt is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and is best known for a rather unusual approach to his subject. His two books written in collaboration with Stephen Dubner, a New York journalist, became bestsellers during the last decade. It was but a short step from my deliberations on the election to my decision to revisit Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, which I enjoyed tremendously on my first readings.

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Freakonomics, published in 2005, introduces us to schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers who cheat, to home-loving drug dealers and it poses some fascinating questions that seem to have little to do with economics:

Why aren’t there more criminals around?
Are swimming pools more dangerous than guns?
Can winners actually be losers, and vice versa?

To Levitt and Dubner, nothing is sacred. They compare the Ku Klux Klan to a group of estate agents. They study the unexpected consequences of America’s abortion laws. They explore the strange world of names and ask what it is that prompts parents to name their child Temptress, or Chastity, or Orangejello – or even Shithead!

‘… people love to complain, particularly about how terrible the modern world is compared with the past. They are nearly always wrong.’

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Superfreakonomics, from 2009, returns to the underworld of crime to examine the truth about prostitutes and suicide bombers. The authors irreverently suggest that it’s more likely for a police officer to have sex with a prostitute than to arrest one. They investigate why it’s more dangerous to go to hospital with a minor ailment that with a serious one. They demonstrate how complex problems often have simple solutions, and how monkeys can learn to use money.

However irreverent he seems, Levitt has a serious message and his unorthodox approach to, and use of, statistics always makes you go off to think some more about the topic. And when you do, you realise that his economics is not so zany after all. His conclusions are based on real field work, some of it downright dangerous, yet he manages to find humour in the most precarious situations.

What has all this to do with the British election result? Probably very little, but I can easily imagine Steven Levitt asking:

Isn’t there something bizarre about a voting system that elects 56 MPs on 1.5 million votes for one party, but only 1 MP on 3.9 million votes for another?

Even if you don’t care about politics, Freakonomics  and its sequel are both excellent reads.

***

 

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