Posts Tagged ‘Classics Club’

wuthering heights oup emily bronte 001Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë ~ 1847. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1981. Edited and with Introduction by Ian Jack. Paperback. ISBN: 0-19-281543-1. 370 pages.

My rating: Hmmm…tough call. I appreciate that it’s a highly regarded “classic”, and Emily Bronte has my admiration for keeping me engaged all the way through, though I despised the vast majority of her characters on a personal level. Did I enjoy my read? Sort of. Okay, yes, I did. But more in a “I can’t believe this is happening!” way than in a “Oh, I’m putting this on the favourites shelf!” sort of way. So let’s try this: 6.5/10. Restrained recommendation, one might say.

What did I just read? This was the strangest book. I wonder if I can condense it into 100 words? I doubt it, but will try. Here goes.

  • Sullen foundling Heathcliff forms inseparable friendship with daughter-of-wealthy-house Cathy. Cathy’s father dies. Heathcliff is downgraded in status from foster-brother to mere farm worker. A rich neighbour courts Cathy. She accepts. Heathcliff runs away. He comes back, educated and financially solvent, but still sullen. More marriages take place, babies are born. People die, including Cathy. Heathcliff through shady dealing ends up lord of the local manor. He forces a marriage between his barely teenage son and Cathy’s daughter. Son dies. Heathcliff, haunted by memory of Cathy-the-first, starves himself to death. Cathy-the-second finds true love, thus negating Heathcliff’s revenge scenario. The End.

The key characters peopling this unlikely saga are totally without inhibition. They don’t bite back their words, they act on every dark impulse, they treat each other with casual cruelty. Most of the novel concerns the cut-and-thrust of “Oh, yeah, well I’ll make YOU sorry” parrying. They brawl continuously, both verbally and physically. Heathcliff in particular specializes in random acts of impulsive brutality. He smacks his wife around, until she escapes to a faraway refuge, and then the ultimate shelter of death. (He hangs her pet dog!!!) He beats up his lost-love-Cathy’s daughter and locks her up so she can’t attend her own father’s deathbed. He refuses to have a doctor to treat his own dying son.

Having never actually read Wuthering Heights before, and having my knowledge of it only through the references of others and the various filmed adaptations which I was mildly aware of but which I’d never personally viewed, I had always pictured Heathcliff as some sort of romantic hero. And yes, for a brief few chapters I was in sympathy with his young self, for he was treated very badly by his adoptive guardian’s successors, and “kindred soul” Cathy was blithely heartless in her blindness to Heathcliff’s deep devotion and how he would be affected when she decides to marry the money next door. Heathcliff’s subsequently warped nature is quite understandable, and his increasingly awful behaviour certainly keeps the reader riveted to the tale, wondering what nasty thing the anti-hero will pull off next.

Disappointingly, the women in Wuthering Heights never really reached full life for me. Even Cathy-the-first, instigator of the reason for the story, seemed puppet-like in her role. In my opinion, upon this first reading, the novel is basically a moving portrait of Heathcliff, over-the-top scenery-buster that he is. All the other stuff sounded like rackety background noise.

This isn’t at all a proper review, is it?

I’m not sure what one could say that hasn’t already been said elsewehere by literary scholars, and by the thousands of students worrying their way through this dense melodrama in their AP English classes, poor souls.

So, Heathcliff or Rochester? Well, Rochester is a bit arrogant, but he doesn’t hang pet dogs, or disinter his dead love’s coffin so he can lie down with her corpse. (That was just icky.) Heathcliff, off to the storm-tossed moor with you. Rochester, I suppose I will accept your redemption, and forgive your previously libertine ways.

Last word, and it has to do with the inevitable comparison of these two sisters’ novels. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre I know I will reread with pleasure. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, not so much, though I’m happy to have ticked it off my “you really should read” list.

Dear fellow readers, your own thought are most welcome. (And if you’ve read both Brontës, are you for Rochester or for Heathcliff?) 🙂

 

 

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jane eyre charlotte bronteJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë ~ 1847. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Edited and with Introduction by Q.D. Leavis. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-043011-3. 489 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Let’s see if I can pull off a 100-word summation:

  • Wee orphan Jane is despised by her only (that she knows about) relations and ends up in a charity-girl’s school, where she emerges at the age of 18 to take on a governess post to the illegitimate ward of the moody Mr. Rochester. Romantic sparks fly, despite a series of disturbing nocturnal events, and Jane is at the altar when an appalling allegation is made and everything is off. She runs away, finds shelter with a stern clergyman’s family, inherits a fortune, has a moral crisis, and passionately races her way back to Rochester’s now-mutilated arms. (There was this conflagration…)

Confession time: I have never read this book before, not even in my library-haunting adolescence when I tackled so many of the weighty greats. I do wonder what my younger self would have thought about it? I suspect much the same as my older self does: Rochester is bad, bad news, and Jane, you’re a fool.

This initially harsh reaction is salvaged by the author letting both of her main characters disarmingly confess the above about themselves a number of times. (Okay, it’s more like Jane knows she’s a fool. Rochester knows he’s bad news but he rather thinks that he gets a pass on his bad behaviour because…well…he’s rich and upper-class. And a man. A man has needs, don’t you know? Hence the three mistresses and the attempted bigamy.)

If the voice of Jane wasn’t so ardently introspective, I would have absolutely despised this deeply melodramatic tale. As it was, I quite enjoyed it, especially the orphanage saga at the beginning, and the “Should I be a missionary wife and go to India?” complication near the end. Engaging, most of it, though it took some work to wade through the romantic twaddle in the middle, before the aborted wedding ceremony and the Big Reveal about the insane first wife locked away in the attic.

If you have so far dodged this novel, you’re likely backing away slowly, thinking life’s too darned short for this sort of antique concoction, but let me reassure you that the thing has classic status for a reason, and that it’s well worth taking a go at it, if only to be able to at last identify the hundreds of references you’ve no doubt bumped up against in your other reading.

Can I stop right here? Though I could of course go on for thousands of words, picking the novel to pieces and putting it back together again, rambling on about symbolism and feminist elements (or the opposite) and the merits and demerits of the styling and plot, and should we be relating to Miss Eyre or despising her, and is Rochester really for real.

But I won’t.

This would be an awesome book to tackle with a real-life group of like-minded readers. No shortage of conversational topics, and it would be great fun to wax eloquent about the more outrageous bits, and to bounce favourite characters and scenes around.

So if you haven’t yet read Jane Eyre, here’s your nudge. Do it. You’ll love some bits, you’ll cringe at others, you’ll laugh (for there are some funny bits, both deliberate and unintentional), you’ll want to rattle some sense into Jane at least once or twice, and you’ll also yearn for Mr. Arrogance – oops, Rochester – to receive his much-deserved comeuppance. (Or maybe you’ll find him wonderfully romantic?)

Then come back and tell me what you think.

 

 

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the house of the seven gables 1851 nathaniel hawthorneThe House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ 1851This edition: Aerie Books, 1988. Foreword and Afterword by Andre Norton. Paperback. ISBN: unknown. 330 pages.

My rating: 6/10

It is midway through the 1800s, and some two centuries after the notorious Salem witch trials, the venerable New England town has settled down into sedate respectability. Its weathered old buildings slumber in the summer sun, shudder in the winter storms, and bear silent witness to the relentless march of time and of an eclectic array of local characters, whose passage through the life of the town is memorialized in local legend.

The now-mouldering House of the Seven Gables is one of the most legend-ridden of the town’s many antique structures. Built on a piece of ground once owned by a reputed “wizard” who was executed during the 1600s’ purges amidst whispered rumours of a personal vendetta and frame-up by a wealthy townsman, the building and its inhabitants are associated with a violent curse pronounced upon the accuser and his future family. Here’s Hawthorne:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen,—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. If any one part of their proceedings can be said to deserve less blame than another, it was the singular indiscrimination with which they persecuted, not merely the poor and aged, as in former judicial massacres, but people of all ranks; their own equals, brethren, and wives. Amid the disorder of such various ruin, it is not strange that a man of inconsiderable note, like Maule, should have trodden the martyr’s path to the hill of execution almost unremarked in the throng of his fellow sufferers. But, in after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided, it was remembered how loudly Colonel Pyncheon had joined in the general cry, to purge the land from witchcraft; nor did it fail to be whispered, that there was an invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule. It was well known that the victim had recognized the bitterness of personal enmity in his persecutor’s conduct towards him, and that he declared himself hunted to death for his spoil. At the moment of execution—with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. “God,” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy,—”God will give him blood to drink!” After the reputed wizard’s death, his humble homestead had fallen an easy spoil into Colonel Pyncheon’s grasp. When it was understood, however, that the Colonel intended to erect a family mansion-spacious, ponderously framed of oaken timber, and calculated to endure for many generations of his posterity over the spot first covered by the log-built hut of Matthew Maule, there was much shaking of the head among the village gossips. Without absolutely expressing a doubt whether the stalwart Puritan had acted as a man of conscience and integrity throughout the proceedings which have been sketched, they, nevertheless, hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. His home would include the home of the dead and buried wizard, and would thus afford the ghost of the latter a kind of privilege to haunt its new apartments, and the chambers into which future bridegrooms were to lead their brides, and where children of the Pyncheon blood were to be born. The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.

A bit wordy, do you think? Oh, yes, very much so. This book requires more than a little perseverance to get through, and a very high tolerance for wading through lushly ornate passages such as that reproduced above.

One is rewarded for the attempt by gems of genuine humour and authorial playfulness among all the ponderous pronouncements. Though his writing is dauntingly dense reading, I found myself won over by Hawthorne’s paradoxical charm, in particular his habit of stating the obvious over and over again, driving home his points not by mighty sledgehammer blows, but by a persistent and relentless tap-tap-tapping.

Backing up a bit, to the plot of the story. The wizard is dead, the accursed murderer is about to build the titular house upon the tainted plot of land. And who should Colonel Pyncheon choose as head architect and carpenter but the son of the murdered man! Young Thomas Maule fulfills his commission with admirable expertise, and is luckily not seen lurking about the day of the grand house-warming, which goes horribly awry upon the discovery of the Colonel dead in his sitting room of an apparent hemorrhage, mouth horribly full of blood, chest covered in gore.

“The curse! The curse!” is whispered all about, and a coroner’s jury comes up with the unarguably accurate (though not very enlightening) verdict of “Sudden Death”.

The scene is now set for generations of rising and falling Pyncheon fortunes, as the Colonel’s descendants variously flourish and decline, with occasional inexplicable tragedies occurring, bring back whispers of “The curse!”

The House of the Seven Gables is now occupied by one of the few remaining Pyncheon descendants. Elderly spinster Miss Hepzibah resides alone in the massive and musty old mansion but for a boarder residing in a remote gable, a young man engaged in the profession of daguerreotype photography.

The two enjoy a cordial though far from intimate relationship, and live their lives remote from each other, though young Mr. Holgrave appears to view his landlady with a certain humorous benevolence. He appears this morning of the opening passages of the story to wish her luck upon her present endeavour, that of opening up a room of the house as a “cent shop”, a sort of notions-and-snacks corner store locally common to those women needing to earn a few pennies by their personal labours of baking, knitting, sewing and minor retailing of odds and ends – needles, yarn, tea and coffee, small packets of sugar, flour and yeast and the like for housewives caught short.

What a comedown in the world for poor Miss Hepzibah! Gently raised, a New England “lady”, Miss H has run out of financial resources right when she needs money the most, for her younger brother Clifford suddenly has need of her shelter and assistance.

For Clifford was convicted of murder some thirty years earlier, when the uncle then in charge of the House of Seven Gables was found dead, mouth full of blood, chest covered in gore (hey! does this remind you of anything?) but this time with a damning bloody handprint found at the scene, ostensibly that of young Clifford’s. Clifford has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and apparently there were some doubts as to his complete guilt, because he has quietly been released from jail, to flee to his sister’s sheltering arms, an almost-insane, weeping, cringing wreck of a man.

Add to this ménage a young relation fresh from the country, lovely Phoebe, who is deeply good and conveniently competent and proves a godsend to Hepzibah as she struggles with the dual challenges of shop-keeping and brother-sitting.

And, entering from Stage Left, a villainous uncle, the continuously smiling but deeply evil Judge Pyncheon, spitting image of long-dead ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, complete to grasping nature and apparent lack of conscience.

There follows a not very plausible drama concerning a long-hidden secret document, complicated by the continual efforts of the wicked Judge to confront the mentally fragile Clifford regarding the circumstances of the thirty-years-ago murder.

Phoebe adds a sweetly winsome element to the soberness of the story by her innocent charm and her artless forays into gardening and chicken-keeping in the overgrown gardens surrounding the house, and rather predictably becomes involved in a romance with the handsome daguerreotypist boarder Mr Holgrave, who turns out to be not quite what he seems.

A main character dies in identical circumstances to the demise of the first cursed Pyncheon, and the townspeople gather to gossip and cast blame (“The curse! The curse!”) until all is unravelled, with various truths revealed. The bones of the wizard may now rest easy in the grave. Goodness is rewarded, and the innocent are vindicated, while the evil are indicted of their heinous crimes.

All’s well that ends well, and we close the book with vast relief at having made our laborious way through. Tick it off the list, and move on, meanwhile pitying those poor students who must read, re-read and analyze this dense period piece of a gothic novel in the interests of garnering marks for their literature classes.

Is this really a classic, or merely an example of vintage genre fiction? After this reading I incline to the second designation, for despite its inclusion on numberless literary reading lists, the book is really quite a minor novel, a fluff piece despite its wordy immensity. Its main theme – if there must be one – seems to me to be all about ancestral guilt, but the occasional supernatural occurrences used to move the story along muddy the waters enough to defy its being classified as any one thing. It’s a combination of mild horror story, clichéd romance novel, chest-thumping melodrama, and ironic morality tale.

This said, here and there the author strikes pure gold, with memorable incidents and passages of prose, and to add to its appealing aspects there is abundant humour amongst all of the curses, hand-wringings, bloodshed and drama.

In conclusion I must say that I generally enjoyed the novel, and am glad I read it. I will not however recommend it as a must-read, because it is truly a ponderous hodge-podge of a book, more gobbledy-gook than substance when one views it from a little distance after finally attaining its end.

Here’s an excellent essay by Jason Pettus on the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography website, detailing Jason’s opinion regarding The House of the Seven Gables’ inclusion on classics lists, and its historical literary significance.

House_of_the_Seven_Gables_(2)cond

The house which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic romance, the Turner-Ingersoll mansion in Salem, built in 1668, and now restored as part of a collection of historic buildings associated with Hawthorne in his home city. Photo taken in the early 1900s.

 

 

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goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to All That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

Note # 2: This post was originally part of a 3-book review published in December 2014 – 1914 and All That – Reports from The Great War: O. Douglas, Rose Macaulay & Robert Graves – and has been split off and reposted to aid in its inclusion in the Classics Club list.

 

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Tgreen-knowehe Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston ~ 1954. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1962. Illustrations by Peter Boston. Hardcover. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A subtle classic of children’s literature, this novel calls one back to the elusive world of imaginative childhood, when all things are possible, and some things are downright magical.

Synopsis cut and pasted in directly from the Green Knowe Wikipedia page, because whomever wrote it did a lovely job of summation of the story set-up:

The Children of Green Knowe is the first of the six books written by Boston about the fictional manor house of Green Knowe. It was a commended runner up for the 1954 Carnegie Medal.

The novel concerns the visit of a young boy, Toseland, to the magical house of Green Knowe. The house is tremendously old, dating from the Norman Conquest, and has been continually inhabited by Toseland’s ancestors, the d’Aulneaux, later Oldknowe or Oldknow, family. Toseland crosses floodwaters by night to reach the house and his great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, who addresses him as Tolly.

Over the course of the novel, Tolly explores the rich history of his family, which pervades the house like magic. He begins to encounter what appear to be the spirits of three of his forebears—an earlier Toseland (nicknamed Toby), Alexander, and an earlier Linnet—who lived in the reign of Charles II. These meetings are for the most part not frightening to Tolly; they continually reinforce the sense of belonging that the house embodies. In the evenings, Mrs. Oldknow entertains Tolly with stories about the house and the children who lived and live there. Surrounded by the rivers and the floodwater, sealed within its ancient walls, Green Knowe is a sanctuary of peace and stability in a world of unnerving change.

The encounters of Tolly and his ghostly companions are reminiscent of similar scenes in some of Elizabeth Goudge’s books, being serenely beneficent rather than at all frightening. Though there are a few twists…

children of green knowe l m boston peter boston 001The full-page and in-text illustrations by Lucy M. Boston’s artist son Peter are intricately detailed in pen-and-ink and scraperboard technique; make sure the copy you share with your child (or read for yourself) has these included; many of the cheaper paperback and some later hardcover editions are missing these.

Perhaps I should have kept this review for closer to Christmas, as that celebration features strongly in one of the most charming incidents in the story.

In a word: Nice.

 

 

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Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ 1908. This edition: Scribner’s, 1954. Illustrated and with Preface by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 259 pages.

My rating: 10/10

What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said, written, or recorded in some way? A true “classic”, in every sense of the word, beloved by children and adults the world over for the century-plus since its first publication.

Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters are most cleverly depicted. They are small humans in animal form, wearing clothes, walking upright when appropriate (though some find this easier to manage than others), and only sometimes following their animal nature. They interact with the humans in their world on a perfectly equal basis (or so they think) while the “real” humans seem to view them with a mildly patronizing attitude. The whole thing is rather complex, when one stops to think about it, and it says much for Grahame’s artistry that we accept his world immediately and without question.

The story itself is a series of linked adventures, starting with the subterranean Mole busily spring cleaning his rather dingy underground home, and throwing down his scrub brush in despair when the scent of Spring wafts through the air and catches the attention of his sensitive little nose. Wandering aimlessly out along the riverbank, Mole meets the cheerful Water Rat, who is appalled that his new acquaintance is unfamiliar with the joys of the river, and decides post-haste to initiate the ground dweller into the thrill of the liquid world, for

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –‘

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank at full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air…

The earnest Mole and the carefree Rat go on to have numerous adventures, mostly concerning their bumptious neighbour Toad, who is a wealthy creature much prone to following ever-changing whims full speed ahead until something new catches his short attention. A camping trip in a horse drawn caravan (with decent Mole walking along beside the Horse to keep him company and to try to make up for the fact that the Horse is doing all of the hot, dusty work while Toad lolls in the driver’s seat) goes awry as the group is run off the road by a Motorcar. Toad is seduced immediately, buys his own extra-deluxe motorcar, and with a war cry of “Poop! Poop!” (meant to mimic the klaxon horn of his newest Beloved) gets himself into much more serious scrapes and eventually into Court, where he receives a stern sentence for Driving to the Public Danger, and much more seriously, Cheeking a Policeman. Twenty years in the deepest dungeon of the best-guarded prison in all of England is the fate of Toad. How ever while he get out of this one?!

Good stuff. Read it for your personal pleasure; read it aloud to your children, and continue the long tradition.

That’s all I have to say. If you are looking for scholarly examination, it is freely available in great abundance here, there and everywhere. But not from me. It’s a grand book, undoubtedly an “important” book, and most crucial of all, a fun-to-read book. Go read it. It’s utterly perfect for Spring.

And oh, well, here is a link to a quite lovely blog post regarding it, the sort of thing which I would have liked to have written, but which has already been done to such perfection that I lazily thought, “Why do it again?”

Check this out: Behold the Stars: The Wind in the Willows

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main street sinclair lewisMain Street by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1920. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Afterword by Mark Schorer. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-018124-5. 432 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This is decidedly one of those books which deserves sober consideration and scholarly discussion. Luckily it has been so treated by so many people that I can justify this very casual review of it by referring anyone eager to delve deeper to the many other discussions which abound in print and online.

I had read Main Street several times before, though not very recently, so was wondering if my impressions would change this time around. And the answer to my musings was no, not at all. I still feel exactly the same about Carol Kennicott’s emotional journey, even though I am now at the far end of the arc myself in regards to age and situation in relation to Carol, compared to our shared optimistic youth the first time I made her acquaintance.

Carol Milford, college girl, strides eagerly forward into her future. Anything might happen, and the world is full of potentially wonderful things – art, literature, poetry, travel!

Contemplating but reluctant to commit to a career as a teacher, Carol ends up spending a year in Chicago hobnobbing with the local bohemians, then moves on to a position as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her lofty ideals slightly rattled though not at all dulled. She meets Dr. Will Kennicott, some years older than herself, rising young physician in the (fictional) prairie town of Gopher Prairie, and is wooed both by handsome Will’s physical appeal and by his readiness to bow down before Carol’s intellectual superiority.

Come to Gopher Prairie, pleads Will. Show us how to bring culture into our lives. You could do such good…

Already rather jaded by the workaday routines of her not-very-exciting job, Carol allows herself to be romanced, and off she goes to Gopher Prairie, as Mrs. Doctor Kennicott, full of ideas and ideals.

Gopher Prairie raises a collective eyebrow at Carol and her effervescent cultural improvement projects, and sturdily attempts to put her in her place, an enterprise which takes some years but which is eventually mostly successful.

I found Main Street to be rather slow going this time round, and I found myself putting it down for a day or two here and there and turning to other diversions. But I always returned, and towards the end of the extended read, I found myself wondering if the long, slow tone were in fact a deliberate attempt by Sinclair Lewis to demonstrate the long, slow taking down of Carol Kennicott from her uppity ideals to a state of intellectual dullness acceptable to her fellow Gopher Prairie-ites.

Carol Kennicott is very much a woman written by a man, and though Sinclair Lewis did a stellar job in putting himself in his character’s shoes, there are authorial lapses here and there, as Lewis conveniently skips over the time around Carol’s pregnancy and new motherhood with a few (admittedly apt) paragraphs:

The baby was coming. Each morning she was nauseated, chilly, bedraggled, and certain that she would never again be attractive; each twilight she was afraid. She did not feel exalted, but unkempt and furious. The period of daily sickness crawled into an endless time of boredom. It became difficult for her to move about, and she raged that she, who had been slim and light-footed, should have to lean on a stick, and be heartily commented upon by street gossips. She was encircled by greasy eyes. Every matron hinted, “Now that you’re going to be a mother, dearie, you’ll get over all these ideas of yours and settle down.” She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape; presently she would be drinking coffee and rocking and talking about diapers.

… She alternately detested herself for not appreciating the kindly women, and detested them for their advice: lugubrious hints as to how much she would suffer in labor, details of baby-hygiene based on long experience and total misunderstanding, superstitious cautions about the things she must eat and read and look at in prenatal care for the baby’s soul, and always a pest of simpering baby-talk. Mrs. Champ Perry bustled in to lend “Ben Hur,” as a preventive of future infant immorality. The Widow Bogart appeared trailing pinkish exclamations, “And how is our lovely ‘ittle muzzy today! My, ain’t it just like they always say: being in a Family Way does make the girlie so lovely, just like a Madonna. Tell me—” Her whisper was tinged with salaciousness—”does oo feel the dear itsy one stirring, the pledge of love? I remember with Cy, of course he was so big——”

… Then the baby was born, without unusual difficulty: a boy with straight back and strong legs. The first day she hated him for the tides of pain and hopeless fear he had caused; she resented his raw ugliness. After that she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed… For two years nothing else existed…

The baby grows, life steadily grinds on. Carol loses one of her best friends – her ex-maid Bea – to typhoid, and finds her neighbours casually dismissive of her emotional pain. Will strays into a casual relationship with a neighbour’s wife, though Carol is unaware of it; she herself goes through a period of infatuation with a beautiful younger man, a Swedish farm boy with high aspirations working as a tailor’s apprentice. Gopher Prairie sees all, and files it all away for future reference. The Great War creates a few ripples; Carol eventually uses it as an excuse to break away with Hugh and take on a job in Washington, DC, while Will remains in Gopher Prairie.

main street 1st edition sinclair lewisIs the Kennicott marriage dissolving? Is Carol on the path at last that she was forced off of so many years ago? Apparently not, as her return to Gopher Prairie in a sleet storm with her husband at her side brings her full circle, back again to the place she could not change, and which has done its stolid best to change her into the acceptable pattern of a Gopher Prairie matron.

We end with Carol looking to her child – sorry, children – she does pop out another baby right at the very end of the saga, this one too without much obvious effort or appreciable comment by Lewis – with speculative eyes. Surely he/she will go out into the world and bring about the change which Carol herself has so far been unable to pull off…

For all of its hype as one of the Great American Novels – so often a foreboding designation of excessive earnestness – Main Street is a very readable thing, cynically amusing and cleverly analytical in its satire of Every Town, U.S.A. And though Carol fails to fully engage me as a relatable heroine – she never becomes quite real, for she is as terminally misguided as the rest of the Gopher Prairie characters and as stereotyped in her way as they are – her struggles are thought provoking and her situations cleverly staged.

What does Carol really want? We never do find that out, for she doesn’t know herself, and that is perhaps the most real and relatable thing about Main Street.

This remains to me a book not so much about the mythical Carol Kennicott as it is about the real man Sinclair Lewis, based as it is on his own experiences of growing up in Sauk Center, Minnesota. Discussing Lewis this morning with my husband, we both agreed that cynically enjoyable though his writings are, there is a certain spirit of – well – meanness showing through, as though Lewis never really got over some slight of his early days, and is always hitting back at the place he came from. Escaped from, is the implication. (In our joint opinion, anyway.) Too much of that kind of thing rather gets the reader down; I’ll be taking a breather before going on to another of Sinclair Lewis’s eminently readable but slightly depressing tomes.

And there I will leave you. A worthwhile read for its detailed portrait of a time and (generic) place; a fascinating piece of Americana.

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