Tag Archives: social class

“The Agincourt Bride” and “The Tudor Bride” by Joanna Hickson

Nothing matches historical fiction for escape value! I particularly enjoyed these books because they were set in France. Maybe I’ve maxed out on English historical fiction.

I’ve decided historical fiction is part of the “fan fiction” genre (which I don’t actually read). People write “fan fiction” because they don’t want to let go of the character, settings and situations in their favorite fiction. I certainly sympathize with the inclination! Who isn’t frustrated about the delay in publication of more volumes of Game of Thrones?

A close friend of mine wrote a version of Homer’s Illiad. It’s a way of merging with the work and the author, a profoundly respectful assertion of co-ownership.

Will I ever take a stab at “fan fiction”? I doubt it. Historical fiction? Also unlikely… I like to write, but have stayed with non-fiction. Check out the works of Joanna Hickson if you need an agreeable dose of historical fiction.

“Father Goriot” by Honore de Balzac

Piketty (see blog post dated April 14) cites the novelist Balzac as providing insight into the impact of income inequality in France around 1820. Balzac had that and a great deal more on his mind! The plot of Father Goriot is wildly melodramatic. There’s a touch of Shakespeare – Father Goriot reminds one of King Lear, but with no good, loving Cordelia to offset the wiles of the two conniving daughters. And Father Goriot never really acknowledges his daughters moral failings.

Wikipedia describes Balzac as “one of the founders of realism in European literature”. He is sometimes compared to Dickens. His descriptions of people and the urban streetscape are so vivid, I felt like I was watching a movie the whole time I was reading. The dismal, poverty stricken boardinghouse he described made my skin crawl. Father Goriot is part of Balzac’s panoramic Human Comedy.

Balzac explores in detail the relationship between wealth and social status, especially as it related to women. The daughters of old Goriot always want MORE, and are willing to lie and take great risks to maintain appearances. Goriot was a working class entrepreneur, a pasta maker and a speculator in grain. He thought, when he married his daughters to men with aristocratic titles, that his troubles were over. He died penniless.

Not only is this book translated (from French) but it includes occasionally obscure and archaic concepts. I shared a confusing paragraph with a friend, who said my problem was lack of familiarity with the “theory of humours”. You know, what happens if you have too much “black bile”. “Humours” were used to explain both health and disposition. Best to just keep reading…

This is a book which showcases the problems of a society that encompasses great extremes of wealth and poverty. Would I want to live in the world he describes? No way!

Balzac deserves far more careful attention than I am giving him here. If your currently book choice category is “filling in the blanks in my literary education”, I highly recommend Balzac’s Father Goriot.

“The Half Sisters” by Geraldine Jewsbury

I love a good used book store! Halfway between a library and a “regular” book store, it can make me think I died and went to heaven. The Bookshop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, qualifies. I visited there last week.

I limited myself to two purchases. One was The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury. A winner! I got the Oxford World Classics 1994 paperback edition of this book, which was originally published in 1848. Jewsbury was simultaneously way ahead of her time and all over the map. But it adds up to a GREAT story!

We first meet the half sisters when they are about 15 years old. Bianca was the illegitimate daughter of an Englishman who had an affair in Italy just before settling into a highly conventional English marriage. Alice was the only child of the marriage. Neither sister knows of the others existence.

Bianca’s Italian mother brings her teenaged daughter to England, expecting to present her triumphantly to her father. But the father has died, and Bianca’s shocked mother suddenly becomes a helpless and senile.

Bianca is in deep trouble, on her own in a country where she barely speaks the language, with an invalid mother to support. Three men collaborate to help her out, and she (literally) joins the circus. Over time, it becomes clear that she has a gift for acting, and, again with help, she becomes an accomplished and reasonably wealthy actress. Improbable, but it works well enough for fiction. Jewsbury is much more interested in Bianca’s moral development and affairs of the heart, and in commenting on the role of women in 19th century England.

The sisters meet and establish a limited friendship, with only Bianca aware of their shared paternity. Alice marries a businessman who is kind and distant. She suffers from boredom and anxiety.

I won’t go into more of the plot, but it surprised me several times. The whole story would make a great BBC drama or movie. The books covers a ten year period, at the end of which Bianca finds love and marriage. Alice dies prematurely of “brain fever”, or possibly a broken heart.

Modern feminists will be disappointed that Bianca retires from acting after her marriage, but Jewsbury makes so many interesting observations and comments in the course of the novel that I think it is correct to describe The Half Sisters as an early feminist classic. And it reads very well!

“Quite Honestly” by John Mortimer

I listened to this book during a recent, daylong car trip. Nothing like a good novel to make the miles pass!

John Mortimer is listed in Wikipedia as “barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author”. Quite Honestly is one of his last novels. In the first few chapters we meet the aristocratic young Lucy, who wants to “do good in the world” and ex-convict Terry. Lucy is supposed to help Terry “reintegrate” into society – find a job and, above all, avoid re-incarceration. The plot starts as a fairly standard rant against “doing good”, but becomes much more interesting when Lucy and Terry become a couple and Lucy takes to crime in order to “understand” Terry, who has told her that he was seeking thrills, not money, in his housebreaking ventures.

Eventually, Lucy is behind bars and Terry goes straight. The plot allows for lots of commentary on contemporary British culture. Most of it has to do with social class. Nothing is ever going to change the fact that Lucy (daughter of an Anglican bishop) and Terry (unknown father, alcoholic mother) come from different worlds.

I first encountered John Mortimer when his “Rumple of the Bailey” stories were televised on BBC. With Leo Kern as Horace Rumpole, the series ran to 44 episodes. British television humor at its best! If I am ever stuck in a body cast, I hope someone will show up with the whole Rumpole series to keep me entertained.

Both Mortimer and Kern are fine artists. Enjoy!

“Tuxedo Park” by Jennett Conant

This is a great book for those who want to understand the role of technology in World War II. Tuxedo Park focuses on the development of radar. It begins well before WWII, and offers a picture of science pursued in a culture totally different from the academic/industrial climate scientists experience today. Science between the Wars was pursued by both academics and talented, wealthy “amateurs”. One of these was Alfred Loomis. He built and staffed a world class laboratory for his own “entertainment”. Some of his entirely fundamental research later found practical application in vital defense technology.

I was especially interested in details about the time period when England expected to be invaded, and scientific equipment was hastily transported to the US to avoid having it fall into enemy hands. Steps were taken to insure that if the transporting ship was bombed, the vital equipment would sink, rather than float!

Much has been written about the nuclear fission and fusion and the Manhattan Project, but I found this discussion of the development of radar very compelling.

This is the third book by J Conant which I have read. I think Tuxedo Parkwas the best. Conant’s book about Julia Child drifted off topic to other people, and the one about Roald Dahl didn’t impress me very much. Here are the titles of these books: The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, and A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.

Filling the gaps… “Middlemarch” by George Eliot

Another one of those books I missed in college… A friend of mine discussing “reform” in English politics said I had to read Middlemarch. A few rainy days followed, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

What a soap opera! The fictional “Middlemarch” is a small English town not accustomed to newcomers. Social stratification is very rigid. Eliot follows two sisters (Dorothea and Celia), orphaned and living under the protection of their uncle. They are part of the local aristocracy, just below those possessed of hereditary titles (none of whom actually live in Middlemarch).

The name “Dorothea” jumped out at me. That was my mother’s sister’s name, and I was told it came from a novel. Middlemarch? Quite likely. So where did my mother’s similarly romantic, literary name, Arvilla, originate? Any ideas??

Eliot starts with a discussion of St. Teresa of Avila, a passionate woman drawn to action and extremes of commitment. Middlemarch explores what might happen to such a woman in the England of her time. Dorothea, Celia and their neighbors Rosamond and Mary are her subjects. She also spend considerable time on the men in the community. Each young woman eventually marries.

Dorothea’s first marriage, to a man she idolizes, disintegrates as her husband succumbs to jealousy and suspicion. Dorothea is loyal. Her husband dies. Her sister Celia makes a socially “desirable” marriage and lives a highly predictable life. The widowed Dorothea eventually renounces most of her wealth and marries beneath her station, leaving Middlemarch and finding happiness with a man who lacks “background” but loves her devotedly.

Rosamond marries a newcomer to the community, and suffers great disappointment. Mary “takes in hand” a flighty but kind hearted man who happily steps down a bit on the social ladder in order to join lives with the woman he has loved since childhood.

So much for plot! If this hasn’t been made into a movie or TV series, it surely will be. (I haven’t checked the Internet Movie Database yet, or Sparknotes. I will do so, and may find out that I’ve got it all wrong or missed important nuances… After all, I’ve only read it once, and it’s not a “read it once” kind of book.)

None of the women examined led a life that would qualify her for sainthood. It’s unlikely that St. Teresa herself would have done so in the town of Middlemarch.

Miscellaneous notes… the book is full of unusual words, some archaic, some just obscure. If I had started a list at the beginning, I’d have dozens of find new expressions. Like megrim. Do you know what it means? I do, I looked it up.

There’s an epigram at the start of each chapter, some rather long, and some in foreign languages, not always translated in my (Kindle) edition of the book. Authors include Spenser, Bunyon, Shakespeare and others unknown to me. I didn’t read all the epigrams. I think I’ll go back and check them out. Great project for a future rainy day.

I was amused and puzzled by an expression used to describe a man of obscure or tainted family background. Dorothea’s “undistinguished” husband is described as no better than “an Italian with white mice”. What on earth does this refer to? WHO is the “Italian with white mice”? Will Google solve this one for me? Or Wikipedia?? Or someone who reads this blog post? Could this be one of the odd errors that occasionally show up in a Kindle edition? The expression is used more than once.

I’m glad I read Middlemarch. If I could take just one book on a long train trip, this might be it.

Filling the gaps – is Jane Austen worth it?

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.

Yes, it was worth it to go “back” and read the one Jane Austen novel I had missed. Mansfield Park kept my attention even though it is a long book.

Mansfield Park (and the fact that I hadn’t read it) came to my attention because I overheard part of a discussion claiming that Mansfield Park is about moral education. How do we learn ethical behavior? As usual, Austen creates highly developed characters to carry forward her plot. Their moral standing ranges from passive to rigidly cautious to frivolous and calculating.

Mansfield Park is built around an upper class English family – parents, two sons, two daughters and an impoverished niece. The niece is the protagonist. We see her grow from a shy outsider into a young woman of poise and character.

Spoiler alert! I’m going to discuss the end of the book.

The plot… The father of the family leaves to take care of business at a distant “plantation”. Two young adults, brother and sister, move into the neighborhood and become close to the siblings and niece. Misbehavior and flirtations ensue, followed by disappointment, heartbreak and disgrace.

The father returns, and “order” is reestablished. He ponders the behavior of the young members of his family, trying to determine how he failed them. His conclusion is that he had not really bothered to KNOW his children. He had rewarded good manners and accomplishments, without paying attention to personalities and ethical training. 

So, yes, the book is about moral education. It is delivered with Austen’s sly wit and delightful prose, and makes very good reading.