Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. First Published 1860-61. Penguin Red Classic 2006.

I consider myself lucky I was able to come to this book unspoilt by the plot. Our Christmas telly is so saturated with Dickens that I know Oliver Twist and Bleak House (the 2005 BBC adaption is brilliant) inside out. I have done my best not to see the plot of Great Expectations especially when the film came out and so all I really knew of the book was of the iconic Miss Havisham still wearing the old finery of her wedding clothes and an orphan called Pip.

Pip, grudgingly brought up by his sister, is destined for the life of a blacksmith but dreams of being a gentleman. His fortunes suddenly change when he encounters a convict called Magwitch in a foggy graveyard and is sent for by the mysterious Miss Havisham.

Despite my efforts to not see the plot of Great Expectations; it was not the plot that wowed me in this classic but the writing. The plot itself was gothic and melodramatic but neither impressed me or left me cold. What really made this book stand out was Dickens’s ability to bring his enormous cast of characters to life and his talent as a dry comic. I wasn’t expecting how funny this book would be or how often I would be smiling through it.

“Oh!” she said. “Did you wish to see Miss Havisham?”

“If Miss Havisham wished to see me,” returned Mr. Pumblechook discomfited.

“Ah!” said the girl, “but you see she don’t.”

I also loved reading the colourful descriptions of characters, like the lawyer Mr Jaggers “he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it,” to the beautiful and “heartless” Estelle. It only occurred to me after I had finished the novel how much British writers owe to Dickens as I saw shades of his characterisation reflected in other later works.

Reading Great Expectations hasn’t tempted me to see any visual adaptations because the plot wasn’t strong enough for that. Rather I now want to go back and read the works that I already know; Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol because from what I’ve read here no adaptation could possibly do Dickens justice as a writer.

 

 

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

bluecastleWhen I’m sick or sad or it’s raining outside this is my number one book to reach for. What Anne of Green Gables did for me as a child The Blue Castle does for me as an adult. This story is as timeless and warming as hot soup and a warm blanket.

Valancy Stirling lives a cramped dreary life, cowed by her overbearing and critical family. Dismissed as an old maid at 29 and meekly doing everything her family asks of her, her only escapes are her “dream sprees” in her imaginary Blue Castle every night and the nature books of John Foster. A shocking diagnosis from a doctor frees her from her miserable existence and causes her to say and do what she thinks for the first time in her life.

“Fear is the original sin,” suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy’s consciousness. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.”

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.”

Montgomery is a genius at capturing the intricacies of human interaction. I grew up reading her Anne series so I always appreciated this but seeing her skill in a novel directed towards adults illustrates her skills in an entirely new light. Her ability to inject warmth and humour into the tragic and mundane makes me return to her again and again.

I love Valancy and her efforts to find “her own little dust pile.” Despite the flowery romantic cover this is actually predominantly a novel about gaining psychological and financial independence. There is a romance with a character brilliant enough to rival Gilbert Blythe and I loved all the other characters too from the colourful “Roaring Abel” to the petty clan of Stirlings.

I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s severely underrated. As I grow older I’ve returned to it more than any of Montgomery’s other books and it also remains close by for a re-read.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

s-l300This is a perfect book for the hot weather, Bonjour Tristesse especially takes place on the Riviera on a summer holiday and the betrayals, affairs and rising tension take place in the summering heat.

This edition consists of two stories; Bonjour Tristesse is the story of the young girl Cecile on holiday with her father and his various girlfriends and A Certain Smile, a novella, the tale of a young woman who, bored by her lover, starts an affair with a married man.

Part of the reason this work became an overnight bestseller in the 50s is because of the young age Sagan was when she wrote it. She was only eighteen when it was published and her coming of age story is coloured with the influence of Sartre and Camus. It shows a level of sophistication that is incredible. The themes of existentialism are interwoven into the threads of this story, the way Cecile lies around in the sand, smokes, and manipulates with an air of nonchalance and bemoans her lack of authenticity.

Sagan’s writing style (translated by Heather Lloyd) is cool and elegant:

 “A Strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.” 

Did that sounds pretentious? It is pretentious. This is very much a novel written by a teenager and while I admired her stylish and atmospheric way of illustrating a story I also couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Its major shortcoming is that it tries and fails to hit the true emotional mark and so becomes very much style over substance.

 

Frost in May by Antonia White

1280771I’ve needed all the escapism I can get in this last week for obvious reasons. If anyone else is in the same boat this is a good place to start.

This loosely autobiographical story is about a young girl, named Nanda Grey, who is sent to the Convent of the Five Wounds after her father converts to Catholicism. In the introduction Elizabeth Bowers says “There is the school story proper, written school-age children; and the school novel written for the grown-up,” and this is definitely the latter. The language is clean and stark, simple enough for a child to understand, but the themes White has woven through the book are complex and dark.

Nanda Grey is at a disadvantage from the start as her peers are from wealthy catholic families and she is from a middle class household in Earl’s Court. The fact she has converted from Protestantism is also damning. She has the passionate devotion of a true believer and heaps coals upon her own head for any fault she or the nuns perceive in her.

“On Tuesday, she stuffed her fingers in her ears when the organ played at benediction. On Wednesday, she refused to smell flowers and made herself sniff and particularly nauseating mixture of ink and liquorice powder. On Thursday, she put salt instead of sugar on her rhubarb to mortify her sense of taste.”

This book is so powerful in its simplicity. From the moment Nanda steps into the convent her every move and thought is regulated, even her sleeping position is corrected on her first night. Letters home are read and checked for improper thoughts, story books are strictly rationed, girls are forbidden to walk together alone because “When two are together, the devil loves to make a third,” and this is where Nanda’s major flaw (in the eyes of the nuns) lies. She has the tendency to form passionate relationships with other girls. The moment she falls for her schoolmate Leonie, a wonderfully androgynous and romantic character, White’s vivid description of it is like a cold flame leaping from the page.

The thrill of disobedience, from feeling any kind of emotions or passion towards another living being, is the major rebellion of Nanda Grey and in the domineering environment of the convent it must be crushed at all costs. It’s not enough for her to behave perfectly, devote every hour and believe it with all her heart. They want to break her will, this is even said to her face, and the book illustrates the slow death of a free and imaginative mind.

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

the_seven_dials_mystery_first_edition_cover_1929 (1)I don’t think I’ll ever find a crime author I love as much as Agatha Christie. I had so much fun reading this book. Not only was the mystery cleverly plotted out in Christie’s usual flair but there was a great deal of humour and unexpected twists.

The book begins at a country house party where one of the guests, Gerry Wade, known for oversleeping and missing breakfast, unexpectedly dies in his room. The other guests had arranged a practical joke to wake him up by placing eight alarm clocks in his room.  When he is found dead seven clocks are found on the mantelpiece and the strange clue ends up leading back to a secret society in London. His friend Ronny Devereux has only just started to investigate when he is shot and found dying by the heroine Bundle- real name Lady Eileen Brent. She joins forces with Gerry’s friend Jimmy Thesiger, and two others mixed up in the house party but all of them have their own agendas and no one is telling the absolute truth.

The book was extremely funny as all Agatha books are but there was also the unintentionally hilarious. Bundle spends a lot of time while stuck in a wardrobe spying on a dangerous international secret society obsessing over the one woman in the group and how beautiful her back is. I was beginning to hope the book would spiral in an unexpected direction especially as the female gaze comes out again later at another woman but alas it was not to be.

What I loved most about Bundle is that despite being in the dark without the police’s resources she is very determined to sleuth in dangerous situations more than her male companions and doesn’t really pay attention to anything they tell her to do.

Bundle Brent was a resourceful girl- she was also a girl of imagination. She had foreseen that Bill, if not Jimmy, would make objections to her participation in the possible dangers of the night. It was not Bundle’s idea to waste time in argument. She had made her own plans and made her own arrangements.

While the boys set to watch the house she climbs outside in the middle of the night to make her own investigation, noting that they don’t think far enough outside the box.

I didn’t guess who the murderer was at all and ended up suspecting practically everyone at some point as the author intended. The espionage element of the plot was never taken very seriously, actually a lot of the story wasn’t taken very seriously and that’s what made the book so good. Christie makes a lot of satirical asides at the upper class and noveau rich and Bundle’s interactions with her father were brilliant.

My only criticism of the plot was that the reveal of the murderer and reasons behind it were rushed in at the end. I had to read it over twice and it ended a little too abruptly for me. Still I highly recommend this book and will definitely be reading The Secret of Chimneys. I didn’t realise until half way through that this was a loose sequel of a previous book but it doesn’t really matter and can be enjoyed as a stand alone novel.

This is one of the crime books I got for Christmas. I love the vintage covers that Harper Collins have brought back and they’ve even included the original blurbs which sound very strange by today’s standards/

 

The String of Pearls: The Original Sweeney Todd by Thomas Peckett Prest

The_String_of_Pearls-_A_Romance_-_The_Original_Sweeney_ToddThe gruesome story of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett’s pies is so famous that despite never seeing the musical or film I still knew the basic elements of the plot. However this story still managed to hook me from start to finish with unexpected twists and lurid writing.

The story centres first on Joanna Oakley and her search for her lover Mark who seems to have been lost at sea, leaving his friend Lieutenant Thornhill to bring her the news and a string of pearls. He never reaches her and she eventually discovers he was last seen entering Sweeney Todd’s barber shop.

Although I like Victorian novels my experience of them has sometimes been long winded and I wasn’t expecting such a brisk opening but I should have expected one seeing as this was serialed as a Penny Dreadful in 1846. Penny Dreadfuls were cheap sensational literature focusing on gothic thrillers or famous criminals and mostly aimed at the young working class.I found the story fun to read with unexpected black humour like the commotion Thornhill’s dog causes outside Sweeney Todd’s shop and Joanna’s put down of Mr Lupin. The characters are interesting although two dimensional. Joanna had less of a main part to play than I assumed she would but I found the misadventures of Tobias Ragg, Sweeney’s tormented young assistant page-turning. The story dragged when it followed Sweeney Todd’s exploits in a thieves den and his attempts to be rid of the string of pearls but overall Prest succeeded in creating a suspenseful and thrilling narrative studded with thrilling moments:

“Very good,” said the barber, “that’s all a matter of taste. And now, Tobias, I desire that you look cheerful and smile, for a gentleman is outside feeling his chin with his hand, and thinking he may as well come in and be shaved. I may want you, Tobias, to go to Billingsgate, and bring me a pennyworth of shrimps.”

“Yes,” thought Tobias with a groan – “yes, while you murder him.”

This book isn’t subtle at all and lacks any kind of depth but I found it enjoyable to read like a macabre fairytale with a satisfyingly depraved villain.

This is part of a series Penguin released focusing on sensational Victorian books like Lady Audley’s Secret and The Mysteries of Udolpho. I may give the others a go since I find their promises of highwaymen and haunted castles very appealing.

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

masterThe Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 1966, Penguin 2007, tr: R. Pevear and L. Volonkhsky,

There isn’t another book quite like this one.

One afternoon the Devil enters Moscow and starts a chain of events that leaves chaos and insanity in his wake. In another time Pontinus Pilate chooses between bravery and safety in ancient Judea and finally the courageous Margarita makes a satanic deal to save the man she loves.

This books is a dark blend of absurdity, satire, romance and philosophy and made all the more powerful when considering that Bulgakov risked his life to write the manuscript. Under the Stalinist regime the fear was so great that he burnt the manuscript and then later wrote the whole thing again by heart. The idea that the greatest sin is cowardice is portrayed heavily throughout the book.

Biblical Judea and Stalinist Moscow are the two settings in the story and both are have the suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere of an extremely oppressive state. The secret police lurk behind the pages of Bulgakov’s novel; always chillingly alluded to but never named outright.

The satanic group and the antics they get up to are dark and comical; beginning with a beheading and on to an empty suit running an office, people bursting into song and unable to stop, the events at the theatre, a cat attempting to buy a tram ticket. Actually most scenes with the cat Behemoth:

But worse things were about to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller’s wife’s ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party- namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other.

And then the unsettling darkness under the mischief makers light hearted guises. The ominous disappearances that could happen to anyone in Stalin’s Russia and the fate that befell Ivan the homeless and Pontius Pilate among others.

Music has such an important role in this story that it almost begs to be adapted to screen. In some cases Bulgakov sets the atmosphere by the music; Ivan’s desperate chase after the strange man he meets on a park bench is to the opera Evgeny Onegin, the opera Aida is quoted often, the Queen of Spades is hauntingly sang in a dream and folk songs are played at Satan’s ball. Faust of course plays a major part in the entire novel.

I recommend this edition by Penguin as it has annotations throughout the book.

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in months. I went through a block of being too intimidated to write reviews in case I didn’t do the book justice. Like this one.