Book Review: Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott was published in 1875.

Rose Campbell is 13 and newly-orphaned. Her mother had died when Rose was young, but her father just recently passed. She’s sent to live with several aunts (their house is known as the “Aunt Hill”) until her appointed guardian, her father’s single brother, comes home from sea.

Rose had never met her father’s family. The aunts embody the truism of too many cooks spoiling the stew, with their different and sometimes opposite views on how she should be raised. One, something of a hypochondriac herself, has Rose almost convinced she has “no constitution.”

When Dr. Alec finally arrives, he puts his foot down with the aunts that Rose is to be raised his way for a year without their interference. Then they can evaluate how she’s doing and whether they need to make a change. The aunts can’t help but share their opinions occasionally, but they abide by Alec’s wish.

Alec starts slow with Rose, changing her diet and activities to healthier ones, not by decree but by persuasion. Rose regards her newfound uncle kindly because he is so like her father and seems to care greatly for her, so she acquiesces for the most part. She struggles to give up her little vanities, like wearing her belt so tight she can’t take a full breath so her waist looks smaller.

Much of the book involves Rose’s interactions with her seven boy cousins. She didn’t think she would like boys: she had never been around any. But she soon grows to love them. They all inadvertently teach each other lessons.

Alcott gets in a lot of opinions about what’s good and bad for young people. Some of the fashion sense Alec prescribes, we would consider common sense today (like doing away with corsets and having clothes loose enough to move comfortably in). Some of the vices her characters try to steer each other away from might sound funny to modern ears (like slang. Or maybe it’s that slang in that day is acceptable now.)

Wikipedia says Rose’s instruction and training for the wealth she will one day come into was “revolutionary” for the times, because women didn’t have much control over their own “money, property, or destinies” then.

Alcott uses the adjectives “good, old-fashioned” often, and this is a good, old-fashioned tale. Through “frolics” and “scrapes,” gentle admonition and learning by experience, the young people grow and develop good character.

A  couple of quotes I especially liked:

When Uncle Alec tells Rose he wants her to take up something special, housekeeping, she says, “Is that an accomplishment?” He replies: “Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong.”

When one of the cousins takes Rose on her first pony ride, he chooses a gentle one named Barkis. Then the book says Barkis was “willin’,” an allusion to David Copperfield in which a man named Barkis lets Peggotty, David’s nurse,  know that he’s interested in marrying her by sending the message, “Barkis is willin.'” Hearing that phrase made me smile.

I listened to the audiobook at Libravox, a site for free audiobooks. The last time I used them, there was some disruption in the loading of individual chapters. That process went smoothly this time, but they’ve added some annoying ads every few chapters. The narrators at Libravox just read the books: they don’t put inflection in them like those at Audible. But sometimes a book is short enough that I don’t want to use a full Audible credit on it, and I am thankful for the option of Libravox. They also have some books that Audible doesn’t have.

Rose in Bloom is the sequel to this book, and that’s next on my reading list for Tarissa’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month. I had read both books years ago and enjoyed revisiting them.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Wynema: A Child of the Forest

S. Alice Callahan is regarded as the first novelist of American Indian descent with her book, Wynema: A Child of the Forest. The book was published in 1891 when Callahan was 23; sadly, she died just three years later.

Her only foreword reads as follows:

TO THE INDIAN TRIBES OF NORTH AMERICA

Who have felt the wrongs and oppression of their pale-faced brothers, I lovingly dedicate this work, praying that it may serve to open the eyes and heart of the world to our afflictions, and thus speedily issue into existence an era of good feeling and just dealing toward us and our more oppressed brothers.

THE AUTHOR.

 The story begins with Wynema as a child amidst the peaceful habitations of her tribe. A Methodist missionary opened a school, but most of the Indians did not see the point of it. Wynema, however, was enraptured by the idea of learning. “His was the touch that brought into life the slumbering ambition for knowledge and for a higher life, in the breast of the little Indian girl.” She begged her father for a school in their own village, and he agreed. So the missionary, Gerald Keithly, sent for a woman to come and teach. The call was answered by Genevieve Weir, who believed, “God made the Indians as he made the Caucasian—from the same mold. He loves the work of His hands.”

As Genevieve tries to teach the Native children reading, English, and Christianity, she also learns their ways. When she laments some of the “barbaric” customs, Gerald wisely counsels her that white customs would seem just as barbaric to the Indians if they observed a white doctor or ballroom dance, etc., and that in many ways, they were more civilized than their white compatriots. Wynema and Genevieve become close friends.

But behind these peaceful and informative interactions, the Indians were being cheated out of money and land by the white government. Callahan shares the escalation of events leading up to the battle of Wounded Knee as well as the aftermath.

She has her main characters recognize the distinction between the kind white people who wanted to help and the others who wanted to oppress rather than lumping them all into on category.

I perused a few articles on Callahan and this book. Responses are mixed. Some felt that making Genevieve the main character, or at least equal in importance to Wynema, diminished the Native American influence. But since it was written partly to white people to show that the Native Americans weren’t “savages” and to chronicle the wrongs done to them, it seems natural to show this through a white woman’s eyes being opened as she comes to know and love them.

Another article (which I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find again and have not been able to [Update: it was not an article but the introduction to the book in the Amazon edition]) said that the book rejects the Christianization of the Native American as well as the colonization. But it seemed to me that Callahan presented both. Callahan includes a letter by Hadjo saying that “The Indians have never taken kindly to the Christian religion as preached and practiced by the whites. Do you know why this is the case? Because the Good Father of all has given us a better religion—a religion that is all good and no bad—a religion that is adapted to our wants” and that they have their own Messiah. But Wynema and others accepted the Christian message, and the general tone of the work is Christian.

Perhaps because Callahan had a Native American father and a white mother, her desire seemed to be to bring about reconciliation and understanding rather than further animosity. Part of reconciliation is acknowledging the wrongs done to another.

I’m glad that I discovered this book this year. I am counting it for the Classic by a Person of Color Category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Summerhills

Summerhills is the sequel to Amberwell by D. E. Stevenson. This book focuses primarily on three of the adult Ayrton children.

Roger is the oldest and the heir since his father died. But he assured his four siblings that Amberwell would always be the family home and they would always be welcome. In the last book, his wife had died in the London bombings, leaving him with their infant son, who nearly died as well. Since Roger was in the military, he sent his son, Stephen, home to Amberwell to be taken care of by his sister, Nell. In this book, Stephen is approaching the age to go to boarding school. But Nell can’t stand the thought of Stephen being sent away. Roger had inherited his wife’s fortune and had been pondering the best way to use it. Now he decides perhaps opening a boarding school nearby would help others as well as himself and Stephen. Summerhills is the name of the new school, and almost all of Roger’s time on leave is spent preparing for the school: consulting with a builder, finding a headmaster, etc. Roger had no interest in other women. He felt his wife was the only woman he would ever love. But perhaps becoming reacquainted with a childhood friend will reawaken the part of his heart that he thought was closed.

Nell had kept Amberwell afloat all during the war. With the loss of most of the staff during the war, Nell continues all of the tasks involved in attending to Amberwell while also caring for her nephew and her confused mother. Nell had always been the shyest Ayrton, content to be at home. When her brother Tom’s friend, Dennis, comes to visit, he is drawn to her. But he knows he will have to win her slowly, through friendship, before he can share his heart.

Ann had been missing from a large part of the last book after her aunt more or less pushed her into marrying a man that her parents would not have approved of. In time, this man proved abusive and eventually died. Ann did her best to provide for her young daughter on her own until the rector of their village found her and urged her to come home. Now she keeps house for the rector. The new headmaster is an old friend, and Ann senses he would like for their relationship to develop into something more. But marriage has been ruined for her.

Tom, the other brother, is away at sea throughout the book but is mentioned. Connie, the oldest sister, had been married and had three children in the last book, and had gotten hold of a book advising against thwarting or correcting children. Consequently, her children are rude, uncontrolled little monsters.

There are comic scenes, often involving Connie’s children, a pretty young governess, and the banter between Nanny and Mrs. Duff, the cook. There’s not a great deal to the plot besides getting the school ready and the various romances. But it’s a sweet, cozy book with some touching moments.

A couple of characters’ fates were left up in the air. There is no other sequel, but, according the this site, some from Amberwell make an appearance in a later book, Still Glides the Stream.

Objectionable elements: a few “damns” and mentions of blacks and Chinese that would be considered racist today. Though I don’t condone such references, I wouldn’t avoid a book with them any more than I would avoid any book where the characters do something wrong in some way.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by the same reader who narrated Amberwell, Leslie Mackie.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Amberwell

AmberwellI had not heard of D. E. Stevenson until a few years ago. I’ve seen her name mentioned favorably, but had never felt inclined to check our her books. But then Hope‘s mention of Amberwell led me to try it.

Amberwell is the name of the house owned by multiple descendants of the Ayrton family in Scotland. The residents in this book have five children, two boys from a previous marriage and three girls. The parents are aloof, authoritarian, and imperious. The children are kept in the nursery much longer than usual, and the parents don’t attempt to get to know them well.

But the children are allowed to roam free on the estate, and spend most of their time outdoors playing all sorts of imaginative games.

The next section of the story jumps ahead ten years. The two boys are in the service during WWII. One daughter has married, one’s whereabouts are unknown, and one is left to keep things together on the home front. Each faces their own struggles and heartaches.

Amberwell falls into disrepair due to shortages of supplies and manpower. But it draws each of the children back like a beacon.

My thoughts:

It took me two or three chapters to get into the story, but once I did, I loved it. The last third or so of the book, I wanted to set everything else aside and just read.

At first I wondered if this was a children’s book, not only because the children were the main characters, but also because the writing seemed simple. But by the next section, the writing and the plot shifted into a higher gear.

There was one odd place where one of the girls witnessed something untoward from their father, but nothing was ever said about it again.

I listened to the audiobook read exceptionally well by Leslie Mackie. She has a lovely, soft Scottish accent but could bring out the brogue with some characters. That’s one advantage to audiobooks: I don’t usually think in the accent of the characters when I’m reading, unless the dialect is written well. But hearing a whole book set in Scotland with a Scottish accent really added to the enjoyment.

I’m delighted to have discovered D. E. Stevenson, and now I have a whole list of her books to explore. In fact, I’ve already started on the sequel to Amberwell, Summerhills.

I’m counting this book for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge under the Classic About a Family category.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Over to Candleford

Over to CandlefordOver to Candleford is the second book in Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford Trilogy.

Candleford is a bigger town about eight miles away from the village of Lark Rise where Laura’s family lives. For years, Laura heard offhand plans about maybe going over to Candleford one day. Then finally it happens.

Laura’s father hires a cart, and the whole family drives over to visit relatives. Laura and her brother Edmund are fascinated by the new things they see. They are a bit intimidated by their relatives, though. Both families they visit are more well-to-do than Laura’s. The first has so much excess that Laura doesn’t feel comfortable. The second family is less ostentatious and more thoughtful and kind, and Laura feels more at home.

Later, Laura’s mother asks if Laura and Edmund think they could walk to Candleford by themselves. I can’t fathom sending children that young (nine and eleven) on an eight mile walk alone. But they make it.

This starts Laura on several visits to Candleford. One of my favorite parts is when she discovers a pile of old books in the attic and then discovers her uncle loves to read as much as she does.

Every afternoon when her cousins could be persuaded to go out or do what they wanted to do without her, she would tap at the door of her uncle’s workshop and hear the familiar challenge, ‘Who goes there?’ and reply, ‘Bookworms, Limited,’ and, receiving the password, go in and sit by the open window looking out on the garden and river and read while her uncle worked.

Laura’s family might seem a little rough to modern readers. They are not unkind, but they don’t coddle their children. “Her mother was kind and sensible and loved her children dearly, but she did not believe in showing too much tenderness towards them or in ‘giving herself away’ to the world at large.” When a neighbor tells Laura, “Never you mind, my poppet. Good looks ain’t everything, and you can’t help it if you did happen to be behind the door when they were being given out,” her mother tells her later, “You’re all right. Always keep yourself clean and neat and try to have a pleasant, good-tempered expression, and you’ll pass in a crowd.”

Laura starts to feel less valued than the new babies, until her mother finally treasures the bond they share in remembering early days and people that the youngest can’t.

When Laura turns thirteen, that’s about the time girls in the village found work outside the home to help support the family. But Laura is unsuited for many of the lines of work open to her and feels like a failure. Then an unexpected opportunity arises.

There is a little more plot to this book than Lark Rise, the first one. But there’s still a lot of description and short vignettes of people and customs.

I enjoyed the opening of new horizons to Laura in visiting a bigger town and unfamiliar people. I also liked her arc from a girl into a teenager.

Thompson also shares the changes that occurred during her lifetime.

They were still much as their forefathers had been; but change was creeping in, if slowly. A weekly newspaper came into every house, either by purchase or borrowing, and although these were still written by educated men for the educated, and our hamlet intellects had sometimes to reach up a little for their ideas, ideas were slowly percolating.

I smiled at this about bicycles:

But, although it was not yet realized, the revolution in transport had begun. The first high ‘penny-farthing’ bicycles were already on the roads, darting and swerving like swallows heralding the summer of the buses and cars and motor cycles which were soon to transform country life. But how fast those new bicycles travelled and how dangerous they looked! Pedestrians backed almost into the hedges when they met one of them, for was there not almost every week in the Sunday newspaper the story of some one being knocked down and killed by a bicycle, and letters from readers saying cyclists ought not to be allowed to use the roads, which, as everybody knew, were provided for people to walk on or to drive on behind horses. ‘Bicyclists ought to have roads to themselves, like railway trains’ was the general opinion.

Yet it was thrilling to see a man hurtling through space on one high wheel, with another tiny wheel wobbling helplessly behind. You wondered how they managed to keep their balance. No wonder they wore an anxious air. ‘Bicyclist’s face’, the expression was called, and the newspapers foretold a hunchbacked and tortured-faced future generation as a result of the pastime.

There’s always resistance to any progress, and then it becomes normal.

As a homebody myself, I appreciated this:

To the women, home was home in a special sense, for nine-tenths of their lives were spent indoors. There they washed and cooked and cleaned and mended for their teeming families; there they enjoyed their precious half-hour’s peace with a cup of tea before the fire in the afternoon, and there they bore their troubles as best they could and cherished their few joys. At times when things did not press too heavily upon them they found pleasure in re-arranging their few poor articles of furniture, in re-papering the walls and making quilts and cushions of scraps of old cloth to adorn their dwelling and add to its comfort, and few were so poor that they had not some treasure to exhibit, some article that had been in the family since ‘I dunno when’, or had been bought at a sale of furniture at such-and-such a great house, or had been given them when in service.

This was a sweet story, and I look forward to the next one, Candleford Green.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: My Antonia

My Antonia by Willa CatherThough I had heard of Willa Cather, I had never read her books and had no plans to. Then Hope’s great review of Cather’s My Antonia piqued my interest.

When ten-year-old Jim Burden’s parents died, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Arriving on the same train was a Czech (called Bohemian then) family, the Shimerdas, who became Jim’s grandparents’ neighbors.

The Shimerdas had one crooked relative in the area who sold them his cave of a home and some equipment for much more than they were worth.  Since they could not speak English, couldn’t ask for advice, and didn’t know any better, they paid his prices. But that meant almost all the money they brought with them was gone. The family had a hard time getting started, not only because of language barriers, poverty, and getting acclimated to new ways, but also for lack of what Jim’s grandmother called horse-sense.

The oldest daughter of the family was a bright, eager girl a few years older than Jim named Antonia (pronounced with accents on the first and third syllables—An’-ton-EE-ah). She learned English more quickly than the rest, and she and Jim became childhood friends traipsing over the countryside together. Jim taught two of the Shimerda girls English, and Antonia spent time helping Jim’s grandmother in the kitchen.

After a few years, Jim’s grandparents got too old to maintain the farm and moved into town. Antonia and many of the other immigrant girls worked in town and sent money home.

The story is told from Jim’s point of view, and he describes their adventures and relates many stories of townsfolk. We also see Antonia’s growth and development through his eyes. Though he had something of a crush on her for a while, he becomes more of a longtime family friend. Later he goes to college and law school and returns home less frequently, but he does see Antonia at intervals. She’s had a very hard life on many fronts, but maintained a strong spirit. He says of her near the end, “I know so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded. Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life.”

The book is partly about growing up on the prairie in the late 19th century. Cather herself moved to Nebraska from Virginia as a child, as Jim Burden did. Partly the book is about the immigrant experience of that time. But ultimately I think the story is about the resilience of people like Antonia.

Unfortunately, some people’s ideas of immigrants hasn’t changed much over time:

I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all ‘hired girls.’

I liked Jim’s (Cather’s?) summation:

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women.

The girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.

I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have. To-day the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses.

I love how Cather phrases some things:

Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its wings there, warning human beings away.

We burrowed down in the straw and curled up close together, watching the angry red die out of the west and the stars begin to shine in the clear, windy sky.

Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.

The week following Christmas brought in a thaw, and by New Year’s Day all the world about us was a broth of grey slush, and the guttered slope between the windmill and the barn was running black water.

In the winter bleakness a hunger for colour came over people, like the Laplander’s craving for fats and sugar.

The sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky.

This book is the third in Cather’s Prairie trilogy, O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark being the first two.

I enjoyed listening to the audiobook nicely narrated by Grover Gardner. I looked up some quotes in the online Gutenberg version and noticed some differences in the introduction there from my version. Wikipedia explains differences between the first and later editions. There are a number of Kindle editions at various prices.

I thoroughly enjoyed My Antonia. Some sources say this is Cather’s best, so her other work may fall short of this one. But I’d still like to explore some of her other books.

I’m counting this book as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Have you read My Antonia or Cather’s other books? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Lark Rise

Lark Rise is the first book in a semi-autobiographical trilogy by Flora Thompson about her childhood in an English hamlet in the later 1800s. She writes some forty years later, looking back on a quiet, pastoral life that was later marked by great changes. Nowadays, the three books (Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green) are usually published together under the title Lark Rise to Candleford.

This first book has no real overarching plot. It’s more a series of vignettes about life in those times: how the women kept house, traveling visitors from puppeteers to peddlers, how the squire and rector and their families were viewed, harvest traditions and celebrations, how school was conducted, etc. Often one individual or family’s story would be told as an example of the topic being described. Throughout the book we see some scenes or stories though the eyes of Laura, a young girl based on Thompson.

Thompson does not paint the village, the people, or the times as idyllic. The folks were poor but proud, hard-working, and mostly unsentimental. But they had their foibles, individually and collectively.

One aspect that was particularly interesting to me was that most families had several (as many as ten or twelve) children in a two-bedroom house. To ease the food supply and create more space, young girls were sent to “service” in another town as young as eleven. Mrs. Thompson detailed how girls began and then rose through the ranks from the lowest maid, sending home much-needed money and cast-off clothing from their employers (which meant hamlet fashion was just a season or two behind the cities, but the ladies didn’t mind).

One sad story had to do with a older man who was so ill, he could no longer live alone. His neighbors helped as much as possible, sending him food and such. But their houses were full and the coffers empty. The only option was the workhouse infirmary. “But they made one terrible mistake. They were dealing with a man of intelligence and spirit, and they treated him as they might have done one in the extreme of senile decay.” The doctor made arrangements without consulting the man, and came to his house to take him for “a drive.” “As soon as he realized where he was being taken, the old soldier, the independent old bachelor, the kind family friend, collapsed and cried like a child” and died six weeks later.

I enjoyed hearing how some of the women worked to brighten up their poor homes: “A well-whitened hearth, a home-made rag rug in bright colours, and a few geraniums on the window sill would cost nothing, but make a great difference to the general effect.”

The villagers, sadly, didn’t value “book learning” much. What little I’ve found about Thompson says she was largely self-taught. “She [his mother] hoped Edmund would not turn out to be clever. Brains were no good to a working man; they only made him discontented and saucy and lose his jobs.”

This aptly described an acidic postman: “So he went on, always leaving a sting behind, a gloomy, grumpy old man who seemed to resent having to serve such humble people.” Haven’t you known people like that, who always “leave a sting behind”?

This book wasn’t riveting, except for a few of the stories. But overall was a pleasant read. I hope the next two books have more of a plot to them, but I look forward to finding out more about Laura either way. I think the next book takes her to her first employment in a post office. After I read all three, I look forward to viewing the series made for TV based on the books.

I’ve had the trilogy bound together into one hefty volume for some years. But I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Karen Cass and dipped back into the book to look more closely at some of the quotes.

I’m counting this as my Classic with a Place in the Title for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Doctor Thorne

Doctor Thorne by Anthony TrollopeIn Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, the title character is a country doctor in a little English village. He had never married, but he had taken in his niece, Mary, when she was a child. She was the offspring of his ne’er-do-well brother and a girl in the village. His brother had been killed by the brother of the girl he seduced, and that girl, Mary’s mother, moved to America. Because Mary was with a caretaker and then away at school, by the time she came to Doctor Thorne’s home, no one made the connection between her and Thorne’s brother.

The leading family in the area were the Greshams of Greshamsbury. The squire and the doctor were good friends. Lady Gresham had come from a more highborn family and thus had lofty ideas of rank, birth, and privilege. Against her better judgment, she allowed Mary Thorne to come to her home to be taught with and to play with her daughters. Lady Gresham did not know Mary’s birth status, but even the niece of a country doctor was not the sort of person she would have preferred her children to be close to. But Mary was a good girl, and the squire in particular loved having her.

The Greshams had one son, Frank. By the time Frank came of age, his father’s debts had greatly reduced the estate. The only hope for the family’s financial survival was for Frank to marry money. But—Frank had fallen in love with Mary. He claimed he didn’t need the estate; he would learn a profession. His parents, his mother in particular, chalked his attitude up to immaturity and schemed to keep him and Mary apart.

Meanwhile, Roger Scatcherd, Mary’s unknown uncle who had killed her father, had served time for manslaughter. When he was released from prison, his skill and knowledge with railroads made him a lot of money. He eventually became a baronet. But now he was stuck between two classes. The lower classes with whom he would have formerly associated now saw him as above them. But the high society looked down on him as below them, even though he had more money than most of them. His besetting sin was drinking alcohol, which ruined his heath. Unfortunately, his son was following in his father’s footsteps.

Other subplots include Frank’s sisters’ romantic encounters, an election between Scatcherd and Frank’s sister’s beau, a wealthy and unconventional American girl who comes to visit, and an ongoing feud between Dr. Thorne and the elite doctors in nearby Barchester.

This book is the third in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. I haven’t read the other books in the series, or anything else by Trollope. I became aware of this story while looking for something to watch while riding my exercise bike. I discovered a series on Amazon Prime developed by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. I enjoyed the series so much, I soon sought out the audiobook.

In Fellowes’ series, he introduces and closes each installment in a cozy wing chair by a fireplace. Trollope’s narration seemed to me to be in a similar style, as if he were sitting across from the reader while telling this story. I don’t know if that image was in my mind because of the series, or if Fellowes felt the same way about Trollope’s writing.

I love the way Trollope addresses the reader throughout the story.

As Dr Thorne is our hero—or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to all my readers—and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner. I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognised by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise. I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy. I cannot bring in my doctor speaking his mind freely among the bigwigs till I have explained that it is in accordance with his usual character to do so. This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill. Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling—that, indeed, is very doubtful.

Another favorite line:

What had he not done for her, that uncle of hers, who had been more loving to her than any father! How was he, too, to be paid? Paid, indeed! Love can only be paid in its own coin: it knows of no other legal tender.

As I watched the series, I felt it had elements of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The TV series was fairly predictable, but still enjoyable. The book, of course, is much more nuanced.

My only complaint is that there seemed to be a good bit of repetition: some of the same points of conversation seemed to come up several times, sometimes with the same people.

But overall, I loved the book and want to read the rest of the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

I listened to the audiobook superbly narrated by David Shaw-Parker.

Here’s a trailer for the TV series:

Have you read anything by Trollope? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

 

Book Review: Hard Times

In Charles Dickens’ book, Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is a member of Parliament who also runs a school. His philosophy of education emphasizes pure fact: no fancy, no imagination, not even any morality. He discovers one poor student in the school Sissy, who can’t seem to learn her facts. When he goes to talk to her father, he discovers that her father had worked in the circus but has mysteriously left. So he offers to take Cissy in to help care for his near-invalid wife if she promises never to return to the circus.

Gradgrind’s own children have been raised according to his philosophy at home. Both his oldest two, Louisa and Tom, are rather bored. The implications of their education play out differently for each of them.

Gradgrind’s close friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a blustery self-made man who boasts of his rise from “street kid” to a successful banker. He eventually takes on Tom as an apprentice and married Louisa. Louisa has no love for Bounderby, but as her father presents the facts of the case, marriage seems reasonable.

In another area of town lives Stephen Blackpool, one of what Bounderby calls “hands”—common workmen. Stephen was 40, but “looked older, but he had had a hard life” with seemingly all thorns and no roses. “He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” though not particularly intelligent.

Eventually Stephen’s path crosses that of the other characters and reasons for his hard life become known. His refusal to go in with the unionists gets him in trouble with them and Bounderby. When he leaves to find work elsewhere, he’s framed for a bank robbery.

Usually when I start a classic novel, I get some background information about it first. I didn’t this time: I just let the story draw me in. I wondered who would advocate a “just facts” education and why. After reading the book, I learned that a philosophy called Utilitarianism was going around at the time. You can read more about it at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Louisa’s path follows that of the son of one of Utilitarianism’s advocates, who felt he was emotionally stunted as a result of his upbringing. Tom’s maturity and character was stunted, too, but in a different way. Perhaps it’s better to say he was more warped than stunted.

The two most highly moral, compassionate, and common-sense characters, Sissy and Stephen, were not raised in this philosophy, and eventually they show some of the others a different way. Some of the characters end up sadder but wiser, “making .. facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity.” Dickens almost portrays all the poor as virtuous and the rich and powerful as corrupt, but he makes the characters complicated enough that they don’t fall into stereotypes. As he often writes not only for social awareness, but for social change, he appeals to the reader that “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”

This is the shortest of Dickens’ novels and the only one not to have any scenes in London. This is his tenth novel and, like most of his others, first appeared in serial form. He infuses the story with his characteristic humor, pathos, and memorable characters and descriptions and keeps the reader thinking long after the book ends.

I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Peter Batchelor, and read parts on the Project Gutenberg copy online here.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

Legends of Robin Hood have been floating around since the 14th century. Scholars debate whether early ballads and stories were based on a real person. In his earliest versions, Robin was just a crook, sometimes short-tempered, according to Wikipedia. He did not rob from the poor, but he didn’t give to them, either. Some of the aspects we know of Robin survived from the earliest stories; others were added or adapted over the years. Wikipedia details Robin’s history and variations.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was the first version written specifically for children by Howard Pyle in 1883. This is the version many films and later aspects of the story are based on.

In this story, Robin is a yeoman, which seems to be a type of middle class between peasants and aristocrats (other versions cast Robin as a nobleman). He first becomes an outlaw by shooting an arrow at someone who shot at him first, subsequently killing the man. This man happened to be related to the Sheriff of Nottingham, who thenceforth became Robin’s enemy.

As Robin hid out in Sherwood Forest, others soon came to join him. Some who were poor and hungry had killed the king’s deer and fled the law. Others had goods and land confiscated by the king and had nowhere else to go.

To support themselves, Robin and his “merry men” stopped rich travelers and “invited” them to feast in Sherwood Forest, then demanded payment of them. In some cases, Robin divided up the money gathered in this way into thirds, keeping a third for his men, a third for charity, and giving a third back. Robin justified this theft because he figured those he robbed had either gotten their gain unfairly or, like wealthy clergymen, were keeping for themselves what they should be giving to others.

The poor loved Robin because he helped many of them. The classes that Robin robbed from, obviously, did not.

This book details many of the well-known stories about Robin—his first bout with Little John, his altercation of Friar Tuck (someone not in the earliest legends), the archery match in Nottingham where Robin went in disguise. Maid Marian in mentioned but never appears. Other stories I had not heard of were included as well, like how Robin met and helped Allen-a-dale to free his beloved from an arranged marriage, Robin’s deadly run-in with villain Guy of Gisborne, the recruitment of Midge, the Miller’s Son, and other tales.

The book came to a very satisfying end, until it got to the epilogue, where Robin’s death by betrayal is told.

There is an odd mention of “Cain’s wife had never opened the pottle that held misfortunes and let them forth like a cloud of flies to pester us.” That sounds like a convoluted version of Pandora’s box. And I chuckled at his phrase because a former pastor used to say it, and I didn’t know it came from this book: “There is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip,” meaning plans don’t always work out like we hoped. Maybe it was a common saying that Pyle incorporated.

As I first started listening to the audiobook, I wished I had known of and read this book to my boys. The more I heard, though, the more I wrestled with whether that would have been a good idea or not. There’s something appealing about this version of Robin, “honest … in his own way”: someone who stands up for the little guy, who “never harmed harmless man,”  rights wrongs, bests the foolish and evil. But I could never condone vigilantism, for many reasons. And many differences in the book are solved by fighting. Plus there are copious amounts ale, beer, and the like consumed. If we had read the book as a family, we would have had to stop and discuss a lot of issues along the way. Setting aside those objections, though, the rest was fun.

There are many film version of Robin, but the only one I ever saw was the animated Disney one. I’ve seen the character in some shows like Once Upon a Time and Shrek.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Christopher Cazenove in a voice and accent perfect for this type of tale. Project Gutenberg has a version online here.

I read/listened to this book for the Back to the Classics challenge, but I am not sure which category to place it in yet. It would fit in two or three. I’ll wait til I read some others and then see where to place this one.

Have you ever read this version of Robin Hood? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)