Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-Up

Karen at Books and Chocolate hosts the Back to the Classics Challenge. Books have to be 50 years old and fit within the categories chosen for the year in order to qualify. Karen draws a name from participants at the end of the year to receive a $30 gift card towards books, and the number of categories you finish determines how many entries you get.

Here are the categories I finished this year. Titles link back to my reviews. I actually finished back in June (a record for me, I think), but am just now finishing this post.

1. A 19th century classic: The Warden by Anthony Trollope
2. A 20th century classic: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
3. A classic by a woman author: Silas Marner by George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans)
4. A classic in translation: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
5. A classic by BIPOC author: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert
6. A classic by a new-to-you author: Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster
7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: Animal Farm by George Orwell
9. A children’s classic: Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
10. A humorous or satirical classic: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction): A Room With a View by E. M. Forster
12. A classic play: Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

Karen wants us to put the number of entries we get for the prize drawing based on the number of categories completed. I have three entries because I completed all twelve categories.

Karen also wants us to put our contact email here: barbarah06 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Once again, I very much enjoyed this challenge. Some of the books were cozy; some were challenging. All stimulated thinking in one form or another. That they still speak and still provoke thought and discussion after to so long a time is, I suppose, what makes them classics.

The Adventures of Pinocchio

The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was originally written in serial form for a children’s magazine in Italy in the 1880s. Collodi had ended the series with the fifteenth chapter. But readers clamored for more, so Collodi gradually added eleven more chapters. The series was published as a single book in 1883.

The story was meant to be didactic. A poor woodcarver named Geppetto begins to carve a marionette out of a piece of wood given to him by his friend. Before the puppet is even fully carved, he starts making trouble: sticking out his tongue, calling names, pulling Geppetto’s wig off. He’s wild and self-willed and won’t listen to anyone. And, of course, he gets into various kinds of trouble. Gradually he begins to be disciplined by his hardships and turns into “a real boy.”

Parts of the story are comedic, but parts are scary. Some are darker than I’d expect in a children’s book.

Pinocchio doesn’t have Jiminy Cricket as a companion. Instead a Talking Cricket tries to advise Pinocchio–and Pinocchio throws a hammer at him and kills him!

The Blue Fairy is here the Maiden with Azure Hair. Other familiar characters are the evil theater director, a shark (not a whale) that swallows Pinocchio, the friend named Lamp-wick who tempts Pinocchio to the Land of Toys. And there are several more characters I had not heard of before.

I was glad that Pinocchio didn’t change in one sudden burst of realization. Rather, he gradually learned a bit, fell back, went forward, fell back again. Most of us mature and learn that way.

The chapter titles or headings seem to me to give away much of the story. Chapter 17 is “Pinocchio eats sugar, but refuses to take medicine. When the undertakers come for him, he drinks the medicine and feels better. Afterwards he tells a lie and, in punishment, his nose grows longer and longer.” Chapter 23 is “Pinocchio weeps upon learning that the Lovely Maiden with Azure Hair is dead. He meets a Pigeon, who carries him to the seashore. He throws himself into the sea to go to the aid of his father.” Maybe that was the style then.

I was surprised to learn that Pinocchio is “the most translated non-religious book in the world.” Another surprise learned from Wikipedia is “Children’s literature was a new idea in Collodi’s time, an innovation in the 19th century. Thus in content and style it was new and modern, opening the way to many writers of the following century.”

Most of us are familiar with the Disney version of Pinocchio. I wonder if anyone, particularly if any children or families, read the unabridged original book today. By today’s standards it might seem a little too long and didactic. Then again, kids might enjoy reading about Pinocchio’s antics and seeing him get his comeuppance several times over. Personally, just when I was starting to get a bit tired of the story, Pinocchio began making some real advances.

I read this book for the classics in translation category of the Back to the Classics Reading challenge. In all honesty, I chose it mainly because it was short. I’ve read some hefty Russian tomes, like War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, for this category in past years. But I just didn’t feel like getting into something like those this year. However, I do also like reading the original versions of familiar stories.

I listened to the audiobook by Librivox which, as it’s read by volunteers, is a mixed bag. But it’s free. I also looked up portions on the online Gutenberg version here. Both use the translation by Carol Della Chiesa.

Have you ever read The Adventures of Pinocchio? What did you think of it? Do you think children today would like the longer original version?

A Room With a View

In E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, set in the early 1900s, Miss Lucy Honeychurch is traveling through Italy with her older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, as a chaperone. They’re lamenting to each other that their rooms overlook a courtyard, when they were supposed to overlook the Arno River. An older man, Mr. Emerson, overhears them and joins the conversation. He and his son have rooms with a view of the river, and they don’t particularly care about the view. They’d be happy to switch rooms with the ladies.

However, Miss Bartlett feels this won’t do, it isn’t proper, and the offerer is ill-bred, so she declines. But a short while later the ladies run into Mr. Beebe, a rector they knew in England. They tell him the situation. He feels that, even though Mr. Emerson is “peculiar,” “has no tact,” and “will not keep his opinions to himself,” he’s not a bad man and it would be all right to accept his offer.

So the switch is made. Lucy runs into the Emersons in their visits around town. Though they are not refined, she feels they are kind. Mr. Emerson is irreligious, and George seems morose because “the things of the universe . . . won’t fit.”

On one of Lucy’s rare excursions alone, she laments that she hasn’t had any adventures. “Nothing ever happens to me.” But “Then something did happen.” She witnesses a murder and faints. As she wakes up, she finds that George Emerson has carried her away from the scene.

Later, several of the English tourists go on a day trip to the countryside, There, in a field of violets, George kisses Lucy.

Miss Bartlett comes across them and is mortified. She asks Lucy not to tell her mother what happened, fearing she’ll be blamed for not chaperoning adequately. They decide to go on the next leg of their travels.

Part 2 opens at Lucy’s home in England, where she has just accepted Cecil Vyse’s proposal of marriage. Cecil, as Lucy’s mother says, is good, clever, rich, and well-connected. But he’s also snobbish, arrogant, and controlling.

When a property in the area needs new renters, who should the new tenants be but the Emersons.

Thus Lucy is pulled in two different directions–the conventional and expected or the freeing and individualistic.

I probably won’t take the time, but I’d love to go back and trace every time Forster mentions a view in this novel. It comes up quite often. Cecil even says he connects Lucy with a certain type of view, while she responds that she always pictures him in a room, like “a drawing room without a view.” Obviously, he’s presented as close-minded and unopen to change, while she’s the opposite.

This was written at the end of the Victorian era, when some of the old social order was changing. Forster doesn’t seem to be saying all conventionality is wrong–one character, Miss Lavish, is often described by others as “original,” a little more free-thinking than most. She goes with Lucy in Italy for an “adventure” and takes Lucy’s guidebook away so they can see the “real” Italy and not the prescribed tourist’s view. But then Miss Lavish sees someone she wants talk to and disappears, leaving Lucy alone in a strange country with no guidebook. Later Miss Lavish shares an incident someone told her confidentially in her new novel. So she takes things a little too far.

At one point the author has Lucy wonder:

Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.

Then later, when Lucy has an outburst, Cecil thinks:

He longed to hint to her that not here lay her vocation; that a woman’s power and charm reside in mystery, not in muscular rant. But possibly rant is a sign of vitality: it mars the beautiful creature, but shows that she is alive. After a moment, he contemplated her flushed face and excited gestures with a certain approval.

George, by contrast, tells her, “I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms.”

I liked this description of the Honeychurch family: “So the grittiness went out of life. It generally did at Windy Corner. At the last minute, when the social machine was clogged hopelessly, one member or other of the family poured in a drop of oil.”

One beef I have with the story is that George does not seem at all attractive. What he says about her having her own thoughts comes later in the book. At first he’s shown as moody, odd, and not terribly communicative. He’s only shown as happy twice in the book. I also felt that Mr. Emerson didn’t always make sense to me when he was pushing Lucy towards George.

Unfortunately, I could probably never see a film version of this book because there’s a scene where George, Lucy’s brother, and the rector are “bathing” in a pond when Lucy, Cecil, and Lucy’s mother come upon them unexpectedly. When George speaks to Mrs. Honeychurch, “He regarded himself as dressed. Barefoot, bare-chested . . .” So they’re not running around naked. But I’m sure filmmakers would play this scene up. In fact, I looked up the parental guidelines of the one film I was interested in, and sure enough, they take it too far.

I’m counting this for the travel or adventure classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge. I’m thankful to another participant for giving me the idea. I really didn’t feel like a Jules Verne type of novel this year, and I was glad to finally become familiar with A Room with a View.


Animal Farm

My youngest son and I were discussing communism and capitalism not long ago. I don’t know if you realize it, but there is a lot of anti-capitalism sentiment out there. Young people are frustrated with the greed of capitalism. But, as I told my son, no economic system is going to be perfect, because no individual or group of people is perfect. Those at the top in communism are just as oppressive (more so, in my opinion). Nothing illustrates this better than Animal Farm by George Orwell, a combination fable, allegory, and satire about the Russian revolution of 1917 and Stalin’s takeover.

But even if you’re not familiar with the details of the Russian revolution, Animal Farm is a good illustration of what often happens when oppressors are overthrown: the formerly oppressed become the new oppressors.

In the book, Manor Farm is owned by a careless man who likes to drink a lot: Mr. Jones. One night the old boar, Old Major (Marx/Lenin), calls all the animals of the farm to a meeting. He encourages them to overthrow Jones and adopt animalism (communism), where they work for themselves.

Old Major passes away, and soon the animals’ opportunity comes. Jones forgets to feed them for several days. The animals don’t really plan an organized revolt, but they are so hungry and fed up, they drive Jones and his men off the property with great rejoicing (the revolution).

Two pigs, Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky) become the leaders. The farm’s name is changed to Animal Farm. Seven commandments of Animalism are adopted, like “No animal shall sleep in a bed,” “No animal shall kill another animal,”etc. But the most important is “All animals are equal.”

The pigs teach themselves to read from a child’s primer in the house. Snowball tries to teach the other animals to read. They adopt a green flag with a horn and hoof emblem. Napoleon takes the newborn litter of puppies to train them. Snowball and Napoleon clash sometimes, but things come to a head when Snowball proposes that they build a windmill and outlines all the improvements it will bring. Napoleon disagrees and downplays the idea. But then Napoleon brings out the dogs he has been training into his own personal guard. They turn on Snowball and chase him off. Then Napoleon declares the windmill was his idea, which Snowball had stolen. Snowball is conveniently blamed for everything that goes wrong.

Since the pigs are the smartest an therefore the leaders, they take up residence in the house. They take the best food and all the milk, because of course they need to be in top form for all the decisions they have to make.

One by one, the promises made to the animals in the early days are broken. The pigs’ spokesman, Squealer, comes out and explains away anything that looks untoward. When the animals object to anything, they’re reminded, “We’re better off than when Jones was here” and “You don’t want Jones to come back, do you?” If any animal object too much, some reason is found for those animals to be executed. When the rest think they remember something about animals not killing each other, some who remember how to read go to check the seven commandments that had been painted on the barn wall. Now the sixth commandment reads, “No animal shall kill another animal without cause.”

When the pigs are discovered to be sleeping in beds in the farmhouse, the barn wall reads “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.”

And as the pigs become more and more like the human oppressors, the barn is found to say, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Wikipedia says that Orwell wrote in an essay “Why I Write” “that Animal Farm was the first book in which he tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, ‘to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.'”

I hadn’t realized until now that this book first came out in 1940s, when the UK and the Soviet Union were allied against Germany. Publication was delayed, and the book “became a great commercial success when it did appear partly because international relations were transformed as the wartime alliance gave way to the Cold War” (Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia article details many more of the symbolic details and allegoric references.

Some of the most noteworthy quotes from the story:

Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

The needs of the windmill must override everything else, he said. He was therefore making arrangements to sell a stack of hay and part of the current year’s wheat crop, and later on, if more money were needed, it would have to be made up by the sale of eggs, for which there was always a market in Willingdon. The hens, said Napoleon, should welcome this sacrifice as their own special contribution towards the building of the windmill.

But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three-day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally.

Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer–except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.

I had read this book back in high school and remembered the overall story, but had forgotten a few particulars. Orwell did a masterful job. Reading the book as an adult, it’s easy to recognize the “spin” that leaders and their influencers can put on events. I don’t advocate mistrusting all political leadership, but it’s wise to be aware and wary.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Ralph Cosham. This will count for a classic about animals for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers)

Brave New World

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian novel set in 2540 London. The book opens with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explaining the institution’s processes to new students. Babies aren’t “born” any more: they’re “decanted.” In fact, the students are embarrassed when the director refers to the “old” way of conception and childbirth. Now ova and spermatozoa are joined in the lab and treated to become Alphas (the highest intelligence and functions), Betas, and so on, down to the nearly automaton Epsilons. Children are raised in the hatchery and conditioned against love of art or books or discomfort about death. The nuclear family is no more: the word “mother” is an obscenity.

The goal of the world controllers is that everyone be happy. Everyone works for the good of society. They spend their evenings in fun encounters and rarely are alone. Without the stresses of family and relationships, they’re free to just be . . . happy. If they’re not, there’s always soma—a drug that does anything from relax you a bit to keep you on a “holiday” for days.

Yet Bernard Marx isn’t happy. He’s in the highest caste for intelligence, but his physique is smaller than other Alphas. Rumor has it that alcohol was accidentally poured into his test tube, stunting his growth.

He feels inferior about his body, but he’s also out of step with a lot of society. He likes to be alone. He doesn’t like that men look at women like meat, and women seem to expect and like it. He has a crush on the popular Lenina, but is embarrassed when she wants to discuss plans for a date in an elevator full of other people.

Part of Bernard’s discomfiture stems from the fact that he’s a sleep-learning specialist. He helps program hypnopedia, the maxims and slogans that are repeated to the children in the hatchery while they sleep. So he knows much of society’s values come from this kind of conditioning.

Bernard and Lenina take a trip to a Native American-type reservation where some people have been allowed to live untouched by the new civilization. They live in family groups and their worship is an amalgam of religions. Bernard discovers a woman there who had come from the outside world several years earlier with a visiting group and gotten separated. They couldn’t find her and left her for dead, but in fact, she had been injured. She was also somehow pregnant, despite the measures society took to prevent such from happening. She was still an outsider on the reservation after all these years, partly because she was white, but mainly because her “everyone belongs to everyone” sexuality didn’t sit well with the tribe’s wives. Her son, John, is in his twenties and also an outsider. His mother had taught him to read, but their only books were a manual from her lab and a mouse-nibbled copy of Shakespeare.

John’s mother had told him of the world she came from, and now he would have an opportunity to go back with Bernard. He quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”

However, John finds he doesn’t fit in the “brave new world,” either. He likes Lenina but can’t abide this civilization’s flippant attitude about sex. His mother has become addicted to soma to deal with her misery. He can’t function without time alone but can rarely find it.

People call him “the savage” or sometimes “Mr. Savage.” But the savage may be the most civilized person of all.

I had heard of this book but had no inclination to read it until I came across a quote comparing it to George Orwell’s 1984. I found out later the quote came from the introduction to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” The quote went on to say, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. . . . In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

Nearly thirty years later, Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, a nonfiction piece discussing how much of what he prredicted in the earlier book had come true.

Wikipedia goes into some of the influences behind the book. It started out as a parody of “utopia stories” popular at the time, but then he “got caught up in the excitement of [his] own ideas.” He was also influenced by a visit to the US where he “was outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, and sexual promiscuity, and the inward-looking nature of many Americans.” He also came across Henry Ford’s My Life and Work and “he saw the book’s principles applied in everything he encountered after leaving San Francisco.” In fact, in Brave New World, time is measured not in BC and AD, but AF (After Ford).

The book got particularly interesting to me after John appeared. And it was intriguing to me to see the potential ramifications of a world filled with pleasure but not with meaning, as Huxley describes.

One of the main pleasures is sex, which is referred to a lot in this book. It’s not included to be titillating: it’s no more explicit than in Song of Solomon. It’s one of the main illustrations of pleasure with no meaning and probably meant to be disturbing. Still, it ‘s a lot.

Neither 1984 nor Brave New World portray a future that anyone would look forward to. But maybe, for the discerning, they can help us avoid some of the pitfalls they warn against.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Michael York. This book will count for my 20th century classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Peter Pan

I’ve seen several movie version of Peter Pan: the Disney cartoon, of course, a 2003 live-action version, and Hook. But I had never read the book by J. M. Barrie.

Peter was originally a character in Barrie’s book The Little White Bird. A few years later, the chapters about Peter were extracted and published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Later Barrie wrote a play with Peter as the central character, and later still he expanded the story into a novel, Peter Pan and Wendy, in 1911. These days it’s usually published as just Peter Pan.

Some think that inspiration for Peter came from Barrie’s older brother, who died young and was always thought of as still a boy. The name “Peter” came from the son of friends, the Llewelyn Davies. “Pan” was from Greek mythology.

You’re probably familiar with the story, but Peter lives in Neverland with Lost Boys. Occasionally he travels around. He lands outside the Darling family nursery and is captivated by the stories he hears there. He entices the daughter, Wendy Darling, to come to Neverland and be the Lost Boys’ mother. Wendy’s brothers, John and Michael, come, too. They have a lot of adventures with fairies and a Neverbird and Indians and pirates. The pirate captain is a man named Hook due to the prosthesis he had to wear after Pan was responsible for cutting off his arm in a fight.

Though Peter is portrayed as fearless, cunning, and skilled with a sword, he’s also selfish and thoughtless of others’ feelings. I’m glad Barrie portrayed the immature side of his childishness rather than just making him idyllic.

Barrie had tried different subtitles and settled on The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up. But a producer didn’t like that and suggested changing “Couldn’t” to “Wouldn’t.” I think “wouldn’t” is much more fitting. If he couldn’t grow up, we’d feel sorry for him. But since he wouldn’t, that adds a little bit of exasperation with him and explains why everyone else did grow up.

A few years after Peter Pan was published, Barrie wrote When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought. Peter returns after a absence of some years and is dismayed to find that Wendy has grown up and married. But then Wendy’s daughter, Jane, goes with Peter with her mother’s permission. This was sometimes published separately, but it was included at the end of the volume I read.

There has been some criticism in modern times of the way that Indians were portrayed. Wikipedia says, “Later screen adaptations have taken various approaches to these characters, sometimes presenting them as racial caricatures, omitting them, attempting to present them more authentically, or reframing them as another kind of ‘exotic’ people.” I don’t recall that they were portrayed negatively at all: they were respected even as enemies, and eventually became friends. But they were written rather stereotypically.

I was surprised that the book was darker in places than I remember the films being, though I admit it has been a long time since I have seen any of the films. It seems like in the Disney version, there was a lot of fighting but no bloodshed or real injuries except Hook’s hand. But in the book, people did die.

In the 2003 film, it didn’t dawn on me until fairly late that the same actor portrayed both the father and Hook. I read somewhere that the play usually does the same thing. Also, that film has something of a romance between Peter and Wendy, but in the book he always thinks of her as a mother.

I can’t say Peter Pan will be my favorite children’s classic, but I am glad to be acquainted with the original story now. I am counting it as my children’s classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers)

Barchester Towers

BarchesterTowers is the second book in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series.

Archdeacon Grantly from the first book (The Warden) sets his sights on being named bishop when his father dies. But the new Prime Minister names a Mr. Proudie as bishop instead. Grantly and Proudie are on opposite sides of politics and church issues, thus setting up factions within the diocese.

To make things worse, Proudie is weak and overrun by his wife and his chaplain. The chaplain, Mr. Slope, is smarmy, conniving, and ambitious. He and Mrs. Proudie are allies until they differ on one particular issue: who should take over as warden of the hospital, a position vacated by Mr. Harding in the last book.

Mr. Harding’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, has married, had a son she adores, and has been widowed. Her husband left her well off, so Slope sets his sights on her and finagles to have her father reinstated as warden in order gain her favor.

But Bertie Stanhope, a ne’er-do-well but charming young man with a lot of debts, also decides to woo Eleanor.

This book was much more comedic than the other two of Trollope’s that I have read. Even the names of some of the minor characters are amusing: two farmers are named Greenacre and Topsoil; a clergyman with fourteen children is Dr. Quiverful; a lady with a temper is Mrs Clantantram.

Trollope satirizes the clergy who spend their time battling each other or manipulating events for their own purposes. That, to me, was more sad than funny, but satire is a way to bring such inconsistencies to light. Thankfully, not all of the clergy acted this way.

But there are some sweet moments, too. I can identify much with Mr. Harding, who doesn’t want to cause trouble, doesn’t want any fuss, just wants to live a quiet peaceful life. When he’s stressed (often in conversations with his son-in-law, the archdeacon), in his mind (and sometimes with his hands) he plays an imaginary violincello. The moments with him and his daughter, Eleanor, are some of my favorites.

Some of my favorite quotes:

Considering how much we are all given to discuss the characters of others, and discuss them often not in the strictest spirit of charity, it is singular how little we are inclined to think that others can speak ill-naturedly of us, and how angry and hurt we are when proof reaches us that they have done so.

Mr. Slope was big, awkward, cumbrous, and, having his heart in his pursuit, was ill at ease. The lady was fair, as we have said, and delicate; everything about her was fine and refined; her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots, and when he kissed it, he looked as a cow might do on finding such a flower among her food.

Mrs. Proudie: “The bishop merely intends to express his own wishes.”
[The henpecked] Mr. Proudie: “I merely intend, Mr. Slope, to express my own wishes.”

In a long aside from the author on how difficult it is to satisfactorily wrap up a book: “Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgeling my brains to find them?”

Trollope wrote during the same time as Dickens—he even mentions someone reading the latest Dickens publication. But his style is somewhat milder and gentler.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Simon Vance, who also narrated The Warden. Both books were included in my Audible subscription, so I didn’t have to buy them.

I had read the third book in the series, Doctor Thorne, last year, which set me to reading the rest of the series. I’ll take a break before finishing, but I look forward to the last three books.

I’m counting this as the humorous or satirical classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

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

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Last year I read Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope after enjoying a mini-series based on the book. I discovered Doctor Thorne was the third book of a six-part series called The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I liked Doctor Thorne so much, I decided to read the rest of the series.

The first book in the series is The Warden, a position held by a Mr. Septimus Harding. The warden had various functions in the local church. One role unique to this particular church was overseeing a hospital or almshouse for aged men. In previous years, a man named John Hiram had made provision in his will for such a hospital, for twelve men and a warden to care for them.

A young reformer, John Bold, becomes concerned that the set-up for the hospital is unfair to the patients. He thinks the arrangement is not being carried out according to the Hiram’s will and that the warden is getting more money than he should and the pensioners less. John Bold has no personal quarrel with Mr. Harding himself; in fact, he’s in love with Harding’s daughter, Eleanor. But he’s the type of personality that opposes the principle of the thing and can’t let it go. He begins a lawsuit. Newspapers get wind of the situation and cast aspersions at Mr. Harding’s character.

This might not sound like a riveting plot line, but what makes it interesting is the personalities. Mr. Harding is the meekest of men and only wants to do the right thing. He thought he had been doing right, but now he wants to have the will looked into to make sure. His son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, is just the opposite: a take-charge person used to running the show and having his own way. Grantly confers with lawyers to oppose the suit on technical grounds. Grantly probably is probably making too much money from his position: he is described several times as rich. He has no compassion for the old pensioners.

He knew well how strongly he would be supported by Dr Grantly, if he could bring himself to put his case into the archdeacon’s hands and to allow him to fight the battle; but he knew also that he would find no sympathy there for his doubts, no friendly feeling, no inward comfort. Dr Grantly would be ready enough to take up his cudgel against all comers on behalf of the church militant, but he would do so on the distasteful ground of the church’s infallibility. Such a contest would give no comfort to Mr Harding’s doubts. He was not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be so.

Trollope lived and wrote during Dickens’ time, and I wonder what they thought of each other. He satirizes a writer in the story who went by the name Mr Popular Sentiment and who sounds a lot like Dickens or one of his characters. Many of Dickens’ novels seem to have been written to raise awareness and inspire reform. Trollope is not against reform, but he seems to caution here that it can be carried out in a way that hurts innocent people, stirs up negative sentiment without the right basis in facts, and doesn’t accomplish anything good. The question could have been looked into without becoming adversarial. That’s a timely message for these days.

In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so.

I especially like Trollope’s characterizations of the newspaper, which in this story is called the Jupiter. I wonder what he’d think of news media today.

From here issue the only known infallible bulls for the guidance of British souls and bodies. This little court is the Vatican of England. Here reigns a pope, self-nominated, self-consecrated—ay, and much stranger too,—self-believing!—a pope whom, if you cannot obey him, I would advise you to disobey as silently as possible; a pope hitherto afraid of no Luther; a pope who manages his own inquisition, who punishes unbelievers as no most skilful inquisitor of Spain ever dreamt of doing—one who can excommunicate thoroughly, fearfully, radically; put you beyond the pale of men’s charity; make you odious to your dearest friends, and turn you into a monster to be pointed at by the finger!’

Oh heavens! and this is Mount Olympus!

It is a fact amazing to ordinary mortals that the Jupiter is never wrong.

A man may have the best of causes, the best of talents, and the best of tempers; he may write as well as Addison, or as strongly as Junius; but even with all this he cannot successfully answer, when attacked by The Jupiter. In such matters it is omnipotent. What the Czar is in Russia, or the mob in America, that The Jupiter is in England.

I like that Trollope addresses the reader, not just as the narrator and member of the community, but as the author.

It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task—a novel in one volume.

Our tale is now done, and it only remains to us to collect the scattered threads of our little story, and to tie them into a seemly knot. This will not be a work of labour, either to the author or to his readers

I also enjoyed the humorous asides:

The bishop did not whistle. We believe that they lose the power of doing so on being consecrated; and that in these days one might as easily meet a corrupt judge as a whistling bishop; but he looked as though he would have done so, but for his apron.

He never had time to talk, he was so taken up with speaking.

In matters of love men do not see clearly in their own affairs. They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men’s hearts!

[Said of a particular painting] There on her pedestal, framed and glazed, stood the devotional lady looking intently at a lily as no lady ever looked before.

Popularity spoilt him for all further real use, as it has done many another.

I’m thankful I read Doctor Thorne first. It took me a while to get into The Warden, but I came to enjoy it. I especially liked Harding and his youngest daughter, Eleanor. Of Eleanor it was said, “She had no startling brilliancy of beauty, no pearly whiteness, no radiant carnation. She had not the majestic contour that rivets attention, demands instant wonder, and then disappoints by the coldness of its charms. You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart.”

According to a few sources, Trollope had not intended to write a series when he published The Warden. But a few years later, he was inspired by the characters and setting to write another story. When his popularity picked up, publishers asked him for more books from Barsetshire. It wasn’t until after the sixth was published that the books were marketed together and called The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Simon Vance.

I’m counting this book for the 19th century classic in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

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

Silas Marner

In Silas Marner by George Elliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), Silas is a weaver active in a small congregation. One morning, after helping take care of a sick deacon through the night, Silas is accused of stealing the congregation’s money that had been stored in the deacon’s house. He is suspect not only because he was there, but also because his pocket knife was where the money should be. But Silas distinctly remembers loaning his knife to his best friend, William Dane. The congregation decides to draw lots to determine Silas’ guilt or innocence, and Silas believes God will show that he’s innocent. However, the lot does just the opposite and finds him guilty.

Feeling betrayed by both God and man, Silas packs up and moves away to a rural area. He finds business weaving again, but he interacts with people as little as possible.

He hated the thought of the past; there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst; and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him. Thought was arrested by utter bewilderment, now its old narrow pathway was closed, and affection seemed to have died under the bruise that had fallen on its keenest nerves.

Because he’s such a loner and the folks are quite superstitious, rumors swirl about him. Because he doesn’t go anywhere—not even church—or do anything, the money he makes multiplies to the point of his idolizing it, counting it every night.

And then the unthinkable happens. One foggy night while out on a quick errand, he comes home to find his gold all gone. He’s completely undone, but the situation opens his neighbors’ hearts to him.

Then on another dark and snowy night, a little child wanders into Silas’ home, changing his life.

Intersecting several times with Silas’ story is that of the Cass family. The older Squire Cass, leading citizen of the area, has several sons. The oldest, Godfrey, has a secret that could ruin him and prevent his marriage to the woman he loves. His brother, Dunstan, knows the secret and uses his knowledge to manipulate Godfrey. Dunstan is a selfish cad. Godfrey is weak-willed and indecisive. He keeps turning his problems over in his mind but never doing anything about them, assuming somehow everything will come out all right in the end.

Silas Marner was first published in 1861 but set a few decades earlier. Elliot always delves deeply into the psychology of her characters, so the main action of the story deals with what they are thinking and why. But she also explores other themes: religion, change, class differences and parallels.

This book is much shorter than her others, so it’s a good one to give Elliot’s writing a try.

Hope has mentioned the Literary Life Podcast. When I looked it up, I saw they were discussing Silas Marner, so I decided to give them a try. I was a little put off during the first episode because it was an hour and twenty minutes just to cover the first three chapters, it took fifteen minutes before they started talking about the author, and another sixteen minutes to get to the book. The only other podcast I have listened to regularly is the Christian Publishing Show by Thomas Umstattd, Jr. He dives right in and puts all his “commercials” at the end—which I appreciate. But once the folks at the Literary Life Podcast got into the meat of the book, I enjoyed listening to them. They brought our several things that I missed and added insights from the times and Elliot’s life. The podcast doesn’t advertise itself as Christian, but from the discussions, the participants seem to be believers. I’ve listened to the first two podcasts on Silas and am in the midst of the third.

Some years ago I heard a Focus on the Family Radio Theater production of Silas Marner that was quite well done. From that, I knew the basic story but had forgotten many details. And the book is a richer, deeper experience.

I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive the Little House on the Prairie TV series for making me think this would be a boring book. 🙂 In one episode, Albert mourns having to read it for school instead of doing something else he’s rather do. I had never heard of the book before that.

On the other hand, I’ve heard others say that they didn’t like it when they first read it, either. Maybe it’s one that doesn’t go over so well in high school? I don’t know. But I am glad I read it when I did, because I enjoyed it quite a lot. I listened to the audiobook very nicely read by Andrew Sachs but also looked up parts in the Kindle edition, which, at the time of this writing, is 60 cents.

I’m counting this book for the classic by a woman author for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Have you read Silas Marner? What did you think?

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

Nicholas Nickleby

When Nicholas Nickelby’s father died, Nicholas, his mother, and his sister, Kate, had to cast themselves on the mercies of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby.

Ralph had become a rich but hardened and unprincipled man. He only wanted to do the minimum for his poor relations. He got Nicholas an assistant’s position with Wackford Squeers, the one-eyed superintendent of the Dotheboys School in Yorkshire. As Nicholas prepares to leave, he is given a letter by Ralph’s odd assistant, Newman Noggs. Noggs offers Nicholas help if it is ever needed.

Nicholas finds that the Dotheboys school is a place of cruelty and injustice. Squeers and his wife take money for the boys’ education and use it for themselves, giving the boys very little to eat. They take the boys’ clothes and adapt them for their own son, Wackford, Jr. Squeers mistreats all the boys, especially a young man named Smike who has been abandoned at the school and become an unpaid servant to the family. Nicholas “hoped that by remaining where he was, he might do some good, even there; at all events, others depended too much on his uncle’s favour, to admit of his awakening his wrath just then.” But Nicholas fights Squeers while intervening to keep Smike from being beaten, and he and Smike leave the school.

Nicholas has little money and has not been trained for any work. After meeting up with Newman Noggs, Nicholas and Smike attempt to find work on a ship, but are disappointed. Nicholas meets up with an acting troupe, and he and Smike are taken on.

Meanwhile, back in London, Ralph puts Kate and her mother in an old slum that he owns. He sets Kate up in a dressmaker’s shop. He invites her to a dinner with other businessmen, hoping to use her to draw in the young Lord Verisopht further into his debt. All the men are lewd and crude, and Kate flees the scene. But she has attracted the notice of an older man, Mulberry Hawk, who sets his sights on her.

When Newman Noggs alerts Nicholas that Kate is in danger, Nicholas speeds back to London, removes his mother and Kate from their uncle’s house, and tells Ralph they want nothing more from him.

But now with the weight of his family’s support, Nicholas needs to find respectable work. At his lowest point, Nicholas runs into a benevolent businessman named Charles Cheeryble. Charles is so kind and forthcoming that Nicholas can’t help but spill his story. Charles hires him on the spot.

But the Nickleby trials aren’t over yet.

Nicholas Nickleby is Charles Dickens’ third novel. It was published in serialized form 1838-1839. Dickens is a master of creating chapter endings that stir up anticipation for the next chapter. I was glad I didn’t have to wait a month between installments like the original readers.

As usual, Dickens employs a plethora of memorable characters, some quite eccentric. I love how the names fit many of them so well.

Though Nicholas is honest, noble, devoted to his family, and well-intentioned, he’s also immature. According to Wikipedia, Dickens said of him, “If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature.”

As much as I love Dickens, I had never read this book. I thought I knew the story from a film, but I only remembered the evil schoolmaster and the dressmaker. So I must have seen the beginning of a miniseries.

Some of my favorite lines:

“Good-night—a—a—God bless you.” The blessing seemed to stick in Mr. Ralph Nickleby’s throat, as if it were not used to the thoroughfare, and didn’t know the way out.

The day wore on, and all these bright colours subsided, and assumed a quieter tint, like young hopes softened down by time, or youthful features by degrees resolving into the calm and serenity of age. But they were scarcely less beautiful in their slow decline, than they had been in their prime; for nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy, that we can scarcely mark their progress.

She began to think, too, that Sir Mulberry was not quite so agreeable a creature as she had at first supposed him; for, although a skilful flatterer is a most delightful companion if you can keep him all to yourself, his taste becomes very doubtful when he takes to complimenting other people.

Among men who have any sound and sterling qualities, there is nothing so contagious as pure openness of heart.

In unequal marriages, the rich party is always supposed to make a great sacrifice, and the other to get a good bargain!

One of my favorite parts was near the end when one older, unlikely character proposes to another by saying, “Let’s be a comfortable couple, and take care of each other! And if we should get deaf, or lame, or blind, or bed-ridden, how glad we shall be that we have somebody we are fond of, always to talk to and sit with! Let’s be a comfortable couple. Now, do, my dear!”

One bothersome feature of this book is a couple of characters’ overuse of various forms of the word “damned”

I don’t think Nicholas will rank with David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities as my favorite Dickens novels. But I am glad to be acquainted with the story now, and some of the characters are especially touching. I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Simon Vance. I enjoyed reading parts online here and looking at the illustrations.

I’m counting this book as a new-to-me classic written by a favorite author for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Have you read Nicholas Nickleby? What did you think?

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