a tale of two daughters

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

My copy of Wives and Daughters rested on my shelf for years. Mostly, I was concerned that I would feel the sort of disappointment I felt when I read Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon. Would I come to love the characters and then feel a sense of unfulfillment when I reached an abrupt non-ending? I waffled on the decision to read it and just let it keep gathering dust; but last month, the Victorians group on Goodreads started a W&D reading challenge and I was finally tempted to dive in.

I initially wanted to write a section summary and reaction, like I did for Bleak House and Cecilia, but several life emergencies made it impossible for me to stick to the group’s reading schedule, much less post periodic updates on my reactions.

Because this is quite a tome, I feel a regular review can’t possibly do it justice, so I’m just going to focus on some of the things I most admired about the novel.

  • I loved the dynamic between Molly and Mr. Gibson in the first part of the novel, before he remarried. It so reminded me of the relationship between Maggie and Mr. Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss and really endeared me to the characters.
  • Mrs. Gibson’s flaws and views on society make for a great social commentary in the style of Jane Austen’s best social upstarts.
  • Actually, Gaskell’s epic domestic novel often reminded me of Austen and Eliot.
  • It’s a contradiction in terms to call it epic and domestic, but it’s the best phrase I can think of to describe the scope of a book on just about every aspect of country society.
  • While I did feel a bit let down by the missing conclusion, the novel felt nearly complete and clearly laid the foundation for a satisfying ending.
  • Some of Mrs. Gibson’s lines are fantastic. Like this one: “My dear, if you must have the last word, don’t let it be a truism.”

I regret not being able to take part in an active discussion on the book, as that was my main reason for taking part in the challenge, but feel quite a sense of accomplishment now that I’ve read it. I was also left with a burning desire to re-read The Mill on the Floss.

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a very proud and prejudiced review

After reading Marvel Illustrated’s Sense and Sensibility (adapted by Nancy Butler and illustrate by Sonny Liew), I was eager to read their take on Pride and Prejudice. Reviews on amazon were not particularly favorable with regards to the artwork, but the cover had a look similar to that used in S&S so I wanted to judge for myself…. Unfortunately, the reviewers were right. The text is very well adapted (Butler adapted P&P as well as Marvel’s Emma); however, the images were just wrong. There is a liveliness and softness to Liew’s illustrations in Sense and Sensibility, they work very well with the text.

Hugo Petrus’s illustrations just scream classic, fanboy comic world. As one amazon reviewer put it, “Other than Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, the girls look like 80s porn stars and her mom looks like Granny Goodness from the animated JLA series.”

They do. The hair is big and the expressions are fierce, while the color palette applied to the first half of the series is extremely harsh and orange. It just made me cringe. Great cover art, disappointing story art.

capturing a classic

Sense and Sensibility is not my favorite Austen (that honor goes to Persuasion), but after re-reading it a couple of months ago, I found that I was able to notice some of the nuances of character that I missed when I first read it. I was able to note more of the comic elements and barbed social commentary throughout the novel, and particularly during Lucy’s meetings with Elinor. I gained a new appreciation for Elinor and Marianne.

That said, the holidays seemed like the perfect time to read Marvel Illustrated’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility by Nancy Butler and illustrated by Sonny Liew. Given that SS is one of Austen’s longest novels, adapting the text into a comic book format, speech bubbles and all, could not have been an easy feat. Butler’s text manages to retain the essence of the original, while Liew’s illustrations help reveal complexities of character and plot that might otherwise be lost in the simplified narrative.

My only complaints are that a few of the characters, especially Colonel Brandon, reminded me a bit too much of the actors in the BBC’s 2008 adaptation, and that Lucy was presented as a much more sympathetic character than she was in the book.

Nevertheless, I like it as a graphic novel and can see this being a great way to engage students in a class on visual-textual literacy.

The Moonstone

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

One of the primary examples of the early detective novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone is a mystery that tests the limits of reason and imagination. Told through a series of witness accounts, the novel plays with multiple narrative voices, while also exploring the varied ways in which several individuals perceive the same event.

Beginning with the story of the Moonstone and its violent removal from its native India, the narrative can be read as a tale of colonialism and conquest, the Moonstone’s presence introducing a foreign element amidst the members of Lady Verinder’s home when it is delivered by her nephew, Franklin Blake. While I was reading, I kept coming up with all the ways that I could have written about this novel if I had read it in grad school; luckily, I get to be brief and enjoy myself while writing about books now 🙂 . Unlike when I read The Woman in White, I did not feel completely absorbed by the story of the Moonstone until I was about halfway through the first narrative, told at Franklin Blake’s request by Lady Verinder’s faithful servant, Mr. Betteredge. When the “detective fever” came upon Mr. Betteredge, it suddenly came upon me as well.

Was it a difficult puzzle to solve? Not at all; it almost reminded me of Bleak House–the suspicious characters were a little too suspicious to be anything but the actual suspects. That is not to say that there isn’t some depth to the mystery, this is a multi-layered novel after all and there are several stories that merge before the mystery is resolved. Rachel Verinder’s adamant refusal to take part in the search for her stolen diamond was at times more intriguing than the actual case of the lost diamond. Her motivation eluded me throughout the story until she presented her account (as retold by Mr. Blake). At first, I found Rachel’s actions irrational and annoying, but soon I came to see that the real story was part of her silence.

One of the things that I most loved about the novel was Collins’s ability to imbue his characters with original and highly individual voices. Each narrative is vivid and distinct in its portrayal of the narrator in question; from Mr. Betteredge to Mr. Jennings, the reader gets to know each narrator’s biases and foibles.

Blathering on about Bleak House, Fin.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Final Thoughts & Post Index

I am sooo glad I decided to join the readalong! My experience with Dickens has been a mixed one—I enjoyed part of Great Expectations but had been unable to connect with any of the other books I had tried to read. I’m not sure if this was as a result of Dickens’ style or his characters, but I was very surprised to find myself so engrossed by Bleak House so soon after starting the book. I really thought it would be a sort of personal challenge to read it to the end—will and determination to finally read it, rather than pleasure. But it was a pleasure!

I know that some readers find Esther terribly boring, but I really enjoyed her narrative and found myself looking forward to her chapters. There were so many side stories and characters in this novel that it was hard for me to keep track of them in the beginning, but Esther’s account brought them into focus for me. She is not so strong-willed as Jane Eyre, as I have previously noted in my “Blatherings,” but she is a strong character nonetheless, and stands out as an enterprising woman in her desire to prove herself useful and worthy of her companions and good fortune.

Because I was still wondering about Esther’s illness, I did some research based on the symptoms, and it likely was smallpox that she contracted… I suspected as much based on the prevalence of the disease during the time, but I had never considered the implications of having smallpox on one’s appearance. It’s terrible what it could do to you, the images I found are horribly graphic and reveal that the pox rash often spread on the face and extremities, making it near impossible to hide the subsequent scarring. I can now understand why Esther takes so much note of her lost beauty—I just thought she looked worn after her illness.

So, enough blathering. Mission accomplished and all that.

Post Index

Part 1 – Chapters 1 – 7
Part 2 – Chapters 8 – 13
Part 3 – Chapters 14 – 19
Part 4 – Chapters 20 – 25
Part 5 – Chapters 26 – 32
Part 6 – Chapters 33 – 38
Part 7 – Chapters 39 – 46
Part 8 – Chapters 47 – 53
Part 9 – Chapters 54 – 59
Part 10 – Chapters 60 – 67

The Bleak House Read-Along was hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

Blathering on about Bleak House, Part 10.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Chapters 60-67

And Mr. Guppy reverts back to his usual manner, though I did find Mr. Jarndyce’s reaction to Mrs. Guppy’s efforts to remove him from his own home rather funny.

I was intrigued by the picture of the fallen country house at the end of the novel when the narrator returns to Chesney Wold and considers the great mausoleum that houses the Dedlocks of old. Such a contrast is made between the middle class world of the now married Woodcourts in their happy little Bleak House, and the empty, forbidding estate. Mr. Boythorn’s kind antagonism toward Sir Leicester continues to illustrate the unerring goodness of that man, while Mr. Skimpole’s end only serves to complete a picture of grasping greed.

I finally warmed to Richard and Ada in these final chapters. They seemed so inconsequential throughout the novel, despite their part in the Jarndyce case and Richard’s misguided actions. While Ada remained a quiet figure, her hopes for the future made her come alive as a character for me. Until this point, Ada remained a sort of set piece in Esther’s narrative, too passive to play a proper supporting role. Despite Esther’s humility, I thought her a well-rounded character who grows and develops. Ada never really seemed important until the end, though it was only through Richard’s slow demise that she came into her own. It’s strange that this should be, that only as a result of Richard’s descent into the Cause do we see Ada take action. Poor Richard, poor Ada.

I felt this line perfectly summed up Richard’s experience:
There is a ruin of youth which is not like age; and into such a ruin, Richard’s youth and youthful beauty had fallen away.

But, returning to the now married Woodcourts… Happily, Mr. Jarndyce’s goodness inspires him to dissolve his engagement with Esther, allowing her to accept Mr. Woodcourt’s offer. I still wonder about Esther’s illness and her reference to her loss of beauty, but this is no impediment to her union with Mr. Woodcourt and their merry life at the new Bleak House. In her simple life, Esther reaps the real reward brought about by the end of the Jarndyce trial, while Ada takes her place as the new Fitz-Jarndyce (as Miss Flite would say).

The Bleak House Read-Along is hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

Blathering on about Bleak House, Part 9.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Chapters 54-59

Aha! Hortense is found out and Mr. Bucket gets his suspect.

Mr. Guppy has finally redeemed himself for being a shallow, self-serving little toad. He has admirably preserved Esther’s honor and carried out her wishes not to stir up trouble, and now he has acted honorably and warned Lady Dedlock about the possibility of Mr. Smallweed’s possessing her letters to Hawdon, and trying to profit off them.

Lady Dedlock remains cold as ever, but I found this passage on her character to be a satisfying explanation of her manner:

In truth, she is not a hard lady naturally; and the time has been when the sight of the venerable figure sueing to her with such strong earnestness would have moved her to great compassion. But, so long accustomed to suppress emotion, and keep down reality; so long schooled for her own purposes, in that destructive school which shuts up the natural feelings of the heart, like flies in amber, and spreads one uniform and dreary gloss over the good and bad, the feeling and the unfeeling, the sensible and the senseless; she has subdued even her wonder until now.

But back to Mr. Bucket. I was really impressed by the sudden turn that the story took into the arena of Holmesian detective fiction. I can now see why this is considered a precursor to the development of that genre. I couldn’t sleep for want of getting to the heart of the mystery and very nearly stayed up all night just to know what was going to happen to Lady Dedlock. Unfortunately, no good could come of it, but Mr. Bucket proved his mettle as a detective and Esther proved her worth as a woman of good sense. The shifts from omniscient to first person narration as the narrative went from Mr. Bucket’s experience to Esther’s added a sense of urgency and suspense to the plot that made these chapters fly.

I found myself suddenly endearing myself to Sir Leicester Dedlock when he learned of his Lady’s past. His forgiveness and sorrow showed a side of their relationship, and his devotion, that was hinted at throughout the novel but really came to the surface after her disappearance. I naively hoped for a better ending for the Dedlock’s, but it was not to be.

The Bleak House Read-Along is hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

Blathering on about Bleak House, Part 8.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Chapters 47-53

Some thoughts…

Showdown as Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn match wills… Tulkinghorn wins, or does he?

Now we get to the part that makes Bleak House a model of early detective fiction. It’s like a proper game of Clue–in the office with the firearm, but who shot it?

Was it the brash and brawny Mr. George?
Was it my Lady Dedlock, cool and calculated?
Or the one who has my vote: my Lady’s passionate and vengeful French maid, Hortense?
Will Mr. Bucket catch his man…or woman?

Meanwhile, Caddy has a little Esther, but needs time and care to recover… Mr. Woodcourt to the rescue! As I’ve said before, I like Mr. Turveydrop despite his self-indulgent personality, so I found his reaction to Caddy’s convalescence and his sudden attachment to Peepy quite entertaining.

Then Ada reveals that she’s secretly married Richard. More’s the pity. I still think Richard is a cad and a half, and not at all Walter Hartright-ish since his decent into Chancery madness.

The Bleak House Read-Along is hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

Update: A couple of major term projects are keeping me quite busy. I’ve been following blog posts, but mostly lurking… Will be more active when things settle down.

Blathering on about Bleak House, Part 7

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Chapters 39-46

Some thoughts…

I’ve always found Mr. Guppy a bit sleazy in his manner toward Esther, and his reaction to her disfigurement certainly confirmed this.

Mr. Tulkinghorn is still up to no good. Mr. Smallweed remains as weedy as ever. And Lady Dedlock’s former maid expresses her r-r-r-rage with French eloquence.

And then the story gets really good….

A confrontation between Mr. Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock brings matters to a head, revealing all manner of details about Lady Dedlock’s past [mis]deeds and placing her at Mr. Tulkinghorn’s mercy.

Oh boy, Mr. Skimpole’s family is just as clueless as him. Poor Mrs. Skimpole.

I like Esther. I like Mr. Jarndyce. I don’t like that Esther is so self-deprecating that she settles for the idea of becoming mistress of Bleak House as a means of thanking Mr. Jarndyce for his care, though I can understand how this would have been a fine option for a woman of no means at the time. I often think of Esther as being a little like Jane Eyre or Marian from The Woman in White. She has nothing to call her own and owes her keeping to another. Jane is fortunate enough to have an uncommon sense of adventure and independance; Marian is somewhat more constrained in her options. Esther, in turn, is a nobody–a poor woman with no relations to claim her as their own and no prospects or particular talents. She is too genteel to be a proper housekeeper like Mrs. Rouncewell, and frequently notes how little she can teach Caddy and Charley. Esther is terribly limited by her circumstances, and Dickens is no Bronte (take your pick of any of the sisters). Will Mr. Woodcourt come around despite Esther’s change? I hope so…

The Bleak House Read-Along is hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

Note: Apologies to fellow readers/bloggers for lack of commenting. It’s mid-term project time and have been keeping busy with assignments and such 😦 . Will get back to posting soon…

Blathering on about Bleak House, Part 6.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Chapters 33-38

No Victorian novel is complete without someone getting sick… sometimes, several someones. It’s only natural given the state of sanitation at the time that illness is generally a feature in the novels of the time. I am still not entirely certain what Esther’s fever really involves, but I don’t want to investigate too much for fear of running into plot spoilers… I am intrigued by the many intrigues and want to keep my suspicions fresh and uninformed by wikis, etc. 🙂 Though if Mr. Guppy’s reaction to Esther’s changed appearance is any indication, this is more than a case of fever… I’m guessing smallpox? Or some sort of pox? My investigations will have to wait (though working at a medical library, I am sure I will find all manner of graphic depictions).

A crucial moment between Lady Dedlock and Esther during the latter’s convalescence at Mr. Boythorn’s reveals the connection between the two at long last, confirming what I had started to suspect when Esther encountered Lady Dedlock at the church in Chesney Wold. I remain intrigued by Lady Dedlock, but I cannot say that I felt particularly sympathetic towards her despite her moment of weakness.

Alas, poor Richard has fallen victim to the allures of Chancery and chance. I find that as the story progresses, I like Richard less and less as a character, mostly because I just lose all patience with him. I can’t hold Mr. Vholes accountable for Richard’s actions. Is he opportunistic? Yes, but it’s only to be expected that someone in Mr. Vholes’s position would make the most of the situation when faced with the possibility of taking on a client like Richard. He has no personal stake in the matter, despite his father in the Vale of Taunton and his two daughters. What should he care what it does to Richard so long as he earns his keep. I can’t exactly blame him for that. As for Mr. Skimpole, I never liked him to begin with and I like him even less. I find his “child-like” innocence far more damaging than Mrs. Jellyby’s dedication to the African scheme and Mr. Turveydrop’s deportment. These two are negligent of their affairs and their families, but they do not claim ignorance for their lack of self-control. Though Mr. Turveydrop uses his son shamelessly, he is what he is. I feel that all of Skimpole’s arguments are nothing but a clever front for the sake of self-indulgence, at the cost of friends and neighbors alike. Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby believe they are offering some sort of service to society (misguided though they may be), but Mr. Skimpole is merely out to satisfy his own greed.

The Bleak House Read-Along is hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.