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Posts tagged ‘England’

About Truths From 200 Years Ago – Austen In August

One doesn’t read Jane Austen; one re-reads Jane Austen.” said the very complicated William F. Buckley, Jr, but in this simple sentence he lay bare the absolute truth of Ms. Austen’s brilliance; one is never tired of re-reading her! Recently Brona over at Brona Books decided to pick up the threads of the annual event that Adam used to host “Austen in August” and sent round invitation to anyone interested in joining up! As I read through her page of people signing up for the event, many reflected my sentiments – re-read Jane Austen atleast once a year. All most all of us, who love books, classics and fiction, are devoted to Jane Austen. We may differ in our intensity in our devotion and we may argue about which of her work is the best, but there can be no denying that Ms. Austen rules triumphantly in our reading culture and preferences. And this brings me to the very heart of the matter  – Why does Ms. Austen abide even after 200 years?

I know of hundred thousand papers, books, essays that enumerate and illustrate, the many reasons why Ms. Austen continues to a be literary success inspiring generations of readers and writers alike from Edith Wharton to JK Rowling. The reasons are varied and range from the sheer brilliance of her writing to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy as a means of reviving interest in her works! I am sure there are another hundred thousands reasons as to why we each prefer Ms. Austen in our unique way and each can be counted as a great motivation. The reason I have loved her work always, since being introduced to her at the age of 13 is many – the plot, the pre-feminist but for sure feminist heroines, the humor and that one telling quality of Austen novel – there is some truths to re-discover no matter how many times one re-reads and this truth is still as pertinent as it was in Regency England. I always loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma but over the years, Persuasions with several re-reads has become equally closer to my heart. Mansfield Park, which I could barely get through the first time round, has now been re-read atleast in double digits, because despite many more socio-economic resources being available, women in many parts of the world struggle to make independent choices with pressure of withdrawal of those material resources to keep body and soul together, until adhered too the norms set by those who control those resources. Ms. Austen keeps telling us many things, and things which still hold true 200 years, each time and this is why she endures!

Therefore to celebrate this season of Austen In August, I sought out some passages from the evergreen Pride and Prejudice which are a dead ringer for the state of today’s society, that also illustrates the genius of Ms. Austen in writing about things that were so remote from her time and social surrounding and yet managed to become a universal tale.

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  • if she had not happened to see Mr. Jones’s shop-boy in the street, who had told her that they were not to send any more draughts to Netherfield because the Miss Bennets were come away – Mrs. Phillips explaining how she heard of the elder Bennet sisters returning from Netherfield, is a perfect and outstanding example of the grapevine network which continues to flourish till date and whose authenticity actually can be trusted upon more than official channels many a times!
  • Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.”  – Mr, Collins remarks when Elizabeth tries to stop him from putting himself forward through a self introduction to Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield Ball. Sigh! What can I say except Mansplaining seems to be a generational and sometime incurable phenomena!
  • I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”  Mr. Collins again, when Elizabeth rejects her marriage proposal. Consent as we see in many ways and forms are “interpreted” for the woman and the whole baloney of a No being a Yes…..seriously! Where did that come from?
  • Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. Elizabeth on reflecting on her father’s conduct post the letter from Darcy. This was one those very interesting and though provoking passages in the novel. Mr. Bennet’ s marriage was not the happiest; he had simply put married a woman who looked good and did not have any other abilities. There are many things here – in the best partnerships, a partner should elevate each other and bring out the best in other. In many cases I know this does not happen but how does one some around that and make the lesser partner more acceptable in the larger world. I think this is one place where Ms. Austen attributes too much influence on the partnership of spouses. True, while it is one of the highest forms of relationship but there is only so much one an do? Or is it? Either way, I do think the truth of the last statement is key – exposing your partner’s weakness in front of the children, does not brood well for the family overall.
  • There was now an interest, however, in believing the housekeeper; and they soon became sensible that the authority of a servant who had known him since he was four years old, and whose own manners indicated respectability, was not to be hastily rejected. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s reaction when realizing that Mr. Darcy was interested in their niece, when previously, they thought the Pemberly housekeeper had given an over the top opinion of Mr. Darcy simply because he was good Master.  I love this one – how often we change our own interpretation of narratives when we wish to believe something, especially if it is something good!
  • All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light. The social reaction when Wickham’s elopement with Lydia came to light. But obviously, hindsight always becomes foresight after the destruction has happened!
  • Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy than felt herself to be so – Elizabeth feelings after accepting Mr. Darcy. One of the deep and most honest insight to human sentiments; when the longed for event finally happens, the initial feeling is more knowing the happiness than actual overflowing cheerful garrulousness!

There are so many more things that I can talk about and continue to talk about, but time and other duties all. So I end this post with something Brona mentioned in our Twitter conversation and that seemed apt with what I have been trying to say through this post  – It is a truth universally acknowledged that p&p is quite simply perfect.

Losing & Finding During The Great War

Carl Sagan in his essay “The Path to Freedom” co-written with Ann Druyan, said that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” If there is book that stands for understanding the world and a democratic society, then it must be Vera Brittian’s Testament of Youth. This book which has been in my TBR list for many years now and was supposed to be my December Read for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge 2018; until Jillian came along with her Read Along and her enthusiasm and some amazing pre-challenge activities that tempted me to move this book up in the TBR Challenge pile and start on it on priority!

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Testament of Youth is a memoir of Vera Brittian’s life capturing the years, from 1900 to 1925. Ms. Brittian who would achieve great success with publication of this work, was a nurse, a writer,a lecturer, a pacifist and a feminist and in this book, we get a glimpse of of events and happenings that went into her making of all the above! The book opens with a brief overview of Ms. Brittain’s family history – a well to do, upper middle class family. Her father, a Paper Manufacturer, and her mother a home maker as were most women at that time. Two years after her birth, her brother Edward was born and he would remain her closest companion through the years! The first Chapter captures her growing years and her schooling at St. Monica’s where she was introduced to History, feminism and politics through an energetic teacher. Chapter 2 continues the narrative where Vera describes her “coming out” year and her dissatisfaction with the lot of young women in those days that limited their lives to home and hearth and her battle with her father to go to Oxford University, in an effort to escape such a future and see more of the world. It was during this stage of her life she would meet Roland Leighton, a senior and a close friend of her brother Edward and with whom she would eventually become engaged. Chapter 3 follows Vera’s first year at  Somerville College, Oxford,  studying English Literature as England is drawn into World War 1 and both Edward and Roland and her other close male friends join the army to support the British war effort. As the fighting gets more and more intense and the hope of a quick victory diminishes, Ms. Brittain decides to delay her degree and starts to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. The next few chapters deal with her VAD years, which takes her to Malta and France, her personal struggles and both her own and her peer’s griefs; those who belonged to that “war generation” as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their youth, idealism and what was supposed to a promising future and finally the deaths of their loved ones! The final chapter of the book, deals with the close of the War, the after effect on the survivors and Ms. Brittian’s evolution as a writer and lecturer, the friendships that helped her heal, her completion of her delayed degree and finally her ability to close the door on the traumatic years and moving on to finding happiness.

There are some very few books in this world, that effortlessly draw you in, force you think and then, challenge you to be a better person. To me, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one such book and now Ms. Brittain’s Testament of Youth, joins that rank! Rarely does one come across writing that is strong and fierce and at the same time so poignantly heartbreaking; but Ms. Brittain achieves this feat and more. In some of the most powerful prose ever, the author takes us through some of the most transformative events of her life, from school years, to her college life to her engagement and the war and her final evolution as a Feminist and Writer; we are moved as readers, we are concerned at the well being of all involved in the narrative and when we close the book finally, we know we have an obligation to feel grateful, that our generation was spared of the searing pain and loss that our predecessors went through first 100 and then 80 years ago. In yet another marvelous first for me, this is the only memoir I have read, whose writing carries a “what-happens-next” feeling with the close of each chapter. Despite being relatively verbose, the pace of the books never slacks and the reader never feels bored with the events as they come through, one after the other! The characters are beautifully drawn and brought to life by Ms. Brittain and you cannot help but wish that you had known them in person. They are all realistic and wonderful, portrayed without any rancor, even the German POWs or the more difficult Matrons, and mankind is shown in some of its most minute lights, with all the kindness, joy, brilliance, anger and vulnerabilities! This book has often been described as a War Memoir, but I felt that it was too narrow a definition; for this book is so much more – it is a history of things we must never repeat so that lives are not needlessly lost, it is a history of epoch making events in Women’s Movement, it is a story of love and friendships and finally it is the story, that once again affirms that even in our deepest, darkest, most traumatic moments, we are not alone and what we are going through has already been experienced by someone else and from that experience also comes the final assurance, that things do pass and get better! To end, all I can say, is that this book makes us attempt to be more more humane and to read it, is critical in our evolution to be better! Read it!!! Read it now especially in this era of mindless chest thumping overt and agrressive nationalism that goes back in time to distinguish between Us and Them instead of an all encompassing understanding that we are all linked and my brother’s loss is my loss!

P.S. Adam I hope you will forgive the disruption in the order list of my TBR, but this one was just too good to pass up!

The Attempt ……

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction is considered to be the interwar periods, when such stalwarts as GK Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Micheal Innes and many more, who wrote, what can be termed as “whodunnit’; murder mysteries, with a cast of characters, a certain Upper Middle Class English setting, most likely in a English Country House. These novels were mainly written from an entertainment value and were kept simple, direct and without too much complexity or depth. Despite it’s decline in popularity, especially with the on set of World War II and criticism by many including Edmund Wilson, as non intellectual reading, this genre, for many remains a go-to, that helps them escape the real life and provides much needed amusement!

The Murder of my Aunt by Richard Hull is one such piece from this era. Published in 1934, it soon was celebrated as something special in the genre and hailed by  authors and newspapers alike including Dorothy L Sayers, Times Literary Supplement and New York Times. Yet today, this novel, remains virtually unknown with  only 120 ratings and 29 reviews on GoodReads. I myself stumbled on this book by chance, too lazy on a Saturday afternoon for any heavy reading, I found this little novel in Kindle Unlimited, with a very interesting premises and began reading it on a whim!

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The book begins with the narrator, Edward Powell, describing his life in a small village town, Llwll, in Wales,  where he lives with his Aunt, Mildred, on whom he is financially dependent. Early into the novel, it unravels that Edward is a weak, pompous individual who looks down on everybody and everything. His aunt, however comes across as an excellent woman, who is kind to her neighbors, popular in the society, a just and considerate human, who goes out of her way to take care of her orphaned nephew, though he seems little deserving of the same! The two personalities naturally come into conflict with each other, and often, with Edward constantly feeling that his aunt, was stifling him, because she holds the purse, despite Edward’s overall superiority. One such clash over delivery of some novels for Edward from the post office soon escalates, leading Edward to formulate a plan, which will once and for all take care of all his concerns and ensure he is never held in contempt by his aunt!

The book blurb says, that  “this classic mystery is considered a masterpiece of the inverted detective story, in which it is known “whodunit.”  I could not have described it better; turning the whole concept of “whodunit”, Mr. Hull, from the beginning keeps the reader is in confidence of the who, but is left wondering on how and what finally did happen. In what I consider a most innovative narrative of such genre, the author manages, what is often deemed impossible, a mystery, with dollops of humor. In Edward, we find a reprehensible, good for nothing and not to bright, but thinks he is bright character. While the readers, cannot help but dislike him, at some level, he manages to create a connection, nevertheless, where one is left wondering, what does happen to him. In the character of the the Aunt, we have a portrait of all that is solid, responsible and good. She endears, because she does not always know the answer but she tries to the best of her abilities! The supporting cast is equally magnificent, with all drawn true to life and many who must have resided in the 1930s small village towns, doing their bit and leading good lives. The plot is tightly drawn and though at times, the details of the planning may get tedious, they do not essentially take anything away from the narrative and the story flows along wonderfully! Quirky, witty and intelligent, this is one of those lost gems of the genre, that need to be read, if nothing, for its sheer originality!

Friendships & War

It’s been more than 6 years that I have been blogging and if I had to describe the experience in one sentence, I would simply say, that Blogging made me find my tribe! I  found friends who read books and authors I never knew and friends who helped me read texts that I never thought I could and finally friends, I could talk too without judgement or prejudices, talking in the language only readers understand! Stemming from this unshakable faith in my tribe, I always listen very closely to recommendations that come my way and naturally, when Helen, over at She Reads Novels, introduced me to Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce a couple of weeks back, in her wonderful post, I knew this is was far too good to pass away!

Mrs Bird

Set in 1941, the book chronicles, the life of Emmeline Lake as she quits her boring but stable job as a secretary, in a Law Firm, to embark on a journey as journalist and that she thinks will finally lead her to her ultimate goal of becoming a  Lady War Correspondent.  Only on the first day of her job, does she realize that she never asked for what role is she being  hired for, and finds her self as a junior staff of a Women’s Self Column called Dear Mrs. Bird. Emmy never one to give in to gloom for too long, grits her teeth and gets down to her job, ably supported by her colleagues, including Kathleen and the cyncial Mr. Collins. She soon finds, that Mrs. Bird, a formidable elderly woman, believes the current generation has lost all sense of proper conduct and has a list of subjects, “Unpleasantness” as she calls them, on which she refuses to give advise  – affairs, pregnancies out side of marriage, girls who have gone too far and other such “riff -raff”. However Emmy believes that these woman in the time of War as as is having a hard time and truly need help. She thus embarks on a project to help them. Of course, she has to keep it all quiet, not only from her office colleagues, but also more importantly from Bunty, her best friend and roommate who would never approve of meddling in other’s affairs, against the instructions of her Superiors, but Emmy is convinced she is on the right path, until fate dislodges all her best laid plans!

What can I say about the book? Whatever I say, will not suffice! In the character of Emmy and Bunty, Ms. Pearce has created a real life portrait of deep friendships among women, who are sisters not by birth, but by their soul. She captures the whole gamut of emotions that are at the core of such relationships – loyalty, support, love, sometimes even anger and finally humor, dollops and dollops of it! In Emmy, the author has created a heroine whose indomitable spirit and optimism conquers everything! Smart, loyal, funny and sometimes crazy, she is you or one your friends, with all the madcap zanniness, that goes with people like them! Bunty is what a Bunty should be – supportive, sensible, capable of drawing her claws when her loved ones are hurt and finally loyal! The ensemble cast is wonderfully drawn with my heart, literally going out for Mr. Collins, and ably supported by ‘Charles’, Bill and the formidable Mrs. Bird. Written in bright, optimistic and funny note, the book however manages to stay very realistic and captures the grim realities of London, during the German bombing. The plot is fast paced, and holds your attention so strongly, that you finish the book in one sitting! There are more than enough laugh out loud moments, and you should be careful if reading in public as me discovered when reading it in a cafe! Most importantly, for me what really made this novel stand out, was while there are many works set in this era, they all somehow end up focusing on the “romance” angle of the plot; this book in a stark departure from such angle, (it does have some romance) instead followed a narrative that showcased how woman helped woman, through self help columns, through long nights of vigil at the fire stations and as friends, when the chips are truly down!

I cannot say enough great things about this book; it is brilliant, funny, real and heart rending. all in one go! So just please read it, especially, if you are fortunate to have a Em or a Bunts in your life!

The Mysteries of Last Week…

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the week after vacation will be stressful! The events at work once again proved the very obvious theory accurate and to say I was glad that the week passed is an understatement. After 16 hrs day at work, I could not summon the courage to read Daniel Deronda or The March of Folly; great books but hardly something to lessen the exhaustion! Casting around for something easy to read, which gave a break from work reality, I found GoodReads hosting The Thriller & Mysteries week and among the various activities, they had planned, they also had listed the most popular Mysteries/Thrillers per Reader ratings! Reading through I found, Book#3 was apparently sitting in my many unread collection and this seemed a good time to get started. I finished that and wanted something more and found Book # 28 which I recollect my father had really liked and was part of his collection, so naturally, my selection for the second read became Book#28!  Now at the beginning of the brand new week, I present two mini reviews of my reads of Book#2 and Book#28!

Book#3 was A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George, published in 1988 and winner of Anthony Award. The book is the first in series of now famous Inspector Lynley series and the reader is introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eton/Ozford educted Peer of the Relm, who is also one the best inspector of CID. He is drawn from the wedding of his best friend, by Sargent Barbara Havers, the infant terrible of the police department, who has finally been paired with Lanley in the last hope of having her investigative mind brought to the fore, instead of her aggressive, belligerent attitude, which got her suspended from CID and back in uniform 8 months back! Lanley and Havers make their way to Keladale, in North Yorkshire, where the body of William Teys, honorable member of the Church, devoted father and successful farmer is found, decapitated, with his daughter, the 19 year old Roberta Teys, sitting on an upturned bucket, with an aze on her lap and with the only words spoken “I did it, I am not sorry!”. It seems like an open and shut case, ezcept there are parts to tale which does not fit in, including a cousin who gets the farm on the event of William Tey’s death, a finance, a artist and the daughter of William Teys who ran away, years ago! As Lanley and Havers dig for the truth, they discover all kinds of unholy secrets, that the quiet village of Keladale holds, which not only challenges them professionally, but also confront their personal demons, to find the killer!

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Book# 28 was Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. This book like the previous one is the first in the series of Arkady Renko, the Chief Investigator of Moscow’s homicide squad. The novel introduces us to Arkady Renko, one of the finest and most honest investigator’s in Moscow’s Prosecutor’s office. He is the son, of a decorated War General and grew up in the privileged circles of Moscow, attending the best schools, University and Law School. The novel opens on a cold day in April in Soviet Russia, in the northern end of Gork Park, the amusement Park of Moscovites, where the militiamen, have discovered three dead bodies, now that the snow is thawing, and Arkady has been called into investigate the corpses. Two men and one woman lay dead and  their faces have been mutilated and ends of the thumbs chopped off to ensure, there is no identification whatsoever! Arkady Renko  sets off on a trail to find the identity of his victims as well as their killers and as he slowly unravels the mysteries, he confronts, the KGB, an American Business man, a New York City Cop and happenings much closer to home, and the chase for the killer will take him to the exiled land of Shatura and then America until he finds the very truth, that lay hidden among the obvious!

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Some 100 pages into The Great Deliverance, I realized that at some point, I had read this novel and I began to vaguely recollect the end, though I hung on because of the hows and simply because it was written very well. The taut plot of the novel, is the strength of The Great Deliverance. I did not much care for the main characters – the absolutely perfect Lanley and the constantly snotty Havers (I wanted to throw a book at her), but the ensemble cast made up for the insipidity of the protagonists, who were much more life like, confronting confusion, trauma and much more, and still chalking out better lives for themselves! The ending was kind of cliched but my guess is in 1988, when such things were still not so much in the open, it must have created quite a stir and again based on the fast paced and through narration, the book must have been one  thrilling read!

Gorky Park was much more to my taste! Firstly, it is set in Russia, which predisposes me to like it. The plot, unlike The Great Deliverance was not of sensationalist nature, but ran with with an equally tight narrative, which made the reading, as interesting and kept one hooked on. In Arkady Renko, the author had created a wonderful hero, who with all his flaws, comes through as someone, you would want as a hero of a novel. Wikipedia states that Renko has been called a Bryonic Hero and he may be, but I really liked the character that was capable of great intuitive thinking but at the same time having blind spots that enables them to fall and then rise again! The book was banned in Soviet Union after its initial release and I can quite understand why; the author captures the tense, suspicious atmosphere of the last years of Socialisim beautifully. Despite the change of regime and new laws, to guarantee freedom of rights and liberty, the citizens till live in the fear of losing jobs, of suddenly being denounced as dissidents and landing up in Siberia or worse dead, for as simple case of being religious. Even if you do your job and keep your head down, you may still fall under the scanner and your promotions thwarted because, you are not an “active” party member. The dull, grey lives of the Soviet citizens is wonderfully captured which brings out the psychological as well as economic deprivation succinctly!  What really set this novel apart, from other books set in similar settings is lack of the chest thumping glory of Capitalism; Soviet Russia is bad, but the glorious land of free is no better. So called Radicals are put under surveillance, racism exists and there equal amount of incompetence in the institutions! Well crafted, with meticulous attention to detail and a believable cast ensemble, this book was a great read, through and through! I am so impressed that I went and bought Book#2 of the series, Polar Star!

To end, let just say, the both the book, not so good and very good, helped me make it to a stressful week and to that end, they fulfilled their aim of taking me away from reality!

The End of March….

Well, winter is officially over and the mild spring is about to end, and soon we will have the onset of the horrible Indian Summer. But for what it’s worth, March turned out slightly better than the first two months of the year; this was the first hospital free month for my father and though he is far from fully recovered atleast the litany of hospitals, tests, surgery is over and we are now in what seems like recuperating phase! Here’s hoping things continue in the same directions. This turn of events gave me more time to read and in fact, I was able to sneak away for a quick road trip to the mountains for a much needed break. Therefore, the end of March, needless to say, seems more peaceful than her predecessors and fingers crossed it should stay that way!

Now for my March wrap up post, which as you all now by now is a combination of combining from Helen’s monthly post of Commonplace Book post   and O’s ideas of  Wordless Wednesday . Here goes –

From My Date with History by Suman Chattopadhyay

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Such was my initiation to Kolkata ’71, which was neither just a city nor just a year, but a vivacious culture that bore within it everything that represented Bengal in an era which seems almost fantastic today!”

From The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson

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I tell you, everything is melting. The Sun is shining, I swear it! The sun indeed shining, the track wet; the world running with glittering slushy water, and himself evidently, tramping through it, boots turning an endless treadmill, some inevitable burden at his back, constant arching light in his eyes!”

From The Dairy of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

IMG_20180311_171526482_HDR“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot 

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“The daylight changes the aspect of misery to us, as of everything else. In the night it presses on our imagination—the forms it takes are false, fitful, exaggerated; in broad day it sickens our sense with the dreary persistence of definite measurable reality”

From The Provincial Lady in London by  E.M. Delafield

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Pamela, very splendid, announces that I am writer and very literary, statement that has the usual effect of sending all the gentlemen right to the remotest corner of the room, from where they look at me over their shoulders with expressions of the purest horror

From The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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You don’t know what it’s like trying to eat enough to live on and at the same time avoid fats and carbohydrates.”

From The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux

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“There seemed to be nothing special any more about the enchantments of fiction. On the contrary, in every area of human life, someone was trying to tell a story. Sports commentators, politicians, revolutionaries, religious leaders, business people, accountants, advertisers, actors – all were peddling selective and self-serving interpretations of the world.”

That is all for the month of March! Here’s wishing everyone Happy and peaceful April!

The Parish of Milby

Despite years of long and extensive reading, there are some authors, with whom I could not become friends. I have no idea why, because they write about subjects and settings that immensely interest me and are often much loved by many whose tastes and opinions I admire. But for whatever reasons things simply do not come together and they simply do not work for me! George Elliot is one such author. My grandmother, whose bookish tastes, my family says I have inherited loved, all her works. Many of my friends, both from the bloggish and non blogish world have often pointed out to the nuanced writing that her books brought forth. But I remained,  unmoved. Mill on Floss, made me want to throw the book at something and I gave up on Middlemarch, like 100 pages into the book. I was not meant to appreciate Ms. Elliot and there was not much I can do about it. Then last week, casting around for something Trollopian to read, but not Trollope, GoodReads threw up a suggestion of Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot. I was about to pass on and then for some reason, decided to give it a shot. It seemed like a short novel; only 200 pages (My error; I misread the 404 pages!) so it was not like I would lose much. Thus I began my journey around the Parish of Milby, the first ever novel by Ms. Elliot!

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Set in the last 20 years of 18th century, the book, which consists of 3 separate novellas, interwoven through the time and place and common characters, takes the reader through many different ideas of Church, Local Politics, Spirituality, and Domestic Abuse. The first narrative called “The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton” tells the tale of an ordinary Curate in the parish church of Stepperton, near the the village of Milby. Amos Barton, has lofty ideals but neither posses brilliance of oratory or a commanding personality to morph his ideas and to make them palatable to his Parishoners and develop a following among them. He is married to a wonderful and devoted woman, Milly, who has borne him 6 children and their circumstances are strained due to the ever increasing family and the small stipend derived from the Curacy. However, Reverend Amos Barton, goes about his work with much zeal as he is convinced that he has an obligation to imbue his congregation with what he believes to be the Orthodox Church views! More troubles are however fated for the Bartons as their worldly and pretentious friend Countess Caroline Czerlaski takes up residence with them after quarreling with her brother, making the financial situation even more difficult and hurting Milly’s health as the latter is stressed physically and mentally in trying to make everyone around her comfortable, culminating in an terrible tragedy for the family! The second novella, “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” begins with the death of the much loved  Maynard Gilfil, who was the Vicar of Shepperton many years before Mr. Barton. Mr. Gilfil however unlike his successor was much loved and much mourned on his death. He had lead an admirable life fulfilling his duties and sometimes, going beyond it, never afraid to laugh and find amusement at whimsical nonsense, always concealing a deep personal tragedy that marked his life, at a very young age. Around 1788, when he was a young Chaplin at the Cheverel Manor, he fell in love with the Caterina Sarti, an Italian orphan brought up by Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, who took her into their care following the death of her father. Tina, as she was called, while having a very affectionate regard for Mr. Gilfil, was however in love with Captain Anthony Wybrow, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher Cheverel. Captain Wybrow, was a man of selfish principles, whose only aim was to secure Sir Christopher’s good humor and consequently his wealth and had no qualms, in abandoning his “feelings” for Tina, when Sir Christopher, unbeknownst of the feelings of Tina, directed Captain’s Wybrow’s attention and hence approval to a suitable match. This engagement, broods no good and leaves behind a slew of tragedies, destroying the happiness of all directly and indirectly involved. The third and final novella, “Janet’s Repentance” is set in the town of Milby.  The first chapter advises the reader, of the brewing storm between the people of Milby, who are divided in two fractions – one supporting the traditional teachings of Mr. Crewe and the others, supporting the newly appointed Curate at Paddingford Common, Mr. Edgar Tryan, who is an Evangalican preacher and whose opponents view him as a dissenter. The strongest opponent of Mr. Tryan is Richard Dempster, a shrewd, strong tempered lawyer, who in companionship with others comes up with schemes to destroy Mr. Tryan’s  plans. Mr. Dempster is supported by his wife Janet, who however opposes Mr. Tryan out of her affection for Mr. and Mrs. Crew who have been her oldest and kindest friend. Beautiful and kind Janet has not had a easy life, especially after marrying Dempster, who turns out to be an alcoholic with a violent temper, who has been subjecting Janet to domestic violence for 15 years of their marriage. Deprived of children and constantly subject to severe physical violence, with no support system except an old mother, Janet, herself turns into an alcoholic to numb herself of the mental and physical degradation. As things, take a turn for worse for Janet and she falls further into the abyss, rescue, comes in the most unexpected manner, giving her back, hope and spiritual sustenance.

George Elliot finally weaved her magic on me and I am still reeling from her talent, her insightfulnes and her ability to write prose as if she was painting a picture through words! I have no idea, if and when I will read her other works, but for now this first novel of her’s has rendered me speechless. I do not like reading tragedies, but her tragedies, are woven in hope and the rejuvenating spirit of love, that sustains us, even when we lose the loved ones! The first novella, requires patience as it is one of her less confident works and does not do much to keep your interest from wandering. However, it is a short novella and by the second one, you are for sure hooked. The brilliance of Ms. Elliot  I think lies in the characters she drew – in short novellas, where there is only limited ability to bring out the protagonists, she not only brings them to life, but she makes us feel that we have known them, and known them well for a very long time. Another thing that really really impressed me was her prose, her wonderful description of gardens, and chapels and homes! Here’s a sample of what I mean – the castellated house of grey-tinted stone, with the flickering sunbeams sending dashes of golden light across the many-shaped panes in the mullioned windows, and a great beech leaning athwart one of the flanking towers, and breaking, with its dark flattened boughs, the too formal symmetry of the front; the broad gravel-walk winding on the right, by a row of tall pines, alongside the pool—on the left branching out among swelling grassy mounds, surmounted by clumps of trees, where the red t of the Scotch fir glows in the descending sunlight against the bright green of limes and acacias; the great pool, where a pair of swans are swimming lazily with one leg tucked under a wing, and where the open water-lilies lie calmly accepting the kisses of the fluttering light-sparkles; the lawn, with its smooth emerald greenness, sloping down to the rougher and browner herbage of the park, from which it is invisibly fenced by a little stream that winds away from the pool, and disappears under a wooden bridge in the distant pleasure-ground; and on this lawn our two ladies, whose part in the landscape the painter, standing at a favourable point of view in the park, would represent with a few little dabs of red and white and blue.  Despite the somber subjects, Ms. Elliot also carefully manages to add in humor and satire at the then society and its follies – “What a resource it is under fatigue and irritation to have your drawing-room well supplied with small mats, which would always be ready if you ever wanted to set anything on them!” Most importantly, Ms. Elliot seemed to have been blessed with a deep understanding of man’s heart and the ability to express it to the T – “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself—it only requires opportunity“. There is so much I can say about this book and so many things I can quote and  in spite of all my enthusiasm, I know these works are not perfect – there are some cliched events and convenient deaths and sometimes, things get too much descriptive. Yet such is the power of the writing of Ms. Elliot, that you only want and only will remember the brilliant parts, making you feel, that this is a work of absolute marvel!

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