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No Name by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins’ humour, the quirkiness and mannerisms of his characters, and the intricate plots of his novels. No Name focuses on a rather unconventional heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, who in a short amount of time finds herself orphaned and – due to an idiotic a legality – penniless. Her rightful inheritance lands in the hands of her cruel uncle who refuses to help his nieces. While Nora Vanstone, the older sister, becomes a governess, Magdalen will resort to all sort of tricks and subterfuges to get her inheritance back. Aided by a distant relation, Captain Wragge, a cunning man who prides himself for his transactions in ‘moral agriculture’ aka all sorts of frauds and schemes, and his wife, Mrs Wragge, a gentle soul in the body of a giantess. Magdalen will use her incredible skills of mimicry and acting to trick those who have robbed her and her sister of their fortune.
For the most part No Name was a fun read. Captain Wragge and his wife offer plenty of funny moments, and secret war between the captain and Mrs Lecount kept me on my toes. However, the latter part of the novel does drag a bit. There were a lot of instances where I think Magdalen should have remained in the limelight, given that she was the protagonist. My favourite part remains the first act, before the tragedy struck the Vanstone family. We get to see the lovely dynamics between the various family members and their routines. I loved those first 100 pages or so.
The ending sort of made up for all that Magdalen endures but…still, part of me wishes (view spoiler)[she had been able to get her fortune back by herself and that she had not fallen ill…I am glad that she ends up with Kirke but it seemed a bit rushed that ending. (hide spoiler)]

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars


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Middlemarch by George Eliot — book review

penguin-cover-george-eliot-middlemarch.jpgWhile I won’t be the first or last reader to address the lengthiness of Middlemarch I do think that it’s worth noting that yes it could easily have benefited from a little ‘trimming’. Still, if you can move past its rather daunting size hopefully you will be able to appreciate George Eliot’s elegant and deeply attentive prose as much as I did.

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?”

Throughout the course of its lengthy narrative Middlemarch questions the ethics and moral principles of its characters, urging its readers to interrogate their own judgement and previous assessments regarding individual behaviours, whole institutions, and social conditions. Woven through the various storylines, that are running parallel to one another in Middlemarch, there are many thoughtful discussions and reflections regarding marriage, politics, science, faith, and class.

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Like its full title suggests (Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life) the novel is primarily concerned with the lives and opinions of the inhabitants of Middlemarch. Within this small town many find it difficult to uphold their own boundaries, and their freedom and happiness are often hindered by the prejudices and jealousies that characterise provincial existence such as theirs.

In their separate ways both Dorothea and Lydgate—the main two characters of this novel—wish to enact some sort of change in Middlemarch. Yet, their attempts are far too progressive for the relative conservative and close-minded neighbours.
Lydgate methods are regarded with suspicion so that slowly but surely he becomes ostracised from his community. Perhaps his status as a ‘new arrival’ to Middlemarch is the cause of the people’s distrust of him and his ‘innovative’ methods (his aversion towards prescribing prescriptions is misconstrued to the extent of being regarded as a sign of medical malpractice; his keenness to get his hands on a ‘corpse’ seems uncivil). His close association Nicholas Bulstrode further antagonises the people of Middlemarch against him.
His marriage to Rosamond Vincy occupies a significant part of his storyline and reminded me very much of another literary unhappy marriage. Similarly to Dr. Charles Bovary, Lydgate enjoys his work but isn’t well regarded by others. Rosamond struck me as a less fleshed out version of Madame Bovary: she is vain, frivolous, solipsistic, constantly afflicted by ennui, increasingly indifferent towards her husband’s woes, and harbours aspirations towards a more grandiose lifestyle. While Lydgate is by no means flawless I felt quite annoyed that the narrative sometimes presented Rosamond as a victim of sorts.

Dorothea’s obsession to do good (one could even call it her raison d’être) is perceived by others as excessive and of bad taste. Dorothea seems to have aspirations to achieve the saintly status and stature of stature of a figure like Saint Theresa. Feeling like a saint without a cause she goes for the next best thing: similarly to Milton’s daughters, whom she fervently admires, she wants to help a brilliant man in his writing.

“Now she would be able to devote herself to large yet definite duties; now she would be allowed to live continually in the light of a mind that she could reverence. This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen. All Dorothea’s passion was transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life; the radiance of her transfigured girlhood fell on the first object that came within its level. The impetus with which inclination became resolution was heightened by those little events of the day which had roused her discontent with the actual conditions of her life.”

balbusso_middlemarch.jpgHer dedication to her old and callous husband, as the narrative points out, verges on reverence. She seems blind to his flaws and to the possibility that his work will not be anything other than a product of a genius mind. Similarly to many other heroines (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa comes to mind) she seems more than willing to live a life of martyrdom, of becoming some sort of 19th century reincarnation of Joan of Arc.
To me it seemed that Dorothea’s interest in her husband’s work was an attempt to live a more meaningful and intellectually stimulating life vicariously through him. Sadly for her Casaubon is not interested in sharing his ‘genius mind’ with her, and more than once rejects her kind offers to be of assistance to him. His failing health makes him all the more selfish and vindictive. Yet, even as Dorothea’s hope for a more fulfilling existence dwindles she seems unable to cast any blame on Casaubon choosing instead—as the good martyr that she is—to endure the disappointments of marriage with ubiquitous affability, and her affection and devotion to Casaubon will remain almost unaltered.

“Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty: it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight.”

In spite of the slowness and vastness of the narrative Dorothea and Lydgate do not seem to undergo any signifiant character change but rather they seem to remain true to their beliefs however misguided these may be. In only one instance Dorothea seems to show awareness of her unhappy marriage with Casaubon while Lydgate is forced to leave Middlemarch not for the want of trying but due to external circumstances.
Running alongside Dorothea and Lydagate’s narratives are the ones concerning other inhabitants of Middlemarch among which are the Vincy family, the Garth family, Nicholas Bulstrode, and Camden Farebrother. Some of the characters, such as the Cadwalladers, seem to function as a chorus, gossiping and interrogating the actions of the central figures of the narrative. Yet their role is not a minor one as it is up to the ordinary people of Middlemarch to sway and derail our main characters’ storylines.
There are free-spirits such as Will Ladislaw who seem to function merely as the wild-carefree card’ that—being an outsider in more ways than one—isn’t as affected by Middlemarch’s petty politics and prejudices. His deep infatuation with Dorothea diminishes somewhat this liberty of his.

“I have never done you injustice. Please remember me,” said Dorothea, repressing a rising sob.
“Why should you say that?” said Will, with irritation. “As if I were not in danger of forgetting everything else.”

While I wasn’t entirely sure why Will falls for Dorothea in such a way their slow (read: very slow, incredibly slow) romance made for some of the most tender and heartfelt moments of the whole novel. Speaking of heartfelt scenes, I was pleasantly surprised by the one that takes place towards the end of the novel which stars Dorothea and Rosamond (two characters then until that point had not shared any meaningful heart-to-heart).

“Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own—hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect—could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.”

Many of the characters’ have to contend with their personal weaknesses: there are those like Fred Vincy whose spindrift ways will alienate—with the exception of his mother—those around him, Lydgate’s pride will lead him to refuse time and again the help of others, while Dorothea’s devotion towards her husband will jeopardise her own chance at love and happiness.
The narrative contends with the politics occurring in a provincial town in the 1830s, incorporating historical events and decrees within its various storylines.
The resulting effect seems close to that of a painstakingly realised tapestry representing the most trivial aspects of a ‘provincial life’. Elliot contends with questions of ethics and morality by confronting her characters with various setbacks and challenges. Money seems to be a running topic in each of her characters’ lives: there are the ones who have too much for their liking, such as Dorothea, and the ones who find themselves ruin their reputations and their relationships with their loved ones for it.
While I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic towards the novel’s various characters (I despised Fred’s entitled whininess and found his portions of the story to be intolerable; Dorothea and Will seemed far less interesting and intriguing that what other characters make them to be) I loved George Eliot’s writing. She could create such beautifully articulated insights and observations as to make even the most ordinary of conversations or landscapes something of interest. Her calibrated style brought her characters to life:

“Every nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own.”

While much of the narrative concerns matters pertaining to a particular moment of time, there were many instances in which Eliot’s writing and narrative seem to transcend the limitations of their time. Throughout her novel she adds many remarks and details as to make her story all the more vivid in the readers’ mind: by specifying the tone of one’s words (“”Rosy!” cried Fred, in a tone of profound brotherly scepticism.in a tone of profound brotherly scepticism”) or ones movements and gestures (“”No,” said Will, shaking his head backward somewhat after the manner of a spirited horse”) she makes her characters and mannerisms all the more real.
Moments of humour are often made at the characters’ expenses. For example the narrative will address the characters as ‘poor’ as they are deeply involved in experiencing moments of personal anguish or self-commiseration. There are also some interesting insults and reproaches that could be surprisingly funny. For example Lydgate calls his wife a ‘basil plant’:

“He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains. ”

The narration was surprisingly innovative in that it seems to switch from a removed third-person perspective to a vigorous first-person one. The awareness shown by the narrative acquires an almost metafictional quality as it questions the traditional structure of the ‘novel’ and the representation of its characters as the ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ of their own stories.
One of the setbacks of this novel is its length. Perhaps if I’d found the characters more compelling I wouldn’t have minded as much but as it is they often frustrated or bored me so I don’t think I’ll be re-reading this anytime soon.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

There is something incredibly endearing about this novel. From the very first line, Dickens draws us in, making us Pip’s confidantes, so that we eagerly follow him on his journey.

The first section of this novel, revolves around Pip’s childhood, and Dickens manages to reflect the young age of his protagonist onto the narrative itself: there is a youthful element despite that Pip is telling us of these events retrospectively, and while he sometimes foreshadows things to come, the element of surprise and discovery is not lost. I particularly enjoyed this first part: the Gargery household is a vivid and somewhat nostalgic portrayal of Pip’s childhood home, however imperfect it may be.

“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small”

The neighbours and routines add a layer of authenticity to the setting and to the story: the relationships between the various characters were always engaging. Miss Havisham…well, Dickens sure knows how to create a compelling yet eerie character. The feelings she evokes in the reader are further emphasised by her household. There is an almost surreal, magical, element to her.
Pip’s growth of character is…not exactly for the best. But, we do see glimpses of his regret, and we are made to empathise with his situation. His newly found ambition, made possible due to his sudden ‘great expectations’ will cause both us and him sorrow. I was particularly saddened by his rebuttal of Joe.

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Pip does inspire sympathetic feelings, especially through his new friendships such as the ones he has with Herbert and Wemmick. I was pleasantly surprised by Magwitch’s storyline, and I was all too glad to see Pip’s opinion of him change.

I was supportive of Pip’s love for Estella, despite the latter being a cold and unlikable character. Dickens, however, skillfully manages to make such a distant and detached character admirable:

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”
“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”

He makes his own characters aware of their reputations and behavior. And Pip too realizes Estella’s difficult personality. He evades falling into the ‘love struck fool’ trope because he is not oblivious to the fact that his feelings for Estella are quite irrational:

“Estella was the inspiration of it, and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. […] The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.”

It is easy to relate and identify with Pip partly due his intrinsically likeable nature: no matter what he does or do, he never causes hatred or contempt. We are made to ‘feel’ for him even in those situations where he himself is to blame. He is at the very chore of this novel: there is an immediate connection made to him due to very nature of his character. Sensitive, somewhat naive, not always thoughtful, but possessing a soulful mind, he is a fully fleshed individual.
The plot, later on, is not quite as engrossing as it initially was, but, overall, it was a compelling tale of friendship and moral values. Touches of humor lighten the topics touched plus, Dickens knew how to phrase things. I appreciated and rooted for the novel’s nuanced protagonist and the memorable cast of characters supporting his tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a second reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not wanting to highlight, or make a not of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that project both strong imageries and feelings. She gives intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful considerations and manages to imbue her characters with unnerving realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her own sense of self. Yet, even upon a second reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with us readers. Her self-division is such that might lead other characters—and some readers—to assume that she is ‘cold and distant’, a desired effect as she intentionally wants to curb the part of her self that is passionate and feeling.

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed, a quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of her self.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s individuality.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A surprisingly entertaining novel that brims with a polite sort of humor that is nevertheless appealing to the modern reader. Various characters give their account in regards of a missing diamond worn by Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. This yellow diamond, also known as ‘moonstone’, we are told has been stolen from India by Rachel’s uncle who upon his death left it to his niece. On the morning after her birthday Rachel discovers the diamond missing and her household is soon thrown off balance: police question the servant and houseguest with little avail. Sergeant Cuff is brought to investigate but the diamond remains missing. An acquaintance of Rachel wanting to ‘solve’ the case asks a few of the people involved to recall the events surrounding the disappearance of the diamond, the first account, for example is given by Gabriel Betteredge, faithful servant of Lady Verinder. I loved his bit. He often recalls things that are not strictly pertinent to the diamond but he is also very aware of this and apologizes in advance. His account creates two vivid pictures: a before and after the diamond. In the light of the following events, the Betteredge’s initial account becomes incredibly nostalgic. He gives a great sense of place, of the household and the servants within the house. Betterdge is an amiable character and whose depth is given by his habits and mannerism.
The following threads were not as enjoyable, they were shorter and less encompassing: Drusilla Clack, an ardent Evangelical, gives us nothing of too much importance, Dr. Candy and Jennings were forgettable despite the vital information given by their accounts.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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