Farewell, Victorian Celebration. Welcome, Lazy August

This is the last day of Allie's two-month Victorian Celebration, so it's time for a wrap-up post. First of all, we would like to thank Allie for organizing this event. We had less time to dedicate to it than we would have liked, but, nonetheless, we are very happy to have participated. To tell you the truth, it kept us blogging. We both had a complicated couple of months in real life and, if not for this commitment we'd made to read a handful of Victorians in June and July, we're not sure we would have had the drive or the energy to continue with the blog. So, thanks, Victorians, for not letting us quit.

Now on to the main attraction of the Victorian Celebration: other people's posts. We enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts and added quite a few books to our TBR piles in the process. And, with the caveat that we didn't have a lot of time to check everything (especially on new-to-us blogs), there were a few series that we absolutely loved and want to highlight:
  • Fanda's excursions into Victorian London: Fanda set out to explore Victorian London as depicted in Dickens' Sketches by Boz, covering popular pastimes, occupations, transportation etc. We loved this project for its nice historical glimpses - useful & enjoyable even if one isn't that much into Dickens.
  • Allie's Author Focus: Allie profiled some of the most important Victorian writers: Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, Collins and the Brontes. Sometimes it's nice to have this sort of broad overview of an author's life and work, and with every post, we felt like we were slowly mapping out the Victorian period.
  • O's reading organized by decade: we are not quite sure when o from Délaissé sleeps, but she read something from every decade of the Victorian period for this event, and wrote eloquently about the books she read. She's an inspiration. Also, check out this post for some very interesting thoughts on one of those decades (the 1870s).
  • Becky's reviews of the Jane Eyre movies: this is one of the most helpful things the internet has thrown at us lately. Becky watched ten film adaptations of Jane Eyre, reviewed them individually and then compared their strengths and weaknesses. It's a great project and we're very grateful to Becky for her recommendations.

Okay, so that's how awesome people spent their Victorian Celebration. What did we do? Well..., we started with a list, completely ignored it in June, and then tried to catch up by reading & reviewing the following things in July:

As you can see, we're still four books short of the original list:
  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (to be read in August)
  • Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species (started but not yet finished)
  • A.S. Byatt, Possession (to be read in August in a Goodreads buddy read)
  • Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (unappetizing. maybe someday?)

We'll cover these books in the near future (and we're not quite talked out about the already-reviewed titles either). Also, Claudia won Villette in a giveaway organized by Kristi from Kristi Loves Books (thanks, Kristi!) so that will be one of the books discussed in August.

We're not going to lie. This challenge has been much fun and got us through a blogging slump, but we're sort of looking forward to an August of less-scheduled reading too. What about you? What did you read? What posts from the Victorian Celebration did you like? What do you plan to read in August?

Reviews: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and To Marry An English Lord by Gail McColl and Carol Wallace

Today I'm wrapping up my reading for A Victorian Celebration with a joint review of two books that complement each other wonderfully, and thus must be reviewed together: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and To Marry An English Lord by Gail McColl and Carol Wallace.

As I'm sure you've noticed, astute readers, neither book was written in the Victorian period, although both discuss a most peculiar and fascinating aspect of the late Victorian period: the mad dash of American heiresses across the pond to marry members of the English nobility. Many of these marriages were mercenary at heart on both sides--dollar princesses trading their fortunes for marriage to cash-strapped, but titled, English gentlemen in need of money to support vast estates and other trappings of aristocratic life.

The Buccaneers offers a fictional look at the privileges and pitfalls faced by one of the first bands of American girls to go husband-seeking in England. Edith Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers was unfinished at the time of her death in 1937. It was later published posthumously, with the ending completed by Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring, drawing from Wharton's notes. To Marry An English Lord offers a look at the real-life heiresses that inspired Wharton's fictional tale (she borrowed heavily from the lives of New York society girls in her orbit) and thus offers a delicious counterpart to the novel.

Because we've got twice the territory to cover here, I'm going to keep things short and sweet in my reviews. Here we go!

The Buccaneers: Pros and Cons

The Buccaneers is somewhat of a departure from Wharton's normal writing style. Here she adopts a dizzying multi-narrator style, with the story switching perspectives through a host of characters, including multiple American heiresses and their mothers, several British gentlemen, and one very loyal British governess, just to name the main players. The characters are both the story's biggest strength and its weakness--they aren't as finely drawn as Wharton's memorable figures from earlier works (Annabel St. George, the main heroine, is no Lily Bart). Yet, although the portraits are more superficial, they are nonetheless satisfying and keep the reader engaged through the various plot twists and turns.

It's clear the novel was very much a work in progress at the time of Wharton's death--the writing feels unfinished, the social commentaries (always Wharton's great strength) sketchier. However, the elegance of Wharton's writing remains and some of her passages about English life and the English countryside are just magnificent. And, for her part, Mainwaring does an admirable job finishing out the final quarter of the novel in a very credible imitation of Wharton's writing style.

The Buccaneers: The Bottom Line

Overall I give The Buccaneers 5 out of 5 stars. Now, I am something of an Edith Wharton groupie, so do keep that in mind here. But, quibbles aside, the story is a lovely one and it offers a fascinating portrait of the strange joys and sorrows known to young American girls living in England in the heady days of the Gilded Age. 

To Marry an English Lord: Pros and Cons

Do me a favor. If you're now intrigued by The Buccaneers, do not read it until you've first read To Marry an English Lord--or at the very least, the first few chapters of this great nonfiction book. Why? To Marry offers a fascinating inside look of the many real figures that Wharton borrowed liberally from to create her band of buccaneers. One part-gossip column, one part-historical analysis, To Marry is a treasure in its own right to be sure, but it also makes The Buccaneers a much richer and rewarding book to enjoy. With amusing details about New York and London society, the mores of the British upper-class, and the husband-hunting tactics of American heiresses, To Marry is a fun and informative read--and a real-life primer for The Buccaneers.

To Marry an English Lord: The Bottom Line

I give To Marry an English Lord 4 out of 5 stars. Why does it lose a star after I've raved about it so much? Style points, really. The authors adopt a snarky tone at times that becomes a little grating and detracts from the book. But that's really splitting hairs on an awesome read. It's a perfect one for the last month of summer, hint, hint...

Review: What Maisie Knew by Henry James

I was going to start this review by explaining how reading Henry James is like eating the most delicious, delicate and non-crumby pastry you've ever had: you're enjoying the flavor and at the same time wondering at the skill that made it all possible. Me being me, however, a great lover of pastry and Henry James, it all turned to food porn and I had to delete it. But this is the impression rereading What Maisie Knew left me with. I felt like I was given a dessert. This is a book that's shorter and perhaps lighter than some of James' masterpieces, but no less accomplished.

The Subject

As he explains in the preface*, James drew his idea for the novel from a dinner conversation in which the strange fate of a little girl used as ammunition in the war between her divorced parents was mentioned. In a decision unusual for that period, the child's custody was shared and she was to spend half a year with each of her parents. While at first they were both eager to take revenge on the other by depriving them of the child's company, at some point one of them remarried and the situation changed. The responsibility for the child became a punishment fit to be inflicted on the ex-spouse and the two irresponsible parents outdid each other in trying to get rid of their charge. This is the core on which James built the story of Maisie, a girl whose childhood was spent "rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis-ball or a shuttlecock" in the power games between her parents and, later, her stepparents as well.

The subject is surprisingly modern, and James, being James, wraps it in layers upon layers of elegant language and meaning. Maisie, his young heroine, is raised in an environment marked by high-class immorality (meaning selfishness, lies and adultery abound, but outright criminal offenses do not). In a way, she knows the things that go on around her. She is a direct witness to them and she's a very sensitive child. But in a different and very important way, she doesn't know them, because she can't yet grasp their moral value. Her factual knowledge seems to much exceed her moral knowledge, and this raises interesting questions about both knowledge and morality.

What Maisie Knew and Henry Told Us

This discrepancy between the things Maisie sees and her ability to interpret them is the driving force of the novel and the major source of its delicious irony. But the most interesting aspect of James' strategy is that he doesn't entirely limit his narrator to Maisie's perspective. We see the exact portion of the world Maisie sees, but we are allowed to make more of it than Maisie ever could. After all, Maisie can hardly be aware of her own ignorance or signal it to us. So Henry James finds a way for us to have our pastry cake and eat it too. We have a narrator that excels at capturing nuances and playing with various styles  (like the legalese/high-society gossip mix in the first chapter), but then this narrator  seems content to adjust his own perspective to reflect that of Maisie and borrow some of her concepts. It's one of the most charming juxtaposition of sophistication and ingenuity in a narrative voice I have ever seen.

But there is a second reason it's important to have a voice distinct from Maisie's tell the story. There is a certain ambiguity building as the story progresses. Maisie keeps learning more and more things about the world, and at some point one starts to wonder, what does she know? Is there a point at which she becomes aware of the moral implications of the things she's seeing? The evasive impersonal narrator is essential to maintaining this uncertainty to the very end, when we get to see a test of Maisie's moral faculty.

My Favorite Passage

This book contains one of my favorite passages from the whole of literature:
[...] it had taken her but an extra minute to arrive at such a quick survey of the objects surrounding Mrs. Beale as showed that among them was no appurtenance of Sir Claude's. She knew his dressing-bag now—oh with the fondest knowledge!—and there was an instant during which its not being there was a stroke of the worst news. She was yet to learn what it could be to recognise in some lapse of a sequence the proof of an extinction, and therefore remained unaware that this momentary pang was a foretaste of the experience of death.
The feeling you get when you don't find the familiar signs of someone's presence is a foretaste of the experience of death. This moves me every time I think of it.

The Bottom Line

I feel I can never be eloquent enough in praising Henry James. What Maisie Knew is one of my favorite books, so 5 out of 5 stars and endless squeeing are a given. But, more than that, if you are looking for a good gateway drug to James, this book could be it. It has all the wonderful features of his style, but it's less dense than some of his other books.

*What Maisie Knew was published in 1897 and is copyright free. You can find it online on Project Gutenberg among other places, but beware, most of the editions floating on the internet lack James' preface discussing the inception of the book and his narrative strategy. I am of the school that thinks the author's intentions are more entertaining trivia than indispensable instruments to reading, but still, there is no reason to deprive oneself of entertaining trivia. Here's a link to the preface.

Eminent Victorians: My Favorite Portrait

What's a footnote?
One of the best aspects of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is his talent to succinctly and eloquently portray people that play secondary parts in the "plot" of our heroes' lives. Cardinal Newman, Sir Evelyn Baring, Gladstone, Lord Panmure, Lord Hartington, they all have a quality to them that is better than life. Reduced to a handful of traits, they are interesting in the way literary characters are. The elegance and intelligence of Strachey's style makes historical truths almost superfluous. (Might this be an occasion to use that nice proverb, se non è vero, è ben trovato - if it's not true, it still makes for a good story?)

The best example of this is the portrait of Monsignor Talbot, a secretary to Pope Pius IX. I think a lot of writers would be proud to have written this passage. It is perfect, down to the punchline:
Monsignor Talbot was a priest who embodied in a singular manner, if not the highest, at least the most persistent traditions of the Roman Curia. He was master of various arts which the practice of ages has brought to perfection under the friendly shadow of the triple tiara. He could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty; he could make innuendoes as naturally as an ordinary man makes statements of fact; he could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even Princes of the Church found it sufficient; and, on occasion, he could ring the changes of torture on a human soul with a tact which called forth universal approbation. With such accomplishments, it could hardly be expected that Monsignor Talbot should be remarkable either for a delicate sense of conscientiousness or for an extreme refinement of feeling, but then it was not for those qualities that Manning was in search when he went up the winding stair. He was looking for the man who had the ear of Pio Nono; and, on the other side of the low-arched door, he found him. Then he put forth all his efforts; his success was complete; and an alliance began which was destined to have the profoundest effect upon Manning’s career, and was only dissolved when, many years later, Monsignor Talbot was unfortunately obliged to exchange his apartment in the Vatican for a private lunatic asylum at Passy.
If you want to read more, Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, is copyright free and available on a good number of sites on the internet. Like here. Or here. Or here. (Okay, okay, I'll stop now.)

Review: Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian--ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art.
Thus begins the preface to Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. The Victorian Age was no more than two decades away when this book was published, and its shadow was still very much in the room. How to depict a period that was too close for historical perspective? How to capture its spirit without getting hopelessly entangled in the web of information available about it? Strachey's answer is to rely on individual lives as on some sort of historical flashlights, to use them to illuminate larger trends of the 19th century. To see what the Victorian Age was really like, one's best bet is to look not at history directly, but at history filtered through biography. In other words, to see what the Victorian Age was really like, one has to find out what some of most eminent Victorians were like, how they lived and under what circumstances their individual lives got entwined with the flow of history.

This might, at a first glance, sound like a pretentious or boring endeavor. It's nothing of the sort. Strachey has that gift of selecting details that make both history and biography come alive. His voice is wry, irreverent and endlessly entertaining. If you've read André Maurois' History of England or Indro Montanelli's History of Rome or History of the Greeks, you might be familiar with the style. (And if you haven't read them, they are highly recommended. They are charming and funny and make reading history a pleasure. Montanelli in particular can make one laugh till they cry. And by "one" I mean "me," and by "can" mean "totally have.")

Here is a sample of Strachey's wit, the target being Florence Nightingale:

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

So who could have predicted that after expressing what bugged me the most about this book I'd lose interest in it and never finish the proper review? But well, after a solid week or two of procrastination, here I am, returned to both Wilkie Collins and this poor neglected blog. And I've come back to tell you that I really didn't like The Woman in White that much. 

Now, I am not a fan of mystery novels in general. When I read mystery, I have one of two reactions to it. The first is boredom. I wish I could say I am one of those astute readers that figure everything out from page two and then spend the rest of the book yelling at the characters to smarten up. I am not. I never figure anything out, but I just don't care. I just wish the mystery plot would go away and the characters would do something interesting for a change. (Which is precisely why four-year-old me was bored to tears by the whole catching-villains part of Scooby-Doo, but got reasonably invested in the idea Fred and Daphne were meant for each other. And by "reasonably invested" I mean I would have written fan fiction of it, had I known fan fiction existed.)  

But sometimes, with some books, I get a totally different reaction and I am afraid that reaction is best described as complete mental unraveling. I am not made for suspense. If I'm really invested in a book, don't know where it is going, but do know that it might end badly, I won't enjoy it. I will just get sick to my stomach. (Which, by the way, is why spoilers are good.) This is usually the case with books that feature some great injustice done to the characters. No amount of happy resolutions can make up for the agony of my reading experience. So you see, between "Meh." and "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME, J. McAuthor?",  I really don't have a lot of things to look forward to from mystery novels and I usually avoid them.

Mistaken First Impressions? 

The reason I told you all this was not, contrary to all appearances, because I wanted to confess to shipping Scooby-Doo characters. It was because I wanted my bias to be clear when it came to this book. The Woman in White did not start with the best chances. I am afraid its first section did nothing to improve those chances either. It had some bad, bad writing. Until I got to the second section and realized that the clichéd writing had been a feature, not a bug; that it had reflected the writing skills of the character narrating that part of the story and not Collins' own abilities, I doubted my wisdom in choosing this book. But then things started to look up. 

The multiple narrators are this book's best feature. The fact that Collins can play with Walter's romantic and affected prose, with Marian's direct and compelling style and with the distinct voices of so many secondary characters is, hands down, an achievement. The high point of the entire book for me was Mr. Fairlie's section. His self-absorbed, whiny tone managed to be entertaining, even though I knew that his comical selfishness was actually putting his nieces' lives in danger.

Not only that Collins created an unique voice and background for each character, but, in the first part, he managed to do so without any costs to the plot or the pacing of the story. There were no elements extraneous to the plot and little overlapping between the sections narrated by each character. So it moved briskly along, and I was charmed. I was even briefly sucked into the story and started the dreaded complete mental unraveling spiral. I suffered along with Marian and wished the villains punished. If things had continued this way, I would have loved this book (and probably gotten sick to my stomach from the suspense too). But they didn't.

The Disappointing Second Half

Everything that was good in the first half was undone in the second. The problems all stemmed from the fact that once Walter returned and saved the two sisters, there was basically nothing at stake anymore. We knew what happened. We knew the villains' plan and its outcome. All that was left was to a. figure out all the details of the villains' motivations and b. force society to acknowledge a story that we, as readers, already knew. Neither objective is too fascinating to watch unfold. As a result, there is hardly any tension to the second part, especially once it becomes clear that the story is rapidly moving toward a happy ending.

Unfortunately, this also means that the perfect synchrony between the narrating voices and the plot breaks down. You get characters repeating parts of the story we already heard and it's dragging the pace down. Fosco's confession is close to useless in the story's economy. There is no reason to have it in full, because at this point in the story the readers either knew or guessed most of the things in it. The character himself is on his way out and has been absent for hundreds of pages, so a focus on his characterization is also a little misplaced. The whole thing is just anti-climactic, the way the villains' punishments were anti-climactic too. 

The Bottom Line

I wouldn't call this a bad book, but I can't in all honesty say it was a particularly good book either. Even working past my dislike for the genre, The Woman in White disappointed me. I would normally give it 2 out of 5 stars, but since it provided me with a good chance to rant about gender roles and some things to ponder in the future, I will give it 3 stars.

Ten Literary Places We'd Love to Visit

Today is a freebie week for Top Ten Tuesday, and we thought to participate with 10 answers to a question that preoccupied us more than once before. It goes like this: what (real) places depicted in books you'd most like to visit? We are always imagining what it would be like to trace our favorite characters' footsteps, so we selected 10 literary places we would love to see, in no particular order, and the books that triggered this wish. Feel free to share your own answers and let's build a map of literary travel destinations!

1. New Orleans, Louisiana: One of the most colorful and historic cities in the United States, New Orleans also boasts of a rich literary history. It's the setting for Tennessee Williams' classic play, Streetcar Named Desire, and William Faulkner's early short stories, New Orleans Sketches, both showing the city's dark edge.  Since Alexis is a Tennessee Williams fan and Claudia a William Faulkner groupie, you can see why the French Quarter is high on our list of places to see.

2. Dublin, Ireland: Do you know that Claudia spent quite some time in her life grappling with James Joyce and his work? That means that she needs a reward and visiting the setting of Dubliners and Ulysses might be just the thing. This is also the place she's most likely to visit in the near future.

3. Newport, Rhode Island: The summer playground of the Gilded Age's most elite citizens, it's no wonder this ultra-luxe resort town figures heavily in Edith Wharton's novels. Along with sweeping beach views, here you'll find some of the most glorious mansions ever created. Visit for a unique look back into the rarified world of Vanderbilts, Astors, and Whartons. (Also, Claudia needs to add, HENRY JAMES.)

4. Prince Edward Island, Canada:  Prince Edward Island is home to one of the most beloved literary heroines of all-time, the irrepressible Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables -- and home to some of the most charming countryside in Canada. Alexis was a huge Anne of Green Gables fan growing up, so this idyllic setting is one she would love to revisit in real life.

5. Cartagena, Colombia: This one is cheating a little, because Cartagena is not mentioned by name in Gabriel García Márquez' Love in the Time of Cholera, but we know it was the inspiration for the city depicted there and, people, we would love to visit. There was something almost hypnotic about the descriptions in that book and it would be nice to see if reality can live up to magical realism or not.

6. Swiss Alps, Switzerland: This one is obvious: HEIDI! Who didn't dream of being Heidi? But there is more to it than that. The last part of Heminway's A Farewell to Arms, the escape to Switzerland when things are shortly better before they get worse, gives you such a feeling of relief that to this day it colors our idea of the Alps. We can't think of the Alps without thinking Catherine and Henry live in a hut there somewhere, having successfully escaped the patrols.

7. Jamaica: Jamaica you might be wondering? Well, it turns out that Jamaica has quite the literary pedigree, thanks to Jane Eyre and its parallel novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. In Jane Eyre, we learn that Rochester's first wife, the doomed Bertha Mason, grew up in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Wide Sargasso Sea of course reimagines Bertha's story and her childhood on the lush Caribbean isle. Sign us up.    

8. Savannah, Georgia: A true gem of a city, Savannah is the setting for the modern nonfiction classic, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the eccentic culture of one of American's oldest cities. Savannah is also the birthplace of Flannery O'Connor, one of the best-known voices in Southern literature. And it is the Southern city we'd most like to visit.

 9. Florence, Italy: Many of our favorite novels take place in various cities in Italy, but Florence won, as the charming setting for E.M. Forster's A Room with a View and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. So happy endings, unhappy endings, Florence can foreshadow them all. Plus history and beautiful architecture. Oh, where did I put my Baedeker?

10. Lyme Regis, England: This town, or more particularly the Cobb, is the place where Anne Elliot proves herself to be trustworthy in a crisis in Jane Austen's Persuasion. It comes recommended by Jane Austen herself. And if that is not enough to convince you (although it should be), the Cobb also features in John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. That famous scene of Sarah staring out to sea and looking very dramatic indeed? Now that we know where it takes place, we might just reenact it.

What about you? What literary places would you like to visit (or visited already)? 

Gender Roles in The Woman in White

What's a footnote?
I haven't finished the review for The Woman in White yet, but this rant forced its way out of me as I was trying to write the said review. Since the order in which I post won't make much of a difference, I thought I'd post a footnote about the book before posting a proper review. (I know, I know, some (wo)men just want to watch the world burn.) Here it is then.

When a book starts with a sentence such as "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure and what a Man's resolution can achieve," you might be tempted to think that there's nothing left to discuss. Case closed from the very first words: this book will be based on the most traditional of traditional gender roles. Women are passive and patient; men are active and determined. Women endure; men achieve. And one shouldn't blame Wilkie Collins for that, because he lived in the 19th century and was not as bright as John Stuart Mill (few people were, so that's not necessarily an insult either).

But then it looks as if the book doesn't exactly align to the roles prescribed in its very first sentence. You have male characters that are feeble, like the comically selfish Mr. Fairlie, and male characters that have a more emotional and artistic personality, like our hero, Walter Hartright. And, on the other side of the Great Gender Divide, you have Miss Marian Halcombe, who can walk on roofs, is as brave and resolute as any man, and seems to be a generally kickass Victorian heroine. So perhaps this book is pretty enlightened after all? The answer, alas, is no.

Circumcision and the Deronda

What's a footnote?
So this is a thing and it cracked me up. I was peacefully googling for some information about Judaism in Daniel Deronda because I vaguely envisioned a comparison to Ulysses. (Why would I do that? Because my life contains too little pain and I must add to it.) And then I stumbled across this rather fascinating book chapter and nothing was the same again. 

Someone, somewhere, at some point in 1975, noticed something weird about Daniel Deronda's life story. Supposedly, his mother had given him away when he was two years old, because she didn't want him to be raised in the Jewish tradition. But if he was two, that meant he had already been circumcised. Circumcision was not widespread in Britain outside of Jewish circles. So the question arises: did Daniel never look down? Not to minimize people's ignorance of their own bodies and especially their genitals (if in doubt, read (almost) any romance novel and try to reconstruct female anatomy from it), but surely at some point he would have noticed. If not on his own, when reading up on Jewish traditions or when people started insisting that he might be of Jewish descent. 

So what gives? Literary criticism being the serious enterprise that it is, this did not devolve into a series of jokes about Deronda's dick. (Which is why I'm not an English major. I'll basically always go for the joke.) Instead it turned to a discussion about the problem of realism in the Victorian period. Did George Eliot realize this could be a potential problem for her plot? Given the care she put into researching this book, it is very likely that she did. And if so, did she try to give subtle hints of this? Like when she talks about Deronda sympathizing with Byron because of Byron's deformed foot, is she inviting us to make use of well-known urban legends about men with big feet and see Daniel as being ashamed of his own unusual penis? Why does she never talk of Deronda's nose? Henry James mentions Deronda's nose. Does he use it as an euphemism for penis or not? (Yes, someone wrote an academic article about this. Maybe there is hope for literary criticism after all.)

But suppose that feet are feet and noses are noses for a second. That would mean that George Eliot did not talk about Deronda's penis because she either did not realize it was a problem, or she thought no one would care. (And, to be fair, it did take 99 years before anyone did care.) The latter would imply that realism is a convention and one can ignore certain details even when they point to phallic-shaped plot holes.

I obviously think finding subtle hints in the novel is going too far and that one of the other options (Eliot didn't know or didn't care) is far more likely. It also never crossed my mind when reading to think of the state of Deronda's genitals, so I guess it's not just Victorians who are oblivious to such things. In any case, you should check out this chapter that talks at length about the whole debate. It's interesting.

Henry James Reviews Daniel Deronda

What's a footnote?
Here's a snippet I very much enjoyed. If you love Henry James or George Eliot, or both, you will probably enjoy it too. It's about Henry James' very unconventional review of Daniel Deronda. First some background details: Daniel Deronda was published in monthly installments between February and September of 1876, and Henry James' first reaction to it appeared in The Nation at the end of February. It was an unsigned note and largely positive, saying among other things this:
The "sense of the universal" is constant, omnipresent. It strikes us sometimes as rather conscious and over-cultivated; but it gives us the feeling that the threads of the narrative, as we gather them into our hands, are not the usual commercial measurement, but long electric wires capable of transmitting messages from mysterious regions.
Isn't the metaphor of the electric wires so suitable for Eliot and the way she incorporates universal messages into her narrative? Anyway, as more installments were published, Henry James' opinion changed. By June, we know from his correspondence with his brother, William, that his feelings about the novel were mostly negative, William too had a bad opinion of Daniel Deronda and its moralistic tone, an opinion sprinkled with a good dose of sexism. (Because we all know the world's greatest moralists were women?) Here's what Henry wrote to William in 1876:
Daniel Deronda strikes me (in proportion to its elaborate ability) a great failure compared with her other books. Gwendolen to me lives a little; but not the others: D.D. least of all. But the episode with Mordecai is fine.
But the interesting part came in December, when James published Daniel Deronda: A Conversation. It was a very unusual review, written as a dialogue between three characters. I was charmed by the idea, because all those contradictory feelings I had about the book could be expressed and discussed in one place and every character had something of value to add, in the end. I think it's the best way to convey the impression this book gives: a book complex enough to be discussed at length, but with a number of weak points that make one hesitate to declare it great.

So, what I am going to do now is give you a taste of each of the characters with a short description and an emblematic quote and then, at the end, a link to this piece that can be read online.

Theodora is portrayed as a romantic and somewhat silly girl. She is in love with Daniel Deronda and completely in awe of the book that contains him. She is George Eliot's groupie.
A book like Daniel Deronda becomes part of one's life; one lives in it or alongside of it. I don't hesitate to say that I have been living in this one for the last eight months. It is such a complete world George Eliot builds up; it is so vast, so much−embracing! It has such a firm earth and such an ethereal sky. You can turn into it and lose yourself in it.
Pulcheria, the other female character in the review, dislikes the book. Part of her dislike clearly stems out of anti-Semitism. (And there is more than a hint of her disliking Deronda because he's not masculine enough. He is a prig, but also too emotive, too womanly.) She attacks Eliot at every level imaginable, but she also scores some valid points along the way.
I never read a story with less current. It is not a river; it is a series of lakes. I once read of a group of little uneven ponds resembling, from a birds−eye view, a looking−glass which had fallen upon the floor and broken, and was lying in fragments. That is what Daniel Deronda would look like, on a birds−eye view.
Constantius is the level-headed man who brings nuance to the table. He admires George Eliot and understands what she tried to achieve in her book, but he calls Daniel Deronda the weakest of her books. Constantius' opinions are the most interesting and detailed, and he seems to be the one channeling James. To me, the following quote stood out, because I can't decide a. if it's true for Eliot and b. how much of it was informed by sexism (a woman who wants to philosophize rather than Feel is just denying her own nature and squandering her talent).
But it comes back to what I said just now about one's sense of the author writing under a sort of external pressure. I began to notice it in Felix Holt; I don't think I had before. She strikes me as a person who certainly has naturally a taste for general considerations, but who has fallen upon an age and a circle which have compelled her to give them an exaggerated attention. She does not strike me as naturally a critic, less still as naturally a sceptic; her spontaneous part is to observe life and to feel it, to feel it with admirable depth.
Intrigued by this? Go read the rest here, courtesy of the California Digital Library. And if you have an opinion about this problem of sense vs. sensibility in George Eliot's writing, please share. It's bugging me.

Review: An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

Claudia isn't the only one who's been an awful slacker lately. I clearly fall into that category as well, but like her I'm determined to ramp up my posting in our last month of A Victorian Celebration. I'm hoping to finish both Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Edith Wharton's Buccaneers (set, though not written, in the Victorian Period) in the next month. But first I need to wrap up some unfinished business: namely, reviewing An Ideal Husband, my first read for A Victorian Celebration and one that I quite enjoyed.

The Central Themes

Set in late 19th century London, An Ideal Husband centers around the dilemma of Sir Robert Chiltern, an esteemed member of the House of Commons who is forced to confront the unsavory details about the true origin of his fortune and his raise to political prominence. Chiltern, who is adored by his wife, Lady Chiltern, as--you guessed it!--an ideal husband and man of impeachable moral character, is blackmailed by the scheming Mrs. Cheveley, a social climber newly arrived in London.

As the play's action  unfolds, Chiltern turns to his close friend, the dandified (and utterly hilarious) Lord Goring, for guidance. Rounding out the cast are a number of genteel supporting characters, including Chiltern's archly witty sister, Mabel. At its heart, An Ideal Husband is a play centered on the themes of honor, the nature of love, forgiveness, and role of past transgressions in shaping a person's destiny. 

First (And Second) Impressions

An Ideal Husband is the first piece I've read by Oscar Wilde. I was especially excited to read Wilde, since his writing checks a lot of boxes of things I tend to adore in literature: Aristocratic Victorians! High-society intrigue! Sparkling dialogue! So imagine my disappointment when I started reading...and was initially very underwhelmed. In the first scene or two, the dialogue felt artificially forced and terribly grating, as if Wilde was more focused on cramming in as many flamboyantly clever comments as possible instead of developing, you know, an actual play. "This is Oscar Wilde?!?" I thought with a sinking heart. "This is so not what I expected!"

Turns out first impressions aren't always right, and that was definitely the case here. For as the plot unfolded in earnest, I began to utterly adore An Ideal Husband and found myself whipping through the pages, wildly curious about what would happen next and savoring every bit of dialogue. Wilde does an excellent job of exploring a number of serious themes throughout the play, while balancing it with a delightfully comic plot, full of hilarious misunderstandings and well-drawn characters. In particular, Lord Goring is a complete treasure--a thoughtful and loyal soul hides behind his foppish front as the "idlest man in London." Beyond his key role in negotiating the Chilterns' domestic drama, his flirtatious banter with Mabel is to die for. He's the heart and moral force of the play and he (and the play!) don't disappoint.   

A Taste of the Play

Oscar Wilde's legendary wit means there are no shortage of great quotes in An Ideal Husband. Here are a few of my favorites:  
All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon.

I am thoroughly sick of pearls. They make one look so plain, so good and so intellectual.

Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is.

The Bottom Line

I give An Ideal Husband 4 out of 5 stars. It was a breeze of a read--not just in terms of length but overall reading pleasure as well. Without giving too much away, the play's conclusion left a slightly sour taste in my mouth--let's say it definitely shows its age and its Victorian gender representations leave a few things to be desired. But, overall, it was a charming read, one I would absolutely recommend to anyone looking for a fun Victorian classic.

Review: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I've been an awful slacker lately. But no more. There's only one month left of A Victorian Celebration, so I've started on Collins and Darwin. But before I get to them, I need to get Daniel Deronda out of the way first, so this week is dedicated to it. I read this book twice and reread large parts of it in order to write this review. All things considered, I've spent a lot of time in the company of this narrator and these characters. But the more I reread, the more conflicted my feelings about this novel are.

Daniel Deronda presents two loosely interwoven stories. On one hand, we get the individual plight of Gwendolen Harleth. Gwendolen is a female character that I have the distinct impression of having met before, though I can't figure out where. She's young and beautiful, very sure of herself and of her place as the unofficial center of the universe. She's arrogant, high spirited and unsentimental. And she's punished for it. In order to escape poverty, she makes an unethical decision and marries a man who she knows ought to have married another. Her remorse and her efforts to find a moral way of living are connected with Daniel Deronda. He and Gwendolen meet accidentally at the beginning of the novel and he disapproves of her activities at the time (gambling). As a result of this first meeting and of his moral censure, Gwendolen casts him as her outer conscience. She relies on his advice to learn how to be good.

And she couldn't have chosen a better mentor, because Daniel Deronda? He's a man without faults. He is good, smart, handsome and modest on top of it. Not just Gwendolen, but everyone relies on him. He walks around saving kittens and Disney heroines from drowning. And though Eliot very nicely says that "Those who trust us educate us," you don't get to see much of that in Daniel's case, because good behavior seems to come naturally to him. But there is one thing amiss in the life of young Deronda: he doesn't know who his parents are. His getting involved with the Jewish community through Mirah, the young Disney heroine woman he saved, and Mordecai, a visionary Zionist, make up the universal, intellectually-elevated side of the novel (as opposed to Gwendolen's story, I guess). Daniel gradually warms up to the idea that he might be of Jewish descent. Which, as it turns out, he is.

There is enough in this novel to keep you returning to it, to make you want to examine it further. But there are also some weak points that interfered with my ability to fully enjoy it, especially at the second reading. So I will just quickly list what I liked and what I didn't like below.

The Good

The morally-flawed characters seem to be this novel's greatest achievement. Gwendolen is quite captivating, especially in the first part of the novel. She is an example of how to create a  multifaceted character starting from just a couple of defining features. Another example is her husband, who is an interesting study in cruelty. You get to understand how their minds work, but you still wait for their actions with interest. They are not boringly predictable (which, sadly, some of the positive characters, including Deronda himself, are).

My second-favorite thing about this novel is the way its themes and motifs work together like in a symphony. I don't think its construction overall is sound (see below), but I really appreciated the attempt. The problem of parentage, of having absent or bad parents, emerges for Daniel, for Gwendolen, for Mirah, and even for the Meyrick family. The problem of inheritance, both material and spiritual, is present for Sir Hugo, for Grandcourt and his son outside of marriage, for Mordecai, for Daniel in relation with his lost family. Art and the difference between geniuses and amateurs concern Klesmer, the music master, and his employers; Hans, Daniel's friend, who's a painter; Mirah and her father, who used to work in the theater; Daniel's mother, who was a singer; Daniel and Gwendolen, who are both amateurs, but understand the purpose of art very differently. Even the character of Sir Hugo, the well-meaning but down-to-earth gentleman who raised Daniel, is mirrored in Gwendolen's world by Mr. Gascoigne.

The Bad

Can you spell "saccharine"? Because you are going to get a fair amount of that when it comes to the positive characters. Mirah is a character who lives to embody virtue and cross her feet and hands daintily (I lost count of how many times she does that over the course of the book). The Meyrick family is cute in a very Little Women style, but then I was alternatively bored and annoyed by Little Women, so I didn't really appreciate its charm. And presiding over this cast of goody-goodies, Daniel Deronda, the good man par excellence.

But beside the fact that half of the characters were just too good to be true, my problem was that they seemed to dominate the book. After a very strong start on Gwendolen's story, the shift to Daniel's perspective was welcome, but the space his story received seemed disproportionate. In the middle of the book, Gwendolen is simply absent. The way their stories entwine again was a little artificial (especially since it relies in the end on a huge coincidence). Another problem was that plotlines are started and then completely dropped, like in the case of Klesmer's romance with Miss Arrowpoint. It was a cute romance, predicated on their shared intellectual interests, and Miss Arrowpoint was a refreshingly determined female character. But their story simply disappears from the novel's map, until someone reports on it indirectly in the second half, like an afterthought.

The Really, Really Preachy 

Jewish identity and Zionism. I wish I didn't have this problem with the novel, because I really appreciate what Eliot tried to do here. I think she succeeded in revealing the way prejudice against a minority works. Even the good characters (Deronda, the Meyricks) are not unbiased towards Jewish people. They embrace Mirah, but at the same time they wish she'd give up her faith. The saintly Daniel looks unkindly at a Jewish family and judges their every gesture in a way he wouldn't with a Christian family. (He reforms his ways. See: saintly.) This is all wonderfully done, and I love Eliot for it. It is relevant even today. At the same time, I don't identify with all the talk about identity, national or otherwise, and didn't feel that Daniel's conversations with Mordecai came to life the way Gwendolen's problems did.

Bottom Line

I know I spent 2/3 of the review complaining about various details, but I'm going to give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Because I admire what Eliot set out to do, love the parts of that project she did accomplish, and think there are enough good things in this book to keep one engrossed for a long time. Which is why I'm going to return to it in a series of footnotes.