6

Odd Duck: The Victorian and the Romantic

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

We’re working on sleep training which is great and terrible. On the one hand, my tiny girl cries by herself in her room and I have to let her work it out herself. On the other hand, I have time to myself for eating, showering, laundry, reading and yes, even blogging.

So let’s get to it before she wakes up.

victorian

The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time by Nell Stevens is a quirky take on the genre. At once a memoir about her time doing her PhD on Mrs Gaskell, it is also the story of a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life. Stevens decides to look at Mrs Gaskell’s time in Rome, shortly after the publication of her biography of friend Charlotte Bronte. There she supposedly had a romance with the American critic, Charles Eliot Norton. While working on her PhD, Stevens finds herself distracted by her own romance with an American screenwriter living in Paris.

If you have been a reader of this site for any length of time, you will know that I despise it when women, in fiction or non-fiction, put their dreams and lives on hold because of a man. Or even just rearrange their entire lives to suit the needs of a romance. So there were definitely moments reading The Victorian and the Romantic where I was rolling my eyes, willing Nell to not give up on her own dreams to suit the guy’s.

But then her heart is shattered and she must pick up the pieces and I found myself drawn to Nell and her story. I enjoyed the way she wrote Mrs Gaskell’s story, as though she were talking about a friend. In writing about her own relationship with a man who came into her life at the exact wrong time, she aligns herself with Mrs Gaskell and her very conservative Victorian “relationship” with Norton. Stevens illuminated a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life that I had no idea about (although to be fair, I knew she was married to a minister, lived in Manchester and died before she finished Wives and Daughters…)

This was an easy non-fiction read that had spirit, was beautifully written and made me want to learn more about a woman whose work I have enjoyed since I was introduced to Mary Barton in first year university. It’s a bit of an odd duck of a book (for example the Mrs Gaskell section is written in second person which you almost never see) but for all it’s quirks it’s also a solid little book written with heart.

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24

Book rut or bad luck?

I went away for an extended weekend and was so excited to bring a bag full of books with me to read. Days and days worth of uninterrupted reading time? Please. This is the stuff book nerd dreams are made of. I tend to put more thought into what books I’m bringing on any trip than what I will be wearing. Sometimes it’s a plane trip and that kind of reading is going to be vastly different from a car trip. Lake side reading is going to be different from foreign locale reading you know?

Anyway, it’s been quiet around here because I left town and access to internet.

I also feel a little bit like I squandered my reading time with poor book material. It’s not that any of the books I brought were bad but none of them particularly grabbed me and most of the time I was hoping to finish the book I was reading so that I could start something else. This is no way to spend uninterrupted reading time!

When we went away I was in the middle of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. I was promised that this tale of a young seamstress who falls in love with a rich guy and then gets pregnant by him before she is abandoned was the perfect Victorian novel. And in many ways it was: examination of the class system and the role of women? Check. Characters obsessed with the idea of doing and being good? Check. Idealized portraits of hard lives? Total check. But Ruth lacked any of the spunk or “vigour” that I’ve come to expect from my Victorian heroines and all we’re left with is a crappy life where a woman is punished for something that she definitely didn’t make happen all by herself.

I thought that Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess would probably make excellent holiday reading, it falling firmly in my categorization of “guilty pleasures.”  But it, like its predecessor The Kingmaker’s Daughter, frustrated me with its tale of things happening around a woman. Elizabeth of York is struggling to find her family’s footing in a world with a Tudor on the throne. When Henry VII makes good on his pledge to marry her and unite the warring families, she must figure out where her loyalties lie. But Henry VII is horrible to her, forcing himself on her before they are wed to ensure that she isn’t barren and never trusting that she isn’t trying to screw him and put her family back on the throne. The entire time they are dogged by the ghost of her brother who was supposed to die in the tower. Gregory definitely thinks that it was Henry VII (or his mother) who made the Princes in the Tower disappear. Once again we’re treated to a history lesson of all the battles and men that made history while the women, even Queens, sat at home sewing and popping out babies.

As our holiday was winding down I started reading Sarah Bradford’s Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy. I had read Bradford’s biography of King George VI and really enjoyed it. I’m still trying to make my way through Lucrezia Borgia and it seems like a case for a Do Not Finish. I have a hard time putting a book aside so this should tell you how much I’m not enjoying it. I think part of the issue is that it’s probably really hard to put together a complete picture of a Renaissance woman; the information available can’t be super complete. But I’m getting really tired of letter fragments and all the things that all the men around her did. If I wanted to read a biography of the Borgia men, I would have picked up a biography of the Borgia men.

The one book that I did manage to enjoy was the Agatha Christie book I brought along, Cat Among the Pigeons. But then when does Mrs. Christie ever disappoint? (Never. The answer is never.)

What do you think? Book rut or bad luck?

21

I exercised zero control at the library!

I’m getting married in just under three months. Let’s just take a moment and think about how insane that is.

Sh*t’s getting real. And expensive. I may or may not have fallen off the book buying ban wagon. I have been exercising zero self control but it’s time to get my butt back to regular library trips.

So I went to the library and it was awesome. Every time I go back to the library after a lengthy absence I’m blown away all over again that all of these wonderful books are available to me for free. There is nothing better than free books.

I wandered around and started grabbing books left and right. Finally, a place where I don’t need to exercise any self control! I never get any of the Speed Reads. I don’t like the pressure. But good lord, if I was ok with that, there are so many books on those shelves that I want. Truly an embarrassment of riches.

This is the point in the blog post where I tell you about the books that I got at the library!

Every time I go, I always get an Agatha Christie. It’s probably official library policy somewhere: when one visits, one must take home one Agatha Christie mystery. This time was no different and I got Cat Among the Pigeons. I’d never heard of this one but the cover was purple and that was enough of a reason for me.

While I was in the Mystery section anyway, I poked my head around the Rs and wouldn’t you know it? Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible was there. Multiple copies! Mine.

Last year I realized that I loved Elizabeth Gaskell. But I thought I had already read all of her work (Cranford, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughter, North and South) but I was wrong! There was still Ruth to love! That too was added to my pile.

When I finished The Kingmaker’s Daughter, I found myself intrigued by The White Princess, despite my best intentions. I didn’t love The Kingmaker’s Daughter but the end was so…unfinished. I knew I’d eventually have to read the follow up. I haven’t come across it at very frequently – it was one book that I knew I wasn’t going to buy. But it was waiting for me at the library this time.

I keep hearing amazing things about The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. I’ve come across it in bookstores and I haven’t bought it. I ended up finding it tucked in among piles of books just returned and decided that it was the perfect time to actually read it. I can’t wait to get to this one.

I’m watching The Borgias with Jeremy Irons on Netflix right now and loving it. There’s a lot of really cool history happening but it’s an era that I’m not familiar with. I don’t know very much about different popes or the kings, dukes and leaders of Italy as it was; Italian history in general actually. The show has made me want to know more and when I found a biography of Lucretzia Borgia (one of my favourite characters on the show) I needed to have it. I suspect that this will be one of those times I’m sad that I didn’t buy the book.

Finally, I grabbed a biography of Queen Anne. I know about as much about the Stuart monarchs as I do about Italian history and I’m looking forward to remedying that.

What do you think of my library haul? Have you read any of them?

9

Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley Is No North and South

I’m working my way through Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley right now. It’s been a week; I’m starting to get antsy.

Reading Shirley is reminding me of forcing my way through Daniel Deronda. That story doesn’t have a happy ending. I mean the story of me reading the book – taking three weeks to slog through those 700 pages has long been blamed for only managing to read 64 out of a planned 65 books that year. The actual story…I can’t remember the ending.

The funny thing about Daniel Deronda is that every time I go back and read a summary I’m like that book sounds awesome! Why didn’t I like it? But despite my love for Middlemarch (by the same author), Daniel Deronda just didn’t work for me.

And I fear that the same thing is happening with Shirley. Is Charlotte Bronte a one hit wonder? You may recall that I didn’t have a lot of love to give for Villette. With Shirley, I swear I run in and out of consciousness; I read without realizing it and that is no way to read.

It should be good. It reminds me a lot of North and South which I loved so much. But there’s no Mr. Thornton to love. Robert Moore is kind of a dick and he can’t make up his mind between lovely, sweet, thoughtful Caroline Helstone and temperamental, generous, wealthy Shirley Keeldar. I have no idea how this is going to go down – Caroline probably dies of consumption.

It took 200 pages to even meet Shirley you guys. Two hundred pages of leg work to meet the title character. Not even a whisper of her before that. It’s all Caroline. Which would be fine except that the people in Caroline’s life spend an awful lot of time talking about how feeble women and Caroline are.

The dialogue between the women is strong, I’ll give it that. I just read a delightful scene where Caroline is visiting Robert Moore’s sister who is being visited by Mrs. Yorke, the town matron. Mrs. Yorke sermonizes at Caroline about this, that and the other, being a general pain in the ass, and Caroline, soft-spoken, shy Caroline, totally gives it back to her. I’m enjoying the discussions on the place of women in society, seeing how far we have come and yet, how much is sadly similar.

But I’m still waiting for the magic. I’m still waiting to be swept up in dramatic Yorkshire.

I hope there’s a payoff waiting for me. Have you read Shirley? Is it coming?

11

When the Book Alone Isn’t Enough: Binging on North and South

I totally binged on North and South last week.

Let me rewind a little bit. I first read a book by Elizabeth Gaskell in university. Mary Barton is a Victorian novel examining the disparities between rich and poor. It also deals with the realities of the working class in an industrial city during the Victorian era. It was grim and sad and difficult to read but it was so great.

Then I read Cranford, another Victorian masterpiece of reality. Mrs. Gaskell doesn’t sugarcoat the future facing unmarried women of a certain age. It’s pretty grim as well.

A few weeks ago, I read Wives and Daughters which I loved. That’s when I realized that actually, I really like books by Elizabeth Gaskell and next time I was in the library, I picked up North and South.

This might be my favourite. I need to own a copy.

Margaret Hale has spent her teenage years living at a fashionable address in London, the playmate of a wealthy cousin. When her cousin gets married, Margaret returns to the parish where her father is the parson. But due to a crisis of conscience, her father leaves the church and moves the family away from their home in Helstone, to the Northern, industrial city of Milton. Here he will tutor the sons of local families while Margaret attempts to overcome her prejudices against Northerners, and especially against self-made men, like Mr. Thornton, who she doesn’t consider gentlemen.

Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with Bessy Higgins and her family. Bessy has lung problems from having worked in the mills for so long. Her father, Nicholas, is a Union man, bent on organizing a mill strike to get better wages.

So much happens in this book. That’s a bare bones assessment. People die, people travel, there’s a strike that boils over, a mutiny at sea, a cast of characters that includes a disapproving mother, an insipid aunt and a potential benefactor.

But can we just take a moment to talk about Margaret and Mr. Thornton? North and South was published in 1855, a full 42 years after Pride and Prejudice (here we go with the Jane Austen again) but while the subject matter, the customs, and definitely the setting, are all completely different, in Margaret and Mr. Thornton we find some semblance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Which is awesome.

Beautiful Margaret Hale is a young woman used to going her own way. Although women of her class didn’t tend to mix with working class men like Nicholas Higgins, Margaret goes out of her way to visit and befriend him, learning a lot about life in Milton. Mr. Thornton is also used to getting his own way and rigidly adheres to the customs and codes of life to which is he is accustomed. He can be quick to make judgements and when his idea of Margaret as pure and noble is challenged, he has a hard time moving past it.

These two spend the whole book clashing until finally realizing that actually, they love each other. A lot.

When I finished (it does end kind of abruptly owing, no doubt, to the fact that North and South was serialized originally and needed to be wrapped up in a certain number of installments) I wasn’t ready to let it go. So I went to Netflix and binged on the 2004 BBC miniseries. If you have four hours, I would recommend you do the same. Here’s a little taste to wet your appetite.