Monday, April 30, 2012

Woman in White 4: The Endening

Well, here we are, gang. Here we are.

What a book, and what a read-along. I hardly know what to say... so let's just work through my highlights.

(1) Mrs Catherick continues to be a cold hard slice of awesome. "My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody." Daaaaaamn. Hartright, like the annoying ninny he is, is "so disgusted... that I was on the point of tearing the letter" -- of course.

(2) Anyone else catch this?
For her sake, I wished to conceal it -- for her sake, still, I tell this story under feigned names.
Hm, tricky detail there Wilks! So the "hero" renames his lady love "Fairlie"? And calls himself "Hartright"? He would.

(3) The Count being a spy and the traitor of a secretive continental brotherhood (those crazy foreigners) was crazier than the gaslighting plot with Laura, and yet it was almost a little underwhelming. What I mean to say is, by this point in the book I guess I was willing to accept that there would be a soooper sekrit society involved, but it seemed a little sad to have the Count's fate handed off, by accident, into third party hands.

The opera-glass in the Count's hand, his careful reading of the bill, and his direction to the cabman, all suggested that he proposed making one of the audience.

(5) I think the Count writing his confession was possibly one of the most entertaining scenes of the book.
"Done, Mr. Hartright!" he announced with a self-renovating thump of his fist on his broad breast. "Done, to my own profound satisfaction—to YOUR profound astonishment, when you read what I have written. The subject is exhausted: the man—Fosco—is not. I proceed to the arrangement of my slips—to the revision of my slips—to the reading of my slips—addressed emphatically to your private ear. Four o'clock has just struck. Good! Arrangement, revision, reading, from four to five. Short snooze of restoration for myself from five to six. Final preparations from six to seven. Affair of agent and sealed letter from seven to eight. At eight, en route. Behold the programme!"

Really, the Count was in good form throughout this section. So fat, so evil.

(6) I thought Marian's being grossed out at the Count's slavish admiration of her was very well done. What an interesting dynamic -- of course he admires her and of course he'd make a big deal of it; and meanwhile, GROSS.

(7) I suppose there's some reason we're supposed to be surprised that little Walter (oy) has inherited Limmeridge? Although that is seriously no excuse for big Walter to be so shocked.

Oh my friends. What a wonderful read-along journey we've had. What an insane book we've discovered.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I will only be reading "like bricks" from now on

I'm supposed to be writing a one-page proposal so I can present a dissertation chapter at a seminar, but that doesn't seem to be happening, so I figured I could at least be useful and post something over here.

Doctor Thorne is another Trollope book, which I downloaded for freeee and therefore don't have a cover to show you. So here's some ladies from an 1858 fashion plate, which is the year the book was published! Yaaaay dresses.

PS, of course there's a Trollope Society. I like that literature people have all these Societies; it seems very convivial of them. It seems like the offline predecessor of liking things on Facebook. (Shhh, shhh, don't tell me about Serious Academic things, I don't want to hear it.)

Doctor Thorne is a delightful slice of Trollopey goodness. I would say there are two "current affairs" themes running through the book -- one is the evils of alcoholism. The second is the overly stringent laws against electoral fraud. You could probably describe that one as hostility toward the hypocrisy of politicians on the issue of electoral fraud, but no, I choose to take the man at his word.

The main plot of the book is a bit... un-plot-like. Mary Thorne is an illegitimate child being brought up by her uncle (the eponymous Doctor) in close company with the local squire's children; unsurprisingly, she and the heir (Frank Gresham) fall in love. He has to marry a rich woman in order to save his family's property which is entirely mortgaged, but is determined to have Mary despite his snobby mother waging a social war against the Thornes. Meanwhile, as only the Doctor is aware, the nouveau riche alcoholic who lent the money to the Greshams is actually Mary's uncle also, and his will is worded vaguely enough to leave the whole shebang to her. So you know, from maybe halfway in, that Mary stands to become that very rich woman whom Frank needs to marry. And so indeed she does and happily ever after. There are a handful of ways this conclusion could be screwed up, but really none of them even come close to happening. Which makes this only a nice novel, rather than a really good one.

But, c'mon, we're here not for genius plotlines; we're here for delightful wording and characterization! Did you know that "Trichy" is a nickname for Beatrice? Or that "read like bricks" means something like "put your nose to the grindstone? Love it! Little things like this:
It would not be right that I should say anything against your father to you; but it is impossible for any of us not to see that all through life he has thrown away every advantage, and sacrificed his family.
Of course there's a good clergyman character, even though he's very minor:
He delighted in lecterns and credence-tables, in services at dark hours of winter mornings when no one would attend, in high waistcoats and narrow white neckties, in chanted services and intoned prayers, and in all the paraphernalia of Anglican formalities which have given such offence to those of our brethren who live in daily fear of the scarlet lady.
It's interesting to note that in this book, it's the young unmarried men who are the problem; Frank, of course, urgently needs to marry money; the vicar above arrives set against marrying and the women set out to change this; and there is some fretting over the dissolute drunken son of Mary's alcoholic baronet uncle, who, various characters consider, really only needs a good wife. None of the women characters are worrying about being "on the shelf".

And then there is this; prepare to "awww":
     We are inclined to think that these matters are not always discussed by mortal lovers in the poetically passionate phraseology which is generally thought to be appropriate for their description. A man cannot well describe that which he has never seen nor heard; but the absolute words and acts of one such scene did once come to the author's knowledge. The couple were by no means plebeian, or below the proper standard of high bearing and high breeding; they were a handsome pair, living among educated people, sufficiently given to mental pursuits, and in every way what a pair of polite lovers ought to be. The all-important conversation passed in this wise. The site of the passionate scene was the sea-shore, on which they were walking, in autumn.
     Gentleman. "Well, Miss ––––, the long and short of it is this: here I am; you can take me or leave me."
     Lady—scratching a gutter on the sand with her parasol, so as to allow a little salt water to run out of one hole into another. "Of course, I know that's all nonsense."
     Gentleman. "Nonsense! By Jove, it isn't nonsense at all: come, Jane; here I am: come, at any rate you can say something."
     Lady. "Yes, I suppose I can say something."
     Gentleman. "Well, which is it to be; take me or leave me?"
     Lady—very slowly, and with a voice perhaps hardly articulate, carrying on, at the same time, her engineering works on a wider scale. "Well, I don't exactly want to leave you."
     And so the matter was settled: settled with much propriety and satisfaction; and both the lady and gentleman would have thought, had they ever thought about the matter at all, that this, the sweetest moment of their lives, had been graced by all the poetry by which such moments ought to be hallowed.

I haven't even mentioned what great characters Frank Gresham and Miss Dunstable are. With someone like Frank, Trollope has the ability to show you what a dope he is, even though his heart is in the right place. Miss Dunstable, on the other hand, is a woman with an enormous fortune from trade, who is well aware of the score and parries mercenary marriage proposals like a pro. I loved the detail about her wearing her hair in unflattering and unfashionable curls.

I gather that Miss Dunstable will be back in at least one of the next books in the series. THIS is why a series is awesome.

Sunday, April 22, 2012



As you can see, my gif-craft is severely behind the times
(1) Alice has already commented on the backwards geography in this book, specifically the North being friendly and homey while the South is sinister and hostile. Well, now we have added the East End of London being industrious, safe, and nonthreatening.

There! That's my intelligent comment done.

(2) Mr Fairlie's narrative is the best thing in the English language. Hyperbole? NO.
Let me do the girl justice. Her shoes did NOT creak. But why do Young Persons in service all perspire at the hands? Why have they all got fat noses and hard cheeks? And why are their faces so sadly unfinished, especially around the corners of the eyelids? I am not strong enough to think deeply myself on any subject, but I appeal to professional men, who are. Why have we no variety in our breed of Young Persons?

It was as I was reading this and thinking, hot damn, that I also thought how unfortunate it was that the book starts out with certified milquetoast Walter Hartright. And then I thought: what if that was on purpose. Remember (of course you do) how I thought that first section read like a parody of a Victorian novel? What if???

I don't think I'm prepared to give Wilkie credit for self-parody, but I will give him credit for hiding his immense talents more successfully than he hid his immense forehead. (Like Rick Astley, I will never give that up.)


(3) It is officially a Fiction Pet Peeve of mine when people are obviously drugged and don't realize it. So the maid drinks something, passes out, and when she wakes up the top-secret letter in her bodice is crumpled. That's not suspicious!

"Do you suppose there are any secrets going on here?" he broke out suddenly; "there are none--there is nothing underhand, nothing kept from you or from any one." After speaking those strange words loudly and sternly, he filled himself another glass of wine and asked Lady Glyde what she wanted of him.
That's not suspicious!

I looked carefully at the entry. It was at the bottom of a page, and was for want of room compressed into a smaller space than that occupied by the marriages above.... The register of the marriage of Sir Felix Glyde was in no respect remarkable except for the narrowness of the space into which it was compressed at the bottom of the page.
That's not suspicious! (I hope this turns out to be suspicious, or I'll be embarassed.)

(6) HOLY CRAP ON A STICK LAURA'S ALIVE! I love how the lawyer appeals to the inscription on the tombstone as proof that she's dead. "They carved it in stone, Mr Hartright! In stone! Case. Closed."

"Walter!" she whispered, "my own darling! my heart is heavy for you. Oh, my son! my son! try to remember that I am still left!"
This... is kind of a creepy, upsetting way to tell your son that his true love is dead, right?


I reached home on foot, taking the precaution, before I approached our own door, of walking round by the loneliest street in the neighborhood, and there stopping and looking back more than once over the open space behind me. I had first learnt to use this stratagem against suspected treachery in the wilds of Central America--and now I was practicing it again, with the same purpose and with even greater caution, in the heart of civilised London!
 Wait, so how does that work in the jungle?

Her drawings, as she finished them, or tried to finish them, were placed in my hands. Marian took them from me and hid them carefully, and I set aside a little weekly tribute from my earnings, to be offered to her as the price paid by strangers for the poor, faint, valueless sketches, of which I was the only purchaser.
Yeah, deception! That's worked so well in the past! Certainly no one in this book has been traumatized by being lied to! Meanwhile, Hartright is disgusted by the idea of wearing a disguise when he goes out.

Also, why does he give them to Marian to hide? Doesn't he live on a separate floor? Hartright, you're such an idiot.

(11) Mrs Catherick! What a badass.
"Your information would be more satisfactory if you were willing to explain how you became possessed of it. However, it justifies me, I suppose, in going into mourning. There is not much alteration necessary in my dress, as you see. When I have changed my mittens, I shall be all in black." She searched in the pocket of her gown, drew out a pair of black lace mittens, put them on with the stoniest and steadiest composure, and then quietly crossed her hands in her lap. "I wish you good morning," she said.
DAMN THAT'S COLD. Did you know mittens could be so heartless?

(12) I am so looking forward to finishing this book, not because I want it to be over but because I want to see what the Wilkster has for us. YEAH THE WILKSTER, WE ARE BROS NOW. Although, I can hardly imagine how the ending could live up to the rest of the story.

(13) I CANNOT EVEN talk to you about the MIND-BLOWING ENDING of this section (Sir Percival, the vestry; I know this sounds like a lie, but my jaw dropped). Once again, here we have some seriously rigorous standards for proving death: "No, I haven't actually ever met this man before but you need someone to identify the body? Sure! What the hell. I've got time." Do you think he's going to pull a Laura? Do you think this was orchestrated by the Count? Did Sir Percival not know about the copy of the register despite the chattiness of that dude? AHHHHHHH SEE YOU NEXT WEEK AHHHHHHHH.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Woman in White 2: The Whitening

Surely it was singularly considerate and unselfish of him to think of Anne Catherick on the eve of his marriage, and to go all the way to Todd's Corner to make inquiries about her, when he might have passed the time so much more agreeably in Laura's society?

(2) I tell you what, I've seen a lot of things coming in this book but I did not see Spider-Marian coming. She thinks she got away with it, but then she also didn't think there was anything weird about Count Fosco having his hand in the mailbag. So we'll see.

(3) I liked this bit:
None of her letters had prepared me for a personal change in her. On the contrary, they had led me to expect that her marriage had left her, in appearance at least, quite unaltered.
Dear Marian, I'm doing well but I must say I'm not nearly as pretty as I used to be. I've lost that freshness, that ever-remaining tenderness of beauty you used to enjoy about me. Maybe it's because I have to keep listening to people address me as "Lady Glyde" like I was some sort of dollar-store sexual aid. Or maybe it's my abusive asshole husband. Anyway, I'll be as ugly as you are soon, lolz.

(4) Do you like how Anne Catherick talks about Sir Percival's Secret with a capital 'S'? I do.

What could it beeeeeee??

(5) At some point as I was reading this, I thought, "Man, Jane Austen would be dead of laughter if she were reading this." The people in this book seem to go out of their way to be or make others miserable. Just as an example, take the issue of Marian going with her sister on her honeymoon. I grant that it's not normal now, but I was under the impression that it wasn't unheard of in the nineteenth century for the bride to bring a sister with her. Right? Am I making this up? It just didn't quite make sense that it would be treated as totally unrealistic, even if Sir Percival or Marian wanted to make the case that it wasn't appropriate under the circumstances, or even that it was now out of date, or something. Also: Hartright has joined a dangerous expedition into the heart of the jungle in order to forget his lady love. Hard. Core.

"I beg you on my knees to say no more, Miss Halcombe—I am truly shocked that you should have thought it necessary to say so much." With that polite speech he took my hand—oh, how I despise myself! oh, how little comfort there is even in knowing that I submitted to it for Laura's sake!—he took my hand and put it to his poisonous lips. Never did I know all my horror of him till then. That innocent familiarity turned my blood as if it had been the vilest insult that a man could offer me. Yet I hid my disgust from him—I tried to smile—I, who once mercilessly despised deceit in other women, was as false as the worst of them, as false as the Judas whose lips had touched my hand.
Oh, get over yourself Marian.

(7) I'm trying to think of a seventh thing to write.

(8) And failing.

(9) See you next week.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pull up a carpet sample and gather round

Boys and girls, I have a very special book to share with you today!

I've mentioned before, I think, my interest in the Bayeux Tapestry. Well, this is essentially a picture book for adults about the Bayeux Tapestry.

The author, Jan Messent, is an embroiderer, who discusses the tapestry (or "tapestry") as a piece of embroidery: she uses a close examination of the design to propose her theories about how it was created. She extrapolates from her own experience as a stitcher and from contemporary mentions of textile production to construct the whole story of the creation of the tapestry. It's precisely up my alley. The book itself is oversized, exactly like a picture book, and features whole-page drawings in full color, with handwritten text (the second half of the book consists of the text typewritten in slightly larger font on a white background, which is very considerate of those who might have difficulty reading the handwriting).

Messent points out that most writing about the Bayeux Tapestry is focused on the politics of the piece and on the men who commissioned and are depicted in it. In several places she is able to point out how understanding the embroidery process can help clear up discrepancies without a whole lot of complex theories. The culmination of the book is a stunning reconstruction of the missing eight feet -- yes, eight feet. I spent a lot of time peering at the photos before I turned the page and found that the publishers had provided close up photos (heh). A section of her reconstruction is pictured there on the cover.

One of the "problems" in understanding the production of the tapestry is that here you have conquered women embroidering the story of their menfolk's defeat, which tends to make the women seem sort of weak and/or disloyal. Messent argues that women of the time would have been able to acknowledge military prowess and victory without necessarily thinking the worse of their own men. I thought she could have stressed a little more the expertise and skill of large-scale narrative embroidery. She lays out the evidence that big wall-hangings like this were a fairly standard way of commemorating victory, like commissioning a statue or something. In that kind of environment, it seems like it wouldn't be all that strange, in the grand scheme of things, that the losing side would end up depicting their loss, especially given the limits of communication. (And weren't English women known throughout Europe for their embroidery? That must come later.) I thought, at any rate, that there was room to claim that perhaps, in that society, it would have been fairly unremarkable that Anglo-Saxon women, as skilled artisans, would be asked to depict the Norman conquest, rather than the big insult some male authors have apparently interpreted it as. I should probably stop there as this isn't my period by a long shot. I did think one of her most important observations was that many Anglo-Saxon noblewomen displaced by the invasion fled into convents, and very probably ended up pitching in on the tapestry. If you imagine nuns (used to producing commissioned needlework) working side-by-side with noblewomen (used to producing needlework for the glory of their own families), it helps to explode the simplistic question "how did the women feel about it?"

I thought there was a slight gap in the book in that there was very little discussion of the replicas that have been made of the tapestry. That's probably just me thinking in terms of a literature review, though.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Messent's book is that although she did go to see the original, she had no special access to it. In fact she researched the tapestry mostly through books; which I think really shows how far practical knowledge helps in something like this!

All told, this is probably one of the more satisfying books I've bought in a while. It's perfect for sitting cross-legged on the bed... with a cup of tea or hot chocolate... maybe a cookie? I felt like I ought to have a stuffed animal under each arm. Which is pretty high praise.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Woman in White: part one

It is nearly 11pm, my voice is nearly gone from all the hanging out with girlfriends this past week, and I just broke the ears off my chocolate rabbit. LET'S WRITE A POST FOR THE READALONG.

Here's the point at which I thought, oh, this is going to be fun.
When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has spoken before them.

How delightfully, absurdly Victorian is this novel? We've got goofy inferior foreigners, fainting weak-minded women, sulky servants, the works. I especially like how, apparently, it's totally normal to have some seduced woman write you an anonymous letter about your fiance's bad character. ("... the too common and too customary motive that has led many a woman to interpose anonymous hindrances to the marriage of the man who has ruined her." Also: "Things of this sort happen constantly in my experience. Anonymous letters-- unfortunate woman-- sad state of society.")

Speaking of which, "Sir Percival Glyde" is the most DISGUSTING name in the history of literature.

I suppose I should say something about the characters so far. I know Walter Hartright has told us a lot about himself but I don't feel like I know all that much about him (or at least he seems like kind of a dope). Laura Fairlie (oy, that name) is barely a character. I suppose we're meant to think she also fell for Hartright? although it's hard to tell; it could just be her superior virtue making her excessively embarrassed over the situation. I know some people will love Marian Halcombe (*coughAlicecough*) but the alignment of ugly, intelligent, and forward, man-like manners just makes me shake my head. Overall, I'm enjoying this novel as a spectator so far.

I should probably write more, but I'm fresh out of chocolate rabbit.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Here's a very literary post

I don't read Elle in the US, but I've bought two copies of the UK edition this week alone. (I would explain, but such behavior is obviously inexplicable.) Anyway, UK Elle has a page where they ask some famous person about their favorite books. And so here are some words of wisdom from Vivienne Westwood:

The Gods will have Blood - Anatole France
I couldn't put this book about the French Revolution down. It's about a young man who started with good motives, but became corrupted by extremism. I've given this book to people and they tell me they can't get through it. Sometimes books are difficult, but you should carry on because the more you read, the more familiar you become with other ideas. It's about being what I call a 'fit reader' -- you have to push yourself and eventually you'll come to understand it.
Very sensible.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Woman in White: All the cool kids are reading it

It's another fabulous Reading Rambo Read-along! And it starts today! RIGHT NOW, IT IS STARTING.

Alice suggests we all post today about "what you think of Wilkie Collins, have you read any of his other works, how giant his forehead is and how that makes you feel, etc."

Here is the extent of what I think about Wilkie Collins: Wilkie Collins is a dude? Who am I thinking of then? Oh, Willa Cather, that's who.

Off to a good start then
Armed with this new knowledge, my next thought was "what the heck kind of a name is 'Wilkie'?" Sadly, it does not appear to be short for anything ridiculous; it's just a family surname used as a middle name. "William Wilkie Collins" is a little disappointing when you spend your time reading memos written by people with names like "Sir Folliott Sandford".* I think my real objection is that it's not William 'Wilkie' Collins. Wilkie would be a better nickname if it were actually a nickname instead of part of his legal name. But that's really points against his parents rather than himself.

You'll notice there that Alice mentions his big forehead.

Except that it's floating, his head seems normal enough.
Maybe Alice is just being mean for no reason...
Right so, I think we've gotten this off to a good start here! Classic literature, here we come!

*What Wiki doesn't tell you is that Sir Folliot could write some very sharply-worded memos when he wanted to.