North and South—a strong young woman in a time of change

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Published 1855

Read June 2021

This reader began listening to North and South immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice.  This reader, like many others, found a number of similarities between the books as well as some contrasts.

The protagonist is again a young woman.  We initially meet nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale on her cousin’s wedding day.  Margaret has been living in London with her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy mother for the past ten years.   Once her cousin marries, Margaret returns to her parents’ simpler home in the southern village of Helstone.  There her cousin’s brother-in-law, Henry, an up-and-coming barrister, visits her.  They had enjoyed conversations while in London at the many social events.  Henry proposes marriage and is rejected by Margaret who indicates they are only friends and she couldn’t imagine feelings beyond that.  Shortly after his event, her father, the pastor of the local Church of England, decides to leave his position as a matter of conscience.  Further, with the help of his old friend, Mr. Bell, he has decided to move to a city in the north, Milton, and make a living as a tutor.  He informs Margaret and asks her to tell her mother, knowing his wife will be distressed. 

Thus begins the real story of this book.  Margaret helps her father find a small house to rent and outfits it as best as she can before her mother arrives.  She begins interacting with various residents of the town which has several textile mills that are the major source of employment for the town.  Margaret meets Bessie, a girl about her age, who is very sickly.  Margaret eventually learns that her illness was caused by breathing in cotton dust while she worked at the mill. She also gets to know Bessie’s father, Mr. Higgins, who works at the mills and is a drinker. One of her father’s students is Mr. Thorton, an owner of one of the mills.  We learn that his schooling had been truncated when his alcoholic father died and he had to work to help pay the bills.  He has since then become a successful businessman himself and is spending some time with Mr. Hale to catch up on classical literature he didn’t study when he would ordinarily have. 

As in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is generally prejudiced against Mr. Thorton, this time due to being an industrialist vs a gentleman.  This corresponds to her general prejudice against the whole concept of the industrial north and she longs for her days in the south and the culture of the gentry.  Her mother shares her prejudice and can’t adjust to being in this town.  It’s implied that the environment is dark—air and water pollution?  It’s not clear.  At any rate her mother falls sick – likely a cancer irrelevant to the town–and dies.  She extracts a promise from an unwilling Mrs. Thorton (Mr. Thorton’s mother) that Mrs. Thorton will provide Margaret moral guidance if needed. 

Mrs. Thorton is quite concerned that Margaret wants to marry her son.  During a visit to Mrs. Thorton at their home, which is on the textile mill campus, strikers charge the house.  Margaret steps out on the porch and tries to calm the crowd (and is effective).   Mrs. Thorton is convinced this act was out of love for her son.  But (of course) Margaret has absolutely no interest in marrying Mr. Thorton and is only interested in the welfare of the workers and didn’t want to see them beaten up by the army that was on the way to break up the crowd.

Without revealing more of the plot, there is a misunderstanding that causes Mr. Thorton to protect Margaret from a lie she told.  She is mortified that he knows about this lie and hopes that it can be cleared up.  Mr. Bell, whom she asks for help in this matter, dies before he completes this task.

Pride and Prejudice, which was also contemporary to its publication, is set about 40 years earlier.  Both authors point out that women had few rights and limited opportunities to make their own way, especially if they are of the “gentlewoman” class.  “Service” is open to working women and, in the North, factory work is available.  However, that proved deadly for many, including Bessie.   After the death of her father, Margaret has no obvious option but to return to her wealthy aunt’s house.  There she has far fewer freedoms than she did either in her beloved village of Helstone or in Milton.  In these two places she was free to walk about, interact with her neighbors and other area residents.  In London, however, she must have her aunt’s permission to leave the house and must be accompanied by someone suitable. 

In this book, Elizabeth Gaskell also highlights the changes occurring in the country.  The South is still a land of land-owning gentry and the farmers that work the master’s land and who are afforded compensation for it.  The shopkeepers and merchants and even the lawyers and businessmen are recognized as essential but are generally outside the “gentleman” crowd.  (Though since only one son inherits the estate, the other sons generally have to go into some kind of occupation to make a living!).  The North is now populated with textile mills and other factories.  The master is now the factory owner and clearly not of the “gentleman” crowd, Mr. Thorton being an example as someone who has raised himself up from a very poor existence to that of master.  The relationship between worker and master in the North is also very different from tenant and master in the South.  The author highlights this with the strike and the willingness of Mr. Thorton and his peers to bring in Irish workers to replace their former employees to meet their contracts when the workers go on strike.  Margaret’s interactions with both the workers and Mr. Thorton help her understand the chasm between them and she seeks to heal it.  She convinces Mr. Higgins, a loyal union member, to ask Mr. Thorton directly for work in his factory.  His perseverance motivates Mr. Thorton to hire him which sets the stage for a different relationship between them.

Mr. Thorton in this book and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice love the respective protagonists and seek to win their love.  Mr. Darcy’s actions to repair damage he caused Elizabeth’s older sister and to save her younger sister from her reckless behavior demonstrated selflessness that won Elizabeth’s heart.  Mr. Thorton protects Margaret from a lie she told and is generally resigned to life without Margaret but that alone does not win her love but rather causes her embarrassment to be around him.  When his financial situation changes, and he seeks employment as a supervisor (vs master), his willingness to work with those he would supervise nullifies Margaret’s prejudices. 

Both novels have much to draw a female audience.  North and South’s focus on the industrial situation may have drawn male audiences as well.  It is interesting to note that North and South was first published as a serial in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1854 and 1855 at the same time that a his Hard Times was being similarly serially published in this journal.  Dickens required this title for the work over Gaskell’s preference of “Margaret Hale” or “Death and Variations”.  North and South was published in book form in two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters each and differed from the serialized version in several ways  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_and_South_(Gaskell_novel); July 18, 2021)

Both Austen and Gaskell have provided readers for over a century two interesting, strong women characters whose personal stories have and will engage readers indefinitely.  Their books showed women possible ways of being/thinking that weren’t “standard” at the time and as well provided some commentary on the impact of “standard” thinking on society in general.  These are classics that have been and will be read and produced in multiple formats well into the future. 

Pride and Prejudice–an appropriately beloved classic

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen

Published 1813

Read June 2021

The June 2021 reading of the book was the first for this reader.  The general story was well known to her based on having watched, multiple times, the 2005 Kierra Knightley movie based on the book.  This reader listened to the 2015 Audible production read by Rosamund Pike, a British actress and narrator, who played Jane Bennet in that 2005 movie production of the book.   

The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet is the second oldest daughter of five.   Her father’s estate is entailed so will pass to a male cousin, Mr. William Collins upon his death since the Bennet’s did not have a son.  As Mrs. Bennet has no income from an inheritance of her own, she and the daughters will be destitute upon the death of Mr. Bennet so it is very important that at least one of the daughters marries into a monied state and can support at least the mother if not them all.  However, the daughters, having had a “liberal” upbringing, are more inclined to marry “for love”. The daughters aren’t as well prepared to marry “up” as they could have been had they spent more time on literary and musical education.  Only Mary seems to be interested in showing off her (limited) musical capabilities.  She doesn’t have the beauty of her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth nor Jane’s sweet demeanor so she’s searching for some foot forward.  Younger daughters Kitty and Lydia are silly and enjoy flirting.  The consequences of their “liberal” upbringing come to bear when Lydia’s flirtations take a step beyond.

The arrival of Mr. Bingley, a wealthy young man, to the neighborhood begins the reader’s introduction to the manners, rites, and rituals of England in 1812.  Jane Austen’s opening two lines of the book are quite telling: 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

Mr Darcy accompanies this single mand and his friend Mr Bringley to a dance and Miss Austen begins her tale of how the  unfortunate first impressions (the draft title of the book) of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy slowly evolve and are overcome.  While the Kierra Knightley movie captured the primary story quite well and used Austen’s dialogue quite often, the limitation of 90 or so minutes in cinematic format leaves out much of the detail that the book covers.  There are quite a few characters that drive various aspects of the plot and we learn about each of them to some extent.

While all of the characters are gentlemen and ladies, there are substantial differences between them driven by the source and extent of their wealth.  Mr. Bennet’s income is sufficient to maintain a household of five daughters but his wife needs to stretch the income to cover their expenses and she frets about their future when Mr. Collins will inherit the estate.  Mr. Bingley rents, vs owns, an estate, but has a substantial income from some undefined source. George Wickam, the son of the steward of Mr. Darcy’s late father and who has obtained a position of officer in the militia decries Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth that he has been denied the income of a clergyman by Mr. Darcy’s doings.  Mr. Collins has obtained a position of clergyman and has sponsorship from Mr. Darcy’s wealthy aunt.  Mr. Darcy makes quite clear to Elizabeth Bennet in his offer of marriage (which is denied) that, while she may be a gentleman’s daughter, her economic and social standing is quite different than his (her being lower) and their marriage will cause some stir in his social circle.   His aunt seeks to warn Elizabeth away from her nephew as she is totally unacceptable as a potential wife.  But, of course, love wins out in the end. 

This reader now understands why this book has remained a beloved classic.  This reader was much more delighted than she anticipated she would be to spend 11.5 hours with the multiple characters in this book.  Previous encounters with Austen books (all driven by the reader’s book discussion group) were almost painful for this reader—the language of the time, the incessant focus on the amount of income of potential suitors and the corresponding prejudice against those who actually work for a living, etc.  However, the last book read before this one, via audiobook, showed that Austen could be enjoyable in the audiobook format.  Such was the case with this book.  While the text seems quite formal, it is quite witty and often quite humorous as the characters of different strata within the class of gentlemen and ladies seek to find their way through the myriad of manners, rites, and rituals of the time.  Austen’s sly commentary about the “classes with a class” situation is available to the reader in addition to the enchanting Elizabeth/Mr Darcy love story.  Well done Miss Austen.  My “prejudice” against her has been vanquished. 

My Cousin Rachel—an unusual mystery

My Cousin Rachel

By Daphne du Maurier

Published 1951

Read May 2021

This reader much enjoyed the mystery/suspense of de Maurier’s Rebecca and hoped this book would be similarly engaging.  This reader listened to an Audible production of the book and her level of engagement is demonstrated by this reader’s determination to find occasions to continue listening.  In addition to listening in the car and while jogging, there were additional walks, lots of closet cleaning and other general tidying.  Bottom line—it was hard to turn the kindle off.

The story is set in approximately 1830 with all the societal customs of the landed gentry of Cornwall.  Philip Ashley is the nephew of bachelor Ambrose Ashley.  Ambrose owns a large estate on the Cornish coast.  Philip’s parents died when he was three and his uncle raised him.  The nanny was released from service after a very short time so Philip has grown up with limited interaction with women save the daughter of his godfather who was widowed when his daughter was young. 

After Philip graduates from college and begins working with his uncle in earnest on the estate, the uncle starts spending his winters in warmer, drier climates for health reasons.  One winter he stays in Florence to visit its gardens and collect plants for his Cornish estate.  He meets a distant cousin of his, Rachel, who was raised in Italy and is now widowed.  Letters from Ambrose to Philip describe Cousin Rachel in flattering terms.  But very surprising and suddenly his letters indicate that Ambrose, the committed to bachelorhood uncle, has married and will be staying in Florence for the summer as there are a number of business issues to address.  When the letters become increasingly infrequent and suggest Ambrose is sick, Philip goes to Florence only to learn that his uncle has recently died and has been buried and Cousin Rachel has left her estate.  Did Uncle Ambrose die of a brain tumor as Ambrose’s father did?  Philip returns to England and learns from his godfather, who was Ambrose’s lawyer and is now Philip’s guardian, that Ambrose did not rewrite his will after his marriage and that Philip has inherited everything with nothing going to his widow.  The will also stipulates that Philip’s guardian is in control of the inheritance until Philip’s twenty-fifth birthday which is in about ten months.   Cousin Rachel journeys to England and sends a letter that she has Ambrose’s clothes and books and would like to return them.  Philip invites her to the estate and she arrives.   He is prepared to dislike and distrust Cousin Rachel based on the letters from his uncle, from his conversation with Cousin Rachel’s lawyer in Florence, and from his own knowledge that Ambrose had been such a “true bachelor”.

Thus begins the story of Cousin Rachel and Philip.   The story is told by Phillip.  In the first chapter he is looking back at an experience when he was just seven and people convicted of murder were hung on fence posts for all to see and for slow disposal by birds, beasts, and nature.  He gives us a hint of the story and wonders if Rachel was innocent or guilty and implies that he might be guilty of something himself.   What follows is Philip’s narration of the arrival of Cousin Rachel, development of their relationship, a series of decisions by Phillip made as his view of Cousin Rachel evolves from suspicion to total bewitchment, infatuation, and beyond, and the consequences of those decisions.  We see Cousin Rachel only through the eyes of this twenty-four-year-old who is clearly not yet an adult and who is quite good prey for a money-hungry thirty-five-year-old widow with expensive tastes, if that’s who she is.  Phillip certainly doesn’t see her that way, at least at first, but his suspicions are aroused again by another letter that is found in some of Ambrose’s clothes.

A triumph of du Maurier’s writing is that the answer to Phillip’s question of Cousin Rachel’s guilt or innocence is never answered. Another triumph is that we get the story of a highly intelligent and beautiful woman who is continuing to make her own way through a complicated life by means of her beauty, wits, and wiles in the absence of any other paths for women of her class in this society.  As well she gives us the story of a young man who has been raised to be another Ambrose Ashley, a bachelor and well-respected estate owner.  Perhaps du Maurier is showing us to what such a plan leads with the joke being on the actually guileless master–a reverse on a more usual romance story.  This is a superbly well written and engaging read!  

Brave New World—still very relevant

Brave New World

By Aldous Huxley

Published 1932

Read Feb 2021

Unlike many others, this reader didn’t read this book in high school or college but rather this reader’s first reading of this book is as a retired person who spent decades in a life science business.  

The first part of the book was riveting for this reader.  The development and utilization of biochemical and biological techniques to drive different levels of intelligence and to generate multiple copies of the same clone is discussed by the Director to a group of new students.  He then shows them the psychological conditioning techniques being used, some during sleep and some using rather harsh approaches, to influence ways of thinking, preferences, and aversions.  The only possible give-away that this wasn’t written in 2020 is the need to use only red-light on embryos of a certain age as they can’t withstand other types of light—as, the book indicates,  is the case with photographic film. 

We eventually meet Bernard Marx, an A+(levels given grades A through F indicating level of intelligence)  who has helped develop the sleep conditioning techniques.  His intellect is A+ level but he’s shorter than most and some of his thinking isn’t fully aligned with the World State’s policies. His colleagues suggest these defects are due to unplanned exposure to ethanol during this development.  He wishes to date Lenina, a B-level woman.  She’s been exclusively dating someone, which is not within policy, and her roommate has counseled her to stop doing this and adhere to the policy that “we all belong to everyone” and spread herself around a little more.  So she accepts Bernard’s invitation for a date which isn’t entirely satisfactory for either but that doesn’t preclude them from deciding to go on a holiday together.  Interestingly, all the male level A/A+ characters are interested in dating only level B/B+ women…. 

Their holiday to the Savage Land in Arizona and the direction that takes the plot provides a new set of characters and enables the author’s ability to dive deeply into the consideration of the World State’s set of policies regarding fidelity (no need—everyone belongs to everyone), parenthood (no longer considered useful but actually damaging to development of citizens), leisure (the best part of life but only so much time can be spent here so that people don’t think too much), finding bliss through soma, a potent drug readily available (why not?), happiness (it is better to be happy because of lies than be unhappy), literature (no need for it—books banished because they cause people to think too much), aging (no longer relevant—biology has done away with that).  Even the scientific questions considered are limited in the New World order so that the equilibrium of the current society isn’t disrupted. 

Brave New World came out in 1932 when the relevancy of the innovation of Ford’s Model T and Ford’s production line technology was much more apparent than it might be today.  The references to Mr. T and the “sign of the T” will likely become lost on readers less familiar with Henry Ford, his impact on manufacturing, and the Model T.  The “sexual revolution” happened between the book’s publication and today so the concept of sex outside of marriage and outside of any kind of commitment is taken as a matter of course now, a very different situation than when the book was published.  However, today’s society views regarding parenthood and the role of fathers in raising children are very different than when the book was published—-much higher expectations for deep physical and emotional involvement vs only bringing home a paycheck. 

Regardless of the differences in the views on society brought by readers today vs the readers when the book was first published, the questions the book raises regarding engineering people biologically and psychologically remain very relevant and perhaps even more so now.   In-vitro fertilization has certainly become a reality although driven by the parents of the to-be child and not The Director.   However, who owns the un-implanted embryos is a question that remains incompletely settled.   CRISPER technology has the potential for changing a person and has been used to create a set of twins that lack a receptor required for infection by HIV.  The question(s) of whether and how to use this technology is only in its infancy.  Who has the right to decide these questions?  Is it a right of all or in one or few based on their power and authority.. 

Brave New World doesn’t describe the road society travelled to reach the Brave New World state but rather it focuses on the state that’s been created.  This reader anticipates the author chose the Bernard Marx character and his story of wrestling with the Brave New World state and his place in it to provide the reader some hope that we don’t need to take the same course.  However we do need to think about how we decide what path(s) society takes as technologies are created and developed that could alter our course significantly.

This reader applauds high schools and colleges that include this book in their curriculum.  However, this reader also recommends that adults of all ages should read or re-read this book as well since they are the ones in positions of decision making that should be informed by thinking about these critical topics now. 

The End of the Affair–Greene Classic

The End of the Affair

By Graham Greene

Published 1951

Read Oct 2020

Many of Greene’s works have been adapted for film and this book is no exception. This story, set in London during and after WWI, was adapted as a movie twice:  one film was released  in 1955 and one in 1999.  An opera based on the book premiered in 2004. 

We meet our protagonist and narrator, Maurice Bendix, about two years after the end of his affair with Sarah, the wife of a civil servant.   He recounts the story:   Maurice had been interested in writing a story about an administrator in the government so met Sarah and her husband, Henry.  Maurice and Sarah carried on a passionate affair that lasts about two years.  Bendix tells us he knew the affair was coming to an end, driven in part by his jealousy, but he did not expect the abruptness of the ending which occurred after his house was damaged by a bomb in 1944 and he was nearly killed. 

The story now moves forward:  Maurice remains angry with the ending of the affair.   He encounters Sarah’s husband, Henry, on the square on which both of their residences lie.  Over drinks, Henry takes Maurice into his confidence that he thinks Sarah may be having an affair.  Maurice privately hires a detective without Henry’s knowledge to determine the identity of this new lover to appease his own jealousy.

The detective obtains Sarah’s diary which explains the end of the affair and her new love interest. The second half of the book relates Maurice’s handling of this information and the events that follow.

Greene converted to Cat holism at age 24 and several of his books have strong Catholic themes.  This is the fourth of those novels.  In this one, the characters struggle with the question of believing in God, a struggle Greene also shared prior to his conversion and again later in life.

Greene was both a “popular” and “literary” author.  Greene’s literary talents are well displayed in this book.  Making the main character and narrator a writer is especially interesting as he relates Maurice’s approach to his work and the challenges he faces in his writing while being in mourning for the affair and while he struggles with questions of faith.  This novel demonstrates Greene’s ability to weave a classically interesting tale of an affair with philosophical questions that remain impossible to completely answer and to keep both topics fresh despite the passing of nearly seventy years since the book’s original publication. 

South Pacific: It’s About the Waiting

Tales of the South Pacific

By James A. Michener

Published 1947

Read Oct 2020

Although this reader had never actually seen a stage or film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, three songs jumped into her brain immediately when this book was selected as a book for this reader’s book discussion group:  “Some Enchanted Evening”, “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, and “Bali-ha”.  This reader is happy to report this book is quite engaging and serious and not at all what this reader was expecting from the familiar songs—a light romantic comedy. 

When first released (the book in 1947 and musical in 1950), memories of World War II remained fresh in readers and viewers minds.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.   The musical was adapted for the screen twice:  for the big screen in 1958 (the film was a blockbuster) and for TV in 2001.   What accounts for this appeal in the late 40’s and 50’s and what accounts for the familiarity for even this generation?

James Michener was 40 when he enlisted in the US Navy.  He was sent to the South Pacific. He earned the rank of lieutenant commander and had various assignments.  He began compiling his observations about his experiences during that time.  Michener begins his book “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific.  The way it actually was.  The endless ocean.  The infinite specks of coral we called islands.  …. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting.  The waiting.  The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene.” 

 Michener’s book (his first of over 40) is a collection of related short stories told, after the introductory piece, in approximate chronological order.  Each chapter is a complete story in itself and characters from one story carry into other stories.  While the stories can be read individually, knowledge of previous stories provides more depth of understanding of aspects of the story at hand.   The author makes clear who is narrating in each story.  Most of the stories are narrated by an officer who completes a range of assignments supporting various commanding officers.   In each case, the reader feels as though the narrator is speaking directly to him/her.

The stories are about the people who serve on the islands on which equipment and supplies were landed to support various campaigns and where airplanes and PT boats landed and were repaired.  They are about the US Seabees who build the beaches on which the Marines and Sailors land to take control of the island and the airstrips that are used by US Navy airplanes of all sizes that fulfill various purposes:  bombers, dogfighters, scouting, etc. They are about the officers who have a variety of roles including supply officers, doctors, nurses pilots, communications officers, and recreation officers (this one focused on enabling “the waiting” to be bearable).  They are about the men who sweat in the hot humid climate and try to stay sane while waiting for the call to action.  They are about the coast watchers who provide the Navy vital information regarding the movement of their Japanese enemies.  They are about the nurses who are officers but who generally have backgrounds more like the enlisted men, with whom they are forbidden to socialize, than with the male officers.  They are about the officers that engage their men to build an airstrip in the middle of a jungle in 15 days and they are about the officers that disengage their men through arbitrariness and disinterest in their needs.  They are about the French plantation owners and their native and Tonkinese (North Vietnamese) workers that live on the islands.  They are about the entrepreneurial Tonkinese who gladly sell the sailors and marines what they need across a wide range of goods and services.  There several love stories, two which are a large focus of the musical. (The three unforgettable songs that are in this reader’s brain are related to these love stories.) The stories confront prejudices borne by the Americans regarding the various people living on the islands.   (The musical confronted this issue directly as well.)  The stories are stitched together by the recurring characters and how their experiences impact them.  The stories lead from the pronouncement of a group of admirals to take a particular island through the development of Plan Alligator to the strike on the targeted island and the aftermath of that battle.

Although not written as historical fiction, it serves as such to those reading it in 2020.  An indicator of good historical fiction, according to this reader, is that the reader is motivated to learn more about the subject.  Michener’s book had that effect on this reader.  Michener’s book provides the human face to that part of the war and gives it life that “regular” history books and TV programs using film from the time don’t provide.  This reader has a new appreciation both for the magnitude of the undertaking of the war in the South Pacific and the lives of the peoples involved.  And those songs will remain firmly embedded in her brain.

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

Published 1905

Read Nov 2019

We meet Lily Bart as a 29 year old single woman.  She has no siblings.  We learn that shortly before her father’s death he revealed to his family that they had been living beyond their means for some time and they were essentially broke.  After his death, Lily and her mother had managed to keep up appearances as Lily had only recently “come out”.  After her mother died about two years after her father, her father’s sister agreed to take her in for a year, a situation which she extended indefinitely.  The aunt provides Lily an irregular clothing allowance and a place to live with the usual amenities the upper class address.   Now 11 years after coming out, Lily remains unmarried. In addition to the irregular clothing allowance, she has only a very small income to cover her other personal expenses which causes her difficulties as she attempts to “keep up with the Jones” which includes playing bridge for high dollar stakes.  She knows her only solution is to marry someone with sufficient capital and income to support her lifestyle.  But herein lies the issue.  She would also really prefer to marry someone interesting and that she loves (or at least could come to really love vs just tolerate).  

When we meet Lily she has a two hour wait for her train to Bellomont where she will be spending the weekend with her friends Gus and Judy Trenor.  She runs into Lawrence Seldon who is quite willing to entertain her at a teashop during her wait.  While walking in his neighborhood he invites her, on a whim, to his apartment in a bachelor apartment house for that tea and she accepts.  They spend a enjoyable time together.  She indicates she can talk freely to him as he isn’t someone she would consider marrying (insufficient funds).  She laments her situation as a marriageable girl—the restrictions and expectations.  On leaving the apartment house on her way to the train, she encounters Mr. Rosedale and lies about why she was at that address which he knows is a lie.  This is the first of several missteps Lily takes in the course of this story.  The second mistake is to lose the possibility of engagement to Mr. Percy Gryce, a wealthy but dull and conservative man.  She chose to spend Sunday afternoon with Seldon after dodging the church service Mr. Percy Gryce was attending.  This act, in addition to learning that Lily gambled at cards, prompts Mr. Percy Gryce to leave Bellomont early, without an engagement to Lily Bart.

Through the rest of Book 1 we see Lily make several more missteps as she attempts to fund her gambling debts and live the more generous and glamourous life she prefers.   In Book 2, we see Lily bear the consequences of her missteps and the solutions she attempts to repair her situation.  Her aunt dies and leaves her only a small inheritance so she loses her address and residence.  She is innocent of deeds she’s rumored to have committed.  She has no protector or councilor.  But Lily retains her principles and writes her own terms within the narrow confines available to her.  She remains loyal to her friends even when they are not loyal to her. 

Like Tess d’Uberville, Lily is alone and must clothe, house, and feed herself.   Like Tess, the man she loves turns away from her.  Like Tess, society’s expectations and restrictions regarding her gender are limiting and unfair.  Like Tess, she is principled and works to manage through the increasing number of obstacles in her path.  This reader became a fan of both Tess and Lily. 

The Woman in White

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Published serially in Charles Dicken’s magazine “All the Year Round” 1859-1860; in book form in 1860

Read Dec 2019

The Woman in White has had a long history, being first published serially in 1859-1860 and being adapted multiple times for theater (starting in 1860), in film (starting in 1912 and as recently as 1982), TV mini-series in multiple languages (starting in 1971 and as recently as 2018).  It brought commercial success to Collins if not critical success at publication.  It made the “the top 100 greatest novels of all time” list compiled by Robert McCrum for the Observer in 2003. 

What has made this novel so engaging for all this time?  The story includes love, deceit, thrills, mystery, intrigue, and a virtuous approach to revenge.  It is set in a time and place when marriages are arranged by parents, are necessary to provide financial security for women, but in which married women have a very unequal position in the marriage. 

Collins uses a structural device he used again in The Moonstone:  portions of the story told by different narrators, each being a primary witness to the material they provide.  Walter Hartright, a young teacher of drawing and of limited means, compiles the story which he has been driven to reveal in his quest to restore the stolen identity  of the woman he loves but could not marry due to social standing issues and prior planned engagement arranged by his love’s father.  This approach provides not only “reliable narrators” (and “real evidence” for Hartright’s case), but also a chance for the reader to engage directly with, become familiar with, and to form an opinion regarding each narrator, most of whom are essential characters in the story. 

The serially published novel was a huge hit for Dicken’s magazine.  Collins is adept at creating many engaging and interesting installments for a serial, each keeping the reader looking for the next issue, which nicely publish as a (very) long novel.   This was an enjoyable read via audiobook (25 hours at 1.25 speed) for this reader while cooking, cleaning, gardening, driving, etc.  This reader anticipates it would may have been somewhat tedious at times to read “via eyes” given the language and intensely detailed descriptions, but this reader agrees with McCrum that it’s a very worthy read.

War and War and Tolstoy

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1865-1867; in book form 1869

Read May-July 2019

I listened to the 2007 Naxos AudioBooks version of the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, read by Neville Jason, while referring to the Kindle version of the 1942 Oxford University Press Inner Sanctum Edition of the same translation.   The hardcopy of the Inner Sanctum Edition included a 12 page leaflet providing maps, a list of characters, both arranged in order of their appearance and in family groups, and a list of dates of principal historical events; this material was also included in the published hardcopy.   This edition also included Aylmer Maude’s preface, a brief biography of Tolstoy, and an introduction written by Clifton Fadiman which comments on the parallel between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s invasion in 1941-42.   While the Kindle version doesn’t include the leaflet, it does include all other aspects of the Inner Sanctum Edition and is certainly easier to transport and store than the original hardcopy version. 

Neville Jason’s reading is fabulous. His reading allowed very easy assimilation of the various forms of the names of the numerous characters.  As the book progresses, and in the entire Epilogue Two, Tolstoy gives the reader various, sometimes lengthy, philosophical essays on his views of particular battles, the overall war with respect to causes of initiation, progression, and ending, Napoleon and Alexander, the documentation of war in history books, and the art of writing history itself, among others.  This reader anticipates these essays could have felt a bit tedious when reading “via eyes” but Neville Jason’s reading enabled this reader’s full engagement and a sense of Tolstoy earnestly speaking directly to this reader. 

Apparently Tolstoy chose the title “War and Peace” to replace the title (“1805”) originally used as the work was published serially.  Certainly the full work covers the period extending to 1820, with focus  on the Napoleonic-Russian War of 1805 and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 so “1805” was an insufficient title.  The discussion of Peace is limited, however, unless he uses this term to cover the fictional story of five Russian families and numerous minor characters.  Or perhaps he used the term “Peace” to describe the period before the involvement of Russia in the 1805 war and the period between that war and Napoleon’s invasion.  In any case, he doesn’t overtly discuss “Peace” but he certainly discusses “War” as noted above. 

The book created controversy when it was published as the critics and public found it difficult to classify the book—not history, not a “normal” novel.  This reader sees the book as a form of historical fiction.  There are many (apparently some 160) real persons in the book, some only referenced and others actively involved in the story.  Tolstoy provides five fictional Russian families and numerous minor characters to engage the reader with a sense of the society of the time, to provide multiple stories of potential marriage matches, and to provide characters’ experiences in entering the service, in battle, and in the service of the army.  But unlike “normal” historical fiction, Tolstoy weighs in often with his personal take on various topics as noted above.

This reader invested unusually heavily in this book, purchasing both the two volumes of audiobook and the Kindle book.  The other investment, which seemed somewhat daunting at the beginning, was that the audiobook version requires 62 hours of listening.  But now that this reader is finished with listening, this reader frankly misses Neville Jason’s voice describing the various trials and tribulations of the five Russian families (which won’t be divulged here as you will want to discover yourselves) and providing this reader Tolstoy’s view on the various topics previously mentioned.  The only disappointment was in Epilogue 1 when Tolstoy’s view was divulged of the only purpose of women (to be married and raise children).  But this reader must give him a small pass here as this vast saga of families and the course of Russian history is so completely engaging.  This reader did utilize some other sources to comprehend better aspects of Russian and Napoleonic history that may have been familiar to his earliest readers.  Since this reader’s primary identity is “learner”, this book delivered well more than 62 hours of learning.  The Kindle version indicates average reading time of 32 hours.  This reader fully recommend investing savoring this book; Neville Jason’s version is time very well spent.

Anna K, Audiobooks, and Discussion

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1873-1877

Published in book form 1878

Read 2014

This reader is publishing this essay on a book read several years ago because it was a great example for this reader about the experience of listening to the book vs reading “with your eyes”.  Tolstoy’s “first novel” and very great work is a large one—850+ pages or so.  Dispersed within the story of two marriages—the crumbling of Anna/Alexey Karenin’s marriage and creation and maturation of Kostya Levin/Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage—Tolstoy has long extensive sections on hunting, harvesting grain, serfdom, political discussions at a dinner party, sending soldiers to a war of unclear purpose, and several others.  This reader may have struggled through these sections if reading the hardcopy (or Kindle!) version of the novel, but was enriched by them when they were being read by a good reader and the reader was walking, exercising, driving, gardening, cleaning, or many other types of activities that allowed concentration on both the book and the task.  I heartily recommend this form of reading to enable immersion in books. 

Tolstoy provides an interesting look at Russian society shortly before the freeing of the serfs, with particular emphasis on the arrangement and state of marriage in upper society with respect to the public and personal expectations of marriage.  Anna is in an arranged marriage that “saves” her from a situation of no wealth and no obvious family with which to live.  However the marriage is not personally fulfilling to her, and perhaps not to her husband.  While perfectly acceptable to have discreet affairs to “fill the gap” of an unsatisfying marriage, Anna chooses a different path with her Vronsky.  Tolstoy uses this story to develop his thesis that an eternal error men makes is in “imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires”.  However, the maturation of Kostya Levin and Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage may contradict this thesis.  However they chose their marriage following a courtship focused on love (as possible within the constraints of society) and live in the country, generally unblemished by the trends and pressures of society.

Obviously there is much Tolstoy covers in 850+ pages which is not discussed here.  Listen to the book to find out the rest.  One last remark, however, regards the volume of books published while Anna and Vronsky are exiled to his country estate and the volume of books published now.  Anna and Vronsky read essentially everything that was being published at the time in French or Russian—history, science, fiction, poetry, etc.  It would be impossible to read even a small percentage of everything published now even when a person’s life is devoted to nothing but reading.  This reader benefits from book clubs which provide a great selection of books for the discussion season—either by the learned facilitator compiling the list for the season (and one providing “off-season suggestions) or through suggestions from well-read members which is winnowed down to a list for the season.  Usually the lists contain books this reader would never otherwise read but are enriching in usually many ways. 

Bottom lines:  1) Engage with audiobooks to expand your reading experience (and probably your reading volume) and 2) Seek out and join book discussion groups that can help find books worth your limited time to read and that can provide a great experience in digesting these books in ways you can’t by yourself alone.