Reviews: Classics

Review: “East Lynne” by Ellen Wood [1860]

Spanning across nearly a decade, this sweeping Sensation novel charts the disgraceful downfall and eventual partial redemption of aristocrat Isabel Vane. Left impoverished after her father’s death and at the mercy of her cruel and spiteful aunt, the quiet and timid Isabel accepts the marriage proposal of Thomas Carlyle after they meet again. Mr Carlyle, a humble, albeit a successful and popular, lawyer had earlier purchased the Vanes estate, East Lynne. Isabel, with no other options, marries Mr. Carlyle believing that she will one day learn to love him. Isabel admires and likes Mr. Carlyle enough and he in turn is thoughtful, considerate and deeply in love with Isabel. Although Isabel had believed that coming back to her former home at East Lynne would bring her happiness, Isabel is lonely and dominated in her house by Mr. Carlyle’s older sister, Cornelia, who has moved in with them and leaving Isabel with no say in the running of the domestic. After the birth of their three children, Isabel’s health deteriorates and she is sent to recuperate at the seaside. Despite her pleas for her children to accompany her, Isabel is denied this by the doctor and Cornelia who admonishes her about the expenses.

“The children are not going to the sea-side,” said she [Cornelia]. “They are not ordered there.”

“But they must go with me,” replied Lady Isabel. “Of course they are not expressly ordered to it. Why should they not go?”

“What should they not?” retorted Miss Corny. “Why, on account of the expense, to be sure. I can tell you what it is, Lady Isabel, what with one expense and another, your husband will soon be on the the road to ruin. Your journey with Joyce and Peter will cost enough, ma’am, without taking a van-load of nurses and children.” – p. 209

Left alone at the seaside to recover her health, Isabel bumps into Captain Levison whom she had previously felt attracted to when they were acquainted in their youth. Despite having been warned by Isabel’s uncle that Captain Levison was a bad influence, Isabel can’t deny his allure. Frightened and confused, Isabel flees back to East Lynne but a series of coincidences have Mr. Carlyle invite Captain Levison to stay at East Lynne. While Mr. Carlyle becomes heavily involved in acquitting a falsely condemned man, the brother of a family friend, pretty Barbara Hare, Isabel grows jealous and is swayed under Captain Levison’s influence. One night, both Isabel and Captain Levison disappear.

The hand-writing, his wife’s, swam before the eyes of Mr Carlyle. All, save the disgraceful fact that she had flown – and a horrible suspicion began to dawn upon him with whom – was totally incomprehensible. How had he outrages her? in what manner had he goaded her to it? – p. 281

A year passes and Lady Isabel is hiding in France, deeply regretting having run away with Captain Levison who, as soon as he received what he wanted, treats Isabel badly and leaves her unmarried just as she is about to give birth to their child. Seeking repentance, and missing her other children dreadfully, Isabel begins her journey back to England when she is involved in an accident. Misidentified, the authorities notifies her uncle that Isabel has died and the news travels back to Mr. Carlyle who is now married to Barbara. Isabel, with her face and figure scarred, adopts a disguise and a new name and, again, through twisted coincidences is recommended as a governess to Mr. Carlyle’s family which includes his children with Barbara. And so Lady Isabel returns to East Lynne once more, this time under an eccentric disguise and a new name, Madame Vine, and as a stranger to her children in a house that was once hers.

I quite enjoyed this book, being a huge fan of Sensation fiction. This, along with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret makes up the core Sensation trilogy. Many of the plot lines were contrived but I quite enjoyed it. It’s like a Victorian soap opera. Isabel remained an elusive character though and while I didn’t despise her, I also didn’t quite warm to her although I did pity her and her tragic circumstances. Unlike other adulteresses in many other Victorian fiction, Isabel is not painted as a ‘scarlet woman’ but merely a woman who made one mistake that ultimately cost her everything.

Review: “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier [1938]

Well, after many stop-start attempts, I have finished Rebecca after nearly ten years! Why has it been so difficult, you may ask? It is a long story but it has to do with Jane Eyre being one my most favourite books and a very impressionable and eccentric favourite Literature teacher in high school who went a rant one day about how Rebecca was simply ripped off of Jane Eyre. So – it has taken awhile to get those prejudices out of my head so I could read this book from an objective and open perspective.

Narrated by an anonymous voice (we never know her real name), with the added benefit of age and time,  the second Mrs. de Winter both reminisces and is haunted by Manderley Hall and her time there. Plucked from obscurity and from a world of drudgery as a companion, the recently widowed Maximilian de Winter courts and quickly marries the young girl. They return to Manderley Hall, a formidable estate complete with an infamous past. The new Mrs. de Winter quickly feels the presence of the first wife, Rebecca, who has left a lasting impression everywhere in the house, its servants and county.

Young, naive and insecure, the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to slip into the role as quietly as possible but soon realises that it is impossible to fill Rebecca’s shoes and nor, she soon realises, does she want to.

I took one out and looked at it, unwrapped it from the thin tissue of paper. ‘Mrs. M. de Winter’ it said, and in the corner ‘Manderley.’ I put it back in the box again, and shut the drawer, feeling guilty suddenly, and deceitful, as though I were staying in somebody else’s house … at any moment she might come back into the room, and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch. – p. 98

Everybody in the household seem to be against the new wife particularly Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper, who obsessively remains dedicated to Rebecca and refuses to acknowledge the new authority or the reality. On top of the new Mrs. de Winter’s ongoing battle against her new household and her jealousy at the memory of Rebecca, Maximilian becomes distant and harbours a dark secret.

The story can effectively be split into two parts. The first part reads like a sinister, Gothic tale of the young, rootless, new wife finding her place in domesticity and old wealth while the second part reads quite like an Agatha Christie mystery! I quite enjoyed Rebecca and it was rather gripping although the naivety of the young, nameless Mrs. de Winter really frustrated me, particularly with the constant bullying from Mrs. Danvers. (Whenever I read Mrs. Danvers, I couldn’t help thinking of one of Jasper Fforde’s books where the character had to battle an army of Mrs. Danvers! :-)) The obsession that Mrs. Danvers have for Rebecca made me think that I could possibly write an essay on the homo-erotic relationship between the two. All in all, I am glad I have finally read this and while there are the obvious similarities between this and Jane Eyre, there is nothing wrong with a double dose of a good thing.

Review: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte [1847]

I first read this when I was eighteen for one of my university classes. I read it really, really fast and I remember that I was quite bewildered by it. Was this the same story of the passionate ‘romance’ between Heathcliff and Cathy? Romance might have been the wrong term. The second re-reading brought up so many more layers and aspects to the novel that I didn’t see before.

Set in the isolated Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights begins with Mr. Lockwood, a Londoner who have leased Thrushcross Grange to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Lockwood comes across Wuthering Heights and is met by the rude and grimacing inhabitants of the household – Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton along with the two grumbling servants Joseph, a religious old man, and Zillah the housemaid. When a severe snowstorm forces Lockwood to insist on staying the night at Wuthering Heights, much to the reluctance of the inhabitants who are indifferent to the safety of Lockwood, Zillah allows Lockwood to quietly stay in one of the old rooms upstairs. Lockwood finds variations of the name ‘Catherine’ scratched upon the window sill – Catherine Linton, Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff – and during the night Lockwood has a nightmare about a ghostly Catherine who begs him to let her in.

Once settled at Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood is told the entire story of the two doomed families who once resided in the two estates by the maid, Ellen Dean, who grew up and served at Wuthering Heights with Cathy and Heathcliff and later at the Grange. She recalls the night the elderly Mr. Earnshaw brought back an orphan he had found on the streets of London whom he later christens Heathcliff and who quickly becomes Mr. Earnshaw’s favourite. This brings friction into the household particularly between Hindley, Cathy’s elder brother, while the short-tempered Cathy and Heathcliff quickly form a passionate and fiery bond which continues into their teenage years and, really, for the rest of their lives.

During one of their ramblings on the moors, Heathcliff and Cathy come across Thrushcross Grange where Cathy in bitten by the family dog when the two are caught spying and sneaking. While she is on the mend at the Linton’s, Cathy is transformed and influenced by the Linton’s gentility. Separated from Heathcliff for the first time, Cathy realises she wants what Heathcliff could never give her while Edgar Linton can: a title and respectability. Despite the realisation, Cathy refuses to admit that she must give up Heathcliff:

‘He quite deserted! we separated!’ she exclaimed, with an accent of indignation. ‘Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo! Not as long as I live, Ellen – for no mortal creature. Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff. Oh, that’s not what I intend – that’s not what I mean! I shouldn’t be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! … Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but, did it never strike you that, if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.’

‘With your husband’s money, Miss Catherine?’ I asked. ‘You’ll find him not so pliable as you calculate upon: and, though I’m hardly a judge, I think that’s the worst motive you’ve given yet for being the wife of young Linton.’ – p. 82

Heathcliff overhears most of the exchange between Cathy and Ellen and leaves Wuthering Heights, returning suddenly several years later a more confident and wealthier man with only revenge set in his mind against the Lintons and Hindley. Meanwhile, Cathy has married Edgar and is the restless mistress of Thrushcross Grange who becomes torn between her husband and Heathcliff when he returns, driving herself to sickness and madness. Cathy dies an untimely death leaving Heathcliff in anguish and despair, crying out one of the most romantic and passionate monologues I’ve ever read:

‘May she wake in torment! he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning  in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannnot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul!’ – p. 169

Despite his almost psychotic passion towards Cathy, Heathcliff holds no mercy for the second generation of the Lintons and Earnshaws including Cathy’s own daughter, Catherine, and carries on his plan for revenge.

Throughout the story, I found almost all the characters unlikeable – Cathy hot-headed and selfish and Heathcliff brutish, violent and misanthropic. Each had very few redeeming qualities. The whole area of Wuthering Heighs and Thrushcross Grange is so isolated that we don’t hear about or from anybody from the outside except Mr. Lockwood. It is such an insular community and the slightly incestuous relationships between the two families that it made me ask who did Cathy want to impress by marrying Edgar and gaining a title?

The second reading of Wuthering Heights was well worth it. Joseph ‘s Yorkshire accent still frustrated me because of the constant flipping back and forth for the translation but it was only for a small portion. With such unusual characters (and names) and such an unconventional passionate relationship, it leaves you slightly boggled. I wonder if Emily Bronte ever experienced such a passionate and brutish relationship.

Review: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett [1911]

There’s something so wonderfully mature about this children’s classic. The Secret Garden begins with Mary Lennox, an unwanted and isolated ten year-old living in colonial India. Her mother, a beautiful and graceful woman, is much more concerned about parties and society than about her sullen, sickly child. Left alone almost all her life with her Indian servants, Mary grows to be a spoiled and snobbish girl who has come to expect that everything much be done for her. When an epidemic of cholera wipes out most of the village including her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle.

In England, Mary lives at Misselthwaite, a relatively secluded rambling estate on the Yorkshire moors. With the no-nonsense attitude of the servants, Mary soon learns that her usual behaviour will not do at Misselthwaite and that she must learn to be independent.

“Are you going to be my servant?” Mary asked, still in her imperious little Indian way.

Martha began to rub her grate again. “I’m Mrs. Medlock’s servant,” she said stoutly … “but you won’t much waitin’ on.”

“Who is going to dress me?” demanded Mary.

Martha sat up on her heels again and stared. She spoke in broad Yorkshire in her amazement.

“Canna’ tha’ dress thysen!” she said.

“No,” answered Mary, quite indignantly. “I never did in my life. My Ayah dressed me, of course.” – p. 25.

Mary eventually warms to Martha and they become friends. While Martha works, Mary explores the manor’s vast gardens displaying a surprising affinity to nature and wildlife. While she is free to wander the grounds as she pleases, Mary soon finds out about a secret garden that has been locked up for the last ten years after the devastating death of her aunt who had loved the garden.

During one violent storm, and strong winds circling the house making the noise known as ‘wuthering’, Mary hears somebody cry. Everybody denies there is anybody else in the house but Mary hears the cries again in the next few days and goes exploring. She finds Colin, her sickly, spoiled cousin, with a temper as bad as Mary’s when she first arrived. Colin has been isolated in his room ever since his mother died in childbirth. As a sickly child, Colin was expected to die but he clung on to life and for the last ten years, everybody, including Colin himself, has been waiting for his death. To the servants’ surprise, Mary and Colin enjoy each other’s company and together with Dickon, Martha’s good willed, nature loving brother, they set out to find and restore the secret garden and in doing so, effectively restore and regenerate themselves.

One of the most loveliest thing about reading this is seeing the growth of Mary and Colin under their own direction. Both sickly, bad tempered and spoiled when we first meet them they mature into healthy and empathetic children. Mary develops an endearing quality when she attempts to speak Yorkshire to Dickon and Martha to their amazement. With minimal help from the adults, both Mary and especially Colin uses the garden and positive thinking to transform themselves. It is also interesting to read the colonial undertones. Mary is made better by the fresh, wholesome Yorkshire wind and her ramblings along the moors with the wind blowing away the sickly heat and humidity Mary acquired in an ‘unnatural’ land. There is really nothing better than retuning or finding one’s home.

Review: “Poor Miss Finch” by Wilkie Collins [1872]

Wilkie Collins is a well known Sensation fiction writer, a genre that was very popular during the 1860s, and largely regarded as the ‘trashy’ novels by contemporaries. Poor Miss Finch is decidedly not a Sensation novel. I have to admit, I had expected this to be one, considering Collins’ reputation.

Instead, Miss Finch is a story about romance that surpasses boundaries and limitations. Narrated by Madame Pratolungo, a Frenchwoman who married a South American democracy activist, she records her time with Lucilla Finch. Left widowed by her husband’s untimely death, Madame Pratolungo accepts a job as a companion to Lucilla, a young woman in her early twenties who has been blind since she a was a year old. Madame Pratolungo moves to the isolated countryside where the Finches live, Lucilla in her own annex, and her father and step-family in the main house with the perpetually pregnant step-mother who is rarely seen without a suckling baby in her arms. The two women strike up a close friendship immediately. Lucilla admonishes Madame Pratolungo to never feel sorry for her blindness and demonstrates that her lack of sight is no barrier to her way of life and even an advantage:

She delighted in putting the room tidy late in the evening, when we helpless people who could see were beginning to think of lighting the candles … We were only allowed to light the candles when they showed us the room magically put in order during the darkness as if the fairies had done it. She laughed scornfully at our surprise, and said she sincerely pitied the poor useless people who could only see! – p. 89

Lucilla falls in love and becomes engaged to a newcomer, Oscar Dubourg, who also has an identical twin brother, Nugent, whose personality is the complete opposite to Oscar’s. During a robbery, Oscar is struck heavily on the head and begins to suffer from injury-induced epilepsy. Lucilla and Oscar postpone their wedding in hopes of Oscar would recover or have his epileptic fits reduce its intensity but to avail.

In desperation, Oscar tries the only known medication that has proven to control epilepsy in the small percentage of patients who dares to try it – Nitrate of Silver which has a horrible side affect. The medication turns the patient’s complexion blue. However, Lucilla has a strong aversion to all dark people, having lived in her own darkness all her life, and so this side affect is kept from her. The dilemma arises when Nugent introduces a well known German oculist to Lucilla who is given hope again that she may yet regain her sight allowing to finally see the face of the man she is marrying.

After the operation, Lucilla slowly regains her sight. Everybody is very nervous at how Lucilla will take Oscar but Nugent has other plans. He has fallen in love with Lucilla and, while she could tell the two brothers apart through touch alone when she was blind, she is ironically left defenseless when she only has her vision to rely on.

While Miss Finch has some very Wilkie Collins narrative devices (shady pasts, identity confusion, twins), it is a very different sort of story to his earlier novels. It is both an exploration of blindness and the senses but also the extent of love. Lucilla’s forward behaviour towards Oscar is deemed inappropriate by Madame Pratulungo:

‘I want to tell him how deeply I feel for him, and how anxious I am to make his life a happier one if i can.’

‘My dear Lucilla! you can’t say this to a young man. It is as good as telling him, in plain words, that you are fond of him!’

‘I am fond of him.’

‘Hush! hush! Keep it to yourself, until you are sure that he is fond of  you …’

‘That is very hard on the women. If they feel it first, they ought to own it first.’ – p. 60

The normal social constraints of propriety and the correct ways of how women and men interact do not affect Lucilla because she has never seen how others might look at her and having been used to her own imagination of the world. There are some very interesting aspects to how the blind lives and even more so of the consequences of what might happen when the blind regain their sight. Distinguishing between shapes and colours become very difficult and the world might not be as beautiful as they had imagined. The majority feels pity for the blind but as Lucilla, and Collins, show, accepting impairments that are beyond your control, whatever they may be, might just be the key to happiness.