I have had a ridiculous amount of fun this year listening to classic novels as audiobooks. When Audible offered a freebie (I think it was a freebie) of Journey to the Center of the Earth read by Tim Curry, I was excited – Tim Curry! Come on. It almost didn't matter what it was; I kind of place Curry in the same class as Tom Baker – love the actor, adore the voice, will listen to literally anything read by him.
And I was right. Curry was fabulous. His performance – and it was in every way performance – was incredibly enjoyable, and accounted for a good part of my rating. The voices he gave to the characters were dead on; the emotion with which he invested some scenes elevated them; it's purely because of his voice that I don't completely loathe the two main characters of this book, Axel and his Uncle/Professor Otto Liedenbrock. Not completely …
I do dislike them intensely, though. Even Tim Curry couldn't prevent that.
I will absolutely grant that part of my dislike for the book was some inability to separate myself as a 21st-century woman with a (very) basic (high school) education in geology from myself as reader of a book published and I assume set in 1864. From the former point of view it's an absurd figment of science fantasy. I know, I know – I have no problem accepting vampires (as long as they don't sparkle), werewolves, thousand-year-old druids and 932-year-old Time Lords. I never said I was consistent.
Still, despite the initial head-meets-desk reaction I had to a forest many leagues below the surface of the earth, not to mention a life-filled ocean and the mastodon-herding giants – still, it was fun. It felt like a Disney version of science, crossed with Lewis Carroll – fall down the universe's biggest rabbit hole, and land in an impossible, improbable wonderland. I was able to enjoy some of the fantasy.
The parts I couldn't enjoy were simply outweighed by the stupidity of the characters. The two so-brilliant scientists, Axel and his uncle, were textbook examples of book-smart vs. street-smart. I mean, what moron goes on any expedition into the unknown with only a little water? Good God, people, don't you watch Les Stroud and Bear Grylls? Well, no, obviously not, but – common sense, men! "Oh, don't worry, we'll find fresh-water springs": probably the last words of many a dim adventurer.
And the subject of stupid adventurers brings me straight to Axel. Good grief. In my Goodreads updates I referred to him as a damsel in distress, and also TSTL: Too Stupid To Live. Bringing that boy on an expedition (I keep wanting to write a Winnie-the-Pooh-esque "expotition") is like taking a penguin to the Bahamas. I lost count of the number of times he fell or got lost or otherwise needed rescuing – and every single time there was poor old Hans, probably thinking "ach du lieber (or the Icelandic equivalent thereof), we should just put the fool on a leash." I can't imagine why his uncle brought him in the first place, unless he didn't realize what a Moaning Myrtle the boy would become, in addition to being a hazard to himself and all those around him. Every step of the way he complained and protested and fretted and despaired. The fact that he happened to be right in some of his complaints – as, for example, when he protested the minimal amount of water they were toting – doesn't make his constant whingeing easier to tolerate.
And the Professor … a more overbearing, pompous, irritating, foresightless windbag I don't remember in my reading. Did I mention it was his decision to bring only a little water with them? And also to chuck most of their gear down an apparently bottomless hole, confident that they would catch up to it in the climb. And also to set off across an apparently limitless ocean in a boat I wouldn't sail in a bathtub rather than try to trek the shoreline. And then to pause at random intervals and pontificate as if in front of an audience.
Oh, and to take few or no specimens of their discoveries. "Center of the earth, eh, Liedenbrock? Riiiight."
My list, made early on in the read/listen, for tips on a hypothetical Journey to the Center of the Earth:
1. Bring water
3. Be sure to pay guide/servant/lifesaver weekly, even if he can't spend the money
4. Give guide/etc raise after he saves your butt after you disregarded 1 & 2
5. Do not bring nephew; he is prone to both hysterics and despair
6. Do not bring uncle/professor, as he confuses humans with camels (also: twit)
7. Do bring Tim Curry, because he just makes everything sound good.
I don't think the uncle and nephew actually did give Hans any kind of monetary reward for saving their rear ends, on several more occasions than just the water situation. The uncle paid him promptly every week – not that he was able to spend or bank or otherwise appreciate said payment, miles below the surface of the earth – and probably lost it all in their adventures.
The translation used by Audible was an odd one. The only example I noted was this: "His absolute silence increased every day." If it's absolute, it can't increase, though, can it? The Goodreads edition has it: "But his habit of silence gained upon him day by day" - which works. I would be interested in either reading or listening to another version, to see if anything improves … but no. The language wasn't the problem. The problem was that I spent over eight hours alternately smiling happily at Tim Curry's performance and wanting to reach through my iPod and shake Axel and Otto until their ears flapped. It's another of those "could-have-been" books. It could have been so much fun. It just wasn't.
The spoiler-free short version: The Count of Monte Cristo is an extraordinary, long, complex (as in, takes a large chart to keep relationships straight) work with a very simple story idea: a young man is horribly wronged, emerges from prison with a new life and a vast fortune, and uses that plus his very good mind to wreak vengeance on the people who ruined his life. It's fantastic, in every meaning of the word; it's different from what I expected and from nearly everything I've read before; it's a great adventure yarn with a lovely little romance thrown in (almost entirely counterbalanced by wrecked relationships, but still lovely) … In fact …
"Has it got any sports in it?"
"Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..."
The giants and monsters are figurative in The Count, but they're in there – they are in there. There's actually very little fencing or fighting, and the torture is almost all mental, but … yeah. It's all there.
The story is, at its heart, very simple. A strong and handsome and capable young man is well on his way to having a golden life, complete with the girl he loves, until jealousy in those around him has him sent to prison on false charges. There he sits for seventeen years as the world spins on without him, his only relief from the dark solitude a fellow prisoner who takes him on a mad journey to escape, teaching him everything he could ever need to know about everything while they work at it. When he finally does escape, he embarks on a mad quest of his own, to have a subtle, vicious revenge on everyone who harmed him.
My review of said story isn't as simple. I began listening to the book almost a year ago (!), but this thing never coalesced. So, finally, here's what I've got, somewhat disjointed – more a collection of random scattered thoughts I jotted down during the read than what I'd actually call a review. Beware of spoilers.
I listened to the Audible audiobook read by Bill Homewood, and had a wonderful time – he made 52 hours and 45 minutes seem like only four days.
No, I kid – he gave a magnificent performance. The audio book I chose for a Goodreads Buddy Read is in 6 parts, totaling 52 hours & 45 minutes. In other words, two days, four hours, and forty-five minutes. Funnily enough, other versions were of wildly varying lengths – unabridged editions run between 45 hours and the one I picked, 52 hours and 45 minutes. There were also several abridged editions – from a dramatic presentation lasting an hour (how??) to a 17 hour abridgement – but despite its being the longest out there I liked the sample of this, and I think it was a good choice: Mr. Homewood is an excellent companion. I can only assume some translations were more succinct than others, or that where Mr. Homewood uses a different (extremely well done) voice for each character (resulting in different cadences), and gives each line its full dramatic weight, someone reading in one level tone might get through the material more quickly. For me a big part of the enjoyment was listening to the performance – he went all out on it, conveying real emotion and suspense and humor and dread in a magnificent one-man show. He deserves an award. Most actors' performances are one character in some fraction of a film or play or tv episode between one and three hours; this was 100% of nearly 53 hours, and fantastic. (I spent no little time marveling at how he kept the voices straight. I would be doing constant re-takes after reading Danglars's lines in Villefort's voice or some such.) (Not to mention the occasional cut to edit out my frustrated exclamations of "Wait, who the *&$! is THIS, now??")
From the beginning I was surprised at the sense of humor that pervades the book. If I had taken a good look at the portrait Wikipedia uses for M. Dumas, I might not have been – the humor in that face is wonderful. But I suppose despite so much evidence to the contrary I still retain the expectation, formed in high school, for literature more than a hundred years old to be dull and stodgy, especially the Victorians. It isn't fair – it's not the books, but the teachers, who (present company excepted, as applicable) do the damage to Dickens and Shakespeare and company. But, still, even knowing that M. Dumas buckled the ultimate swash in The Three Musketeers, I thought the language would be dense and impenetrable.
Which is so very much not the case.
It all depends on the translation, of course, and in the case of an audiobook on the reader. The translation I listened to was colloquial – often feeling very modern and oddly British (the character of Albert in particular was hilarious, and in many ways – especially given Bill Homewood's reading of him – verged on Bertie Wooster) - and casual (everyone, in every situation, says "Thanks", never "Thank you") – and much, much more fun than I expected. Yes, there are moments that made me smile inappropriately, such as after several minutes of strenuous detail followed by the rather unnecessary summing up of "Dantès was free" or "The Abbé was dead"; it's a style quirk that always vexes me, just a little.
Apart from that, this couldn't have been more accessible.
(Another little vexation: I am tempted to find an online source for The Count and do a search for the word "Well". I would want to discount any with the meaning of "place to fetch water" or "good" or such, and just count the ones that begin sentences. At first I thought it was just Caderousse who started every single sentence with "Well!" – but then I came to entire conversations where sentence after sentence began the same way. (What word translated to that, I wonder?))
Humans are strange creatures. Early on – before Dantès's arrest but after the plot against him has been conceived, if not born – M. Morrel turns to Danglars and repeats to him what Edmond had said about him: nothing bad, by any means; in fact, remarkably generous. Ah, I thought – he's going to feel a pang here, even though it might be short-lived: Dantès has nothing against him, or at the very least he said nothing against him to the owner. But no: his only response is to internally exclaim "Hypocrite!" I already knew he was a thorough Bad Guy – that was when I knew he was very far gone indeed.
And Dantès … Hope keeps welling up in Dantès, at every opportunity. He plunges to the depths of despair – but any time there is the least hint of light he throws his entire self at it and clings till long past the point when it's actually dead. And then at the very bottom of the depths of despair he finds – if not hope, then peace; the knowledge that he has the power to take his own life at any time he wishes gives him strength to carry on.
I wonder how different things would have been if one person besides the Abbé had held out a hand – at least, done so with Dantès' knowledge. His despair and the hardness that grew out of it hinged on the fact that he had been forgotten, that no one on earth knew or cared where he was. The second jailer did try to do something for him, but was thwarted; it seems he never told Dantès (wise, as it would have gotten hopes up fruitlessly). M. Morrel was constantly (until the final overthrow of Napoleon) trying to do something for him. But the gestures were ineffective and unknown to Dantès, and so his eventual escape is almost entirely his own doing. If a solitary person had aided him in any way, perhaps his determination on vengeance would not have been so hard and unyielding.
I thought it was a bit remarkable that Dantès should sit at the deathbed of the Abbé and think about killing himself – possibly committing "suicide by cop" – so as to follow after his friend and find him in the afterlife. Dantès, apparently, received little Christian education; it's a basic tenet that, without very good justification in terms of mental illness (and even then, in your stricter periods), suicides go to hell. There would be no reunion with the Abbé. I wonder if that was a blind spot in Dumas or in Dantès.
Except for one, the people of M. Dumas's world seem to fall into perhaps three categories: the good, the bad, and the weak. The good are unimpeachable – the Abbé, M. Morrel and his family, Edmond's father, Valentine; they are honest and long-suffering, would never take any unfair advantage to better their own lot. The bad are irredeemable – Danglars, Fernand, Villefort; they are fixed on their singular goal, and no young prodigy is going to get in their way. The weak, such as Caderousse and Mercédès, can be considered friends – but only trusted so far. They are slender reeds. Not much can be expected of them, so when they do their weak best it is to be rewarded. But in the end Caderousse reverts to form (I'll come back to him) and Mercédès is broken by her experiences and caught up in her misery (I'll come back to her too); any rewards they've received are squandered or outweighed.
And then there's that one exception: Dantès. He is not purely good or bad, and certainly not weak; his thirst for revenge is understandable given what was done to him without provocation. But Abbé Faria did advise him to put vengeance aside … and Dantès was unable to do so, even eager as he was to please his friend. Before long he seems to have forgotten that the Abbé ever said anything of the sort to him, or even, it seems at times, that he ever existed. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and Dantès takes upon himself not only that aspect of the power of God but the omniscient omnipotent rewarding of good as well. Toward the end he shocked me by saying outright, and in all apparent seriousness, "God needed me". Forsooth. He sees himself as the infallible arbiter of right and wrong – until his nose is forcibly rubbed in the unintended consequences of his actions.
At one point he required Morrel (Jr.) to remember that he is talking to someone who "never uttered a falsehood and cannot be deceived." Forsooth. That's the sort of remark that makes me want to comb through the text to locate every lie and deception perpetrated by and on him.
Money may not bring happiness, but lack of it breeds fear and uncertainty. To an extent, I loved the mindset with which Dantès approaches wealth: he is changing lives. For the worse, where deserved: Danglars and Fernand and Villefort were marked men from the moment Dantès left the Isle D'If – but also, markedly, for the better. Those who were able to help him, all unknowing, in his quest for information were more than generously rewarded; even small actions were richly rewarded. And I will say for him that the money stolen by Danglars (did we really need that much confirmation that he was an evil SOB?) from the widows and orphans (five million!) was restored to them.
It's a little annoying that some 40% of the way into the story references are made that are – for me, at least, playing without an organizational chart or even an easily searchable hard copy of the book – obscure at best. (A chart of who is who and married to whom and killed by/the killer of whom does exist, but is, obviously, filled with spoilers.) I didn't realize, for example, that Franz, met at the Festival alongside Albert, is the son of the man killed by the father of Villefort. Albert's identity came clear a lot sooner on its own, but even there there was certainly no immediate lightbulb. And I kept getting Morcerf and Morrel mixed up, because Morcerf kept not ringing the Fernand bell.
The manipulations of the cast of characters are kind of wonderful. At any point, any of his enemies could have redeemed himself. Caderousse was given yard after yard of rope, and not only hanged himself with it, he hog-tied himself too; Madame de Villefort was merely provided with a phial and a piece of information, and people around her started dropping like flies. I do wonder what Monte Cristo would have done had anyone failed to live down to his expectations. Would he have been pleased that someone was a better person than he expected, or would he have been vexed? He can read a person's character almost instantly, and can judge just the temptation to put into their path like an unattended, booby-trapped bundle of catnip for an unsuspecting tabby.
Morrel (Maximilien, that is) runs full tilt from what appears to be Valentine's deathbed to plead with Monte Cristo for help – and then takes two minutes by the iPod counter nattering away before he even asks to send Baptistan to check on her, and then insists on relating the whole story to Monte Cristo with more regard, it seems, for whether he should go to the police than to, as I expected, ask Monte Cristo to try and save the girl. I just don't know.
The evolution, if I can call it that, of Caderousse is strange. He is introduced as an acquaintance, a neighbor, whom Dantès knows to be not quite trustworthy (he takes steps to protect the money). It's a terrible first impression – he is an obvious enemy from the beginning, with no real reason – jealousy because Dantès is young and handsome and beloved? Later, though, he is stricken with remorse, and doesn't like what is proposed for Dantès. He doesn't do anything to stop it or come forward once it's done, but he doesn't like it. When he is revisited later he is a hard-luck case, bitter and almost sympathetic – until abruptly he not only reverts to the initial bad impression but turns out to actually be one of the nastiest pieces of work I've read about in a while, and I felt like a sucker for believing he wasn't so bad.
The "death" of Valentine … first, even knowing how cold and purged of feeling Monte Cristo was, I was shocked at his casualness over whoever was dying. Ah well, I've been watching gleefully as they fall one by one – who now, Noirtier? So what? Valentine? Oh well!
Then the cruelty with which he tricks both Noirtier and Maximilien – was that absolutely necessary? Especially the pain he caused Max, one of the family on whom he was committed to the opposite of revenge. He breaks into Morrel's room – what, about seven minutes before he was about to eat his gun? It was obvious from Max's frantic visit to Casa Cristo how much in love he was with Val – How could MC not say to him, and say "here's the thing. I gave Valentine an elixir to feign death, so that I could flush out her killer and get all sorts of revenge on her father. She's ok. She's not really dead. If you can't hide that, please stay put in your rooms until she comes back to life, 'kay? I don't want to screw this up." But no. He just 'killed' her off, let Noirtier suffer abominably – a complete paralytic whose only joy in life, his only pleasure, really, was this girl, with no guarantee that the boy who loved her would ever even think of him again once she was gone? That's abominable. And letting Morrel suffer, stopping off at Danglars's office to rob him blind, dropping in at the burial and only then hunting up his little friend. Gosh, he's upset. Oops. I'll let him go off, though – oh no, he's headed for a bridge -! Oh, ok. And then he busts in at the house and literally busts into Max's room – and what if he had been further delayed? What if there had been traffic, or a line at the bank?
I ... don't know. I was glad he began to see some light toward the end, began to become a little more human for a bit - and then he went back to the Chateau d'If, and where I would have hoped he would remember the Abbé's dismay at his thirst for revenge (ah, you remember the Abbé, Edmond? That good man who saved your life, saved your soul, and provided everything you now have? That man who hadn't been mentioned in a few hundred pages?), he hardened back up again and went after Danglars with blood in his eye. Which he had to do – Danglars deserved a comeuppance, and it was fun, I have to say – and he did let him live, sane and hopefully a better man for the experience (doubtful). But ... I just don't know. I don't think he actually forgave Mercédès - he continued to call her faithless to the very end; that whole aspect of the story bothered me a little.
And I don't think he ever recovered from the grandiose view of himself as God's instrument of retribution. I think in the end he was every bit as self-absorbed as he was in the middle there; maybe a little less confident in his infallibility, but he did manage to shrug off a lot of responsibility that belonged to him. I can't remember his exact words, but it was along the lines that the Villefort poisoner was entirely on her own - when in fact she might not have ever had the courage and foundation to do what she did without his advice and his gift of a really awesome, irresistible poison. She might - but she might not. He seemed to acknowledge that his interference helped bring about Edouard's death (no loss, but still, he was just a little boy), but not that that same interference almost killed Valentine. And I'm just not happy with leaving Maximilien in misery for months. Was that some sort of test? If you're really still miserable on this date then I'll give you back your beloved? If not, if Max had shown up and said "Nope, I'm good!" - then what?
That's exactly why it fell a little flat at the end for me. Monte Cristo leaves a string of broken and ended lives, with the exceptions of the Morrels and Valentine (and Noirtier, though it's almost accidental that he made it), and sails off with his young slave/former slave... It's a great story, but ... I guess, especially given the period when it was written, I was expecting a moral to the story. The only one I can come up with is "If someone wrongs you, take them down hard; collateral damage may occur, but there are very few people worth saving anyway". In the end it left a sort of empty feeling. It's an adventure, a huge sprawling rarely-dull tale … but I guess that just wasn't the ending I felt it needed.
James Herriot's books are, for me, the ultimate in comfort books. Which is odd, it occurred to me while listening to this audiobook; there's blood and gore and uterine explorations and knackerings and death and cruelty… There is casual mention of deeds and practices which would turn PETA's collective hair white. But I've been reading these books since I was about ten. (Which, considering the language, is surprising. Them Yorkshire farmers were salty, mind.) And then there was the wonderful tv series.
That last is what made the audiobook ideal: the reader is Christopher Timothy, who played James in the series (alongside my beloved Peter Davison as Tristan). I think he's one of those I'll follow anywhere, listen to anything he reads. He's perfect. Not just because I know him so well in the role already – he is a warm, funny, compassionate reader, wonderful at the accents and natural in his delivery.
Just like Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot. The things I mentioned before – well, they were simply a part of life on a Yorkshire farm, in a Yorkshire veterinary practice in the first half of the 20th century. It was as it was, there were no better treatments than some of the medieval remedies used, and for the most part animals were well kept because they were vital to the livelihood of their owners. There is a surprising lack of sentiment overall, whether the animal in question is a pig or a puppy, a horse or a heifer.
Which isn't to say the stories are strictly cool and clinical – not by a long mark. Tricki Woo is the perfect embodiment of the series as a whole. The pampered Pekingese "son" of a rich widow, he is a good-natured little furball whose ailments tend to stem mainly from that pampering. And when he goes flop-bott or shows other symptoms which alarm his Mrs. Pumphrey, "Uncle Herriot" is summoned on to the scene at once. The reward for James's promptitude is baskets from London at Christmas (I can't even fathom how expensive that would be, sent all the way to the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930's) along with other periodic delicacies – so James, naturally, has a mercenary fondness for the Peke. But he is also genuinely fond of the dog for his own self, as a personality, and of Mrs. Pumphrey as well. And balancing it all out like a splash of lemon juice is Mrs. Pumphrey's chauffeur, responsible for the spasmodic bouts of exercise she penitently orders, along with the role of body servant to the dog, and he loathes Tricki with a deep and burning passion. (And when the pig Nugent comes along, there is much hilarity.)
So, yes, there is some cringing as we visit the knacker's yard, or when some archaic remedy is brought out. But it merely acts in the same lemon juice fashion on the warmth found in the daily interactions with the farmers and peers and kids with their goldfish, the dogs and cats and horses and pigs and cows and sheep, the slowly disappearing way of life of the Dales farmers. The madness that is the Farnon brothers; the surely-hopeless love James has for a client's daughter – eccentric as it all can be, it still rings true, and that's the key. The book is, to co-opt what they might say about a particularly nice cob, as sound as a bell.
So, whether it should be a comfort book or not, it got me through a particularly bad night recently. The very definition of a comfort book. I love these stories.
I don't usually read others' reviews before writing my own; I don't want to be influenced. With this book, though, I was having trouble putting my thoughts in order. A look through Goodreads shows a wide variety of reactions, with very strongly held and expressed opinions on both ends of the spectrum. (One single star review begins "This book is nothing other than a flight-of-fancy on the part of the author." Well… yes. Aren't all novels?) My opinion is positive, though not rabidly so. I do wonder how I would feel about the book if I'd held it in my hands – but I listened to an audiobook, and this is what came of it.
The narration took a little getting used to. A stretch of the first several chapters is first person POV Tomasu/Takeo, read by Kevin Gray in a dry, light voice. What called for adjustments for me was the faint trace of an accent he used (or which he has); there was some part of me that was not quite convinced by it. This part of me became a bit bigger when a few chapters in the point of view switched to the third person to tell of Lady Shirakawa, Kaede, as narrated by Aiko Nakasone – whose name, however, certainly seems to support the accent; part of my resistance there might simply have been that I didn't want a change of voice. I did get used to it, and was very much enjoying both narrators by the end. Kevin Gray's reading of emotional moments was moving, and I loved the characters he gave voice to.
As for the book… A major, major drawback was the not-infrequent use of foreshadowing. One major character, a favorite of mine, was basically dispensed with a bit more than halfway through the book with a casual line about an omen of a grim future. (Exact quotes are difficult with audiobooks…I have enough trouble keeping my place.) I'm not happy about this. Maybe it's a good thing to be able to read something like that and know to start detaching myself from a character I've liked – but, really? I hate foreshadowing. The character was all but dead (dead man walking) long before the killing, and part of the story would have been much more gripping if I had had no idea whether things would work out or not. Then there was another character's "sudden but inevitable betrayal" – it was built up to, and telegraphed, and I think would have been far more effective as a shock.
In reviews, one of the divisive factors of this book is the use of culture. It's almost, but not quite, feudal Japan; it resembles feudal Japan. It isn't feudal Japan. (Which does make it odd that, among other things, an actual historical figure, the artist Sesshu, is referenced…) There are plenty of people out there who fancy themselves experts on the period who are jumping up and down in their reviews, the book made them so angry. (As well as people who are put out because the author is not Japanese…) I know next to nothing, so I'm untroubled – except by small, random things like words which in my experience belong to other countries entirely. "Palanquin", used frequently, is one which irked me every time it was said: to me, the word brings up images of India and elephants, and does not fit. There were others, but, again, audiobooks and exact quotes. I do wonder, though, where the line was drawn between historical novel and pure fantasy, and why. Hagi is a real place. Sesshu was a real person. But so much else was changed, names and histories; it's curious.
There is a strong undercurrent of brutality throughout the story, so despite the stated youth of the two main characters this doesn't work, I don't think, as a young adult novel – at least, it's not my idea of YA. I was surprised to see people refer to Nightingale Floor as such. The two main characters are very young, but there is no real "coming of age" story here; they have been forced into life as adults from the moment we meet them. Takeo is plucked from the life he has lived since birth and dropped into another, takes to it well, and there you are. Kaede has more of an arc, but her story could almost be that of any highborn female in any patriarchal culture; she could have been 25 rather than 15 and little would have changed, except for family worries that she was an old maid. Both of them could have been any age, and the story would have still worked. In fact, Takeo generally presents as much older, particularly with the level of skill he shows in just about everything – I kept forgetting he was supposed to be just 16. That is actually another drawback in the book: Takeo is just so incredibly good at nearly everything. There is very little learning curve for him once he discovers his skills – drawing, the tribal skills, even riding and writing once it clicks with him – everything but the sword, I think, and even with that it seems like his plateau is reached quickly. He is 16, and has never trained in art or martial skills before, but he is abruptly a master at most of what he attempts. Not good.
The romance is something else that is both loved and hated in reviews, and something else that is not quite what it could be. It begins with something like love at first sight, and I wish more had been done with that. The element of magic is so strong throughout the story that it would have made sense to bring it in here, as I expected, but it turns out to be just another case of L@FS. It seemed fairly obvious before the two ever met that they would, and that there would be romance: the two characters featured in the narration, of an age, and set to converge? Done deal.
There were parts of it I really liked. There were a couple of parts I hated. I probably will read (or listen to) at least the next book, just to find out what happens next, but I'm in no rush.
This is one of those classics I was never able to get very far into. The first time I got the whole gist of the story was watching the Olivier-Oberon film some time back, which surprised me with how much I disliked every single soul in the story.
Last year I finally got determined to crack the shell of this thing and listen to the audiobook. Heck, I thought, I listened to one of my most-hated-books-ever, Tess of the Durbervilles, and ended up appreciating it; surely it would work with Wuthering Heights.
Which is nothing against the narrator. Anne Flosnik was the only good thing about the experience: she was excellent.
But the book made me want to bang my head against a wall until it was over. I am glad I finally completed it. It's a good thing to have under my belt. But the one-word review I posted when I was done was, quite simply, "Phew". it was my expression of amazement at how awful it was - and, more, my relief at being through. Put it this way: there was a very high body count in this book – it was one grim death after another. But I didn't mind so much in WH because, as in the long-ago-seen movie, I hated every single character. They were either so weak that a mouse sneeze would knock them over, or strong in the way that a serial killing psychopath is strong. So there was me listening to the book thinking “Yes! Die! Die! Die!”
I honestly don't know if I've read and enjoyed a book where I've been unable to like anyone involved. And here it was beyond simply not liking anyone – this was a pulsating loathing. I don't know if I'd be able to like this one even if some of the characters were more amiable – there was another big factor in my loathing of this book: the utterly impenetrable dialect. Now, I can usually manage accents, especially British accents of all types. I love 'em. But my lord. A random sample that I pulled out: 'Ony books that yah leave, I shall tak' into th' hahse,' said Joseph, 'and it'll be mitch if yah find 'em agean; soa, yah may plase yerseln!' On paper, I can read that without such a problem. Aloud? It might as well have been Bantu.
Kind of thought it might be now and then.
But no. Hateful characters and impenetrable accents aside, this thing was just so unremittingly bleak, so grim and ugly … Heathcliff hanged Isabella’s dog. As a warning. And now if someone could explain to me why he’s considered (from Wikipedia): “an archetype of the tortured romantic hero”...
There is more to the word “romantic” than the common usage. I know that. What frightens me is the people who don’t know that, and still call Heathcliff a romantic hero. I would as soon call Ted Bundy a romantic hero.
I know. I know. One star?? A swashbuckling adventure novel beloved for a couple of centuries? Yeah, well.
I've tried to read this before. It had "me" written all over it: aforementioned buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth. But I never penetrated very far. There was a tone – perhaps to the particular translation I tried, perhaps to the work itself – that just put me off, exemplified by the instance of D'Artagnan selling the yellow horse after his father impressed upon him how he must never do so, and he promised faithfully that he would not. It was such a dishonorable, dishonest, ugly thing to do, in a book I had expected to be dripping with honor – and it was just the beginning.
Last year I finally went with the audiobook, on the theory that classics that have not held a huge amount of interest for me go down better read aloud. I hold the reader, John Lee, responsible for my being able to finish it with as much tolerance as I did; if I’d been just reading words on a page I think it would have ended up in the trash by page 200. I hated this. I truly, deeply hated this. I’ve seen at least a couple of movie versions; I’ve enjoyed them, somewhat, as frothy swashbucklers, of course. I always expected the book to be better, though.
One of my two Goodreads comments on the book was:
"These people are all horrible - honorless, slutty morons. And this is a classic, beloved by schoolboys for - what, over 200 years? God help us."
And that’s my biggest problem with the book. Perhaps it was supposed to be ironic, some kind of commentary on honor and courage and standards and morality through the depiction of noble swordsmen who were actually men you wouldn’t trust alone with a coin or a woman. I don’t remember ever coming across that take on it, though.
Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D'Artagnan. These are the heroes I wanted to read about. The brave and loyal soldiers, the champions of right and defenders of womanhood and of France … I have no idea where my ideas came from – the movies, perhaps? What I found as I listened to the book was that Athos was a hypocritical prig, Aramis was a hypocritical pseudo-religious, Porthos was a gluttonous gambling dandy, and D'Artagnan a cocky young jackass. They were all four drunkards, given any opportunity; they were all womanizers, cuckolding widely and wildly, dropping whatever girl they had been bedding to move on without a pause or juggling as many as possible simultaneously. And the much-vaunted all-for-one loyalty? I didn't see it. Every single one of them was as likely to throw his buddies under the 18th century equivalent of a bus as to support them, or to leave them in assorted lurches. Then get a good laugh out of it. And the interactions between these four and the man-servants they could barely afford but NEEDED made The Comedy of Errors seem like a shining illustration of workplace harmony. It was depressing.
D'Artagnan in particular was a letdown. The whole situation of swiving the maid in the room adjacent to her mistress, and vice versa – I wanted to throttle him. A lot. For one thing – seriously? They've let prepubescent boys read this for centuries? Oh, that’s just awesome. So, buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth? The swashes were askew at best; the romance was not the way Anne Shirley defines it (nor me), the doing wasn’t so derring. I only made it through the whole thing because it was an audiobook with a good narrator, and because I gritted my teeth in determination to see it all the way through. It was a deep disappointment, and I hated it.
My other Goodreads comment:
“Chapter 67: Conclusion
Oh, thank God.”
Quiet kicks off with the tale of Rosa Parks. The author imagined – and maybe I did too – that Miss Parks was a stately woman with a bold personality who could stand off against a bus full of people, an irate driver, and the police, and win – but she wasn't. She was small, and quiet, and tired, and simply refused – quietly – on that particular evening to comply with a stupid rule. And the author asks "How could you be shy and courageous?" This surprised me. Aren't the shy inherently courageous? What extroverts do without thinking – from asking questions in meetings or class to going to parties – introverts see as hurdles to be got over. Extroverts have to be brave in extraordinary circumstances. The shy have to be brave every damn day.
This sets the stage for the book. I learned quite a lot, but questioned some of the conclusions and directions the author went with, and in the end I can't say I feel the power the subtitle mentions. It's possible, and I see how – but it's a hard row to hoe, and all the other metaphors in "Hard Knock Life".
I should say, before I begin to maunder and meander about the book, that Kathe Mazur does a lovely job of the reading. She maintains a mostly neutral tone, so that her voice merges with the work; she disappears into the narration, for the most part. I'm curious about how her style would work with fiction; with non-fiction it's perfect.
I scored 19 out of 20 in the evaluation quiz in this book's first chapter; my only diversion from pure introversion (sorry 'bout that) is that I do like to multitask. I don't like to just watch tv – I'll be on the computer at the same time, or sewing, or something, anything. I hate driving with just the radio on now – if I don't have an audiobook in my ear I feel like I'm wasting valuable time. But even this might be a result of living in an extroverted world; I've had to learn how to multitask in my jobs, and it's sloshed over into life.
Being an introvert (with the addition of shyness, which, I find, is not the same thing – just shoot me now) … For me, that means that almost every morning when it came time to go to school I would feel sick. I had a ridiculously high absentee rate, because in general school was hell for me. I liked the classes, loved the way the world opened up a little every day, even kind of liked homework sometimes. But being expected to participate, being called on whether or not I raised my hand, having to participate in the group projects and readings-aloud and other torments teachers love to devise … Having to cope with my classmates, even those I considered friends… When I was in my mid teens I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time, and I was shattered. I was, I am Todd Anderson (only with much better parents). The wonderful, fictional Mr. Keating recognized Todd's limits, and knew how to move him past them. I never met the teacher who cared to do that – I never had a Mr. Keating, or even a Neil. (If you don't know what I'm talking about go watch the movie. Yawp.)
In elementary school, in high school, in art school, had I been outspoken, had I been outgoing, had I at least been able to speak up and say "Oy! Over here!" – things might have been different. I wasn't able. Knowing that without a drastically different setting things I couldn't have been able – that alone made this a worthwhile read. "At school you might have been prodded to come 'out of your shell'—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter". Well, yeah. And prying a snail out of its shell will have disastrous results for the snail.
And then there's work. The same thought processes go on in the average manager's minds as in the average teacher's: reward the ones who successfully walk the line between conformism and aggression, and pay attention to the ones who make you pay attention. Three words: "Team-building exercises"… the mere phrases makes me queasy. Why don't managers realize that the reason these things build camaraderie is because it unites everyone in their absolute loathing of the moronic and grating waste of time that they are? How does anyone think they're a good thing? Or, at least, that they're a good thing for everyone?
There is a section of the book which focuses on the Harvard Business School, and everything this author says about the school makes exquisite sense in terms of W's attendance there. For me, for introverts in general and those poor buggers who matriculate their introversion, it's another circle of hell. The title of an article from the HSB newspaper is quoted: "Arrogant, or Simply Confident?" Er. If you have to ask … Heh. If you have to ask, you might be an introvert.
A bit of an aside, from this section: "'It is approximately 2:30 PM, October 5th,' the students are told, 'and you have just crash-landed in a float place on the east shore of Laura Lake, in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border.' Um … huh? Newfoundland is an island, and so doesn't exactly share a border with any province; Quebec borders the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also, this furthers a stupid stereotype that Newfoundland is glacial and filled with walruses and igloos. It's really not. Perhaps they meant Labrador? Also, Google Maps shows the lake is something like 13 hours from the coast. What idiot wrote this scenario?
Part of what helps make people successful, or perhaps simply a characteristic of successful people, is in their speech patterns. "Verbal fluency and sociability are the two most important predictors of success, according to a Stanford Business School study." Also, talking fast is seen as a good thing. Well, as the Mythbusters say, there's your problem. When I talk fast it's obviously nerves, not aggression or confidence. And, sadly, I'm one of those who waits for an opening to speak. I despise people who begin talking before I've finished a sentence – shockingly, customer service reps do it all the time; I've gotten into the habit of just finishing anyway. For me, it doesn't matter if the person I'm speaking to has just said something moronic (for instance, that Lake Laura is on the border of Newfoundland) or brilliant or anything in between that requires a response from me, I will wait for a pause before I interject. It's what I was brought up to call "politeness", and also ties into my own reserve. Apparently, what I see as basic manners is actually a hindrance to my success. Oh dear.
I unfortunately did not make note of who said it, but here's a quote that's sending me (and this review) on another tangent: "I'm sure Our Lord was [an extrovert]"… Really? How odd. I suppose every group tries to claim Jesus as one of their own, but I've never thought of Him as an extrovert. Charismatic, certainly; not shy, by any means; confident – well, sure, with God on His side… but extraverted? I really hesitate to class Christ in with some of the huckster evangelists making millions off his name.
Okay. Anyway. Another quote:
"Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another. … It's better to mind too much than to mind too little."
That's interesting. And it's true – the ones who are never embarrassed are the ones you have to be wary of. My sociopathic ex-boss was never embarrassed.
It suggests … that sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they're so bored by small talk. If you're thinking in more complicated ways … then talking about the weather, or where you went for the holidays, is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality. The other thing Aaron found about sensitive people is that sometimes they are highly empathic. It's as if they have thinner boundaries, separating them from other people's emotions, and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and tv shows. They're acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. In social settings they often focus on subjects like personal problems which others consider "too heavy"….
"The description of such characters as "thin-skinned" is meant metaphorically, but it turns out it is actually quite literal … skin conductance tests … High-reactive introverts sweat more."
Fabulous. Shoot me now. Yup, this book is all about me. (Except I love Criminal Minds, and when I spent a solid week a while back catching up on Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones I tended to walk away from my computer dazed at the enormous body count.)
I've gone through my life saying – or at least thinking – Don't you see that? Don't you hear that? Well, now I know – they, whoever they are at any given moment, might not see or hear – or feel or understand – whatever it is I do. I've said elsewhere that my sociopathic ex-boss loved to refer to me on every possible occasion as the office's "bleeding heart liberal". And here I learn that that hasn't been entirely a choice with me. I am wired to cry at Hallmark commercials and well up when someone else – even a complete stranger on tv – cries.
Yay. Bloody amygdala. Bloody pain in the arse amygdala.
How nice – how calm and unstressful and unteary – it must be to function at a lower level of empathy and heart-bleeding.
I loved the tidbits about the "Griselda moods" of Eleanor Roosevelt – "named for a princess in a medieval legend who retreated into silence". Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt – having two such standouts among "my people" makes it all seem a little less dreadful.
I loved the example of "The Bus to Abilene": "about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day and somebody says, 'I am bored. Why don't we go to Abilene?' When they get to Abilene, somebody says, 'You know, I didn't really want to go'. And the next person says, 'I didn't want to go – I thought you wanted to go' and so on…. The Bus to Abilene anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate an action – any action." The ones who speak up control the actions of the rest – especially those of us who hesitate to express an opinion.
This was a fascinating book; it was enlightening; it was clarifying. As I said at some point earlier, it is good in a way to know that, for the most part, I couldn't have handled a great many situations in my life very much differently. I’m wired to behave as I do. Also … knowing I'm not alone in this is, I suppose, also good. The introverts are the ones who don't network and make a splash, which means you can be in a room with ten introverts and two extraverts and it's the latter pair you – and the introverts – will remember later. Whereas each of those ten introverts will go away thinking they were the only ones who were uncomfortable and itching to get out. What a shame. If those ten introverts could get together, they might have a better time. Then again, getting together is antithetical to their nature, so … basically? The upshot? It sucks to be an introvert.
On the whole, though, I'm not sure what reading this accomplishes. It's startling to read (listen to) a really damned accurate description of my own personality, and to learn that there have been scientific studies done on people exactly like me to find out why we are like me.
It's nice to have confirmation that there are scientific reasons why to me the word "party" does not mean happy times, and that there are plenty of other people who feel the same way.
I think I understand better now why some people love Bosch and death metal and bull fights, when I prefer Vermeer and Billy Joel and the Puppy Bowl.
But I don't really need validation. I'm old(ish). I've (finally) reached a point in my life where I know my limits, know when I can push them and when I'd be better off not, know how to fake it when I have no choice. "Power"? In a world which disregards those who don't push themselves forward? No.
But it is boring. Not fond of the style, not interested in the story, more than apathetic about the characters. Abandoned.
Had to give up. Impossible to listen to. A year-long (or felt like it, at least) discussion on how not to sound old, and Oberon read as Scooby bloody Doo. Shoot me now.
Eighteen hours and eighteen minutes of this felt like so much longer, somehow. And has led to a review-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-this that seems almost as long … And ranty. That might make up for some of the length. And that's one of the reasons for my rating to be three stars instead of two – along with the fact that Juliet Stevenson's performance elevated it all, say whatever else I will say, the book did stir up emotions. Though perhaps not the emotions Miss Gaskell might have intended.
One of the quirks of my memory is that, while I know I saw the miniseries based on this book years ago, and I seem to remember liking it, I remember almost nothing about it. I know both book and film garnered effusive praise in the online community I belonged to at the time, which is why I ended up watching it, and why I spent that Audible credit on Juliet Stevenson's reading of the book. A current friend praises Ms. Stevenson to the skies – and she couldn't be more right, the performance is superb. Past and present friends praised the book to the skies… and … I … don't know.
I did some thinking about virgin goddesses, listening to this book. Depending on how you read her, Diana always was a bit of a bitchy prig; look at what happened to Medusa. Diana was a warrior, and there's no questioning her scornful courage, but while her insistence on retaining her virginity was a perfectly laudable intent, her actions in defense of it were sometimes a bit over the top, by modern eyes at least. Look at what happened to Actaeon.
Which brings me to Margaret. Her pride and her prejudices make any given Jane Austen character look absolutely logical and open-minded. She lowers herself to visit the poor and mortally ill Bessy Higgins – when she remembers – purely because she is guilted and shamed into it, and then after a while her interest is caught despite herself. Her self-centeredness and reluctance to lower herself by entering the poor Higgins home is countered only by a bold – slightly marvelous – reminder from Bessy that, eh, she never thought Margaret would show up anyhow; resignedly, Margaret determines that she will not allow this lower class girl to be able to crow over her. Afterward, she forgets to go as often as possible, or finds excuses not to. In another arena: when her first marriage proposal comes – poor mistaken fool that the man was – he was just lucky she didn't have Diana's powers or he would have suddenly been standing bewildered on four cloven hooves wondering why all those dogs were starting to drool. Her reactions to both men who dare - dare - to tell her their feelings are the same: outrage, scorn, offense. How could they ever dream of considering thinking of telling her they loved her? The cheek! The nerve! The effrontery!
For most of the book I was hoping and praying that Margaret would find herself a withered spinster at fifty, petting her cats and trying to convince herself that's the way she wanted it.
After only a few chapters, I was beginning to worry. I don't like these people – not just Margaret, almost all of them. My impression of Henry Lennox was very good – him I liked, and it seemed obvious to me that he loved Margaret. Her reaction? See above: contempt complete with a curled lip. I was revolted. She's a Victorian innocent, and unsettled by her first candidate for the role of lover – I get that. But rather than behave graciously, as I thought she was meant to do as a Victorian innocent, she squashes him like a bug. A really nasty bug. But she hopes they can still be friends. I wanted to slap her.
Then comes the upheaval at home. After a few semi-blissful days back in her country home, her father – who has been acting oddly – drops a bomb on her (and only on her): he is at odds with his church, and although he loves his work, loves his parish, loves his people, he cannot continue to serve them. The reasons for this are not explained – I suppose it is assumed that the reader will understand. I don't, and I never did have the chance to research the apparent schism. Without more information about what could cause such soul-searching, Hale comes off as a selfish, weak, pig-headed fool who injures the parish he supposedly loves by abruptly leaving it to someone else, and who injures his family by the manner in which he does so. His wife is a discontented self-centered annoyance, and he – apparently terrified at setting off a hellstorm – shirks the duty of telling her of his decision for weeks. I waited. I had a feeling I knew what was coming.
Hale has dragged his wife to a country parsonage where she is miserable, but he is happy and does good work. I'm not going to denigrate his reasons for not being able to continue – I don't know enough about the situation, so while it looks like a very poor decision to me – he won't be doing himself, his family, his cause, or his parishioners any good by up and leaving – it might be morally sound. Whatever the situation, he does everything in the most frustratingly, infuriatingly sheepishly underhanded manner. If he had said "I'm the man of the house, this is my decision, I have no choice within the scope of my conscience, I'm sorry if it inconveniences you but if you love me I hope you will support my decision" – that would have been manly. This … this is like a five year old who tells a fib about how that vase got broken, and then develops a fever from the guilt and scares the household half to death before finally tearfully confessing. He goes about writing letters and arranging his resignation and securing a replacement, all the while moping about the house taking up dramatic poses of despair without telling anyone why. By the time he finally pulls Margaret aside and spills it, it feels like one of those scenes of a drama queen drooping about with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead, sighing tremulous sighs, trying to force someone to ask her whatever's wrong – and no one does, so she's finally driven to just come out with it.
During the conversation with Margaret, he evades the subject of her mother until she finally corners him into revealing that … well… no, he hasn't told her. He's been making all these plans for weeks now and hasn't told her. Was he waiting for her to rise to his bait and ask him? She's at least as self-centered as he is, so there was never a chance of that; my impression of her is that if someone were to come to her bleeding from a head wound she would get upset about the stains on the carpet, and then faint and expect to be tended to first. Regardless, he hasn't told her – and I waited. And finally, there it was: "If I tell you all, perhaps you could break it to her tomorrow?" And Margaret's response? Should have been "Oh, no. Not a chance, mister. You should have told her – never mind me – ages ago, and you're gonna suck it up and go tell her right this second. This is your mess – you deal with it." But no.
The weakness of the man, and the passive strength of the girl – because she has no choice. She *can't* say no, or he'll – sadly – think less of her as a daughter – and, worse, she'll suffer pangs of guilt for ages thinking of herself as a bad daughter. It's ludicrous.
"They were at the lowest now; they could not be worse." – Margaret, pondering on their situation after their move.
What a disgusting line. How dare she think so? I suppose there's irony in the sentence, because things certainly will get worse for them, but to be surrounded by the poor, who are as likely to starve to death as not, and – far from realizing how well off they themselves are in comparison – to count the presence of those poor as part of why their own situation has degraded… Thoroughly ugly and distasteful.
I just did not like any of these people. JohnThornton is the closest – he seems open, honest, straightforward – but he has his prejudices and harshnesses. He is one of the only ones I can find any respect for - and even he goes completely unreasonable and hard-headed about his employees, insisting that an employer must be a dictator, and ignorance is the best state for a worker - i.e., a stupid worker is a docile worker. I simply do not find him likeable overall.
Mr. Hale is impossible. He has no backbone whatsoever – he makes Kleenex look strong and upstanding.
As the tale wore on, I began to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Hale, but she was still too vain and ridiculous to really warm up to, and every time I started to she waxed selfish and stupid again and I wanted to smother her with her own lace-lined pillows. 'Why, I should not be ill—be dying—if he had not taken me away from Helstone, to this unhealthy, smoky, sunless place.' What a hideous, lingeringly painful thing to say. Then there's the whole state of affairs regarding Frederick, Margaret's brother. He was part of a (perfectly righteous, of course) mutiny, and is now living far away under another name because of a very real danger that the authorities will catch up to him and hang him. But his mother wants to see him. Now. 'I charge you, Margaret, as you yourself hope for comfort in your last illness, bring him to me that I may bless him. Only for five minutes, Margaret. There could be no danger in five minutes. Oh, Margaret, let me see him before I die!' An hour later: 'Oh, Margaret, I'm so afraid of his coming! If he should be recognised! If he should be taken! If he should be executed, after all these years that he has kept away and lived in safety! I keep falling asleep and dreaming that he is caught and being tried.' Stupid cow. Half killing your husband with guilt isn't bad enough, but now trying to get your son killed, then heaping guilt upon your daughter's head for doing exactly what you told her to do. Stupid, selfish, disgusting cow.
Other characters: Bessy Higgins I liked somewhat, but she is a bit of a scary fanatic who threatens at one point to kill Margaret and has an unhealthy fixation on the Book of Revelation; her sister Mary is a cardboard cutout only serving to be clumsy and timid and make Bessy look better; their father might be a good man – he tries, with the strike – and I liked him in some scenes as well, but he can't stay away from the bottle, and he's hard. Martha is an auld harridan, Fanny is one to love to hate, Mrs. Thornton was possibly the most likeable and sympathetic, in an odd love-to-read-about-you-wouldn't-want-to-know-you sort of way, and … I liked Henry Lennox, dammit.
How do I feel about Margaret? Let me put it this way. My maternal grandmother's name was Margaret. It disgusts me that this creature shares her name. I kept wanting to like Margaret, and then her lip would curl again for some reason or other, or she'd forget about Bessie again, and I was back to wanting to slap her. She is a prig and a ludicrous snob, and not terribly bright, and can be outright vicious.
"She, who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these outspoken men." "These outspoken men" weren't wolf-whistling, or propositioning her, or commenting on her breasts, or anything I would expect to be called "impertinent". No. They were, rather gallantly I thought, giving her genuine compliments. Someone, quickly, call the police.
"Margaret thought she had seen the face of one of them before, and returned him a proud look of offended dignity for his somewhat impertinent stare of undisguised admiration." But see, if no one ever looked at her or found her attractive I expect she would be offended about that, too.
It's odd, because I'd swear that at some point at least one character (undoubtedly female) dismisses Margaret's looks as not beautiful but distinctive – yet she is constantly, and I do mean constantly, praised as just stunning. It did not take long for me to weary of all the compliments lavished on Margaret – not by her father or mother or her unlucky swains, but by the narrative voice. "Sweet" and "sunny" and "stately" and "elegant" … There was one lengthy description of her more than midway through – which I can't find now – which raised both my eyebrows. It's another place where I questioned whether Gaskell was injecting irony, but doesn't seem to be… "She was so gentle and ladylike in her mode of reception that her visitor was somewhat daunted". Wha - ? Since when is haughtiness and disdain and a quick temper part of the definition of "gentle" OR "ladylike"? It baffled me that this sort of thing: "her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve" – was presented as if to say "isn't she wonderful??? Because – no. Cold may go hand in hand with serene, but it's not a great pairing; if "haughty" is "lovely" then it's not the kind of lovely that's admirable. It's just absurd. Her "sweet patience" and "sweet forbearance" and yet still "her regal composure"… She's cold. She's sweet. She's sunny. She's haughty. She's patient and contemptuous and regal and – wait. She's wonderful no matter what and everyone comes to love her – even Mrs. Thornton comes to respect her … the narrator adores her …
Margaret is a Mary Sue.
That goes a long ways toward explaining my loathing of her.
I feel a little stupid that I can't tell if Elizabeth Gaskell means it or is being ironic or sarcastic when she speaks of Mr. Hale being a kindly and big-hearted gentleman, and when she describes Margaret as "sweet" despite all evidence to the contrary; one of the very last adjectives I would ever assign to Margaret is "sweet". I can't tell if the depiction of Margaret as largely inconsequential among her aunt's circle yet so astoundingly snobbish in Milton is meant to be social commentary. I hope so. I do hope so.
But there doesn't seem to be any of that. I don't know if it's having a 2012 perspective on a book published in 1855, but … bleh.
Elizabeth Gaskell's skill as a writer is, for me, in this, wildly erratic. On one (virtual) page she will present me with a bit of business I can't help but enjoy – and then a few minutes later I'll be rolling my eyes again.
Speaking of eyes, this is a partial list of how Margaret's eyes are described (thank you, Project Gutenberg):
- her large soft eyes
- the pure serenity of those eyes
- her large grave eyes
- her beautiful eyes
- yo'r clear steadfast eyes
- yo'r deep comforting eyes
- the large soft eyes that looked forth steadily at one object
- those beautiful eyes
- her deep, serious eyes
- Her grave sweet eyes
I'm sure there's more. It was just hilarious after a while. I know: Victorian. Still.
Other problems I had with the writing, in terms of pacing and plot: There is immense buildup to Frederick's coming, and then to his first meeting with his mother – and then it's skipped over, and he's gone in a minute. There is buildup to Bessy's death – and we hear about it after the fact. Then it's pretty much over, and Margaret certainly doesn't go to the funeral.
In reading people's reviews of books from other eras, I tend to become annoyed with complaints about what are now seen as completely wrong-headed mindsets. Prejudices, discrimination, particularly chauvinism, use of words which are now verboten – it's baffled me in the past, because if a book is about another time period – much less written in another time period – the characters in it cannot be expected to embrace Equal Rights and Women's Lib and so on.
Suddenly, though, with this book I'm feeling exactly what I've criticized others for expressing.
The casual racism – I put a quote in the updates somewhere – and rampant elitism were ugly and pervasive. Basically, anyone who was not exactly like or higher in rank than Margaret was worth only contempt until proven otherwise. The Irish, the poor, the country folk of Helstone and the city folk of Helstone, people in other walks of life who don't try to better themselves and those who do – everyone. It was just awful that Margaret had to be subjected to living among these inferior beings.
However I feel about the book, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the narration. It was wonderful. Juliet Stevenson uses breath and silence and pause like no other narrator I've come across yet. It's exquisite. And her characterizations were perfect. I can still hear the lines I've quoted above – especially Mrs. Hale moaning Margaret's name – in Juliet Stevenson's voice; I can't imagine how much more I would have disliked these characters if I hadn't been enjoying the reading so much. Oh – one thing I particularly enjoyed was that Mrs. Thornton's voice was made deeper than John's. I thought it was perfect. Accents were wonderful, tones were perfectly suited to the characters, I loved everything about the read. Ms. Stevenson officially became one of the narrators I will follow anywhere: I'll listen to anything as long as it's in her voice.
Even Elizabeth Gaskell.
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