Tag Archives: English novels


“Be your Rubicon big or small, clear or foul, it is the same: you shall not return.”

I hate to bad-mouth modern culture—that’s not true, I spend half my time doing exactly that.

Anyway, here’s a thought: the more I enjoy a work of “classic” literature, the sadder I feel when I think about the general deterioration of modern literary taste and talent. And I very much enjoyed the book I just read: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith. I had wanted to read one of Meredith’s novels for a long time. Published in 1859, Richard Feverel was one of his earliest novels. Do you know, the Los Angeles County Library system, which is an excellent library system with millions of books, doesn’t have a single copy of any of Meredith’s novels. And he was one of the foremost Victorian authors. I ended up ordering a used paperback copy online.

Richard Feverel was a young, spoiled aristocrat who inherited his father’s bull-headed stubbornness. The book is a romance, a social commentary on parental methods, and an exploration of society’s losing struggle with Nature. It achieves all these goals through a rich, dramatic plot and finely-drawn characters. These basic elements are brought to life through prose that is pure and dialogue that is varied and lifelike, all sharpened to a keen brilliance.

Meredith’s style is not radically distinguishable from Dickens or Eliot, but it does demand more thought and concentration than most Victorian romance. Richard Feverel is laced with allusions to both Christianity and ancient classical mythology and literature. Most of the main characters are well educated and tend to converse at an impressively-high intellectual level. Moreover, Meredith is prone to metaphor. Not all readers appreciate metaphor, but he uses the device so artfully and so faithfully that it forms a distinct layer of meaning in the novel. The sum result is a novel that kept me interested from start to finish, introduced me to a whole cast of unforgettable characters, and gave my brain some much-needed exercise.

So why does this make me sad? It makes me sad because nobody writes like that today. Some people might say that’s a good thing. That’s like saying it’s a good thing that today’s furniture is made of plywood and plastic instead of solid handcrafted hardwood. A lot of novels come and go in my house and I open them and start to read, in good faith. Of these, if they were written in the last thirty years, they almost always prove disappointing, in style, in character development, in originality, and life is too short to spend it reading things that don’t measure up to even the basic standards of earlier eras. There are some exceptions, thankfully. But when most people, and that includes most fiction writers, are raised on a steady diet of mass-produced popular literature, we can’t expect anything better when they, in turn, sit down to write the great American novel. Libraries and book stores with shelves full of glossy best-sellers and not a single George Meredith will not tend to produce great writers. They will produce writers of glossy best-sellers.

Is it worth it? . . .

1855 daguerreotype of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst (1819–1875)

“Is he the only man that hath set his life against a stake which may be not worth the winning? Another risks his life (and his honor, too, sometimes,) against a bundle of bank-notes, or a yard of blue ribbon, or a seat in Parliament; and some for the mere pleasure and excitement of the sport;”

From Henry Esmond, by Thackeray

About war . . .

“And now, having seen a great military march through a friendly country; the pomps and festivities of more than one German court; the severe struggle of a hotly contested battle, and the triumph of victory, Mr. Esmond beheld another part of military duty: our troops entering the enemy’s territory, and putting all around them to fire and sword; burning farms, wasted fields, shrieking women, slaughtered sons and fathers, and drunken soldiery, cursing and carousing in the midst of tears, terror, and murder. Why does the stately Muse of History, that delights in describing the valor of heroes and the grandeur of conquest, leave out these scenes, so brutal, mean, and degrading, that yet form by far the greater part of the drama of war?”

From Henry Esmond by Thackerary

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Similarity, a virtue in peas, is a vice in books.”

BOOK? . . . The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade (1861)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical Fiction/Adventure/Romance

ABOUT WHAT? . . . Set in the late 15th Century, The Cloister and the Hearth is a kind of English Three Musketeers. Following the travels and adventures of Gerard, the hero and lover, from his home in Holland to various parts of Europe and back, it is a swashbuckling epic weaving historical background with fictional family saga. Charles Reade was thoroughly English, but the story itself is steeped in the culture and history of the Continent, and, if nothing else, is an encyclopedic travelogue of Renaissance Holland, Germany, France and Italy. But, the book is a great deal more than that. There is gallantry, there is villainy. There is suspense, there is intrigue. There is humor, there is irony. There is insight into Christianity as well as Greek and Roman thought.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . I call it a masterpiece. Cloister is 900 pages of unparalleled adventure, cleverly constructed and brimming with memorable characters drawn with an artist’s eye. The book is rich in factual detail; Reade was known for his painstaking research, he is said to have amassed thousands of notes and documents for many of his works. And what sets this work apart, also, is Reade’s style: he is a master of Renaissance-style prose. The book is almost Shakespearian in its wit and charm, in the lyrical quality of its language.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . It takes a mighty good book to keep me reading for 900 pages. If you like anything written by Alexander Dumas, then you would like this. If you don’t, you won’t.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . I would like to read some of Reade’s other works, just to see how they compare to his historical masterpiece.

“Mother, dear, don’t fuss over me . . .”

Almost one hundred years ago, this was the young Englishman’s declaration of independence from The Mater:

I don’t really want to have my bed choked with hot-water bottles whenever I sneeze, and be given whiskies and lemon last thing; or to have my suits forever reft away to be cleaned, and all that. If I want a whisky I can ask the butler for it . . .”

Ann Bridge, Illyrian Spring (1935)

You Rang M Lord.jpg

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

” I think the Church Catechism has a good deal to do with the unhappy relations which commonly even now exist between parents and children. That work was written too exclusively from the parental point of view; the person who composed it did not get a few children to come in and help him; he was clearly not young himself, nor should I say it was the work of one who liked children. . .”

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpg

BOOK? . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler (1903)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Realism/Satire

ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a multigenerational family saga of 19th Century rural England, but it’s much more than just a story about a family’s historical struggles. The family is a typical one full of ordinary people who make the parish church their means of livelihood and the foundation of their self-identity. But, despite their ordinary lives, the insights Butler gives us about such families are extraordinary.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Thanks to its eloquent narration and its depiction of the traditional way the older generation raises and instructs the younger generation, The Way of All Flesh is one of the great novels exposing the cruelty of strict religions and other hypocrisies. The book dared to say things rarely, or never before, said about established religion and Victorian morals. The book was monumental in its impact on modern thinking. It was a work of humanist philosophy that used a fictional story as its vehicle.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. . . The plot is slow but it’s a slow-motion slap in the face. The characters are unremarkable but that’s how Butler needed them to be, and they’re as well-drawn and real as a portrait on a wall. The dialogue is sparse and the prose is unadorned. But Butler’s message is full of sympathy and kindness.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . The finished manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty years until Samuel Butler gave it to a friend and as a dying wish asked the friend to arrange for it to be published, finally. It was published a year after Butler’s death.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . “Lady Audley’s Secret”, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

“Circumstantial evidence,” continued the young man, as if he scarcely heard Lady Audley’s interruption—”that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . “Sensation” fiction, early detective novel or mystery

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An unarguably beautiful young woman (with a “Secret”) who marries into a wealthy English family, one of whose members, an idle bachelor solicitor named Robert Audley, is roused into amateur sleuthing by his unflagging loyalty to a childhood friend in trouble. Not surprisingly, Robert cannot help his troubled friend without boldly piercing the Lady’s veil of secrecy.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret was a popular novel in the early days of the detective or mystery genre (what they referred to as sensation fiction). Wilkie Collins was a better known contemporary of Braddon, although Braddon’s books were very numerous and successful. One of her mentors was Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night.”).

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yes, in terms of pure enjoyment it ranks high on my recent reading list. It’s an excellent detective novel. It does not deal with social issues or deep themes, it’s just for entertainment. But, its style, construction and characterization are on a par with many well-respected Victorian authors who concerned themselves with weightier matters.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The one oddity about the book is its frequent disparagement of women: both by the narrator and the protagonist. Certainly these critical views of women were not the views of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. My hunch is that she incorporated this attitude into the novel either as a sort of private joke, or as a way of appeasing male readers and reviewers who, in those days, often harbored strong prejudices against women writers.

Learning about love in Alexandria

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

Maybe I’m wrong, but . . .

Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.

I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.

So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.

100 years too late

We arrived early today for our relaxation class at the Wellness center, and when we walked into the communal kitchen I was instantly transported to an English teashop. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who has lived here in California for years, was sipping coffee and chatting with an elderly gentleman who looked like something out of Jane Austen. The scene reminded me profoundly of something I have felt for most of my life: I was born in the wrong century and probably the wrong hemisphere.

Where my heart really says I belong is England in the time of Dickens. I should have been born and raised in the English countryside, maybe in Hardy’s Wessex country, or somewhere along the route of Mr. Pickwick’s famous wanderings. Wuthering Heights might have been a suitable habitat for my taste. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I can’t help feeling that those places, those times, with their particular culture, customs, and values, are more my soulmates than these modern American times.

I don’t know whether our English friend or the elderly gentleman with the lilting accent have even opened a Victorian novel since their youth. But they certainly took me back to the world that I love to escape to more than any other literary landscape. I can’t alter my date or place of birth, but I can grab a good book and fantasize once in a while.

A book you can put down

I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her  by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.

It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!

If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.

Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.

Lucky us

He must be out of his mind to be talking to a girl like this like this. —

I like that line, and somehow it illustrates the awkward, quirky, funny dialogue and inner thoughts of the title character in Kingsley Amis’  Lucky Jim (1954), the quintessential English campus novel.  More than any other novel I’ve ever read, it had me wishing that I was the casting director for the movie adaptation.  I’m pretty sure that I would have cast Danny Kaye, who incidentally could do a better British accent than most Britons.  He would have been a spectacular Jim Dixon.   For a modern version, it would have to be Hugh Grant.

Anyone have any other suggestions for the role?