Category Archives: 100 Book Challenge

Book 14: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

‘In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs’

The love triangle: that endless source of artistic inspiration. For centuries this simple romantic entanglement has been a fruitful theme for literature, perhaps because it remains a common predicament for people in all walks of life. Edith Wharton, however, makes this archetype fresh and compelling in a novel that grips you firmly by the shoulders from the first page and refuses to let you go.

The Age of Innocence is, to put it simply, a great yarn. Much significance is placed on the crafting of beautiful sentences – and don’t get me wrong, Wharton is adept at that too – but there is still something to be said for great storytelling. We all love to be enveloped in a gripping narrative, picked up and placed in another world; that sense of being transported is the main reason that many people read. And Wharton is, above all, a consummate storyteller.

Her wonderful narrative centres around Newland Archer, a respectable young man from a respectable New York family, obediently following the path that has been laid out for him and abiding by all the unspoken rules of old Manhattan society. He is engaged to the pretty, seemingly perfect May Welland, but someone is about to shake things up. The arrival of May’s socially shamed and unconventional cousin Ellen Olenska turns the heads of all New York – Newland’s head in particular.

From here this could be a straightforward tale of the fickle man being seduced away from his saintly fiancée by the exotic seductress, but Wharton is much more sophisticated than that. Ellen is far from the femme fatale; fragile and essentially good, she does everything she can to resist the mutual, undeniable desire that builds between her and Newland. May, meanwhile, for all her sweetness and innocence, is not as simple as she looks when it comes to hanging on to her man. Newland, to complete the trio, is neither dastardly philanderer nor entrapped fool, though he certainly lacks conviction. In other words, none of Wharton’s characters are perfect, but any authorial judgement remains wisely suspended.

While the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ plot between Newland and Ellen is relentlessly enthralling, one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its depiction of the pettiness and fakery of New York’s high society. It is this endless routine of social engagements and the suffocating expectation to stick to social norms (which are, ironically, far from natural behaviour) that makes Ellen’s way of looking at the world so refreshing. If the novel has any hero then it is Ellen, and the reader is as fascinated by and drawn to her as Newland is.

On the flip side, May is equally intriguing in her seemingly blind conformity. She is the physical embodiment of the society from which Newland feels the impulse to rebel, raised for the sole purpose of attracting a husband and trained to be blithely accepting and submissive. It is a worrying portrait, and one that becomes even more unsettling when May is unmasked as having more between her ears than we might have supposed. May is contentedly complicit in the existence that has been plotted out for her, doing everything in her power to trap a husband who she knows very well wants to get away from her.

All in all, The Age of Innocence achieves two of those golden rules of a great read: it is (to use a frequently abused but in this case justified cliché) impossible to put down and lingers in the mind after the last page has been turned.

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Book 13: Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

‘Cranford is in possession of the Amazons.’

Confession time again: I adore costume dramas. Bonnets, corsets, stiff upper lips – can’t get enough of them. Give me Downton Abbey and a nice glass of red in the evening and I’m a happy woman. Same goes for the books – the Austens and the Brontes and, of course, the Gaskells – so this was a bit of a treat for me; a not-so-guilty reading pleasure, if you will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the above admission, I had already watched the BBC’s television version, with Dames Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins at their bonnet-clad best. The TV series was in fact an amalgamation of three different Elizabeth Gaskell novels, adding many more characters and incidents to Gaskell’s quaint and amusing tale of country life. Despite its smaller pool of characters, however, Cranford‘s pages still manage to hum with bustle and colour.

The plot – if there can be said to be a plot in what is essentially an entertaining series of loosely linked sketches – is narrated by Mary Smith, a frequent guest in Cranford, and primarily concerns the experiences of Miss Matty Jenkyns (the unfailingly excellent Dame Judi, for fans of the TV version). Daughter of the town’s late rector, Miss Matty was once a beauty but missed her chance of a happy marriage thanks to the interference of her family and has now settled into life as an old maid in Cranford, leading a modest and quietly refined existence alongside her formidable spinster sister.

Mary Smith is of that long literary line of narrators who tell us a great deal about their friends and surroundings but next to nothing about themselves. We do not even discover this wallflower narrator’s name until the novel is almost at a close, but Gaskell’s simple device cleverly gives us an intimate, unobtrusive window on the lives of the women of Cranford.

I say women, because Cranford is dominated by a set of memorable and fiercely independent female characters. When men do appear on the scene they are almost invariably bumbling fools, disappointing sweethearts or mere irritations, quickly passing away, upping sticks or fading into insignificance. The Cranford women have a rather dim view of matrimony; the only men on whom one can rely are family members, who also seem to have that unfortunate habit of dying or moving on to pastures new.

Miss Matty herself is kind, thoughtful, innocent and sweet almost to a fault – in short, the sort of old woman you’d like to have as your gran. Not a great deal happens in her quiet, sheltered country life, but the beauty of Gaskell’s writing is that it crafts perfectly formed, candy-like slices of narrative out of the mundane. In many ways, the succession of little incidents in Cranford remind me of Jane Austen’s Emma, a slow-burner that paints a vivid portrait of aristocratic rural life and was criticised by reviewers of the time for being uneventful. Now both it and Cranford are rightly recognised as delicious portions of nineteenth century life.

The various minor incidents in the lives of the Cranford residents are quite hilarious in their own right (try imagining a cow in flannel pyjamas without laughing) but it is Gaskell’s subtle and touching portrayals of women’s lives that are more fascinating. While life in Cranford may seem endlessly entertaining and in some senses idyllic, none of the female characters can be said to have entirely happy lives. They are all either widows or spinsters, struggling to live on modest means while upholding their all-important ‘gentility’. What Gaskell has achieved is a portrait of female life that manages to be beautiful without glossing over the warts; day to day life as woman in Victorian England, and particularly as a single woman, was not easy. In this sense Cranford deserves more recognition as a document of female experience in a time when women’s voices often failed to be heard.

So put on the kettle (or pour that cheeky glass of wine), settle down on the sofa and surrender to literary costume-drama indulgence with the knowledge that there is far more to this novel than bonnets and crinolines. And there’s always Downton Abbey for later.

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Too Many Books, Too Little Time

Reader, it has been too long. I realise that this is, of course, my fault. I was guilty of that classic flaw of having eyes too big for my belly and foolishly set a ridiculously ambitious timescale for my 100 book challenge. For a while it was plain sailing, but I neglected to factor in the vital consideration that full-time workers – alas! – have a lot less time on their hands than students. Who would have thunk?

Reading on the commute is all very well and worked rather nicely for a while, but as the weeks have worn on I’ve had more and more demands on my time and less precious minutes for reading. I know, excuses excuses. I can happily say, however, that so far in my challenge every single page has been worth it. I’ve enjoyed each and every one of the books I’ve read so far and can only wish that I had Bernard’s Watch to give myself more hours in the day to turn the pages. Sadly for me, Bernard isn’t giving it up any time soon.

But fear not, dear reader; I will continue to work my way through the list. It might not get finished in 100 weeks – heck, it might not even get finished in 2oo weeks! – but it will get finished. I like to think of this not as a defeat, but as a strategic withdrawal. I also clearly have a neglected calling as a politician/spin doctor/army general.

Keep an eye out soon for blogs on Beloved, The Age of Innocence and Cranford, all of which I have read (and, incidentally, loved to bits) but not had the time to write about. And until then, in the intonation of Tess and Brucie at the end of Strictly Come Dancing, keep reading!

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Book 12: Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

‘She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.’

Virginia Woolf is a bit like Marmite. Not a conventional way to open a discussion about Mrs Dalloway, perhaps, but I stand by it. Her distinctive, stream of consciousness style tends to polarise readers – you either love it or you hate it (see the Marmite connection now?). I have to admit that, having previously read and enjoyed To the Lighthouse, I fall firmly into the love camp.

That’s certainly not to say that Woolf is always an easy read. Her style often requires an effort of concentration, but any work put in more than pays off. Thought processes are compared more than once throughout the course of Mrs Dalloway to a bird hopping from branch to branch – the exact quotations elude me – and that is a very fitting simile for the experience of reading Woolf. She is a master at replicating the rapid, flighty and sometimes random fluctuations of thought, transporting readers deep into the minds of her characters while maintaining a third person narrative voice. How she does it I’m not quite sure, but it is an art to be marvelled at.

Reading Woolf reminds me of a speech from the end of the first act of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. It is one of the most moving and insightful moments of a play that tends to focus – quite brilliantly, it must be admitted – on being simultaneously funny and clever. Hector, giving an individual lesson to Posner, describes the way in which literature can reach out to you and communicate a thought that exactly mirrors a thought you have had yourself, ‘as if a hand has come out and taken yours’.

Woolf is continually extending hands to readers, showing human nature in all its conflicting and complex reality. We are complicated beings with contradictory and often selfish motivations, something that Woolf is remarkably honest about. Her characters are all slightly eccentric, but they are realistic in their eccentricities. Individuals in Woolf are laid completely bare, revealing how we are all essentially slightly odd in our own unique ways.

Clarissa Dalloway, the central protagonist, appears controlled and conventional on the surface, but hidden beneath that polished exterior is a rich emotional life. She is a politician’s wife, perfect hostess and confident socialite, but during a day in the company of her thoughts we learn how much she lives in the past and discover some of her buried psychological issues. By delving into the thoughts of her heroine, Woolf can be far more frank than would otherwise be possible, disclosing details such as Clarissa’s occasional attraction to other women and her continuing attachment to a childhood sweetheart – scandalous thoughts for a respectable married woman to be having in 1923.

Contrasted with Clarissa and also presented as a sort of double is Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War hero who is suffering from deep psychological damage. He is an illustration of what happens when the internalised becomes external, when control is not maintained and a person becomes classified as mad. It is clear to readers that Septimus is suffering from a classic case of shell-shock, but he is either misdiagnosed or shamefully neglected by doctors. While Woolf’s portrayal of a traumatised character is skilful, her point is slightly lacking in subtlety. Very much as the pointed Oedipal relationship between James and his father in To the Lighthouse picks up on Freud’s theories, Woolf is clearly taking up a very current issue in a Britain still painfully feeling its war wounds.

For a novel that encompasses less than twenty four hours, Mrs Dalloway is extraordinarily rich and textured. Rather than plot, what becomes important in this mini masterpiece is the tide of memories, which pull particularly strongly on Clarissa. Woolf’s book, although it seems on the surface to be a closely focused study of a few characters, deals with a number of wider questions: the difficulty of recovering after an event on the scale of the First World War, both for individuals and the nation, how to cope with emotional scars, what love really means, how a relationship is sustained – I could go on and on. But most of all it reaches out that hand and pulls you head first into a perfectly constructed psychological world.

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Book 11: Brighton Rock, Graham Greene

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found’

Graham Greene’s vivid, grubby vision of Brighton’s seething underworld gives a whole new dimension to the sunny – or more often than not leaden-skied – seaside town. Amusements, seagulls and fish and chips on the pier it ain’t. And it will make you look at those innocuous sticks of candy in a whole new way.

Greene’s tense thriller traces the fallout from the murder of Hale, a journalist with links to the town’s criminal network. He is killed by seventeen-year-old Pinkie, all curdling resentment and soured youth, desperate to prove himself as newly established leader of his small gang. The murder seems to come off without a hitch, but Pinkie had not counted on two very different but equally dangerous obstacles.

The vivacious, life-embracing Ida Arnold was the last person to see Hale alive and is not one to let a mystery drop, taking up the scent faster than a prize bloodhound. Rose, meanwhile, is a young innocent who becomes unwittingly tangled up in the crime when she stumbles across a piece of incriminating evidence and is increasingly drawn in by Pinkie’s cold attempts to silence her. All the while, rival mob leader Mr Colleoni is closing in and he doesn’t like anyone else causing a stir on his patch …

What distinguishes this from any other edge-of-your-seat crime thriller, however, is the quality of Greene’s evocative, occasionally even poetic prose and the high plane on which his protagonists’ moral battles are fought. For Pinkie and Rose, both Roman Catholics with a rudimentary religious education, their crimes are lofty matters of mortal sin and eternal damnation – never can these children of bleak council estates quite envisage a heaven, but the flames are all too real.

Placed in direct opposition is Ida, who has a no-nonsense, common sense moral compass of Right and Wrong with capital letters, combined with a rather earth-bound understanding of what exactly these concepts might involve. Murder is Wrong without doubt, but a few glasses of port in the afternoon and a quick grope in the back of a taxi are all part of life’s harmless pleasures.

Greene’s own standing in all of this is a little ambiguous. Famously Catholic himself, religion is a recurring theme in his novels (and his plays, such as the long neglected Potting Shed, though perhaps someone should have told him to stick to the day job). In Brighton Rock, however, it is difficult to identify with the principal believers, Pinkie and Rose. For all their contemplation of hell, they are still content to yield to their respective sinful desires – Pinkie’s for blood, Rose’s for Pinkie.

The one hope for salvation is confession before the end, but if an insincere act of repentance is sufficient to gain passage to heaven then what does this say about Greene’s God? As much as Greene emphasises the religious understanding of Rose and Pinkie, it is inevitably the rather lower motivations of Ida that readers find themselves sympathising with.

In addition to his moral ambiguity, Greene refuses to give us a hero in this novel. Pinkie is lost in a deep pool of hatred, fear and ambition, Rose is weak, naive and blinded by her irrational love for Pinkie, and even kind-hearted Ida is driven more by pursuit of physical pleasures than by any desire for truth or justice. For her, hunting down a murderer is no different to any other amusement that might be sought in the pleasure haven of Brighton.

Each character is a unique struggle to identify with, which should be a barrier to enjoying the novel but strangely isn’t. Instead the characters are alluringly intriguing and complex, puzzles to attempt in vain to solve. As the thriller reaches its climax and flows away like the tide over the pebbles on Brighton beach, you are left fixed with the stare of Pinkie’s cold, brutal, older-than-his-years eyes, continuing to muse frustratingly over this lost and damaged soul.

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