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Little reviews on little (and big!) books

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

the-ladies-paradiseCan anyone tell I’m a Zola fan yet? This time, I’m writing about yet another novel in his Rougon-Macquart series, The Ladies’ Paradise or Au Bonheur des Dames. Published in 1883, this novel is Zola’s attempt at describing the relatively unheard-of at the time department store. Modelled on the Bon Marché, Paris’s first big shop constructed of different departments catering to all, Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise is epic in both its reputation and stature.

The novel centres around both the owner of the Paradise, Octave Mouret, and one of the shopgirls, Denise Baudu. Mouret has inherited the Paradise from his first wife and strives to develop his store to become the most powerful in all of Paris. As a result of this, we see the effect this appearance of the department store has on the small businesses which surround the Paradise. Mouret’s monster destroys all in its path in order to be successful – he really doesn’t care whose building or whose livelihood (or indeed who) he kills in the process. Mouret is extremely fiscally motivated, always thinking about bigger and better sales and advancements that he can make within the store to rival his competitors until they eventually give up.

Then we have Denise. She is the niece of one of the shop owners whose business is threatened by the construction of the Paradise. Against her uncle’s wishes, she applies for a job as a shopgirl at the Paradise in order to support her two brothers after the death of their parents. However, all is not plain sailing when she starts her new job. She is victimised due to her plain appearance when she is sent to work in the Ladieswear department. Believe me, this is the ultimate clique! Her dowdy dress is ridiculed and her inability to style her own hair any other way is a source of amusement for the girls who consistently refer to her as unkempt. Zola writes: ‘A further torment was that the whole department was against her. To her physical martyrdom was added the surreptitious persecution of her colleagues. Two months of patience and gentleness had not so far disarmed them. She was the object of wounding remarks and cruel tricks, and constant slights which, in her need for affection, cut her to the quick… Later on, as she quickly became accustomed to the workings of the shop, and proved herself to be a remarkable saleswoman, there was indignant amazement, and from then on the girls conspired never to let her have a good customer.’ Day in, day out, Denise is faced with the 19th century equivalent of mean girls – girls who know the best customers to snatch up before Denise can get her hands on them. In this way, Zola demonstrates not only real life (I’m sure we’ve all had to deal with people like that!), but also the ruthlessness of business and consumerism in not just Victorian Paris but around the world.

This ruthlessness is described as necessity throughout the novel. You can’t run a successful store without some cutbacks! Anybody who is seen as dead weight is instantly thrown out of the Paradise family. And a family it seems to be as the staff all live under the same roof and dine together. Zola writes of the method in which those are fired from the Paradise: ‘In any case, the salesmen accepted their precarious position, for they were forced to do so by necessity and habit. Ever since their arrival in Paris they had roamed about, beginning their apprenticeship in one shop, finishing it in another, getting dismissed or leaving of their own accord on the spur of the moment, as chance and their interests dictated. When the factories lay idle, the workers were deprived of their daily bread; and this took place with the unfeeling motion of a machine – the useless cog was calmly thrown aside, like an iron wheel to which no gratitude is shown for services rendered. So much the worse for those we did not know how to look after themselves!’ Zola’s analysis of consumerism in the novel does not paint the most ideal of lives. Granted, when one is in the right job and position, the rewards can be great, but one false move can decimate years of training. The Paradise is somewhat uncaring in this aspect. Mouret wants people in his store that are fully committed but when supervisors and others deem a member of staff to be useless to the giant wheel that is their department store, the member of staff i.e. the cog is cast aside with little regard for his circumstances. The Paradise is full of people who are back-stabbing each other to get the top, as discussed in the overview that: ‘everyone in the department, from the newcomer dreaming of becoming a salesman to the senior salesman coveting the manager’s job, had only one fixed idea – to dislodge the colleague above them in order to climb a rung of the ladder, to devour him if he became an obstacle; and it was as if this struggle of appetites, this pressure of one against another, was what made the machine run smoothly, stimulating business and igniting the blaze of success which was astonishing Paris.’ This monster store, described as ‘colossal and fantastic’ can be the means to ruin or promotion, depending on how you play your cards.

Mouret’s sole focus, as I have said, is money. His days are spent surveying his store and trying to come up with new ways to get the customers in the door. The only way he can think to do this is to appeal as much as he can to female shoppers. They are the ones who will spend the big francs on silks, gloves, homewares, anything he throws in front of them so he thinks. The reader is informed that ‘Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement.’ He opens new sections of his department store just for her. He develops new ways of enticing Woman into departments designed specifically for children in order to get even more money from her pocket. A despicable way to trade some may say, but I’m sure a most successful one! He starts sales in his shop on the cheapest of items so any woman shopper would think she urgently needed that item – it must be brilliant, it’s on sale! Then we see the introduction of his returns policy – you can always try it and bring it back, knowing full well they wouldn’t! Say what you will about him, Mouret is a fantastic businessman! He doesn’t miss a trick! He is believed to be ‘drinking the money of Paris as [he would] drink a glass of water.’ Constantly moving departments around so customers would have to walk through certain areas to get where they wanted to go – maybe on the way they could pick up a bargain here and there. Zola portrays Mouret as quite simply the master of the shop, as the master of consumerism! His sales are even described as generating paroxysms in his customers! His sales mean the shops are crammed full of people, resulting in excessive heat and even fevers amongst the women. He knows how to get the money out of his customers without them even realising they’re being duped. As Mouret states himself: ‘Doesn’t Paris belong to women, and don’t the women belong to us?’

I think The Ladies’ Paradise is one of those novels where you can just picture everything. I love books like that! Zola is one of very few writers that I have come across who can easily paint a glorious picture, even if it’s of the most disgusting of things as we can read elsewhere! Here, his description of the department store is one of the most beautiful you can imagine. He details the gilding of the store, the elevators lined with velvet, the sheer aesthetic pleasure of the shop never ceases to be breathtaking. At the end of the day of Mouret’s biggest ever sale, the setting sun sets the inside of the shop ablaze: ‘A sheet of fire was running through the great central gallery, making the staircases, the suspension bridges, and the hanging iron lacework stand out against a background of flames. The mosaics and the ceramics of the friezes were sparkling, the greens and reds of the paintwork were lit up by the fires from the gold so lavishly applied. It was as if the displays… were now burning in live embers.’ The most magnificent of descriptions, I’m sure you’ll agree! You can just picture the low sun burning through the shop showing the devastation and desolation brought on the store by the shoppers. Yet again, this imagery is what draws not only the reader into the Paradise but also the shoppers. No wonder they are amazed and enthralled by what they experience in this grand building and most regal of palaces! Mouret could offer them anything and they would take it. Zola’s introduction of the grandeur of the department store is a comment on what he describes as the new Paris – a Paris driven by consumerism and wealth – a Paris driven by the excessive need to have.

As predictable as it is, the reader witnesses Denise’s looks capture the attention of Mouret. Try as he might, he cannot get this girl out of his head. The man who wants for nothing, but this is the one girl who we will see continually refuse his advances! He watches her develop in style and confidence, offering her promotions and more money in order to appease her, yet she still will not yield. Mouret is a man who ‘only had to stoop to get the others’ and here we see the resilience of a woman who chooses not to be gossiped about. The whole store knows Mouret worships Denise, leading them to speculate she already has a lover. In reality, Denise does feel something for Mouret, feeling terrible and ashamed when she may have done something to disappoint him. She simply doesn’t want to be the next in a long line of Mouret’s women whom he courts and dumps the next day. She is a woman of morals and standards and as such is highly respectable in her resolve and determinations. In some ways, Denise almost despises herself for the way she feels: ‘Mouret had invented this mechanism for crushing people, and its brutal operation shocked her. He had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, he had despoiled some and killed others; yet she loved him for the grandeur of his achievement, and each time he committed some fresh excess of power, despite the flood of tears which overwhelmed her at the thought of the misery of the vanquished, she loved him even more.’ She sees businesses ruined, men driven out of their homes, money offered to get people to move on so he can build more wings to his store, she sees her own uncle’s business be driven into the ground by Mouret but still she cannot shake her feelings for him. Perhaps she is altogether impressed by his acumen to grow and change constantly to adapt, like Denise in some ways. She came from nothing and works her way up within the Paradise through sheer determination.

Most notably to me is Zola’s description of the store towards the end of the novel. We read of the attraction and pull of the Paradise to the citizens of Paris, but only a few pages from the end do we hear a comparison with religion. Zola writes: ‘And it was he who possessed them all like that… His creation was producing a new religion; churches, which were being gradually deserted by those of wavering faith, were being replaced by his bazaar. Women came to spend their hours of leisure in his shop, the thrilling, disturbing hours which in the past they’d spent in the depths of a chapel… If he had closed his doors, there would have been a rising in the street, a desperate outcry from the worshippers whose confessional and altar he would have abolished.’ This comparison between the religion of consumerism and actual religion is amazing. People in search of a new faith have left the churches and instead found the luxury of shopping. Now I know some people can be obsessed with shopping (I know I am!) but Zola’s description here is incredible. Those looking for something to believe in have chosen Mouret’s store to salve their souls! Ironic really, since the way he conducts his Paradise and the way in which he treats his staff is anything but Christian! Yet here we have men, women and children ploughing through his doors day in day out, lining his pocket with money. Mouret knows they will return again and again if he does just enough to entice them.

Overall, I thought this novel was great! We’re all familiar in this day and age with the modern department store but it was a novelty in Victorian Paris. It must have been a sight to behold, this fictional colossal building of marble and gold forever expanding along a small street in France! Yet again, Zola describes the effect of this consumerism on the rich and the poor expertly. As we can read in his other novels, he never shirks away from reporting on the good and the bad. I will let you read the novel to find out what actually happens in the end but I really do suggest you pick it up if you can! Oh, and I’ve also just started the BBC series called The Paradise which I believe roughly follows the story – so far the first episode is rather different but I’ll keep going! Let me know if any of you have already watched it!

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A Mummer’s Wife by George Moore

This novel was originally published in 1884, but several sources cite it as officially being available to the public in 1885. Due to its naturalistic composition and content, Moore’s novel was deemed unsuitable to be included in Mudie’s library and subsequently went under several reconstructions and rewritings in order for it to be acceptable. Therefore, I have noticed that through studying it at University, reference books sometimes contain reworked moments which are different to that which I was reading! I have already talked about Moore’s writing style in my review of his novel, Esther Waters, which is equally as good as A Mummer’s Wife. This novel is somewhat different. I, for one, didn’t feel as much empathy for the main character of Kate Ede as I did for Esther Waters. I will explain why later 🙂 As I have already acknowledged, Moore drew a great deal of his writing style from Émile Zola so his stories can sometimes be highly descriptive with moments which wouldn’t normally be mentioned in typical Victorian novels. Moore opens his story with a quotation which accurately depicts the events in this novel, but could also be used in reference to Zola’s novels like L’Assommoir and Thérése Raquin (see earlier reviews). The quotation is from Victor Duruy’s L’Introduction Générale à l’Histoire de France and reads ‘Change the surroundings in which man lives, and, in two or three generations, you will have changed his physical constitution, his habits of life, and a goodly number of ideas.’ What’s funny is that the characters in Moore’s works as well as Zola’s don’t need a few generations to change themselves – the transformation takes place during the course of the novel and this is what I will show with the character of Kate Ede

What’s first noticeable is that Moore doesn’t name his novel after his title character, his leading lady if you will. Esther Waters gets the story of her life named after her, but Moore doesn’t choose to name this tale Kate Ede. Instead she is simply depicted as a mummer’s wife – not even THE mummer’s wife. The only reason that I could potentially see for this is that Esther’s tale is full of promise and hope and she fights her way out of every situation whereas Kate is more of a passive character to a certain extent. Granted, she fights but it is with others, not against what eventually becomes of her life.

Kate Ede is the wife of a draper. He’s asthmatic and doesn’t really excite her. She dreams of living in a world that Byron or Shelley have created, perceiving herself to be simply a drudge and a slave in the life she is currently leading. That is, until Mr Dick Lennox shows up to lodge with them. Lennox is an actor and is deemed far more interesting than Kate’s husband. He can regale others with stories of the theatre and travelling – the life that Kate would love to escape to. The novel shows the perils of dreaming of a different and more exciting life as soon Kate falls for Lennox and they begin an affair. The moment where she enters Lennox’s room for the first time to spend the night with him is one of those moments where different editions of the novel depict it in different terms. In my edition, Moore writes:

‘Although she could not see his face she felt his breath on her neck. Strong arms were wound about her, she was carried forward, and the door shut behind her. Only the faintest gleam of starlight touched the wall next to the window; the darkness slept profoundly on landing and staircase, and when the silence was again broken, a voice was heard saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done this! What shall I tell my husband if he asks me where I’ve been?” “Say you’ve been talking to me about my bill, dear. I’ll see you in the morning.”‘

This is ultimately the section of the novel that was deemed to make it unsuitable reading material for the Victorian public. Granted, there is nothing explicit here, but for the time period, the very implication of Kate’s actions would be enough to cause censorship on Moore’s work. From this point on, Kate’s life is forever changed. She cannot bear to be without Dick Lennox and runs away with him and his travelling theatre group to see the world. On the morning that they are due to leave, Dick’s aloof attitude start to frustrate her – this is the biggest thing she has ever done and he starts to dawdle before heading onto the train. However, this is the first real glimpse we get into Kate’s interchangeable nature. She watches him sit and eat his breakfast, urging him to hurry for fear of being stopped, but then we see that:

‘Her distress of mind fluctuated. After a passionate appeal for haste, her anxiety would slip from her, and she would abandon herself to the delight of dreaming of the time when she would see the landscape passing behind her, feel the wind in her face, and know that she was being carried as fast as steam could take her to a remote country, from whence there is no returning.’

As the novel progresses, we see Kate’s life play out with her runaway lover. He becomes busier, continuing to leave her in whatever place they are staying with only herself for company. There are moments where Moore analyses the type of person Kate has become. He writes:

‘These were moments in which a little childish rage boiled like a kettle within her, and she would clench her hands, and a mad instinct of scratching burned like lightning through the muscles of her arms… what annoyed her even more… was the absolute unconsciousness he always displayed of having ever done anything wrong… she seized him by the fuzzy hair, and pulled until the tears came into his eyes. It was, however, half in fun, and Kate burst out laughing soon after; but Dick, unobservant as he was, could not help looking at her in astonishment. The change that had come over her since she left Hanley was apparent. Physically the change was for the better… Psychologically the change was even more marked. The broad, simple lines on which her view of life and things had formerly been based, had become twisted, broken, and confused… The middle-class woman, in a word, had disappeared.’

Moore’s analysis of Kate’s transformation is extremely interesting. He essentially uses her as a case study of women who commit adultery, get a divorce, and lose their morals. By becoming a woman of the world, by earning her own money through stage work and by being part of the new institution of divorce, Moore shows Kate to be exhibiting behaviours unsuited to that of the typical Victorian woman. Not only that, but he also takes away her rationality. He develops Kate into an alcohol-dependent and violent woman who lashes out at her new lover presumably through the guilt of her own actions. Dick Lennox is shown to be carefree, but now in this relationship, he walks on eggshells for fear of an argument or violence. On several occasions, Moore depicts the violent nature of his female protagonist, showing her to be irrational. One night, after drinking, she blames Dick for her situation, claiming that he lured her away from her husband. When he tries to hold her and reason with her, she lashes out. Dick suggests that she shouldn’t drink any more wine, and the result is as follows:

‘This was the climax, and, her pretty face curiously twisted… So astonished was Dick at this burst of passion that he loosed for a moment the arms he was holding, and Kate, profiting by the occasion, seized him by the frizzly hair with one hand and dragged the nails of the other down his face.’

Ouch! This is the least of Dick’s worries. As the novel progresses further, Kate starts to blame him completely for the life she now leads. Sinking lower into the depths of alcoholism, she loses all of her previous traits and simply becomes a monster. Gone is the woman who cared for her first husband; gone is the woman who whimsically dreamed of adventures whilst reading her stories. She attacks him later in the story, hitting him across the face and back with a stick, teeth clenched and foaming at the mouth like a wild animal, simply because he broke her bottle of alcohol. He manages to subdue her, but always within reason. He never treats her with the same violence with which she treats him, and Moore acknowledges that:

‘The patience with which he bore with her was truly angelic. He might easily have felled her to the ground with one stroke, but he contented himself with merely warding off the blows she aimed at him.’

When Kate has calmed down, she is always apologetic to Dick, and seems to forget everything she has done, even asking him at one point after a rage if she was violent to him. However, it isn’t long before she is drinking again and accusing Dick of having affairs with other women in the theatre group. So obsessed is she with her own guilt that she cannot see that her partner is anything but unfaithful. Kate cannot see past her sheer hatred of what this man has done to her life. I won’t spoil the ending but it really is worth a read!

To conclude, I really enjoyed A Mummer’s Wife 🙂 It was interesting to see Moore turn what is essentially a story about domestic violence on its head and use the woman as the attacker. I can see why it was deemed controversial in the 1800s! All in all, I think Moore’s case study method is intriguing to read, but as a result, we don’t really feel a strong connection to Kate (well I certainly didn’t!) I saw her downfall and her guilt and anger all resulting from her own hand, and Lennox, albeit a bit to blame for taking her away from her first husband, can’t be deemed as doing anything wrong. Give this book a try if you want another great example of how Naturalism should really look! 🙂

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Thinking about Translation

I recently came across Smartling, a company which translates website content and it got me to thinking about the importance of translation. Without it, we may never have been introduced to great works of literature that were not written in English. I’ve written a couple of pieces on the French novelist, Émile Zola, and it’s on him I’d like to concentrate.

Without being overly gushy and dramatic, I couldn’t now imagine not reading or in fact being unable to read his books! 🙂 They are some of the grittiest pieces of fiction I have ever read – if I feel that way about them in the 21st century, I can’t imagine how the Victorians must have reacted! But when I think about it, how lucky are we that we even notice his novels in the first place? Primarily written in French, there could always have been the possibility that his works remained untranslated. Luckily, this wasn’t the case, and his works have been published in several languages all over the world.

His style of writing and language are also important. He addresses political and social issue that many would have been too scared to write about (as see in my reviews on L’Assommoir and Therese Raquin. The dirt and grime of which he writes not only transcends well over 100 years, but transcends a language barrier as well. This is what I regard as the most impressive – Zola’s works lose not an ounce of shock factor by simply being written in English. His tales of adultery, murder, alcoholism, and the rest are not made any less dramatic by changing the tongue in which they were written. The value of this is tremendous – it means that we get to read these amazing stories the way they were meant to be read! 🙂 To translate a work, it is vital that the true meaning of the novel (and the shocks!) are 100% preserved. Granted this can be difficult when, for example, language grammar can be drastically different. This is not to say that there have not been translations of novels where they miss out major parts – I just haven’t come across any!

Ideally, novels such as Therese Raquin need to maintain the feeling of psychological analysis and essentially the claustrophobic aspect of the world closing in around the murderers, and I really picked up on that concept. To me, this is where the ability to translate adequately and accurately plays the biggest role. Without an accurate translation, we could miss vital ideas or points, and in literature, this is simply something that we can’t have. Imagine trying to read a story where we couldn’t really get a definite idea of a character, simply because important details had been consistently left out.

We take a good translation of a book for granted – we need it to actually make sense of things. Literature loses all value without meaning. Next time you read a translated work, just remember how important it is that that translator does a good job; think about how much you enjoyed a book, and then it being able to be shared the world over. That is the real joy and value of literature 🙂

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Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

I9780140449440t’s been a while since I read any Zola (despite my best efforts to do so!) I loved L’Assommoir and his style of writing overall so, to be honest, it was inevitable how I was going to feel about this novel! Thérése Raquin is one of Zola’s shorter novels which is why it’s so amazing how much content he is able to squeeze into around 190 pages. The book is not part of the Rougon-Macquart series and therefore stands alone, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Actually, I would probably recommend this novel as a good introduction to his work – it’s short and easy to read, but is also gritty and detailed.

Published in 1867, its content shocked nineteenth-century readers, and if I’m brutally honest, I can completely understand why. Filled with murder, adultery, violence, and goodness knows what else, it escalated Zola’s name within society. Some critics claimed that Zola’s career only really began with Thérèse Raquin, whereas others denounced it as ‘a pool of filth and blood,’ essentially a putrid novel. I can see both sides; it really is an experimental novel, fixated on analysing the temperament and effect that such a heinous crime has on the individual, but at the same time, there really is a great deal of images that I could have done without while I was having my morning coffee! However, this was easy to block out; I think I enjoyed it so much simply due to its frankness and its ability to analyse human nature in a number of ways. Upon finishing this book, it just asserted to me how much of a literary genius Zola really was 🙂

So, to the story… Unsurprisingly, the plot centres on the life of Thérèse – a girl so full of passion who is eventually married off to her sickly cousin, Camille. As a result of this union, Thérèse is bludgeoned into submission. No longer allowed to run free, she is brought up in Camille’s sick room, and this is essentially where she stays all of her married life. Her aunt, Mademoiselle Raquin, moves them to Paris, where they run a haberdasher’s and for a while, things are boring but peaceful. That is until Camille finds a job, and meets Laurent. Laurent is the complete opposite to Camille. He is strong, healthy, and full of life – everything Camille isn’t. He is everything a man should be, but he is inherently lazy, taking advantage of his friend’s hospitality. Then he meets Thérèse. She is never described as a real beauty; in fact, Laurent isn’t even that bothered about her to start off with. However, something about the sullen look Thérèse permanently wears intrigues Laurent and eventually he finds himself infatuated with her. They exchange their first kiss, an act which is described as ‘silent and brutal,’ and therefore begin their affair. The lovers keep it entirely secret, with Laurent using a back staircase to reach Thérèse’s room while Camille is away to work and Mme Raquin is busy running the business downstairs. What makes the whole story ironic is that Camille considers Laurent to be one of his closest friends, and Mme Raquin loves his company. As their affair progresses, Thérèse lets slip how discontented she is in her marriage, how disgusting she finds her sickly husband, but also that she is finding it more difficult to make excuses to go out and join Laurent.

One night in Laurent’s loft, the lovers come to the drastic conclusion that the only way they can be together is to get rid of Camille.

‘People do die sometimes,’ she murmured at length. ‘Only it’s dangerous for those who survive.’ Laurent said nothing. ‘You see,’ she went on, ‘all the usual methods are no good.’ ‘I didn’t mean that,’ he said calmly. ‘I’m not a fool, I want to love you in peace. I was just thinking that accidents do happen every day, that a foot can slip or a tile fall off the roof… Do you understand? In that last case, only the wind is to blame.’

So the lovers plan to kill Camille in a way that will protect themselves from prosecution. The murder takes place when the 3 of them travel to the banks of the river to enjoy a day out and rest in the sunshine. Laurent seizes this moment as the one where he can put into practice his ‘accident’ for Camille. At first, Laurent plans the murder a different way and decides to kill him whilst asleep under the trees.

‘Laurent swiftly lifted up his foot. He was about to crush the face with a single blow. Thérèse stifled a cry. She paled and closed her eyes, turning her head away, as though to avoid the splash of blood. And Laurent, for a few seconds, stayed there, his foot raised, poised above the sleeping Camille’s face. Then he slowly withdrew his leg and walked a few steps away. It occurred to him that this would be a stupid murder: the crushed head would bring the whole police force down on him.’

The couple are desperate to be together, but they are far from stupid – they know this has to be done discretely if they are to have any chance of peace. With quick thinking, Laurent suggests a boat trip, knowing full well how scared Camille is of water. The 3 of them step into the boat, and as soon as Laurent judges it is safe, starts to wrestle jokingly with Camille. This soon turns into something more sinister as Camille realises that his so-called friend is trying to push him in. Zola describes it thus:

‘Laurent was still shaking Camille, with one hand gripped around his throat. Eventually, he managed to prise him away from the side of the boat with his other hand. He held him up like a child in his powerful arms. As he bent his head forward, leaving his neck uncovered, his victim, mad with fear and fury, twisted round, bared his teeth and dug them into the neck. And when the murderer, choking back a cry of pain, briskly threw Camille into the river, his teeth took away a piece of flesh.’

Another lovely Zola description 😛 As I’ve examined in my previous Zola review, the author does nothing to hide the more ghastly moments, and we see this once again in Camille’s attempt to save his own life. The wound that he inflicts plagues Laurent throughout the rest of the novel, a constant reminder of what he has done. Zola’s description of the event is short but he seems consistently fixated on the juxtaposition of the 2 men; one a strong and daring young man, the other a weak, sickly and pathetic creature. Zola seems to want to take the time to draw our attention to the differences between the 2 men, perhaps to show that the strong man in the long run can eventually turn into the sickly one as we see through the course of the novel. Laurent takes great pains to make the boating fiasco look like an accident and so throws himself and Thérèse overboard to complete the show. However, after the murder, the novel takes an extremely dark turn (as if it wasn’t dark enough already!)

Ironically, after all of their hard work, the lovers become disgusted with one another and when the time comes for them to marry, they can hardly stand being in the same room as each other! They continue to live with Mme Raquin, pretending that they really care for her and her lost son. Every morning, Thérèse disturbs the bedclothes to imply that they have both slept in the same bed (a good sense of play-acting) when in reality, they sit across the room from each other every night, haunted by the ghost of Camille. The murderers fully believed that the ghost of the dead man had taken up residence in their bedroom and sat or lay between them at night, just to remind them of his presence. Laurent eventually takes a little loft apartment in order to escape and paint and let his frustrations out, but when an artist friend points out that all of his paintings look alike, Laurent realises he can now only paint figures that resemble his victim. Here, Zola launches into the real psychological side of the novel. He uses Camille’s murder and the effect it has on the people who carried it out to analyse how events can change someone. He shows the murderers to be altered into almost a schizophrenic state, especially Thérèse who floats between indifference, pity, sorrow, anger, and the rest. Zola claims that Laurent:

‘underwent a strange internal process: his nerves developed and came to dominate the sanguine element in him, this fact by itself changing his character. He lost his calm and his heaviness, no longer living a half-awake existence. A time came when the nerves and the blood balance each other out, and this was a profoundly pleasurable moment, a time of perfect living. Then the nerves dominated and he fell into the paroxysms that rack unbalanced minds and bodies.’

Zola wishes to portray the great turmoil a person goes through when they are racked with guilt, and with every passing chapter, I think he excels at this. The reader is never given the impression that the murderers are going to get away with it scot-free; rather, the emphasis is put on how much more they will suffer before the close of the novel (which is exactly what we want to see, if we’re being honest!) All of Zola’s descriptions of Laurent as the strong and dominating male are broken down and destroyed as he sinks more and more into despair. It’s highly satisfying to see 2 people get their comeuppance the way Zola describes. Thérèse doesn’t fare much better – she turns to prostitution to block out the life she is now living, her mental state slowly but surely deteriorating.

I must quickly mention the fate of Mme Raquin. She becomes very ill, eventually becoming paralysed as a result of a stroke. During their very heated and soon abusive arguments, Thérèse and Laurent admit their crime in front of Camille’s mother, knowing that they can be safe that she will never tell the police – an extremely cruel act. Imagine hearing this news and being able to do nothing about it. This reminds me in some ways of the idea Zola created in L’Assommoir where he claims that the characters can essentially be bludgeoned and paralysed by their environment and the people around them. Mme Raquin is also bludgeoned in the most extreme sense in that she cannot remove herself from her situation even though she desires it. At one of their regular Thursday night card games with friends, Mme Raquin summons up all the strength she can find and, in one of the most tense moments in the novel, manages to move her hand and spell out ‘Thérèse and Laurent are…’ before once more becoming fully paralysed. Everyone else thinks she is just trying to say how well they are looking after her and shrug it off, but the reader knows how desperately she wanted to tell the truth. This bit is so frustrating! I so wished that she had managed to spell out the rest! I don’t want to spoil the ending of the novel as I found it highly satisfying so I suggest you give this one a read! There are several rather crude and disturbing moments that I have omitted from this review, so if you want the gritty bits, go find a copy. Not that I don’t want to mention them, but I feel it makes more of an impact if you are in the process of reading the novel for yourself when you come across the parts where Zola takes us into the public spectacle of the Paris morgue for example.

All in all, I thought this was another great novel by Zola – this man can do no wrong in my opinion! After reading L’Assommoir, I was ready for the filth and direct style of his writing and it certainly did not disappoint in that sense. Using it as an analysis of human nature was a smart move and I feel that it still would resonate today – every human, no matter whether you are born in the 1800s or in the present day, is affected by guilt; we just all experience it in different ways, something Zola makes explicit through his description of the trials and tribulations of the murderers. Despite never actually being caught and being put on a legal trial, the remainder of their lives is a trial in itself; they may have never reached the guillotine, but Zola’s description of the downward spiral of their lives implies to the reader that this would have been a more preferable punishment.

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Well, here it is! The review I know a lot of you have been waiting for 🙂 You’ve seen my previous reviews on novels that fit within the Sensation fiction genre, but this is one of the main stories often cited along with Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne. It was Collins’s first Sensation novel and was regarded as sensational through not only its style and structure, but its immense popularity with the reading public.

Published in 1860, Collins’s first venture into the genre brought him unheard of popularity in Victorian times. As discussed in earlier pieces (see What is Sensation Fiction?), the genre itself divided critics. It was seen by some as the sign of the times and a cry for change in reading material; others treated it with severe disdain and disgust. However, nobody can deny that what Collins created was a real work of genius! The Woman in White was the book that introduced me to Sensation fiction, and for that I’ll be forever in its debt 🙂 To detail absolutely every event which takes place in the novel would take a very long time, so I think I’ll only focus on a couple of things. I know most of you will have already read the book so I don’t want to bore you with just repeating the tale! Rather, I would like to analyse a few points in the novel which you may or may not have picked up on through your experience with The Woman in White.

To start, I’ll briefly mention Collins’s style and structure of the novel. It’s very different, but really makes the most of the story. In his 1860 preface, Collins states:

‘An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take up the chain in turn, and carry it on to the end.’

He believed that ‘the substance of the book, as well as the form, has profited by it. It has forced me to keep the story constantly moving forward; and it has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves, through the medium of the written contributions which they are supposed to make to the progress of the narrative.’ This view is reiterated in Collins’s Preamble before the story begins. I love that he included a section called the Preamble! 🙂 Collins writes:

‘When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will be the narrator. When not, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has spoken before them.’

Thus, Collins compares this to a court of law where he claims a story is generally told by more than one witness in order to make it credible. What a great idea! Pass the storytelling on to whoever is in the best position to tell it. When you think about it, it’s actually quite a clever idea – how are we ever meant to know what’s going on with Marian and Laura when Walter is absent? If he is our only narrator, we would never hear every side of the story. Therefore, the mantle would pass to Marian Halcombe, for example, to inform us exactly what occurs within her household. We get narratives from both major and minor characters, even if it is just something as simple as a death notice, a housekeeper’s perspective or a doctor’s report. As I just mentioned, the narrative is started by Walter Hartright, the hero of the novel. He is employed as a drawing-master to two ladies who live at Limmeridge House (Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie). One evening, before he departs for the house, he takes a walk and finds himself on a by-road where he encounters the woman in white of the novel. Walter writes:

‘There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments…’

After a brief interaction, Walter points her in the direction of London. Later, he is stopped by a carriage desperately seeking a woman who fits her exact description and is told that she has escaped from an asylum. This is really where the story begins!

Walter can’t forget his experience with the woman, and is shocked when he reaches Limmeridge House to find that the young and beautiful Laura Fairlie is the spitting image of his escapee woman in white. Walter instantly falls for Laura, but not for Marian who he describes as ugly. Walter states: ‘Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted – never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it.’ He notes that she has a kind of moustache and a ‘large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw.’ This kind of description is notable – as we progress further through the novel, we see that Marian is the one to take action in order to help Walter solve the mystery of the woman in white. She sees her half-sister married off to Sir Percival Glyde who she is sure is not all that he seems so takes it upon herself to discover the truth about his conspiring with the suave Count Fosco. I won’t go into great detail about the background of every character – I don’t think this review would ever end! 😛 I will leave you to discover the many plots of the story! Anyway, back to Marian…

She is one of the strongest female characters I have come across in literature. Not only is she sensational in her appearance (i.e. she is the complete opposite to what proper Victorian femininity dictated), but she is also sensational in her actions. At one point, the reader even sees her outside of the house, hanging onto the roof in the pouring rain in order to eavesdrop on a conversation between Glyde and Fosco! She is therefore the embodiment of pure determination. Marian subverts gender roles and doesn’t really fit into what physical attractiveness should be. She seems perfectly dissatisfied with her lot in life, simply because of her gender. She claims that she answers men ‘more because my tongue is a woman’s, and must answer.’ However, one thing she is utterly sure of is her dominance over men in her presence. She states: ‘Any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of his own temper.’ Marian knows how intelligent she is, even Count Fosco tells her so on more than one occasion. What I really didn’t like was her resignation in the plot. After her roof escapade, she becomes ill and is effectively locked away to get better. The Marian we see after this, I certainly felt, wasn’t the same one. She once dominated over Walter; instead we see her cast to the sidelines in a more domesticated role. We see her flaunt the typical female position and want to be taken seriously, but we don’t hear her talking in the same way about her displeasure with her status as we do in earlier moments in the novel. Granted, she still wants to get involved in Laura and Walter’s life, but I got the impression that her independence was cut back somewhat – but maybe that’s just me!

Collins’s novel is littered with the supernatural, but then reality is always prevalent. Events that happen always seem to be easily explained instances to brush them away and this seems to turn the supernatural into the domestic. The ghost-like woman at the start of the novel who just simply disappears (she must be a ghost!) – No, she’s just escaped from an asylum. This then brings Henry Mansel’s idea of ‘preaching to the nerves’ into play. He believed that Sensation fiction was just filled with shock and suspense resulting in no real content. As a result, the genre should be dismissed. However, the popularity of the texts exceeded expectation, ending in what Mansel believed to be a ‘morbid phenomenon.’

Finally, I would like to briefly mention the Woman in White herself – Anne Catherick. Locked away in an asylum, she escapes at the beginning of the novel. When she was younger, Laura’s mother showed her great kindness and the only way Anne feels she can repay this is by warning Laura not to marry Sir Percival and become Lady Glyde. Of course, Laura marries anyway, and Anne is eventually kidnapped and held by Count Fosco. Glyde is in severe financial difficulty and plots with Fosco to switch the identities of Anne and Laura, so that they can pass off that Laura is dead (when really it is Anne who has passed away) and Glyde can inherit all of her money. Conspiracy! What they didn’t bank on was Marian Halcombe hanging off a roof and hearing every word! The similarities between Laura and Anne are also eventually cleared up in that there is the distinct possibility that Anne Catherick is an illegitimate daughter in the Fairlie family.

I didn’t want this review to be too long! There’s so much that happens in The Woman in White that I really didn’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t yet had a chance to read it 🙂 It’s a great read! Lots of suspense and twists and turns – I think my favourite moment has to be just before what Collins named The Third Epoch where Walter is in the graveyard next to Laura’s grave! I’ll definitely not leave any spoilers here! Just go and read it or re-read it as the case may be 🙂

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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

cranford-elizabeth-gaskell-paperback-cover-artIt’s no secret to any of you how much I love Gaskell’s novels, so it only felt right to branch into her short stories as well. Last month, a couple of other book bloggers and myself decided to do a little Gaskell read-along and we picked Cranford as our first venture. As it was a short and sweet read, I feel this review should reflect that 🙂 Cranford was good; it wasn’t brilliant and it wasn’t one of my favourite pieces of Gaskell’s writing but nonetheless I still thoroughly enjoyed it 🙂

First published in serialised form in 1851, Cranford is still one of Gaskell’s best known works. Set in the sleepy town of Cranford, a place where the majority of inhabitants are women (and elderly women at that), it doesn’t really sound like there would be much going on in such a place. To some extent, you would be right. As a reader, we don’t see any of the major plot twists that we encounter in Mary Barton or North and South. What we do get is an idea of what is important to this little community, and that in itself I found rather entertaining 🙂 There were plenty of moments where I found myself smiling just at what was being described.

The story is told by a Mary Smith (a nice generic name if ever I’ve heard one!) who we never hear much about, but relates to the reader her experiences of the society of Cranford and the changes that they encounter due to incoming industrialism and other social issues. The first introduction we get to Cranford focuses on the women who live there. Mary tells us that ‘all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women,’ showing just how capable the ladies of the town are of supporting themselves in life. Mary goes on:

‘if a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble… In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.’

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this sounds quite a sinister premise! Are the men driven out of town in some way, or does Cranford have some dark secret? As you’ll discover, the women of Cranford are extremely self-sufficient and simply do not need the input from men to alter their ways.

When a Captain Brown arrives with his daughters, it definitely shakes Cranford up a bit. He is loud, brash, and ‘openly spoke about his being poor – not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the public street! in a loud military voice!’ *gasp* What a terrible man! 😛 Captain Brown provides the first source of entertainment in the story. On the subject of Miss Betsy Barker’s Alderney cow falling into the lime pit, Brown’s solution is to give the animal a flannel waistcoat and drawers (in jest, of course). Miss Barker immediately sets to work and sure enough, ‘all the town turned out to see the Alderney meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark grey flannel.’ Moments like these made me chuckle, closely followed by attempts to cover a new carpet with newspaper in order to avoid the sunbeams taking the colour out of said carpet, the way the ladies of Cranford eat oranges, and the best way to eat peas at a meal 🙂

When Mary visits or is called to Cranford, she stays with the Jenkyns sisters, daughters of a rector, so they are firmly set in their ideas of what is acceptable. Deborah, the eldest, is the biggest influence on her sister, Matilda (or Matty). She is very particular about who she keeps company with, about what she reads (certainly not Dickens!), and the principles and morals a lady should have. She doesn’t allow any of her female servants to keep any male company under her roof. Mary Smith gives a description of Miss Jenkyns:

‘Miss Jenkyns wore a cravat, and a little bonnet like a jockey-cap, and altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior.’

Miss Matty is a little more modern in her ways, and when I say a little, I really mean a little 😛 When her sister sadly passes away, Miss Matty resorts to being called Matilda again as Deborah did not like it. However, she does allow her female servant to entertain a male visitor as long as nothing inappropriate was going on. Miss Matty is soon reunited with her one true love, Mr Holbrook, who she previously had to pass on due to his rank in society being unsuitable to Deborah and their father. She begins to speak to him again but soon finds that he is in very ill health, and on a trip to Paris, sadly passes away. I felt so sorry for Miss Matty. She really finds no happiness in loving relationships in the story – she deserves it after being, to an extent, oppressed into certain societal views. Miss Matty eventually finds herself almost in poverty and can only afford to keep one servant on for the household, she can’t afford to eat big meals, and can only afford to light one room dimly when she occupies it. How will she ever survive like that?

Well, there is an undercurrent tale which runs through Cranford. Miss Jenkyns and Miss Matty had a brother called Peter, who disappeared many years ago after a row with their father. They hunted everywhere for him only to find out he had run away to a ship. The last they heard of him, he was fighting in India, but Miss Matty still hopes for the day when he will come home. When news reaches Mary after her inquiries that an Aga Jenkyns lives in India, she is sure that this is Peter. One day, a man fitting his description arrives in Cranford, and brother and sister are reunited at last 🙂 It’s all very heartwarming! Peter uses what money he has to restore Miss Matty to living in a more fitting style and they continued to live together until the end of the story, so it’s a very happy ending indeed 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not the most exciting of Gaskell’s works – there’s no shootings or strikes as in other works I have reviewed. However, I would simply say that Cranford is a nice read, and it is worth having a little look over one of Gaskell’s most famous pieces of writing. If you’re a Gaskell newbie, I suggest you start with one of her novels first to get a real feel for her style and characterisation.

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Pick up this novel and prepare to have chills! Never have I been more terrified reading a book! I see this as part of Stoker’s genius. We’re all aware of the character of Dracula – we’ve all seen him depicted in various ways in film and television. Here we have the original, and he’s just as scary! Published towards the end of the nineteenth century in 1897, the tale of the un-dead Count and those who fought against him was unsettling for Victorian society but equally gripping and popular. Its writing style reminded me of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White where multiple narrators are used when they are in the best position to tell the story. Similarly, Stoker uses diary entries, letters, phonograph transcriptions and fictional newspaper cuttings in order to construct his novel. In some ways then, we are reading of a story that has already concluded, instead being recounted to us by those who experienced it. In Stoker’s novel, we meet the famous characters that we continue to be familiar with until this day: Jonathan Harker, Count Dracula, Mina Harker, Van Helsing, Lucy Westenra. However, there are characters within the book which film and television has omitted over the years. I’m sure the names of Quincey Morris, Arthur Holmwood, Doctor Seward, and Renfield are perhaps not as well known. Nonetheless, they all played a massive role in the novel which really should not be forgotten.

What can I say about Dracula that hasn’t already been said? We all know who and what he is. What I can talk about is how much I enjoyed the novel 🙂 The sense of evil throughout the tale kept me tense, especially when it reached the gory bits! What amused me the most was Dracula’s gentlemanly nature – he seemed genuinely civil in his attempts to make Jonathan Harker feel at home during his stay at the Count’s home. It appears in some way that Dracula is manipulating the situation in order to try and show that those set upon destroying him are the monsters, not him. Anyway, I better run through a bit of the plot to try and encourage you to read this classic 🙂

The novel begins with Jonathan Harker’s journal entries about his stay in Castle Dracula, situated ‘just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains.’ Quickly, Harker discovers that something is amiss with his trip. People cross themselves when they speak of the Count and daren’t venture out after nightfall. Why on earth he still went to stay there is beyond me! I would have quickly turned in the opposite direction! During his stay, we learn of some of Harker’s strange experiences. Whilst shaving one day, the Count enters the room. Jonathan writes, ‘I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!’ For a twenty-first century reader, this is a feature of vampires that we know very well so would have instantly alerted us to what Dracula was. For a Victorian reader, it would take slightly more convincing. I’ll not spoil everything that happens at Castle Dracula, but we do meet his brides, see him crawling up the side of his building, and observe an ability to call upon wolves to savagely attack a woman. The Count can stay up all night, but seemingly disappears during the day, causing Harker to believe that he is a prisoner in the castle.

Eventually, Harker does a bit more investigating of his surroundings and discovers the truth about his host. He finds a box (I saw it as a coffin) with the lid off, in which lay the Count himself. Jonathan describes the sight that greets him:

‘There lay the Count, but looking as if his youth had been half-renewed, for the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey; the cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood; he lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.’

What a sight! After this revelation, we switch to Mina Harker’s letters to her close friend Lucy Westenra, telling of how much she misses her Jonathan. Lucy has many suitors, and in these letters we first hear of Arthur Holmwood (who eventually becomes Lucy’s fiancée), and Quincey Morris from Texas. The perspective then switches to Mina’s journal entries in Chapter 6 where Lucy has arrived at Whitby to visit Mina. Mixed in with these chapters are excerpts of Dr. Seward’s diary who is treating men in an asylum. He speaks of Renfield, a patient who he describes as ‘a zoophagous (life-eating) maniac; what he desires is to absorb as many lives as he can.’ I deemed this to be pretty similar to Dracula. However, as the novel progresses, it seems as if Renfield is visited on several occasions by the Count himself, but I’ll let you find out all about that for yourselves 🙂

Anyway, to Lucy and Mina… One night, Lucy sleepwalks and Mina finds her out on her own in the middle of the night. Strangely, Mina notices that the skin of Lucy’s throat is pierced. Thinking it is just a wound from a safety pin, Mina dismisses it but of course, the marks on her neck are far more sinister. Dr. Seward is called to check up on Lucy as she falls more ill during the next few chapters, and admits that ‘I could easily see that she is somewhat bloodless, but I could not see the usual anaemic signs.’ As a consequence, Seward contacts his friend Professor Van Helsing to attend and consult Lucy. On a later visit from Van Helsing, Lucy has taken a turn for the worse and Van Helsing instantly prescribes a blood transfusion to save her life. Medical advances during the Victorian period meant that this was still a relatively new procedure so came with it own dangers. It was so new during the nineteenth century that it was shunned by many in the medical profession as being unnecessarily risky. Some readers in the 1800s may never have even heard of such a thing whereas it is commonplace for us. Perhaps Stoker has a foreign doctor suggest such a thing as he perhaps knows that a British doctor would never even have contemplated it (or maybe I read too much into things!)

Arthur Holmwood offers his blood to use and they succeed in saving Lucy. Garlic is placed in Lucy’s room – clearly Van Helsing knows far more than he lets on to the others at this point! Over time, Lucy is in need of another transfusion, but Dr. Seward also notices that ‘by some trick of the light, the canine teeth looked longer and sharper than the rest.’ Eventually, Lucy unfortunately dies, but Van Helsing knows that there is far more to be done. Van Helsing takes Seward to see inside Lucy’s coffin, but there is no body there, proving Van Helsing right in his suspicions. They check the coffin the next day, only to find her lying there, looking ‘if possible, more radiantly beautiful than ever… The lips were red, nay redder than before,’ and it seems as if her canine teeth are sharper than ever. At this point, Van Helsing voices what he has been keeping secret. He states: ‘She was bitten by the vampire when she was in a trance, sleep-walking… and in trance could he best come to take more blood. In trance she died, and in trance she is Un-Dead too.’ When asked what the next step will be, he replies that he will ‘cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body.’ How lovely! 😛 I’ll leave you to read the section where this is carried out – it’s very gory and graphic.

Seward, Van Helsing, Morris, Harker, and Holmwood band together to defeat the evil that is the Count, referring to themselves as the Crew of Light. The men believe that they are ‘ministers of God’s own wish: that the world… will not be given over to monsters.’ They succeed in tracking him down in London, but Dracula eventually sets his sights on infiltrating the group and he does this by getting to Mina. By making Mina drink his blood, Dracula compels the rock and the informant of the group, the idea of woman that the men are all working to save. Luckily, Mina retains her allegiance to her husband and friends but is now in the position to effectively track Dracula’s whereabouts, almost like a sonar device. She can pinpoint his position which is a great help to the crew. It really is a battle against the clock – kill Dracula before Mina turns. She sees Dracula being able to get to her as a criminal violation, and the men set out to avenge her honour. The crew each seem to be a defender of the British Empire, and the close of the novel shows the removal of the outsider from their domain. They drive Dracula from London, and with Mina’s help, they find him heading back to his castle. There they wait to complete their mission.

Mina is very concise and is the opposite of the Victorian domesticated ideal of woman. She is one of the strongest female characters I have come across in fiction as she does not seem to swoon when faced with gruesome sights such as the defeat of Dracula at the end of the novel. She writes in her journal:

‘But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan’s great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat; whilst at the same moment Mr Morris’s bowie knife plunged into the heart. It was like a miracle; but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.’

She is the main reason that the Crew of Light assemble, but she is fiercely loyal to her husband and in this way retains some of the passivity expected of her. The closing lines of the novel delivered by Van Helsing to Mina and Jonathan’s son are very poignant. In a note by Jonathan, we read that the professor claims:

‘We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.’

A pretty apt statement for the novel, I’m sure you’ll agree 🙂 Their son’s name is Quincey, so make of that what you will – you’ll have to read the book to find out why!

All in all, I’d have to say Dracula is one of my favourite books. It’s thrilling, full of suspense, and you feel a real affinity to the characters – you really care what happens to them when faced with such a dangerous mission. Please read this novel 🙂 It’s fantastic! If you have already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The Mantle

Hi everyone!

Earlier this month, Ariell over at Acid Free Pulp very kindly asked if I would write a piece on Sensation Fiction for The Mantle’s web page. Of course, I jumped at the chance! I think it looks great, and I’d like to say a big thank you to Ariell for the opportunity 🙂

It would mean a lot to me if you could take a little look at it and let me know what you think 🙂 Just click here: What is Sensation Fiction?

Thank you for your continued support, and I promise I’ll be back on the blogosphere very very soon!

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

What do I love the most about Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels? It could be the way that she develops her characters so we really care about every single one of them; it could be the fact she writes on topics that she herself has witnessed. For me, it is, quite simply, the way I can lose myself in her novels. I’m a fussy reader, and a hard one to please, but I’m just in awe of her work! 🙂 I never want to put a Gaskell novel down and this is certainly no exception. In fact, I felt more gripped reading Mary Barton than I did reading North and South (but this doesn’t take away from the fact that I absolutely loved North and South too!) I was actually surprised at how much happened within the story. It’s quite a lengthy book, just under 400 pages in my edition, but it doesn’t feel long to read at all. The events Gaskell portrays within the text had me hooked from start to finish, and the whodunnit case is excellent. Before I get to that, let’s hear a little bit more about the plot…

This is Gaskell’s first novel, but it honestly feels like she’s been writing for years. As a witness of the injustices and social tensions between worker and factory owner in the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Gaskell was in a great position to write about what she saw. In her preface to the novel, she tells us that ‘I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alterations between work and want…’ She believes that by showing this sympathy to others, she has grown closer to those workers who struggle on a daily basis – ‘I saw that they were sore and irritable against the rich.’ Gaskell regards her novel as putting a voice to these disillusioned creatures who simply are not being heard by their masters. She states,

‘the more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case.’

Here, Gaskell does not judge who is right and who is wrong; she simply wants to show that in grievances, there are always two sides. How are the workers ever to know what the masters (and vice versa) truly feel if they are taught to just instinctively detest everything they stand for? This was essentially Gaskell’s hope in North and South also. By showing the previously hidden life of the mill-owner Thornton, she chipped away at the tough exterior of the master and really analysed the bond between mill-owner and worker.

The story of Mary Barton centres around, not surprisingly, the life of Mary Barton 🙂 She lives with her father, John, who has always done his utmost to provide for the family. After his wife passes, he falls deeper and deeper into depression and becomes a more active part of the trade unions associated with his job at the local mill. Meanwhile, Mary faces a relationship dilemma; does she choose Jem Wilson, her friend since girlhood who is head over heels in love with her, or does she opt for Harry Carson, the son of a mill-owner and quite frankly one of the most pretentious men you will come across in literature? Ideally, Mary sees her union with Carson as the best thing to pull her and her father out of poverty, but she doesn’t count on Jem’s confession of love for her and his proposal. Shocked by his actions, Mary turns him down, perhaps seeing a marriage to Jem, in my view, as continuing in a cycle of never-ending poverty. It all becomes a bit of a mess from here! After declining Jem, Mary comes to the realisation that she truly does love him – I’ve always wondered why these women can’t just realise their feelings BEFORE crushing a man’s heart! However, I digress 🙂 Jem finds out who his love rival is and confronts Harry Carson in the middle of the street one night. They proceed to have a massive argument over Mary which culminates in a fight witnessed by a policeman.

At the same time, Mary’s father John has been roped into a union scheme to make a statement to the masters over working conditions and pay. The workers have been laughed at when they have voiced their demands for greater rights, and turn to revenge. They won’t be humiliated and the target of their anger is none other than… Harry Carson. In fact, John Barton is one of the more reasonable men amongst the workers. The men have been turning on the ‘scabs’ – those who have been continuing to work for the masters whilst the others strike. The measures they have been adopting to get their point across is too much for John. Several of the men have been taking it upon themselves to throw vitriol (or acid) on the men who continue to work causing injuries and blindness. John feels this is a step too far. At a meeting, he states,

‘What I would like, and what I would do, would be to fight the masters. There’s one among yo called me a coward. Well! every man has a right to his opinion; but since I’ve thought on th’ matter today I’ve thought we han all on us been more like cowards in attacking the poor like ourselves; them as has none to help, but mun choose between vitriol and starvation. I say we’re more cowardly in doing that than in leaving them alone. No! what I would do is this. Have at the masters!’

John shows himself to be the moral backbone of the group here, despite still plotting revenge. The men who continue to work are simply trying to care for their own families and are getting maimed as a result. I think John very eloquently puts across what a fruitless endeavour turning their anger against men like themselves would be. Oh, and in case anybody thinks I misspelled that quote, the novel is written in Northern English dialect 🙂 That night, the union anonymously chooses one member to go and put an end to Harry Carson, and guess who draws the short straw? [*SPOILER*] That’s right, it’s John Barton. Unable to now back down, he shoots Harry the same night that Jem had got into the fight with him, and of course all fingers then point to Jem after the fight was witnessed. It doesn’t help matters when the police discover that Jem’s gun is the murder weapon! However, as the reader, we all know Jem is entirely innocent. We know that one member of the trade union committed the murder, but it is not until Mary takes it upon herself to try and clear Jem’s name that she and the reader discover that John is the culprit.

Gaskell actually plays out the investigation into the murder very well – I was absolutely hooked to find out what had happened on that fateful night – especially when the discovery was made of John Barton’s involvement through the wadding paper that was used in the gun, but I’ll leave you to have a little read of that for yourselves 🙂 Mary then has to rely on finding the nephew of a local woman, the sailor Will Wilson, to provide the alibi for Jem on the night of the murder as the two men were meant to have walked together. Upon hearing that Will’s ship has already sailed, she eventually tracks him down in Liverpool and pleads with some men to sail with her until they reach Will’s ship. Jem’s trial begins the next day, and honestly Gaskell created some great suspense. We never know if Mary or Will is going to make it, or what they will say. Fortunately, they do arrive in time for Mary to proclaim her love for Jem, and Will to clear Jem of all doubt.

Happy ending? Almost. The stresses have been so great on Mary as she still bears the burden of knowing her father is the true murderer. She collapses after Jem is acquitted and has to be cared for before she can return home to Manchester. On her arrival back home, she discovers her father is also ill and persuades him to admit his part in the murder now they both know that he doesn’t have much time left. John Barton calls the mill-owner Carson, Harry’s father, to his bedside, and confesses his sin. Carson, who has been mourning his son’s death for quite some time, and after an initial refusal, has an epiphany about kindness to others after reading his Bible, and eventually takes the dying man’s apology into his heart. John passes away with the forgiveness he needed.

What’s notable about the end of the novel is that we see Carson, like Thornton, learn the error of his ways. He endeavours to try and help others to improve their lives, and at the end of the novel, we read that

‘to his dying day Mr Carson was considered hard and cold by those who only casually saw him or superficially knew him. But those who were admitted into his confidence were aware that the wish that lay nearest to his heart was that none might suffer from the cause from which he had suffered; that a perfect understanding, and complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men; that the truth might be recognised that the interests of one were the interests of all, and, as such, required the consideration and deliberation of all… to have them bound to their employers by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone.’

I think this is an excellent point Gaskell puts across. Workers are not simply ignorant machines; they have their role to play just as much as the masters. Work requires compromise and respect from both parties, and I think Gaskell shows us this in Mary Barton. Such suffering and pain could all have been avoided if two sides hadn’t been so unwilling to just talk to one another and appreciate where the other stood. Her novel acts as a moral lesson to those who just won’t listen.

What happens to Mary and Jem? Well, they move to Canada, are married, and have a son at the close of the book 🙂 A happy ending if ever I read one! Honestly, I don’t know how many other ways I can say: go and read this book 🙂 Read Elizabeth Gaskell. Her novels are heart-warming, full of suspense, plenty of action, fantastic characterisation, and quite simply, they’re great stories. Have a read for yourself and see if you agree 🙂 As a first novel goes, it’s definitely a masterpiece for me!

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What is Sensation Fiction?

Before I started 3rd year at University, I didn’t have a clue what Sensation Fiction was! I just considered it to be some sort of fantasy writing that really wouldn’t interest me. How wrong I was! 🙂 After reading Collins’s The Woman in White, I was hooked on the genre and have been ever since. I love how different it is to the expected Victorian novel where everything is happy and light and occasionally love wins through. These novels are gritty, tense, and sometimes haunting. I’ve already written on some of my favourite Sensation reads, so in this post I’d like to give a fairly comprehensive background for those of you who are just starting to venture into the great world of Sensational writing – I hope it also makes a couple of points that experienced Sensation readers will enjoy as well! 🙂 So, let’s start with what we can all expect from a Sensation novel. I’ll be using a fair amount of secondary sources here so if you have any questions about any of them, just ask 🙂

Victorian Sensation literature, which grabbed the public’s attention from around 1855-1890, caused a massive amount of controversy. The sensation novel was considered to be a mystery the reader had to solve and was often described as ‘the quintessential novel-with-a-secret,’ leading Thomas Hardy to regard the narrative form as ‘a long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance.’ The novels were loved by many readers, but they also forced many critics to voice their utter detestation of the literature produced during this time. What was so terrible about this genre, you might ask. Lyn Pykett believed that the reason it was seen as potentially dangerous to the readership was the fact that it tended to contain ‘passionate, devious, dangerous, and not infrequently deranged heroines,’ alongside ‘complicated, mysterious plots – involving crime, bigamy, adultery, arson, and arsenic.’ Sounds exciting, right? 😛 Well, not to everyone.

Critics worried about the ‘vulgarisation of literature,’ and claimed that these novels were ‘creeping upwards from the gutter into the drawing room.’ Most of us will have read at least one Sensation novel, whether it be Collins, Braddon or anyone else, so it really is surprising that these classic and brilliant texts were actually treated with so much disdain upon their publication. The introduction of the genre divided society and was a great topic of debate during the Victorian period. Winifred Hughes believed that one only had to engage with one of these novels in order to ‘find himself plunged into a turbulent universe far removed from mid-Victorian stodginess and respectability,’ showing the complete contrast to reality the readers were introduced to. For Hughes, sensation fiction offered an alternative to Victorian realism. Despite Gothic texts featuring dark plots and characters being in circulation, it would appear that the Victorians wanted a little bit more of a shock. An editorial from The Times in 1864 made the point that ‘this life of ours is too business-like and matter-of-fact to satisfy the cravings of imagination… To fill this void is the aim of sensation writers.’ Upon opening one of these new novels, the readers found themselves transported to a world far from daily life, which resulted in the genre gaining popularity extremely quickly. The novels functioned as a form of escapism from the monotony of the age, but also caused major anxiety as they ‘fed on… fears that one’s respectable-looking neighbours concealed some awful secret.’ (See Lydia Gwilt from Armadale, and Lucy Audley from Lady Audley’s Secret for excellent examples of this concealment).

Heroines seemed to be the main focus of attention in these novels as they were frequently decidedly different from the submissiveness expected of them. The readership was considered to be heavily female so there was also the worry for some critics that these women should not be reading of adulteresses, bigamists, and poisoners, of the total antithesis of, to use Natalie and Ronald Schroeder’s term, ‘the ornamental Angel in the House.’ Deborah Wynne states that ‘as women were presumed to be the principal consumers of novels, the popularity of the sensation novel suggested to some reviewers that the moral sanctity of the middle-class home itself was under attack,’ something that Margaret Oliphant suggested through her ‘concern about the moral effects of novel reading on impressionable (women) readers.’ Women had to read novels that were prescribed as acceptable for them to read; they had to contain proper values that women should aspire to embrace within their own lives. This was an extremely common conception amongst critics. An anonymous critic for St James’s Magazine claimed that women make up four-fifths of novel readers. Therefore, ‘we think that too much care cannot be taken that the entertainment provided for them should be unobjectionable in sentiment, as well as in impression.’

Looking at two main critics of the genre during the Victorian period, Jonathan Loesberg and Henry Mansel, we can easily observe the sheer and utter contempt for everything Sensation stood for. Loesberg found the novels included a ‘narrative of inevitable sequence,’ and were simply ‘novels of plot rather than novels of character.’ It would seem that the Sensation novel does not stop to develop in-depth connections with characters. Instead, it aims to shock the reader right from the beginning. Similarly, Mansel expressed his hatred for the genre in the same line. He concluded that ‘excitement, and excitement alone, seems to be the great end at which they aim.’ The novels do not develop character, but ‘abound in incident.’ He believed that these novels had been ‘called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite,’ and in part blamed the new interests of society for the production and publication of such texts. He acknowledged perhaps one of the reasons that the plots were so popular was the proximity of society to such people as were described in these novels. It was important to the sensation novel for the plot to appear as if it could potentially be happening right next door to the reader. The scenes are effective because of the type of people involved within them, people one may pass in the street without a second glance. He claimed that ‘we are thrilled with horror, even in fiction, by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us,’ but then goes on to judge that there is ‘something unspeakably disgusting in this ravenous appetite…this vulture-like instinct which smells out the newest mass of social corruption.’ It seems that he is saying it is the reader’s fault for demanding such novels that has corrupted society. This is in some ways backed up by the critic Alfred Austin who, writing in 1870, claimed that these novels are ‘the worst form of mental food,’ and that ‘the world may congratulate itself when the last sensational novel has been written and forgotten.’

For an example of this criticism addressed to Lady Audley’s Secret, we can look at an anonymous article written in the London Review in March 1863 which analysed and critiqued both the genre and the novel itself. He or she claimed that the magazine had ‘already expressed some dislike on grounds of morality and good taste, for this class of novels,’ and comments that ‘these narratives of unredeemed depravity, while pandering to the morbid thirst for violent ‘sensation,’ can neither chasten, refine, nor invigorate the mind.’ There can be no moral worth in accepting this new genre, and the viewpoint, which this critic shares with many others of the Victorian period, is that the genre has ‘an unwholesome moral tendency.’ Sensation writers recognised that the Victorian public were faced with reading newspaper stories of murder and bigamy, so had to include a certain shock factor in their novels in order to keep readers engaged. The critic realises this but does not see it as the most wholesome way of providing literature. He or she claims that the genre ‘is an appeal to that low taste for criminal horrors.’ However, it must be acknowledged that the Victorian readership would perhaps have been used to such criminal activity in the newspapers, so any fictional depiction of a woman married bigamously, or committing arson, would still have been shocking, but perhaps not quite ground-breaking. Simply put, the article concludes with the acknowledgement that ‘we cannot approve its success.’ It seems shocking to read this now we know just how successful the novel has been!

On the other hand, comments on the genre weren’t all bad. Many saw the move towards darker and more intense literature as simply a sign of times, a cry from the public that they no longer want tales where nothing really happens and the heroine only stays at home. Despite extremely damning criticism from many during its rise to popularity, many critics acknowledged the place the genre held in the period. A writer for The Christian Remembrancer believed that the plots and character agency contained within showed ‘an impatience of old restraints, and a craving for some fundamental change in the working of society.’ Readers wanted something to get their teeth into and excite them. In fact, an influential medical journal in 1863 claimed that ‘a heroine who was not an adulteress and a poisoner would disgust a modern novel-reader, and would prevent him from following, even so far as the second volume, the fortunes of a person so uninteresting,’ showing just how quickly reading tastes had changed.

Take the chance if you can to settle down with a couple of classic Sensation novels, and try to put yourself in the place of a Victorian reading it for the very first time – it must have been shocking and captivating! Controversial plots, transgressive heroines, escapist adventures – all contained in one book. For readers today, we just see it as a great and intriguing story, but for the Victorians, Sensation fiction was more than that. It was one of the biggest genre shifts in literature that is amazingly just as popular today as it was in the 1800s! Sensation is all about shock value, keeping us gripped until we close the back cover. Shock value that transcends over nearly 150 years is something special, and I hope you agree 🙂

Do you have any favourite Sensation novels? What was the first one you ever read?

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