North & South Review

Author: Elizabeth Gaskell

Publication date: 1855

19th century British writing is one of my sweet spots, so obviously I enjoyed North and South.

I think I discovered Gaskell from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog as “what to read when you’ve read all of Jane Austen.” While I think this is accurate, I also think Gaskell was interesting in using her novel to explore the plight of the workers in manufacturing towns who could barely feed their families. Though this story was not completely about this, it was certainly a prominent theme and discussed at length by various characters.

Margaret Hale, the protagonist, goes back to live with her parents in a Southern English parish after living in London with her aunt and cousin. Margaret’s father soon leaves the church as a dissenter, and moves his family to the Northern town of Milton.

There Margaret sees the contrast between her previous rural, out-of-doors life and her new life in a smoky, bustling, industrious town. She befriends a working-class family and clashes with her father’s pupil the manufacturer Mr. Thornton. Obviously repressed British emotion ensues!

There’s a lot of talk of putting on a brave face and bearing up under difficulty, and Margaret does experience tragedy. It cam be a bit melodramatic at times, but this is still a lovely story that I enjoyed.

I’ve heard North & South compared to Pride & Prejudice as “Lizzy and Darcy but in a manufacturing town!” and it is an opposites-attract story. While Pride & Prejudice is lighter with more witty/ ridiculous characters, North & South has more earnest discussion of strikes and working conditions and the struggle and occupation of life, but in both stories the main characters come to realize their first impressions might have been hastily formed and someone who they first dismissed might actually be someone who could help them grow and become happy.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Barchester Towers review

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Published in 1857, this is book 2 of Trollope’s Barchester series, but I thought it stood alone pretty well. I’m sure I would have had a deeper appreciation for the characters if I’d read The Warden first, but here we are.

This is a book about local church politics in 19th century England. We open on the deathbed of the bishop of Barchester, attended by his son and his son’s father-in-law (both also clergymen).

The bishop’s son, Dr. Grantly, is not made bishop upon his father’s demise (he doesn’t know the right people in government at the time), so we meet Dr. Proudie, the new bishop, who arrives with his ambitious wife and extra-ambitious personal Chaplain Mr. Slope.

The new bishop, his wife, and Mr. Slope immediately stir the clerical pot at Barchester when there are clerical appointments with comfortable incomes to fill and numerous clergy about, all circling these positions.

There are political machinations, betrayals, misunderstandings, proposals, and comedy all at play in this book.

Trollope has a habit of spending a chapter introducing each new character or family, which is helpful on the one hand and delays the story on the other.

While there are characters to root for–and some who grew on me by the end–there are many characters who are either slimy (Mr. Slope is apparently literally so as several characters go out of their way to avoid touching his moist hand), over-ambitious (Mrs. Proudie rules the roost as behind-the-scenes bishopess), completely mercenary (the Stanhope family), or who are just barely on this side of likable (Mr. Grantly, who recruits actively against Mr. Slope and who misunderstands his sister-in-law Eleanor). Even the attractive widow, Eleanor Bold, whom the narrator obviously favors, is not completely without her faults, which I appreciated.

The church politics may be a bit confusing at times and the pacing a bit uneven, but the characters in this book are great fun and I enjoyed this foray into the fictional county of Barchester. Does one county require quite so many clergymen though?

Read for my 50 Classics project and the Classics Club Spin #24

Alas, Babylon review

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

I first read this book in high school, and remembered enjoying it, though the details were fuzzy.

It was published in 1959 during the Cold War, and is set in a small central Florida town. Life is proceeding as usual when a young American pilot follows a Russian aircraft out of American airspace and shoots it down. Russia responds by firing nuclear weapons at American cities and presumably America responds in kind. Our characters don’t know what happened for a long time as nearby cities are obliterated, electricity and infrastructure knocked out, and travel impossible.

This becomes a tale of survival for the Bragg, Henry, and McGovern families and their neighbors. They have to figure out how to feed themselves, get water, cope without news of the wider wold, and fend off looting highwaymen.

It was interesting to read about this kind of disaster while living through another different kind, and I’m so glad not to be foraging for food right now or trying to make trades with my neighbors so we can all survive.

While I enjoyed this book, it’s definitely a product of its time; the Henrys are a black family, and as such, are looked down on by most of the white society (until everything falls apart and they’re actually the most prepared). It’s an uncomfortable reminder that “all men are created equal” in our founding documents is something we still need to strive toward. Frank’s main character, Randy, also thinks at one point, “The more [I] learned about women the more there was to learn except that [I] had learned this: they needed a man around.” I rolled my eyes pretty hard at that one.

Also, we really don’t want a nuclear holocaust. This book shows how hard it would be to survive even if you were in a pocket spared by radiation. Living only a couple hours south of Washington DC, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make it in such a scenario. So let’s all keep our fingers off those launch buttons please and thank you.

★ ★ ★

A Room with a View

I. Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin companion, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, travel to Italy where they stay in a British pension with other Brits and want to properly appreciate the sights with other proper tourists. There they meet the Emersons, a father and son who are more free spirited, and thus viewed with mild suspicion by the other tourists. Lucy likes them, though she’s torn between her feelings and her sense of what proper, refined people think and believe. These warring desires are brought to a head by a Slightly Dramatic Event (these are Edwardians, after all; we can’t get too crazy here)….

II. Back in England after her adventure, Lucy has one more chance to decide whether she wants a life based on Societal Expectations (her fiance is a too stuffy for even her own family) or whether she’ll follow desires she’s pushed deep down.

The book meditates on the difference between desires and expectations, and also highlights how in Proper society, emotion is a hindrance and ought to be repressed.

Lucy’s perception of what her family wants and expects is not exactly what they do want for her, and she gets tangled up in her mind trying to fulfill expectations that actually bore her. Her deep desires aren’t even to be a rebel, they just aren’t to be a stuffy society lady, which is what she thinks she ought to want.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it as it is a pretty slim classic, and it’s not a difficult read.

There’s also an excellent 1986 film version with a tiny Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy. The pace is deliberate, but I think it captures the spirit of the book well; the acting is excellent (Judi Dench! Maggie Smith! Daniel Day-Lewis as THE stuffiest British person you can imagine!) and allows the story to unfold.

★ ★ ★ ★

Next On the List – Classics Club Spin 24

It’s been so long since I’ve updated here; it was hard to read and focus at the beginning of the pandemic, and while that’s still somewhat the case, human beings are fairly adaptable, and I’ve been able to read a few books over the past couple months. I’ll post separately about what I read the past few months. On to what I’m reading next!

The Classics Club is doing another “spin,” which is basically where you make a list of books you’re thinking about reading next from your list, number them, and they choose a number. That chooses the next book for you. As I’m being indecisive about what classic to pick next, this is perfect. Here’s my list:

  1. Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  2. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
  3. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  4. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carre
  5. Many Waters, by Madeline L’Engle
  6. An Acceptable Time, by Madeline L’Engle
  7. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers
  8. Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
  9. Richard II, by William Shakespeare
  10. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
  11. Emma, by Jane Austen
  12. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
  13. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  14. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carre
  15. Many Waters, by Madeline L’Engle
  16. An Acceptable Time, by Madeline L’Engle
  17. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers
  18. Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
  19. Richard II, by William Shakespeare
  20. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Yes, I know I listed most of these twice. I have enough books on my classics list to fill the slots, but I’m not ready to dive into a Russian classic just yet (it’s not cold enough!), so this is my list. There are some perks to being an adult and making up some of my own rules….

Update: I’ll be reading #18, Barchester Towers, next. I’m trying to decide if I want to read the physical book or listen to an audiobook version. To be determined (advice welcome)!