The Woman in White

I read this for my 50 Classics project and also for the Genre Classic in the “Back to the Classics” challenge.

It’s supposed to be one of the first “mystery” novels. It’s kind of like Charles Dickens writing a mystery–there’s a lot of ramp up as it slowly builds the picture of what’s going on.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was definitely slow moving, especially at first. The novel is written from several first-person perspectives, but the primary protagonist is Walter Hartright, an artist and drawing master who becomes connected with the Fairlie family when he’s employed to teach drawing to two half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe.

Marian is described as dark haired and eyed and “man-like” in her firm mind and stout heart (also, Collins tells us, she doesn’t wear corsets). Laura, meanwhile, has light hair and eyes and is much more emotionally and physically frail. One assumes she does wear corsets. Obviously, this being a 19th century work, Walter falls for Laura…cue eyeroll. But alas! Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde (what a name!) and Walter quits his job and goes abroad to forget her.

Most of the book centers around Sir Percival’s nefarious plot to get Laura’s money, which he’s limited in drawing from because of a well-written Trust (competent estate planning for the win!). Laura soon discovers her husband and his Italian friend, Count Fosco, are after her money, and the reader begins to fear for her safety.

I don’t want to spoil everything, but there are two lookalike women, the fortune-hunting unscrupulous spouse, a shady foreigner, a mysterious death, and a cranky invalid uncle who is too ill to deal with your bullying ways…fetch my smelling salts!

Things did pick up at the end, and while a good editor might have improved the pacing, it wasn’t bad for an early mystery. Just don’t expect a Holmes-style sleuth–the genre had not yet advanced to that stage, and if you have time and want to settle in, this is an enjoyable read.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m counting this both for my 50 Classics project and for the Back to the Classics challenge it’s an “Abandoned Classic” because I started it about 10 years ago, put it down, and never returned (until now).

Dorian Gray is a very attractive young man who is rather vain and selfish, but his money and good looks gain him entry into London society. He’s easily influenced by a friend, Sir Henry Wotton, who espouses complete hedonism (and only partially follows through as he prefers listening to himself speak than taking action).

Basil Hallward, an artist, paints a stunning portrait of his muse, Dorian, and Dorian is sad that he will age while his portrait remains ageless…. He wishes he could exchange places and the portrait age while he remains youthful and *boom* wish granted.

This book is billed as a classic, and I have never seen it on the sci fi/ fantasy shelf, but it could be shelved there. While it’s rooted in the daily life of a handsome rich man, it’s about a man who doesn’t age because his portrait does instead! While his friends do comment on his “maintaining his looks” you’d think they would notice that he still looks 20 when he’s really 38? But perhaps in an age before selfies it wasn’t as obvious. And maybe they just assumed he spent a lot of his money on beauty treatments.

Dorian uses his agelessness as license to do whatever he wants. He can be dramatic and occasionally he thinks about making good choices, but ultimately he doesn’t have the grit to follow through on anything that doesn’t yield immediate gratification. “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” says Sir Henry, and Dorian takes that to heart.

The book explores how people judge based on money and beauty, and the fruits of selfishness. This was particularly interesting to read right after A Gentleman in Moscow, which is about connection and the way we can influence each other for good. Dorian Gray shows how the opposite approach leads to isolation and destruction.

★ ★ ★ ★

2020 Reading Goals

I still have my goal of reading these 50 classics before August 1, 2023, and as a subset of that goal, I’m participating in Karen of Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge.

Here are the categories, along with the book I’m considering reading for the category. I haven’t decided on everything yet, so I’ll update when I’ve picked a book for the category.

  • 19th century classic: Great Expectations -C. Dickens
  • 20th century classic:
  • Classic by a woman author: Villette -C. Bronte
  • Classic in translation: Kristin Lavransdatter -S. Undset
  • Classic by a person of color: Things Fall Apart -C. Achebe
  • Genre classic (I’ve picked mystery): The Woman in White -W. Collins
  • Classic with a person’s name in the title: My Cousin Rachel -D. duMaurier
  • Classic with a place in the title: Alas, Babylon -P.  Frank
  • Classic with nature in the title: Cold Sassy Tree -O. Burns
  • Classic about a family: Pride & Prejudice -J. Austen
  • Abandoned classic: The Picture of Dorian Gray – O. Wilde
  • Classic adaptation: Little Women -L. Alcott

We’ll see how it goes! I need to finish the two books I’m currently reading, and then I’ll tackle one of these. Maybe I should start with Kristin Lavransdatter since it’s a hefty tome (Goodreads tells me it’s 1144 pages).

General reading goal: 45 books in 2020. We’ll see how it goes!

The House on the Strand

For my Classics Club Spin, I ended up with Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. I knew nothing about it going into reading the book, except that I’ve enjoyed other du Maurier works and assumed it would probably be a slightly creepy, atmospheric read.

While The House on the Strand has a little less of the horror about it than some of her other books, there is still a sense of creeping dread and the protagonist certainly makes some questionable decisions. The sense of dread increases as you approach the end….

The novel is a first person account of a restless and rather impressionable man, Dick Young, who has come down to Cornwall to his friend Magnus’s house for a holiday.

Dick is in between jobs and is at the house a few days before his new-ish wife, Vita, and two stepsons are due to join him. Magnus has allowed Dick to use his house for free, but mentions that he (a scientist) has an experimental drug that he wants Dick to try. Mangnus assures him that he’s taken the drug himself and it’s perfectly safe. Sounds like steep rent to me.

Dick reluctantly agrees to help and finds himself transported mentally back to 14th century Cornwall following a man called Roger, steward of a local landowner. While Dick can follow and observe, invisibly, any attempt to interact with the 14th century jerks him back into the 20th, nauseated and confused.

As time goes on, Dick becomes more and more fascinated with the 14th century and the people there and less interested in his own life and relationships, which causes a bit of marital strife when Vita shows up a day early and wants to talk about their future.

Both the past and present stories were interesting, and I appreciated the way Dick was characterized and the way he convinces himself that everything is totally under control and he can stop any time he wants to (he just doesn’t want to yet).

I enjoyed this book, though I don’t know if it’s the best du Maurier, and it kept me intrigued to find out what happened in the end. Speaking of the end, I don’t want to spoil it, but I’d be glad to talk about it with you if you have an interpretation.

In a funny turn, I read both this and Blake Crouch’s Recursion back to back, which was more weird time travel than I was expecting at once!

★ ★ ★ ★

Sense & Sensibility

“Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book.”

I bought the Audible version of this book read by Rosamund Pike earlier this year and promptly forgot about it. I think I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe it was while I was reading War & Peace, so I re-discovered it in my Audible library again this summer. Summer is a great time to read Jane Austen, so I pressed play and enjoyed Pike’s mellifluous voice (the word is fancy, but Pike as a narrator does live up to it).

As is usual with Jane Austen, her wit and keen observations are on full display here. No one escapes completely unscathed, and the number of ridiculous characters is high.

In case you want a plot refresher… when Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves–by law–nearly everything to his son John, with a parting plea to look after his wife and daughters (John’s stepmother and three half-sisters). John is (easily) influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and does nothing for them (in a masterful description of willing manipulation early in the novel).

The widow Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, move to a small cottage near some relatives and adventures ensue. Attractions, secret engagements, differences of temperament, and different ways of handling disappointment make up the rest of the story.

The sense and sensibility of the title come primarily from Elinor and Marianne who behave in nearly opposite ways when confronted with romantic disappointment:

[Chapter 23] “…when she joined them at dinner only two hours after she had first suffered the extinction of all her dearest hopes, no one would have supposed from the appearance of the sisters, that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love, and that Marianne was internally dwelling on the perfections of a man, of whose whole heart she felt thoroughly possessed, and whom she expected to see in every carriage which drove near their house.”

The minor characters in an Austen novel are always a delight as well. Lucy Steele in particular this time struck me as one of her great villains. Lucy is sharp enough to notice that Elinor has attracted the attention and admiration of Edward Ferrars (whom Lucy hopes to marry), and forces her confidence upon Elinor in a scene that is enraging but oh-so-polite. She depends (rightly) on Elinor’s good character,fortitude, and manners to inflict pain.

[Chapter 24] “I was somehow or other afraid I had offended you by what I told you that Monday.”

“Offended me! How could you suppose so? Believe me,” and Elinor spoke it with the truest sincerity, “nothing could be farther from my intention than to give you such an idea. Could you have a motive for the trust, that was not honourable and flattering to me?”

“And yet I do assure you,” replied Lucy, her little sharp eyes full of meaning, “there seemed to me to be a coldness and displeasure in your manner that made me quite uncomfortable.

If there were an Austen heroine I feel I’m most similar to, it’s Elinor Dashwood. She’s quiet, calm, and practical, but she’s also deeply sensitive. She shuts herself down before expressing emotion; it’s clear she has strong emotions like her sister, but while Marianne allows herself full expression (and maybe some wallowing) Elinor tamps hers down to not cause others pain.

Both sisters need to learn from one another and meet a little more in the middle, which they do a bit by the end of the novel.

There are varying opinions on the ending, and I agree that when we do get to the end tying things up seems a bit hasty. While I’m not completely sold on the ending like I am the ending of Pride and Prejudice, I still appreciate the characters and the journey, and Austen’s style of writing and keen observation never cease to delight me.

★ ★ ★ ★