Notre-Dame de Paris

Wow! What an absolutely fantastic book this is, even though I was expecting it to be called The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and to be about Quasimodo, the hunchback. It is, but he’s only one part of a hugely rich story.

Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame and Quasimodo’s guardian, Jehan his adored younger brother, Phoebus de Chateaupers and Pierre Gringoire are all characters linked by Esmeralda, the beautiful 16 year old ‘gypsy’. Around them Paris breathes with life, it’s exciting, dangerous and squalid. Diplomats and judiciary have their stories told inside courts that have their windows flung open to the colour and lives of the streets below.

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Mansfield Park

‘Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty.’

The three Ward sisters have made very different marriages. Miss Maria Ward has married a baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, her older sister has married a clergyman the Rev. Mr. Norris and has taken the living offered to him at Mansfield Park and the youngest, Miss Francis Ward set out to rebel and married a Lieutenant in the Marines, with no connections, fortune or education. When he’s disabled from active service and spends their small income drinking and socialising Mrs Price realises that she can get rid of one of her nine children onto her rich sister. After much worry Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, egged on by Mrs Norris decide they can make room for Fanny, with their own four children Thomas and Edmund, Maria and Julia

When the Rev Norris dies, Mrs Norris moves to a small house on the estate and a new vicar arrives with his wife. In turn her step brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive, like the glamorous Kuragins from War and Peace. Now Maria and Julia have Henry to flirt with and Edmund falls head over heels for Mary and as Tom seeks his pleasure elsewhere that just leaves Fanny. Quiet and contemplative, always at the beck and call of her aunts or with her nose in a book, Fanny never loses her meekness but she’s no pushover. She’s not afraid of being serious and doesn’t need the validation of popularity but she’s always present, she observes everything and knows that Mary Crawford needs an audience to believe she exists and Henry Crawford is nothing more than a rake.

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Eugénie Grandet

This was such an unexpected surprise and I feel incredibly fond of this book. On the one hand it’s a simple story of the Grandet family. Felix, his wife and their daughter Eugénie. Their maid Nanon and the two families of friends, the Cruchot’s and the des Grassins who visit them. They live in Saumur, in the Loire Valley region of France in a house whose appearance ‘weighs as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister,’. Into this gloomy house comes cousin Charles from Paris and Eugénie falls immediately in love.

But on the other hand it isn’t simple at all because avarice is the enormous all pervading silent character that engulfs their lives on every page. The lowly cooper, Felix Grandet made a fortune in 1789 when he bought land confiscated from the aristocracy. A bumper harvest in 1811 increased his wealth and he’s quick to invest in business, so that by the time the novel opens ‘one day in the middle of November in the year 1819’ Grandet has a fortune so large that his every action is ‘cloaked in gold‘ and he has become a miser who worships his gold at the cost of everything else, keeping it secretly in a strongroom

‘while Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet soundly slept, the old cooper would come to commune with his gold, to caress and worship, fondle and gloat over his gold.’

This is only a short novel, my Penguin copy is 248 pages, and the gathering of his wealth, the swindling and hoodwinking of his neighbours, takes up by far the largest part, so that I did wonder why it wasn’t called Felix Grandet, but it is ultimately Eugénie’s story and that’s why I’m afraid I can’t talk about the book without talking about the ending, although I won’t give away the whole plot.

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Vanity Fair

This has taken me so long to read that I can hardly remember a time before Vanity Fair, and while there were certainly some ups and downs, when I finished, it wasn’t with a feeling of relief but with huge satisfaction at having read a really brilliant book.

First published as a complete text in 1848, Thackeray tells the story of school friends Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, their families and friends in the first half of the 19th century with London society, the Napoleonic wars and colonisation in India forming the backdrop. The scheming manipulative Becky is a perfect foil to the humble simplicity of Emmy. As they both negotiate marriage, in laws and motherhood they also negotiate the slippery pole of social success and acceptability.

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Classics Club Spin Revealed

was the number chosen and for me that means Honoré de Balzac’s Old Goriot or so I thought – because when I got to the book shelf it appeared that the copy I actually had was Eugénie Grandet! But I haven’t read anything by Balzac and know nothing about him so this, written a couple of years before Old Goriot, can easily take its place I think.

And it’s quite exciting, not the title I’ve been looking at for the last four years and a brand new author to explore. As usual a quick look on Wikipedia has made me feel that I’ve been living under a rock all my life and this first glimpse has revealed an abundance of future reading!

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The House of the Seven Gables

What an odd book this is! It starts with a good story – at the end of the seventeenth century in a New England town, Colonel Pyncheon, a local dignatory decides he wants the land that Matthew Maule has built his cottage on. Met with opposition the Colonel flexes his political muscles and has Maule hanged for witchcraft. But the imposing house he builds on the site is said to carry a curse and bad luck seems to haunt future generations.

At the time of the novel Hepzibah Pyncheon is the custodian and shares the ‘heavy hearted old mansion’ with her lodger Holgrave, a young believer in radical reform . Clifford, her brother arrives home from prison carrying the mark of a person whose youth has been stolen from him and then Phoebe a young distant cousin arrives, as lovely as fresh air and blossom. The possibilities seemed set for a thrilling tale in a gothic setting.

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Pride and Prejudice

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

Lizzy and Jane, Darcy and Bingley, Longbourn and Pemberley – the characters and locations are so seeped into my consciousness they could be real. Mrs Bennet finding husbands for her 5 daughters, Mr. Bingley arriving at Netherfield with his sisters and proud friend, Mr Darcy. Ridiculous Mr Collins who’s to inherit Longbourn and smarmy Wickham, inveigling himself into their affections. I’ve seen so many screen adaptations that I thought I already knew the story and wondered what I would gain from actually reading the book. And maybe for the first 50 or so pages that was true as the characters and locations are put in place and the story really rattles along, by page 39 we already know that Darcy has noticed a ‘pair of fine eyes‘!

But then the book came into its own and I realised how wrong I was. This is very much the story of Elizabeth Bennet (rather than the family and neighbours), who despite the constraints of society is assertive and strident, she holds her own strong opinions and with the added characteristic of insight manages to be herself.

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The Portrait of a Lady

Lydia Touchett is a wealthy American who divides her year between homes in Italy and England and every now and then visits her old family home in Albany; which is where she finds her orphaned niece, sitting reading a book amongst a jumble of old furniture, and asks her if she would like to accompany her to Europe.

So, in 1870, Isabel Archer arrives at Gardencourt, the Tudor house set some 40 miles outside of London, with lawns sloping down to the River Thames at ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. There she meets her uncle, cousin Ralph and his friend Lord Warburton.

Isabel is sensible and kind, full of enthusiasm and fun – all in all she’s a hit. Young men fall in love with her and their sisters adore her, her erstwhile suitor Caspar Greenwood follows her over from America in hope, but Isabel values her independence and has no time for marriage, at least not until she’s travelled and seen some of the world. Gentle Ralph is one of those who love her and before his father dies persuades him to leave a part of his fortune to Isabel. He wants to see what such a spirited character will do given financial security and that action provides the catalyst. Now a wealthy young women Isabel is able to make her own choices.

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Sense and Sensibility

‘The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.’

I love that opening line, the words can’t be read quickly, they seem to have a slow authority that tell us what to expect. That this is a family drama, about an old family and it hints that change is afoot. We know straight away to settle in and allow ourselves to be wrapped up in their story.

The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne are forced to leave Norland, their family home when their father dies and their brother John inherits the estate. They take up a cottage in Devonshire with their mother and younger sister Margaret and it’s from here that they must navigate their way to matrimony and happiness whilst avoiding the stumbling blocks of Lucy Steele and Willoughby.

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Frankenstein

At the end of the 18th century Robert Walton is a young man inspired to travel by reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and writes home to tell his sister about his adventures. But on July 31st a strange thing happens when they become stranded by ice and fog and see a man of gigantic stature on a sledge guided by dogs. The next day they find another sledge being driven by an emaciated man and take him on board. Over the following days as his health improves Victor Frankenstein tells Robert the story of his life so far.

This prosaic structure is so wonderfully everyday and sets the story so firmly on home ground that it adds a chilling factor to an already frightening and exciting tale that at its heart is about abandonment and loneliness.

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