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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Victorian Home: The Grandeur and Comforts of the Victorian Era in Households Past & Present by Ellen M. Plante

The Victorian Home is a fantastic guide to the history of the uses and decorations of each room in a home during the Victorian period from 1837 to 1901. This book gives a brief overall history of interior design and furniture styles during the “early” and “late” Victorian periods and then breaks into chapters about each room. Chapters included:

1. The Proper Parlor
2. The Dining Room
3. The Library and Sitting Room
4. The Victorian Kitchen
5. The Victorian Bathroom
6. The Victorian Bedroom
7. The Victorian Porch

The end of the book also includes a glossary of terms and lists where to buy authentic and reproductions of Victorian furniture and decorations.

Each chapter gave an intriguing history of that room in a Victorian house and further detail on walls, floors, window treatments, furniture, lighting, etc. during different periods in the Victorian era. It also gave detail on how to bring this Victorian interior design to your modern home.

The book included wonderful pictures throughout to illustrate design examples. On a negative, the pictures were all from very large houses that were probably mansions. There were not very many pictures of smaller rooms or more middle class Victorian homes.

Overall this book gave a great overall impression of what it would be like to live in a Victorian home during the Victorian time period. Now when the library or dining rooms are mentioned in a Victorian novel, I will know how to envision them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Book: Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Finished: March, 2009
Pages: 250
** 18th & 19th Century Women Authors Challenge
** New Author Challenge
** Read and Review Challenge
** Read Your Name Challenge
** Themed Reading Challenge
** 20 in 2009
** Victorian Challenge
** Winter Reading Challenge

First Sentence: "May 7th--I love my garden."

Last Sentence: " I do sincerely trust that the benediction that is always awaiting me in my garden may by degrees be more deserved, and that I may grow in grace, and patience and cheerfulness, just like the happy flowers I so much love."

Synopsis (from Barnes and Noble)

Elizabeth and Her German Garden was the first book published by author Elizabeth Von Arnim. Originally published in 1898, the semi-autobiographical novel written about a rural idyll became a highly successful book which was subsequently reprinted twenty-one times within its first year. This witty and sacrcastic novel has kept the attention of readers for over a century, and once you read this title for the first time, you will be unable to stop rereading it for many years to come.

This was delightful. The author offers up doses of wit and sarcasm as she exposes her observations of human nature as well as sharing her love of her beautiful garden with the reader.


(written on September 15th): "There is a feeling about this month that reminds me of March and the early days of April, when spring is still hesitating on the threshold and the garden holds its breath in expectation."

(frustration at as a woman being prohibited from actually doing the physical labor of gardening and being forced to hire a gardener) : " It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple."

The Awakening

Book: The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Finished: February 2009
Pages: 180
** A-Z Challenge
** 18th & 19th Women Authors
** Read and Review
** 20 in 2009
** New Author
** Winter Reading
** Victorian Challenge
** Themed Reading Challenge

First Sentence: " A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!"

Last Sentence: " There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air."

This is a classic, first published in 1899. It is considered a precursor to the modern feminist movement. Edna, our married protagonist, feels herself falling in love with a young man not her husband while she and her family summer vacation at a small seaside resort. She senses he has awakened in her new feelings and thoughts she has never discovered about herself before. When she returns home she proceeds to re-discover herself by systematically walking away from the trapping of her adult life: her social position, motherhood and her role as a wife, by moving herself to a small little cottage. After being away for several months, her young lover makes an appearance back into her life, only he is not able to come to terms with her new found freedom and seems to be caught in all the traditions found in "polite" society. Unable to commit to Edna, she becomes hopeless.

Definitely not a cheery little book. But a book which takes us back to the days when women were still considered property and tools to help bring more success to the husband. There were no choices for a woman to make in society and if one did not fit into the "box" society created for women, they would naturally be left to lead a life of frustration and hopelessness.

A quote from page 259:

"It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's (the husband) mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."

From Wikipedia:
Immediately after its publication, reviewers frequently denounced the "unwholesome" content of this book, while simultaneously acknowledging that the writing style was outstanding. It was also condemned due to its sexual openness. The harsh reaction to the book probably was the determining factor in the publisher's decision to stop publication after only a single printing.

After its "rediscovery" in 1969, the book has been often praised for its treatment of women's issues, and for its lyrical style.


Book: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Pages: 212
Finished: May,2009
** 18 & 19th Century Women Writers
** Victorian Challenge
** Casual Classics
** Spring Reading Thing
** tbr
** Read and Review
** New Author
** Themed Reading

First sentence: "In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women."

Summary from Amazon:
Novel by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, published serially in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words from 1851 to 1853 and in book form in 1853. Basing her tales on the village in which she was reared, Gaskell produced a gently comic picture of life and manners in an English country village during the 1830s. The novel's narrator (a young woman who periodically visits Cranford) describes the small adventures in the lives of two middle-aged sisters in reduced circumstances who do their best to maintain their standards of propriety, decency, and kindness. Using an intimate, gossipy voice that never turns sentimental, Gaskell conveys the old-fashioned habits, subtle class distinctions, and genteel poverty of the townspeople. Cranford quickly became one of the author's best-loved works.

"Cranford is a charming imaginary town filled with chatty females, most of them old spinsters, gossip and nostalgia, loves unfulfilled and remembered, and loves that find a place and a home at last."

My Thoughts:
I am not normally a great lover of classics---actually, when I manage to read them I find that I enjoy them. It is just that the act of reading them can be a chore at times. I am a lazy reader in that I don't like to have to look something up which I don't understand--in the middle of reading! That said, I tend to shy away from tackling this genre more often.
Cranford! Ah Cranford! What a genteel and slow paced life is led in Cranford. I found the story delightful and the characters, (largely comprised of spinsters and widows) to be delightful in their own quirky ways also. Miss Matty is the most sweet of them all, and it is no wonder that everyone in Cranford loves her so and rallies to support her in her hour of need. Although men are noticeably quite absent throughout most of the book, the topic of the vulgarity of men occurs amongst the ladies of Cranford. Men and marriage do find their way into the novel-and what kind gentlemen they are!

This is not a plot driven novel, but rather a character driven novel as we are transported back to a simpler time--proper behavior is expected and observed down to the very details of when it is proper to call on one another and what style of clothing to wear during that calling time. Gossip abounds, as well as sweet time spent reminiscing as we come to understand these old ladies through the remembrances of their youth.

Passage that made me laugh:

"My next visit to Cranford was in the summer. There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty nearly the same well-preserved, old-fashioned clothes. The greatest event was that the Miss Jenkynses had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room. Oh the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or our work; and , lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away on a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy , too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London."

Twelve years after publishing Cranford, Gaskell has kind words for her most prolific work. "It is the only one of my books that I can read again; but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take Cranford and - I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!"

Here is a great little biography of Elizabeth Gaskell.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Black Beauty

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, published 1877

I know this book is a much beloved children's classic and, in fact, that is why I picked it up. I was never a horse crazy girl and never had any interest in reading a book narrated by a horse but I've decided to read some of the classic children's books I overlooked when I was younger.
I had a difficult time with this one. Oh, it was an easy read, it was just hard to read it without rolling my eyes or making snarky comments. I have to wonder if any other 200 page book could be filled with so much cliched moralizing? Sure, the author is conveying good messages, be nice to animals, don't be a drunk etc but boy is it just shoved down your throat.
While I found this book less than enjoyable I realize that the moralizing is really par for the course in much Victorian literature and do have to give credit to the work and the author for breaking literary ground at the time it was published. Sewell tackled a contemporary issue in a unique way, the horse narrating his own story, and was able to be a catalyst for change. The story of horses being abused by their owners brought to people's attention the need for laws that would protect these animals from harsh and abusive treatment.
So, my kudos to the author for her ability to bring about improvements and changes but that did not translate into this 1877 children's novel being an enjoyable read for me today.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell


My mother has been telling me to read Cranford for years. She read it at school aged fourteen, and could still quote from it and recall things she had been taught about it more than fifty years later. A testament both to Miss Tranter, her teacher, and Mrs Gaskell.

But I resisted.

"In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple comes 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 short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there?"

For a long time I thought, well how entertaining could a story of spinsters and widows be?

Now that I have read it I have to say that Cranford is wonderfully entertaining..

It was originally published in a serial format in Charles Dickens' Household Words. Each chapter stands as a story in its own right, but there are common threads running through that bind those stories together.

And those spinsters and widows are so beautifully drawn. The spinsters - Misses Deborah and Mattie Jenkyns, daughers of the former rector and Miss Pole. The widows - Mrs. Barker, Mrs. Jamieson, and Mrs. Forrester.

The story is of everyday lives of these women as they hold fast to their traditional way of life in a world that is caround them.

And so we travel throgh the social rounds of Cranford. Occasionally, of course, we are disrupted by some of life's bigger events.

There is even the odd appearance by a man - Captain Brown, Mr. Holbrook, Peter Jenkyns, Signor Brunoni - though they never stay for long.

The wonderful narration brings everything together. Making the narrator, Miss Mary Smith, not a resident of Cranford but a frequent visitor was a masterstroke. She loves the village and its ways, but she is also just a little bit more worldly and aware of how the world is changing. Her tone is warm and chatty, and it is easy to feel that you are catching up with an old friend.

Cranford is a wonderful portrait of an age and a lost way of life.

My mother was right!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cordelia Underwood: Or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League by Van Reid

Originally written in serial format, this novel of Victorian Maine is chock full of characters, plot lines, and just plain fun. As the subtitle implies, this is the first book in a series about the Moosepath League. However, instead of starting out focused on the creation of said club, it opens with Cordelia Underwood, a sweet, young, redheaded woman, finding out that she has inherited a parcel of untamed land land well to the north of Portland from her ship's captain uncle. This inheritance starts a whole crazy chain of events, including some that are ridiculously coincidental but somehow work in this wacky, madcap adventure story.

The Underwood family meets and befriends many strangers along the way as they travel north to examine Cordelia's property. Those strangers meet and befriend their own plethora of strangers and the connections and characters grow and grow. There are three goofy male characters who seem to be the literary equivalent of the Three Stooges. There's Tobias Walton, who becomes the leader de facto of the Moosepath League (not that this comes into existence until late in the book). There's the charming and ever-present John Benning. There's a circus bear who stands on her head, an ascentionist in a hot air balloon and an "attractive suit of tights." There's attraction and love. There's the rumor of buried treasure, a kidnapping, and a runaway horse carrying illegal booze. In short, this book is chock full of action and entertainment.

Because of the serial nature of the book, the chapters are short and often end with a teaser. Subsequent chapters often skip to another of the many characters in the book and to start with, this makes it very hard to differentiate between storylines (the characters themselves are all very different from each other) and to become fully engrossed in the story. But upon perseverance, the reader is richly rewarded as the climax of the novel nears and the seemingly disparate plot lines coem together to finish a delightful romp. Unlike many series books, this one feels complete in and of itself, not requiring the reader to go on to further books to feel a sense of closure. But I suspect that the main characters (Cordelia and her family) do not reappear in later Moosepath books, unless tangentially, and so their stories are full and satisfying when you come to the end of this first book. Walton and the three bumbling musketeers surely appear in later books but that doesn't detract from the wrap-up here. I will be eager to read the following books now that I've gotten into the groove of this one. I'm very interested to see what happens to the Moosepath League members next.

Wuthering Heights

Bronte, Emily. 1847. Wuthering Heights.

In my effort to give books a second chance, I finished Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights over the weekend. My question was this, would I love it--or like it even--if I weren't being required to read it. If I could divorce my memories associated with the novel from English class. (Now, before I get jumped on in the comments, I'm not complaining about literature classes. I spent roughly six years studying literature.) But. I have to be honest. I'm still not that thrilled with Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff doesn't make my heart go pitter-pat. (I'd question my mental health if it did). Heathcliff and Catherine? More than a little annoying. I'd be hard-pressed to find a character that I feel sympathetic towards.

The story--in case you don't know--is about a hopeless love affair between two grouchy people. Perhaps grouchy isn't quite the word. Both are tempermental. Both are stubborn. Both are prone to melodrama. Both are selfish. One is more diabolically evil than the other. But neither one is likeable. Heathcliff and Catherine. The novel is about love and hate, revenge, bitterness, cruelty, heartache, greed, power, ambition, and above all manipulation.

I will grant the book this, I didn't fall asleep this go round. One thing that I think really and truly helped me out this time was Bella and Edward. Don't laugh. It was Eclipse where Bella oh-so-dramatically quoted on and on about Wuthering Heights and how the very fact that these two loved each other redeemed everything; it made two unsympathetic people be sympathetic. (The two wrongs make a right philosophy, I suppose.)

I can't believe you're reading Wuthering Heights again. Don't you know it by heart yet?

Not all of us have photographic memories, I said curtly.

Photographic memory or not, I don't understand why you like it. The characters are ghastly people who ruin each others' lives. I don't know how Heathcliff and Cathy ended up being ranked with couples like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. it isn't a love story, it's a hate story.

You have some serious issues with the classics, I snapped.

Perhaps it's because I'm not impressed by antiquity. He smiled, evidently satisfied that he'd distracted me. Honestly though why do you read it over and over? His eyes were vivid with real interest now, trying --again-- to unravel the convoluted workings of my mind. He reached across the table to cradle my face in his hand. What is it that appeals to you?

His sincere curiosity disarmed me. I'm not sure, I said, scrambling for coherency while his gaze unintentionally scattered my thoughts I think it's something about the inevitability. How nothing can keep them apart -- not her selfishness, or his evil, or even death, in the end...

His face was thoughtful as he considered my words. After a moment he smiled a teasing smile I still think it would be a better story if either of them had one redeeming quality.

I think that may be the point, I disagreed. Their love is their only redeeming quality.

p. 28
The way Catherine spoke about Heathcliff, about love, her tendency to be so melodramatic reminded me so much of Bella. (True, Edward is a better hero than Heathcliff in that he isn't evil incarnate.)

My mind also kept jumping back to Frankenstein and trying to find comparisons between the two. I'm not sure what that was about. Perhaps it was the framework of the story, perhaps it was the harshness of some of the environments, perhaps it was the hopelessness of it all. But while Frankenstein had a soul to it, Wuthering Heights, I felt lacked it.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

The Warden

Trollope, Anthony. 1855. The Warden. Oxford World's Classics. 294 pages.

The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of -----; let us call it Barchester.

This is a charming little classic concerning ethics. While that, strictly speaking, is true, it's not really the half of it. It's about one man, Mr. Harding, and his family: two daughters, one married, the other quite single. It's also about Harding's neighborhood and circle of friends. It's about the necessity of having a good reputation and a clean conscience.

Eleanor is the apple of her daddy's eye. Susan is married to an Archdeacon. (I *believe* his name is Grantley). Because of his eldest daughters good fortune in marriage, Mr. Harding, has been named warden of Hiram's Hospital (alms house). The 'enemy' of Mr. Harding (and the suitor of Eleanor) is a young man named John Bold. When we are first introduced to these characters, we are learning that Bold is encouraging a law suit against Mr. Harding. He feels that Mr. Harding is in violation of the will. (Way, way, way back when (several centuries past), a man left his (quite wealthy) estate to the church. The church followed the will for the most part, but as times changed, they changed the way they carried it out. They were following it through in spirit in a way: still seeking to take care of twelve poor men (bedesman) but over time the salary of the warden increased.) Bold has stirred up the twelve bedesmen into signing a petition demanding justice, demanding more money, demanding 'fairer' distribution of funds.

The book presents this case through multiple perspectives: through two Grantleys (father and son), a few lawyers, Mr. Harding and Mr. Bold, of course, and through a handful of the twelve men involved that would profit from the change. There is one man whose voice seems louder than all the rest. And that voice comes from the newspaper, the Jupiter, one journalist writes harsh, condemning words directed at Mr. Harding--he assumes much having never met Harding personally. These words weigh heavy on the heart and soul of Mr. Harding. (And they don't sit easy on Mr. Bold either.)

Can Mr. Harding get his reputation back? What is the right thing to do? Is he in violation of the will? Is the church? What is his moral responsibility in caring for these twelve poor-and-retired men? What is his responsibility to the community?

The Warden is a charming little book. In part because of the language and style. There's an easiness and rightness about it. It was one of those cases where I knew almost from the start that Trollope and I would come to be good friends. Though I'd never read any Trollope before, never seen a movie based on one of his books, reading Trollope felt like coming home. Trollope was good at characterization and equally good at storytelling.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 884 pgs, published 1865.

Simply not my favorite novel by Charles Dickens. In fact, this is the first Dickens novel I've encountered that I did not just get wrapped up in and totally love. I guess it was bound to happen.
There were way too many plots and sub plots and characters for me to even try to summarize this book so I am not even going to try.
What I generally love about a Dickens novel are the characters. Nobody does character development like Dickens and the whole plethora of interesting and strange characters were all there, but they just seemed to be lacking something this time around, like a cohesive plot. The most interesting characters were the creepy ones (Charley Hexam, Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn.) But there were many that I could not find myself caring about and sighed every time I came to a chapter featuring them (the Veneerings, Twemlow and that lot.) And the rest, eh, just so-so. Sometimes interesting and made the story feel like it was actually going somewhere and other times just made the story feel bogged down.
This was the most tedious and at times confusing Dickens novel I've read but it was still Dickens and therefore in the end, looking back over the novel as a whole, well worth the time and effort. Definitely the darkest Dickens novel I've read.
Just don't start with this novel if you are new to reading Dickens. Start with something like Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby or The Pickwick Papers

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