Category Archives: british literature

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Except not really because I would probably be absolutely petrified, have a heart attack, and die. If you are completely lost, the title refers to the first and very well-known line from the eerie Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. My first experience with Rebecca was as a child when I first watched Hitchcock’s interpretation with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I’ve seen it half a dozen times, more recently two months ago. I finally picked up a copy of the book at the library the day before Thanksgiving and devoured it as it rained outside, which, I have to say, is pretty much perfect reading weather but is certainly perfect Du Maurier reading weather.

The unnamed narrator, a young, unworldly woman, meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo while acting as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an older, wealthy, prattling woman. Mrs. Van Hopper refers to some sort of awful tragedy Mr. de Winter has endured (she seems to know everything about everyone), but our narrator doesn’t pry. Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill, and the narrator finds herself more and more in the company of Mr. de Winter, an inscrutable but fascinating older man.

All too quickly, the holiday in Monte Cristo comes to a close, but Maxim refuses to let the naive young narrator sail off into the sunset. No, there is a much-less-happy-ending in the narrator’s future. The couple goes to Manderley, Maxim’s estate, and the young companion has no idea how to run a household, much less a household as large as Manderley. She meets the household staff and quickly learns Maxim goes about Maxim’s business while she is left to her own devices.

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, conspicuously brings up Rebecca (the first Mrs. De Winter) in conversation, referring to how Mrs. DeWinter did this and how Mrs. DeWinter did that, leaving the narrator feeling more insecure and less able to learn how to adjust to her new home. Mrs. Danvers tempts the narrator with discussions of Rebecca’s rooms, the best in the house. When the narrator walks through the grounds, she looks up and curtains in Rebecca’s old room part to reveal Mrs. Danvers, ever watchful. Let’s stop there. Mrs. Danvers is easily one of the most spooky characters I have ever read about or watched in a film. Her obsession with Rebecca and her obvious distaste for the new Mrs. DeWinter verges on demented. This is one twisted housekeeper, and you should be very, very afraid.

As for Maxim, he is gone quite often and has turned sullen and standoffish inside the walls of Manderley. His moods are inconstant; he treats the narrator like a young girl (which drove me nuts). In the face of near insurmountable evidence, the narrator naturally believes he is still in love with the dead Rebecca. She begs him to host a ball for the neighbors, a costume ball, and Mrs. Danvers suggests what the narrator should wear. The tension mounts until the night of the party, and then there is all sorts of action.  Who was Rebecca, and what happened to her?

I will leave you hanging here because I don’t want to spoil anything. Plus, I think every blogger is owed several “Go read this book right now” statements throughout the year, so I’m calling in my first. Go read this book. Second, watch the movie. Third, come back and thank me, and we can talk. Need some more reasons? Spooky house? Check. Crazy housekeeper? Check. Dead wife? Check. Now go.

If you’ve read it, have you seen the movie? I seriously felt as though it played in my head the entire time. Hitchcock, of course, is a genius, but this film is truly a work of art and an excellent, excellent adaptation. What did you think? Rebecca truly made me want to devour everything DuMaurier has written.


“Dear Reader, I married him.”

Now don’t get excited. I’m not married – or getting married (at least any time soon). The title is one of my favorite lines from Jane Eyre. A little backstory here: I read Jane Eyre for the first time in 4th grade when I had no clue how to pronounce the word rendezvous, but I completely fell in love with this novel. Over the years, I read and re-read it, along the way linking the pronunciation ron-day-voo with the word rendezvous. I am almost embarrassed to say I have read this novel over a dozen times. In the last few years, I just go back to my favorite passages. I have six copies of Jane Eyre, and I am always, always on the lookout for more interesting editions.

I still remember in high school a Channel One (high school news program) commercial break where they previewed Jane Eyre the movie (from the 90s). I was ecstatic; unfortunately, the movie was not everything I had hoped it would be. Honestly, I haven’t seen a single version I have really approved of and enjoyed. So imagine my joy on seeing a trailer for a new vision of Jane and Mr. Rochester – one that looks quite beautiful:

And I have to wait until MARCH!!! I may even be more excited about this than HP7 – different kind of excited, but still…

Much to my delight, it seems Jane Eyre‘s allure has spread like wildfire across the blogosphere lately. Raych at books i done read had a great series with intertextual comparisons here (with The Crimson Petal and the White) and here (with Rebecca) and here (with Wide Sargasso Sea). The gal might love Jane nearly as much as I do. Simon had his say wherein he says he didn’t hold high hopes for Jane Eyre after reading her sister’s ugh, yuck, gah novel Wuthering Heights. [Sorry for those of you who love it.] Fortunately, Simon and I can still be blogging friends, as he loved Jane’s story.  Then Iris fell in love with Jane Eyre as well. Here she discusses prejudice in Jane Eyre and debates Bertha’s treatment in the novel, and several commenters popped in to say they liked Mr. Rochester less after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s supposed prequel to Jane Eyre. [ For those interested in Wide Sargasso Sea, I read it last summer (before I was blogging). It tells the story of Bertha, or Antoinette as she is known in Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel depicts Antoinette’s descent into madness, and the book can be a difficult read because of that. However, it’s short and gives insight as to why Mr. Rochester locks Bertha away.]

Particularly since there are so many posts out there at the moment, I will leave you quite simply with why this novel has dragged me back into its pages year after year, time after time: It is a true love story – and not just in a romantic sense. It is painful, heart-wrenching really, and hopeful. I cry ugly tears when Jane thinks she hears Mr. Rochester’s voice, knowing it cannot be. I cry when I see how Rochester changes, how he realizes what he has done to himself, Bertha, and Jane. Jane Eyre is about ordinary people who find small moments of the extraordinary within their lives. When Helen, Jane’s young friend at Lowood, dies of consumption, the scene with Helen’s arms wrapped around Jane, comforting her even as Helen lies dying, is majestic. It is these moments in which Bronte works her magic, luring me yet again to the dog-eared pages of the 50 cent copy of the novel I’ve had since 6th grade.

Perhaps a readalong is in order; strike while the iron’s hot and all that. It would be a perfect companion to the approach of the film. Let me know in comments if you’d be at all interested.


Ah, my man Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to read him for years. You know, on Twitter, there are frequent conversations about authors who intimidate us, authors we know we should read but don’t, etcetera, etcetera. I’ll be perfectly honest, I can’t stand Dickens. Nope, not even a little bit. No, not even that novel you love that you think I should just give a second chance. There are no second chances with Dickens. Life is short; Dickens is always long… winded, that is. However, I can also admit when I am wrong: I thought the Jeeves books would be a total joke, which in all fairness to me, they sort of are.

However, to call the genius that is Jeeves a total joke is the equivalent of comparing a 3-year-old’s knock-knock joke to Margaret Cho. (And that chick is fu-nny.) For those not in the know, this is Jeeves:

He’s thoroughly British, full of common sense, and 110% competent. He is valet to Bertie Wooster. Mr. Wooster…not so competent. Bertie is young, wealthy, and a bit of an airhead. He is constantly engaged to some woman or another, and usually, the engagement is either a ruse or the result of some verbal altercation with a beautiful but slightly crazy female. Jeeves is there to save the day, however.

I have now read two Jeeves stories: The Catnappers and How Right You Are, Jeeves. In both, I felt supremely sorry for Jeeves, who was attempting to visit relatives or take a small break from his exhausting boss. Alas, there are no holidays for valets. Instead, Bertie manages to ruin these mini-breaks, and Jeeves once again steps in to save Bertie and his surrounding cast of characters from disaster or at least, social disaster. The other recurring characters are Bertie’s aunts, whom he treats with loving disdain, referring to them as “aged relative” or “battle-ax.” The aunts are often as inane as Bertie but are also endearing and entertaining.

The plots are fast and funny, as is the dialogue. Wodehouse is a peach for knowing his grammar well enough to use it and misuse it well. Bertie will dangle a modifier and then humorously correct it. He is also one for malapropisms, and they are littered throughout the books. I highly recommend these social parodies; Wodehouse’s biting sarcasm equals the humorous social commentary Jane Austen was quite famous for. He just jazzes it up a bit.


Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

I first picked up a Sarah Waters novel as an undergraduate. I was buying books at the campus bookstore, and the book caught my eye because Sarah Waters was my great-grandmother’s name. Plus, the cover was beautiful. Reading the back, I was hooked. When I think about it now, I laugh at my naive self – at the time, buying a book for a class I wasn’t taking seemed illicit and dangerous. Yes, I know. I was a dork. No underage binge drinking or kegstands. Instead, I bought books THAT WERE NOT ON MY COURSE LIST.

After seeing The Little Stranger reviews the last couple months, I decided I needed to find more of her work. My library didn’t have any, but I filled out a handy little card with Affinity, and lo and behold, they called me last week to let me know they had acquired the book and were holding it for me. (I love the library).

A splendid example of Gothic literature, Affinity is an exploration of mental illness, spiritualism, confinement, and sexuality. Margaret Prior is “ill.” Her father has died and with him, any hope she may have of freedom. A spinster, she worked with her father, a writer and researcher of Renaissance art. He has promised Margaret a trip to Italy with her close friend (and, it appears, former lover) Helen. After he dies, though, Margaret sees a long, bleak life, caring for her mother. Her father’s friend Mr. Shillitoe intervenes and convinces Margaret and her mother to allow Margaret to visit Millbank, the local prison, as a Lady Visitor. There, she will show the inmates how to be a lady and, more importantly, will learn how much better she has it than the women she visits.

However, the prison seems to be the last place to heal the depressed young woman:

[Millbank’s] scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It is as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad. I think it would certainly drive me mad, if I had to work as a warder there. As it was, I walked flinchingly beside the man who led me, and paused once to glance behind me, then to gaze at the wedge of sky that showed above.

The prison is damp and dark, covered with lime and with women whose eyes

were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr. Shillitoe saying that a prisoner’s heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating.

Margaret herself is impressionable, though, and as she follows the matrons on her tour, she stops to compose herself and becomes aware of one cell in particular, a cell closed off except for an inspection flap and the prisoner’s sentence hanging above it.

It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness – a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh – it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my own mood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely.

The woman prisoner, sentenced to four years because of fraud and assault is Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist. The novel switches between Margaret’s written diary and Miss Dawes’ own account of her activities as a spiritualist. Miss Dawes, taken in by Mrs. Brink, a lady obsessed with communicating with her mother’s spirit, holds dark circles (or seances) for Mrs. Brink and her friends. One fateful night, however, she sits with a young woman who is beaten during their session. When Mrs. Brink comes upon the scene, she has a heart attack and dies. Selina explains that her spirit guide Peter Quick hurts the young woman, but to no avail. She is imprisoned.

The two women are drawn to one another. As not quite lady but not quite thief, Selina enjoys the companionship, and Margaret feels bolstered. She is at first skeptical of Selina’s gift, but Selina sees things about Margaret she cannot. The two become close, and Selina calls Margaret by a secret name – Aurora. Selina tells her:

I feel your sorrow as darkness….Oh, what an ache it is! I thought at first that it had emptied you, that you were hollow, quite hollow, like an egg with the meat blown out of it. I think you think that, too. But you are not empty. You are full – only shut quite tight, and fastened like a box. What do you have here that you must keep locked up like that?

Selina hits upon it, and it seems to set Margaret burning. For Margaret has much hidden – she loves or loved Helen, now her brother’s wife; she wants to go to Italy and is jealous of her sister’s honeymoon there; she writes constantly, hiding her diary from her mother and the servants. She begins a sort-of symbiotic relationship with Selina. She strengthens, saying:

I knew my trips to her had made me too much like myself, like my old self, my naked Aurora self. Now, when I tried to be Margaret again, I couldn’t. It seemed to me that she had dwindled, like a suit of clothes.

But instead of the relationship sapping Selina of her strength as the dark circles did – Selina, too, seems emboldened by it. Margaret and Selina begin to make plans for an unbelievable escape, and Margaret stands up to her mother. She is tired of being discussed while her back is turned and wonders, when Stephen discusses her illness with her mother:

Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?

Affinity was captivating for a lot of reasons, particularly for me because the correlation between much of the book and the story “The  Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s one of my favorites – in fact, part of my graduate thesis focused on it – and the similarities were too blatant to ignore. Knowing it is one of Waters’ favorites sealed the deal. If you have read the story, look back at the first description of the prison: it’s spot-on Gilman. The narrator is convincing, even though she is, on closer examination, unreliable. The story is told through a diary, a forbidden means of expression. “Voice” is also a concern in both – who hears the narrator? There were actually points within the novel where I found myself wondering if Selina was part of Margaret’s psyche; she already has an alternate identity – Aurora – that makes her feel more like herself.

The novel, as most of Waters’ books, has an astounding twist, one that left me both haunted and betrayed. Because other than setting the tone masterfully, Waters has the ability to make me feel like her main character. At first, I was skeptical of Selina, but I, too, was drawn in by her and began to believe the spirits visited her. I believed she could escape through the help of her spirit friends, so at the end, (I won’t go into detail) the twist so startled me, I felt rocked, but not in the sense that it was implausible or not in keeping with the rest of the book. The somewhat unreliable narrator (Margaret is given chloral and laudanum through much of the story) felt believable and sympathetic. The one problem I had with the ending was not knowing the truth of Selina’s story. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see the full effect of Waters’ writing. Much like Margaret, I was left in confusion. Bothersome though it may be, I wasn’t ever to know the truth of Selina’s story. Dark and oppressive, Affinity is an irresistible read – just think about starting it on a bright, sunny day, not a rain, dreary evening like I did…

Other opinions:

Matt

Nymeth

A Work in Progress


Robin Hood – How he became the prince of thieves

Legends. Mythology. Creative non-fiction. I love it all. So, the new Robin Hood movie? Of course I had to check it out. In preparation, I watched Kevin Reynolds’ 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was an interesting experience as the movie was huge when I was in middle school, and I remember the music fondly (we played it in marching band). In 2010, it held pretty well, except for Kevin Costner’s awful hair and even worse, nonexistent British accent. Robin Hood sounds pretty nondescript American. Who knew? With a cast including Morgan Freeman (whom I love) and Christian Slater (can’t stand him) and Alan Rickman (brilliant), it was pretty entertaining. It was much more violent than I remembered or would have anticipated from a movie in the early 90s.

As far as the story goes, Robin of Locksley comes back from the Crusades, having escaped prison and saving Azeem (Morgan Freeman). His friend Peter is mortally injured in the escape and makes Robin promise to safeguard Lady Marian. Robin and Azeem return to England, where he butts heads with Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). Training of peasants ensues, the Sheriff is dastardly and devious plotting with Mortiana to become king. As I said, entertaining.

Fast forward to 2010 and Ridley Scott’s version, Robin Hood,with the all-too-fitting tag line: The Untold Story Behind the Legend.” Now, color me picky…. but with Batman, I’m fascinated with how Bruce Wayne morphs into this avenging, brooding, complex creature. With Robin Hood, I just want to see some hoodwinks (excuse the sorry pun). Instead, what I saw was a very Gladiator-like** Russell Crowe fighting in battle, standing up to King Richard the Lion Heart, rebelling when his master’s morality is questioned, and fighting a bit more.

Robin Longstride, as he has been penned for the movie, is the son of a stone mason who fought for equality and was killed for it … in front of his own son. Flashbacks similar to Gladiator abound. As Longstride leaves King Richard dead on the battlefield – we are playing fast and loose with history here – he runs across the remains of an ambush in which the knight Locksley dies. In order to cross over to London, Robin and his not-so-merry men, take on the royal guard’s persona to pass safely. Robin promises the dying Locksley he will return his father’s sword to him at Nottingham. Robin does so, and the fabulous Max von Sydow plays a blind Locksley, asking Robin to stand in for his son, so that his daughter-in-law Marian does not lose her land. Don’t worry: there’s not a lot of sexual chemistry between the two. The sheriff is wholly unmemorable but not for his performance as much as lack of story line. This particularly saddens me as the sheriff is played by Matthew Macfayden. Even with such a large cast of characters, though, the plot was fairly simple and easy to follow. As Jonathan Kiefer of the film blog, The Faster Times, quips: It gives clues, telling us, “Pay attention to that guy, whose name will ring a bell,” or “Don’t trust this guy; he’s very bald, and he speaks French.”

For a film that sounds as though it should have such depths of emotion, for me, it lacked heart. It lacked the spirit of Robin Hood I was waiting to see played out in front of me. It lacked the fun. I guess they were going for a recessionist, depressing feel: TAXATION! TAXATION! NO TAXATION! NO TAXATION! And, of course, Robin Longstride throws in this line: An Englishman’s home IS his castle!

I think that they tried to play the Robin-Hood-as-real-man-Robin-Longstride angle too much. Robin Hood is made up. He’s a legend. Why? Because he brought hope and comfort and mischief and delight to a people oppressed. That’s what I was going in to see. As one commenter on Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog Looking Closer says, this movie is the” Totally Made-Up Story That We Produced Hoping to make Millions and Millions of Dollars, to Heck with the Legend.”

Although the battle scenes were beautiful, and there were some nice camera angles and shots, overall, I was disappointed when the credits rolled. (Which, by the way, were very inventive and aesthetically pleasing.) I wanted to see what happened once Robin Hood is named an outlaw and tyrannical King John denies the people the signing of what seems to be the Magna Carta, which he actually goes on to sign in 1215.

Although fun in terms of an action movie, I didn’t leave the theatre with a sense of satisfaction or Yea! The bad guys always lose when Robin of the Hood is around! sort of feeling. I’m all for the examination of the psychological depth and background of characters, but here, Ridley Scott, I wanted some fun and vengeance. I got neither.

** There are several memorable moments when the slow-mo camera action zooms in on Russell Crowe’s face as he bellows: NOOOOOO!!!! I literally laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it.