The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Information

Goodreads: The Blithedale Romance
Series: None
Source: DailyLit
Published: 1851

Official Summary

Abjuring the city for a pastoral life, a group of utopians set out to reform a dissipated America. But the group is a powerful mix of competing ambitions and its idealism finds little satisfaction in farmwork. Instead, of changing the world, the members of the Blithedale community individually pursue egotistical paths that ultimately lead to tragedy. Hawthorne’s tale both mourns and satirizes a rural idyll not unlike that of nineteenth-century America at large.

About the Series: For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Review

The Blithedale Romance, ostensibly a story about a group of people who come together to form a utopian community, is really the story of how the lives of four of those people intersect and how the narrator judges their worth and the struggles that keep them connected to the outside world.

I was initially put off by the idea The Blithedale Romance includes an attempt at a utopian community because I assumed the book would tend towards the philosophical and perhaps some lengthy explanations of what such a utopia would be.  In reality, I was surprised to find the community so vaguely described, a quaint setting for the personal dramas of the characters rather than a fully fleshed out concept.  The general gist seems to be that the members will live communally as brothers and sisters and give up their outside professions to take up farming and hard labor to become somewhat self-sustaining.  After some reflections from the narrator that farming is difficult and tiring and leaves no time for the more intellectual pursuits that many of the participants are used to, however, little mention of the actual work of the society is mentioned.  Ultimately, however, the main characters can’t hack it and return back to their normal lives, perhaps a commentary on the fact that an agrarian society of hard labor isn’t quite as utopian as it sounds.  (Though the narrator remains somewhat dismissive of farmers and their lack of intellect, even after realizing he can’t do the work they do.)

So the real focus of the book is the narrator and the three people he gravitates towards as his closest friends at the community: an intellectual man who seems not to have bought into the utopian idea in the first place, a woman of some celebrity and social status, and a young mysterious girl who shows up out of nowhere in need of protection.  All, even the meek young lady, have strong personalities that drive the plot:  What are people who don’t believe in the mission of the community even doing there?  What is the young lady hiding from?  Who are the people from the outside world who come asking for her?

I admit that many of these questions did not have quite as much tension and urgency as I would have liked.  I had my guesses at several of the answers, and I wasn’t exactly dying of suspense, but it was still interesting to see everything unfold and how it all might be related to the ideals of the time.  And to the ideals of the narrator, who, frankly, seems pretty judgmental and ready to analyze everyone else without being particularly self-aware.

The Blithedale Romance isn’t exactly the best or the most exciting or even the most thought-provoking classic I’ve read, but I am glad I gave it a chance.  If you like early American literature this, of course, is worth looking into.


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Briana
4 stars

Washington Square by Henry James

Information

Goodreads: Washington Square
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1880

Official Summary

(From the Signet Edition)

The plot of Washington Square has the simplicity of old-fashioned melodrama: a plain-looking, good-hearted young woman, the only child of a rich widower, is pursued by a charming but unscrupulous man who seeks the wealth she will presumably inherit. On this premise, Henry James constructed one of his most memorable novels, a story in which love is answered with betrayal and loyalty leads inexorably to despair.”

— from the Introduction by Peter Conn

In Washington Square (1880), Henry James reminisces about the New York he had known thirty years before as he tells the story of Catherine Sloper and her fortune-seeking suitor Morris Townsend. This perceptively drawn human drama is James’ most accessible work and an enduring literary triumph.

Washington Square Press’ Enriched Classics present the great works of world literature enhanced for the contemporary reader. This edition of Washington Square has been prepared by Peter Conn, Andrea Mitchell Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. It includes his introduction, notes, selection of critical excerpts, and suggestions for further reading as well as a unique visual essay of period illustrations and photographs.

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Review

Washington Square, if reduced to its core plot, sounds a bit dull: It’s about a young woman, Caroline, who becomes engaged to a man her father suspects of courting her only for her money and her struggles to be true to both pieces of her heart, the part that wants to honor and obey her father and the part that wants to marry the man she loves.  The book is relatively quiet, without much drama, but it’s a fascinating character study, not just of the protagonist but of all the people who surround her become invested in her courtship.

Caroline’s father, a doctor, is the voice of reason in the novel; one frequently finds oneself rooting for him, his pragmatism, and his insight into the human soul, even if there are times he seems to be a little too cool and logical.  Her aunt is the opposite, overly romantic and determined to involve herself in the affair of others simply because she thinks things have a certain aura about them; she will, for instance, arrange clandestine meetings with nothing to say to the person she’s meeting simple because the idea of a secret rendezvous has an appeal to her.  She’s also a bit of a Panderus, determined to act as a go-between for separated lovers.

The protagonist is quieter, but her inner struggles are fascinating as she tries to balance her love for two different people who do not (will not) get along.  Even today, when many readers might romanticize the idea of Caroline just telling her father to get over himself because she’s going to marry whom she wants no matter what he thinks, her desire to respect her father’s opinions while also courting a man he dislikes is arresting, and one cannot help but hope there will be a way for it to all work out amicably.  It’s also great to see a somewhat quiet character who also has a spine and iron will that the other characters do not always suspect.

Henry James’s work can be a bit of an acquired taste, or maybe just polarizing, but Washington Square is very readable–more so than some of his other texts if you’ve tried them–and will likely appeal to readers who like classics and romances in general.

Briana
4 stars

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Information

Goodreads: North and South
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1854

Official Summary

Penguin Edition

‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

In her introduction, Patricia Ingham examines geographical, economic and class differences, and male and female roles in North and South. This edition also includes a list for further reading, notes and a glossary.

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Review

North and South is essentially two stories woven fully together: that of protagonist Margaret Hale as she navigates moving, losing family members, and falling in love and that of the conflict between the northern (manufacturing) parts of England and the southern (agricultural) parts.  Readers might prefer one theme over the other, depending on how engaging they find Margaret as a character and how enthralling they find debates over the value of manufacturing and workers’ rights, but overall the book shows how Margaret—and the reader—must reconcile differences between things that seem fundamentally different or opposed.

Personally, I found the book intriguing, but it’s difficult to say I entirely liked it.  Margaret, though routinely praised by other characters for her poise, grace, virtue, etc. is still a flawed character.  She’s a bit classist and a bit judgmental (and indeed occasionally called out for it), and part of her arc involves her learning to accept the people of the manufacturing town of Milton without somehow holding herself as apart and separate from them.  Beyond that…she seems very generic to me.  She is generally nice and well-meaning and educated and such, but she’s not unusually good or intelligent, and I don’t find her overly remarkable or memorable as a character the way I might protagonists from other works.

The story does have a number of twists, turns, and exciting events, such as a visit from Margaret’s brother, who is likely to be executed if discovered on English soil.  There’s also the melodrama of sickness and death and the violence of a strike.  Gaskell certainly tries to keep readers turning the pages.

Nonetheless, the book is topical in the way of many Victorian novels; its major concern is the relationship between the employees and the employers in Milton, the rights of workers, etc.  Readers will likely draw comparisons to other novels of the period that treated the subject of mill owners and workers, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley.  It’s a subject that was of popular discussion at the time, but may or may not hold equal interest for today’s readers.  This is particularly true in North and South, where Gaskell has characters engage in lengthy debates and monologues on the subject, in order to press her final point that workers do deserve some consideration.  If the reader doesn’t have a personal or academic/historical interest in such debates, the can make the book drag in places.

However, I did enjoy learning about the smoky town of Milton and seeing how characters could come to love a place that seems, particularly to newcomers, dirty and noisy and lacking in any beauty.  If you’re interested in Victorian literature, North and South is certainly a must-read.

Briana
3 Stars

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

Information

GoodreadsThe Lifted Veil
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1859

Official Summary

Horror was my familiar.

Published the same year as her first novel, Adam Bede, this overlooked work displays the gifts for which George Eliot would become famous—gritty realism, psychological insight, and idealistic moralizing. It is unique from all her other writing, however, in that it represents the only time she ever used a first-person narrator, and it is the only time she wrote about the supernatural.

The tale of a man who is incapacitated by visions of the future and the cacophony of overheard thoughts, and yet who can’t help trying to subvert his vividly glimpsed destiny, it is easy to read The Lifted Veil as being autobiographically revealing—of Eliot’s sensitivity to public opinion and her awareness that her days concealed behind a pseudonym were doomed to a tragic unveiling (as indeed came to pass soon after this novella’s publication). But it is easier still to read the story as the exciting and genuine precursor of a moody new form, as well as an absorbing early masterpiece of suspense.

The Art of The Novella Series

Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature’s greatest writers. In the Art Of The Novella series, Melville House celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time.

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Review

I’ve always admired George Eliot’s ability to write stories that are very different in tone and subject matter and yet be a master of them all, so I was intrigued to discover she had written a novella that veers away from her reputation for realism to explore the supernatural. While psychic powers and unexplained events are not something most readers would associate with Eliot, they were big topics of her time (and, really, still are), so it is interesting to see her weigh in on the discussion and offer her own artistic rendering of such occurrences.  Ultimately, however, I found The Lifted Veil too over-the-top and meandering and was largely disappointed by an author whose work I generally love.

The premise of the story is that a young man, after an illness, sudden acquires the ability to “see the future” in quick bursts of scenes, as well as the ability to discern all the thoughts and feelings of those around him, save for the woman his brother is courting.  This is intriguing, but it is worth noting that Eliot’s focus is not on the plot, not on how these new powers might become important or lead to some exciting event, but rather on the interiority of the protagonist.  The book is largely about how he feels about these powers, what it’s like to anticipate having a sudden burst of insight, the anxiousness of seeing whether it will come true, as well as the downsides of knowing what everyone is thinking—the conclusion is that it’s tiring, in large part because apparently the protagonist does not know a single person who true thoughts are generally kind or agreeable.  He begins to avoid people to escape being bombarded with their thoughts and to avoid being thought mentally unstable lest he give some hint of his supernatural powers.

This is thought-provoking on one level, the idea that seeing the future or essentially reading minds would be a terrible and exhausting personal burden more than anything else, but I also felt as though the story did not really go anywhere.  Many of the plot events were predictable, even for those of us without fortune telling powers, and there did not seem to be any real developments in the interiority of the protagonist either.  The Lifted Veil felt fairly flat and seemed to end in a place quite similar to where it began.

Much of it was also overwrought, though not the supernatural parts.  I can believe in seeing flashes of the future or feeling others’ emotions or even briefly reanimating the dead, great Gothic staples.  However, the characters themselves, usually a strong point of Eliot’s work, feel like caricatures.  The protagonist has a “poetic” nature, going so far as to suggest he can only look at one or two paintings in a single day (say, in a museum) because he is simply so moved by them that looking at more is exhausting and overcomes him.  This is ridiculous, and I feel confident in saying that only a nineteenth-century author would have come up with something like this.

His brother’s fiancée, on whom the protagonist fixates, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, an evil and conniving young woman who seems manipulative and disagreeable just for the sake of it.  She has not a single redeeming quality, except appearing charming to people who do not actually know her.  She seems to exist to be a villain.

George Eliot’s publishers initially rejected The Lifted Veil, and while this has led various readers and scholars to play devil’s advocate and look for its strengths and reasons today’s readers should find it interesting, it didn’t work for me.  I recommend Eliot’s other books without hesitation, but this was somehow both flat and over-the-top, and I don’t feel that I got much out of it.

3 Stars Briana

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering HeightsInformation

Goodreads: Wuthering Heights
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1847

Official Summary

(From the Norton Critical Edition)

Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father. After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries. The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

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Review

I read Wuthering Heights once several years ago and couldn’t remember a thing about it except 1) there was a creepy scene with maybe Catherine’s ghost coming for the narrator, 2) it had weird framing, and 3) I hated it.  This isn’t much to go on when discussing the book, so I decided to reread it now that I’m older and wiser and all that.  The thing is: I still kind of hate the book.  The characters are selfish and cruel, and basically none of them are “likable” besides Nelly Dean, the storyteller (and maybe she’s biased).  But I also appreciate the book a lot more than I did.

I dislike framed narratives in general because I always feel as if the “real” story is the frame and then the main story is actually a digression that I am impatient to have finished up, so I can see why I struggled with the frame in Wuthering Heights.  It doesn’t seem particularly necessary, except readers can see Heathcliff, young Catherine, and Hareton through Lockwood’s more objective observations.  (Still unpleasant, largely).  The frame also kind of comes and goes, with Lockwood starting and stopping the story and even popping off to the city for a few months.  I don’t love it, but I can live with it.

The other oddity of the story is that it is in two parts.  A lot of today’s books have parts, including a lot of YA, but those parts also tend to seem arbitrary to me.  Here, I get it.  There are almost two separate stories, one about Heathcliff and his love Catherine, and one about the next generation.  It turns out that the brief things I did remember from my first reading of Wuthering Heights all came from Part I.  I was initially baffled at what was left to happen, but now I would almost say that Part II is the “real” story.  Sure, all of it’s important, but Part II is about Heathcliff’s concerted attempts at bringing low families he believes have wrong him, by meddling in the affairs of the younger generation.

Heathcliff, and his hate, really ties the story together to me.  I know people posit Wuthering Heights as a love story sometimes, but Heathcliff is a man obsessed more than anything.  He was obsessed with Cathering (did he love her?), and he’s obsessed with acquiring both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange because he knows the families would despise his ownership.  I found fascinating–and yet oddly one-dimensional in the way nineteenth century characters often are. I understand his current motivations, but there’s also the suggestion that he was just always bad, evil by nature.

I could go on; Wuthering Heights offers a lot to talk about.  But I will end by saying I don’t know if I can ever say I “enjoy” the book.  It’s fascinating because everyone in it is just so awful, and the stop of the characters’ passions loom so large, even when the action of the story is confined to only two English estates.  It’s a masterpiece, and I recommend reading it.  Don’t expect it to be “fun.”

4 stars Briana

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

turn-of-the-screwInformation

Goodreads: The Turn of the Screw
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1898

Summary

A young governess accepts a new position on a grand but isolated estate that comes with but one condition: she is never to contact the guardian of her charges about any circumstances that may arise while they are under her care.  All goes well until the governess believes she is seeing the ghosts of two former employees and that it is up to her to save the children from their malicious intents.

Review

For many, The Turn of the Screw is a captivating, heart-pounding Gothic mystery that keeps readers glued to the pages.  For me, the story was a total bore.  Often I feel I can see something worthwhile and interesting in classics, even if I personally don’t love them., but Henry James is really making me struggle to do so here.

The story revolves around some mysterious figures that a new governess believes she sees hanging around her new charges on an isolated estate.  Who are they?  What do they want?  Are they really there?  If something sinister is happening, what exactly is it?  But as fascinating as these questions sound in theory, I thought James dragged them out, and the final payoff was hardly worth the trouble.

Add to this the fact that James has an extremely convoluted prose style, and it just makes every point even harder to get to in the narrative.  Now, I read a lot of old literature: Milton, Shakespeare, texts in Middle English.  All these texts are frequently labelled as having complicated prose, but James can give them a run for their money.  His issue is not that he has an unusual word order (older texts aren’t always straightforward with the subject-verb-object arrangement in sentences).  Rather, the problem is that he tends to start a sentence, stick a couple clauses with fairly extraneous information in the middle of the sentence, and then finally get to the actual main point of the sentence several lines’ worth of writing later.  It makes it hard to even find the main point of the sentence at times.

There’s probably something in here for people who like mysterious and Gothic literature, but I’ve read better Gothic literature.  This one is pretty much a pass from me.  It’s fairly short, but feels enormously long.

2 stars Briana

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Guest Post by Kate)

Classic Literature Event

This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. We asked other readers to tell us what one of their favorite classics is and why we should read it.

Kate is a lover of dark chocolate, Harry Potter, Les Miserables, and Queen.  Visit her at Read and Dream.


Jane Eyre

“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

Starting about a year ago, I have made it a priority to start reading more classics. I have read masterpieces starting from A Tale of Two Cities to Things Fall Apart,each one contributing something new to my perspective of the world. Yet, only one stands out in my mind as my ultimate favorite: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

It is insightful, thrilling and revolutionizing. Here is why I treasure this book so dearly.

1. Jane herself.

She grows up with no true family, with no wealth, with not much to go off of in her life. Her aunt and cousins bully her, and when she resists she is thrown in a boarding school where she is humiliated and malnourished. Yet she finds strength. What I really adore about Jane Eyre is her observance of others. She pays attention to everything, even the littlest details that showcase themselves in people’s eyes. The book was written in first person (rare for a classic) and I believe there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from this because she is so delicate and definite with her imagery and descriptions of emotion.

2. What is says about women.

She is often in awe and admiration of the resolve, passion, and fierceness of another character, but she doesn’t seem to know that she possesses all those qualities herself. She makes her own decision to become a governess, and believes most strongly in the power of conscience and judgement, even when it comes in the face of one of the strongest love stories ever to be written. I believe that this is truly a recollection of what it is to be a woman. Jane is not extraordinary, she is not beautiful, and is often submissive. However, throughout her life she is the picture of independence.

3. The depiction of love as something dark and complex, yet beautiful.

Jane and Mr. Rochester’s love is in one word passionate. There are circumstances that stand in their way, and each of them are so whole and complete on their own. However, they perfectly complement each other and it really shows the test of separation and other unfortunate complexities of love. Bronte’s writing, through Jane’s point of view (first person), is incredibly vivid and shows the intricacies of passion beautifully.

I hope that all of you get the chance to read this book!

“I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.”

Thanks for having me, Krysta!

5 Reasons to Read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Guest Post by Amy McCaw)

Classic Literature Event

This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. We asked other readers to tell us what one of their favorite classics is and why we should read it.

Amy McCaw is a blogger at YA Under My Skin, who is almost as enthusiastic about classics as YA books. (@yaundermyskin)


Wildfell Hall (1)

There’s a lot of love out there for Charlotte and Emily Brontë and for good reason. I’ve read most of their books and they’re consistently brilliant. I’m not here to discuss the two best known Brontës. When I was at university, I first read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, and it soon became one of my favourite classics. I hope by the end of this post that I can convince you to pick up a copy!

These are the reasons why I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

1. The plot

A mysterious widow, Helen Graham, arrives at the rundown Wildfell Hall and attracts the attention of Gilbert Markham and the whole of their small community. This is not just another classic about a young girl who is swept away by a sulking scoundrel (although there are plenty in the book if you like that sort of thing).

2. The narrator

I loved the fact that this was from Gilbert’s point of view because you got to unravel the mystery of Mrs. Graham along with him! He’s a very endearing but flawed character quite different from the aforementioned rogues.

3. The format

The narrative unfolds as a sequence of letters and diary entries written by Gilbert and Helen, enabling the reader to piece the events together from the different character’s viewpoints.

4. Helen and Feminism

Obviously there wasn’t a lot of room to be a feminist at the time but Helen definitely tries! She encourages her young friend Ester not to marry for money and herself is determined to marry for love.

5. The setting

The Brontes lived in the beautiful Yorkshire village of Haworth (where you can still visit their Parsonage Home!) This book strongly evokes the wild and gorgeous landscape of the Yorkshire Moors.

A photo I took in Haworth August 2015

A photo I took in Haworth August 2015

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a fabulous classic and Anne Brontë deserves to be as well-known as her sisters.

Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget

Wonder at the Edge of the WorldInformation

Goodreads: Wonder at the Edge of the World
Series: None
Source: Shelf Awareness?
Publication Date: April 14, 2015

Official Summary

In this captivating quest that spans the globe, a young girl must challenge her assumptions about family, slavery, and friendship as she fights to save her father’s legacy…and to begin creating her own.

Hallelujah Wonder wants to become one of the first female scientists of the nineteenth century. Her father was a scientist and explorer, but his life was cruelly cut short by an evil Navy captain who coveted his cache of artifacts. Hallelujah feels a great responsibility to protect the objects–particularly a mesmerizing (and dangerous) one called the Medicine Head–before the captain can succeed. Now she and her best friend, a slave boy about to be sold, must set out on a sweeping adventure by land and by sea to the only place where no one will ever be able to find the cursed talisman: the forbidding land of Antarctica.

Review

Wonder at the Edge of the World relates the adventures of a nineteenth century American girl who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and became a famous explorer/scientist.  Her story is set against a backdrop of a swarm of troubles; in addition to dealing with her father’s death and the dangerous magical artifact he left behind, she has to face the violence of Bleeding Kansas, the moral dilemmas of slavery, and the harsh realities of whaling.  The book strives to treat all these issues with the nuance and delicacy they deserve; ultimately, however, I cannot decide whether the book is too complicated or too simplistic, too offensive or too careful.  It often seems to present both sides of an issue, only to swerve into a scene of didacticism much later on.

For me, these issues overshadow much of the adventure of the book.  While reading, I was too concerned with slavery, violence, whaling, and the ethics of collecting artifacts from foreign lands to be fully immersed in the story.  At first, I was simply quite pleased to find a book that doesn’t draw black and white lines that say, “The good people are abolitionists.  The bad ones are slave owners.”  Lu refreshingly didn’t have too much of an agenda on this issue.  She’s an abolitionist primarily because her parents are, not out of personal conviction.  By the end of the novel, however, putting an end to slavery is a primary goal in her life.

Lu also ends up preaching on a host of other issues she previously didn’t pay much mind to.  On one level, this is just character development.  Lu goes on an adventure and sees the world and learns new things.  Watching a whale get killed understandably quenches some of her excitement about whale oil and its status as the best lighting oil in the world.  That’s great.  Her worldview is more nuanced.  It becomes annoying primarily because she directs a speech at the readers telling them they, too, should learn where their favorite products come from and should try not to be too wasteful.

Of course, being a know-it-all is simply part of Lu’s character.  At first, I actually enjoyed her personality.  I imagine a girl would have to be somewhat pig-headed if she took it into her mind she was going to get on a whaler, sale to Antarctica, and become a famous scientist in the nineteenth century.  Rational, more socially adept girls would possibly never conceive of this idea.  Also, her condescension is bearable when it is directed towards other characters.  Lu seems to be aware herself that she can be a bit overbearing, and occasionally tries to tone it down, for the sake of friendship.

Often, however, Lu directs her know-it-all attitude toward the readers, and this is where I resented her.  I imagine my age plays a role.  It’s irritating to be told by a small child I probably don’t know all the things she does and probably don’t have all the cool experiences she does. (Yes, I have met someone who’s been to Antarctica, Lu, thanks for asking.)  However, some of her supposedly impressive facts should be common knowledge even for the intended audience of the novel (8-12 years old).  I learned in first grade about Native Americans and Christopher Columbus, so I doubt a middle school reader would be amused either when Lu asserts she bets that the reader doesn’t know Native Americans were in the US before Europeans.

Personal issues aside, I do think the book has some redeeming characteristics.  It pays close attention to historical detail and really does evoke a sense of the nineteenth century.  When not narrated directly from Lu’s point of view, most people, events, and beliefs are given a fair and objective portrayal.  Nothing is really black and white, even when Lu herself thinks it is.

Although the adventure plot line is somewhat winding, leading readers though the disparate settings of Kansas, Massachusetts, a whaling ship, and Antarctica, all the settings are painstakingly built.  The quest itself doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor the way the magical artifact works.  It has an illogical origin story and seems to function suspiciously like the One Ring, except it needs to not be destroyed, just permanently lost.  However, I don’t think young readers will be too picky about any of this.

Wonder at the Edge of the World is interesting, but ultimately just troublesome to me.  I just can’t figure out what to make of most of the moral issues it raises.  I almost wish this were an adult book, as then maybe Helget would have felt freer to tackle them more completely.  The adventure part is great, and the idea of the scientifically minded prairie girl, but somehow all the pieces don’t fall cleanly.  I’d still recommend this book to anyone interested in it, but with more puzzlement than exuberance.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Bronte Banner

cover of Shirley by Charlotte BronteInformation

Goodreads: Shirley
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1849

Summary

Young Caroline Helstone is in love with her cousin Robert Moore, but he is too busy attempting to publicly defend his decision to replace workers with more efficient machines in his Yorkshire mill to notice her affections. Caroline is sinking into depression when Shirley Keldar, a wealthy and independent landowner, returns to her estate and befriends Caroline.  But will Caroline lose Robert to her new friend?

Review

Several years ago I began Shirley and didn’t make it past the first chapter; I found it slow, and the characters were obsessed with a mill and labor relations, which didn’t seem typical of Brontë’s work.  So I didn’t pick Shirley up again until 2014, on the recommendation of a professor who assured me it is the most romantic of Charlotte Brontë’s works.  Although I cannot particularly explain my reaction, I was baffled and a little skeptical that the book could be about how a guy runs his mill and the resulting social unrest and yet have a secret romantic Brontë gem buried inside.  Looking back, I ask myself: Why can’t both those things be true?  And it turns out that they are.

Shirley will certainly be surprising to those used to associating Brontë’s work with governesses and teachers.  Jane Eyre, Vilette, and The Professor all have one as their protagonist.  However, Brontë manages to write about the workings of a mill, and the generally male workforce, with as much skill and realism as she ever writes about governesses.  The events of Shirley are based on historical ones, and Brontë clearly knows what she’s talking about.  And as the novel presents the different viewpoints on what employers owe employees and how much machines should be allowed to take over the jobs of men, readers will find themselves asking the same questions and entering debate; after all, these are problems that businesses still struggle with today.

Despite the focus on the mill, the miller is not really the protagonist.  In some sense, Shirley herself is not either; many chapters pass until she enters the book.  Until then, the novel is really the story of Caroline, who ties everyone together by being the miller’s cousin and Shirley’s friend.  Although Caroline in many respects appears to be the “typical” demure nineteenth century woman, she does throw some surprises readers’ way (or perhaps not, if one is used to Brontë).  Readers are treated to the complexities of her interiority, including the fact that does not wish to be forever entirely dependent on men but to somehow find fulfillment by doing her own work.

Shirley questions the role of women in this society perhaps more obviously.  She wants more independence than Caroline does and, in many ways, has it.  She lives without male relations and runs her own estate.  Because of the power she wields, she occasionally refers to herself in the masculine.  Nonetheless, Shirley complicates her own picture of female independence by revealing that what she wants most is a man who can manage to control her.  (Admittedly, it sounds bad when phrased that way.  In the novel, however, one gets a more nuanced sense of what Shirley means by it; she wants someone who can balance her, who will tell her no when it needs to be said, who will give her help instead of assuming she has everything completely under control.  And those aren’t bad things at all.)

So is there a romance for Shirley?  Yes.  And one for Caroline, as well.  My professor was not wrong when she labelled this novel romantic.  The love stories burn slowly but ultimately burn brightly.  Readers get tons of romantic tension and then a satisfying ending.  On a personal note, I like the romances in Shirley better than that in Jane Eyre.  The men in both stories take questionable actions that are ultimately forgiven by the women—but the offenses in Shirley seem, well, more reasonable to me and more likely to be forgiven.

Villette is still my favorite Charlotte Brontë novel, but I did really enjoy Shirley.   With its focus on labor relations and its portrayal of the strong female friendship between Caroline and Shirley, it has a lot that is new for Brontë to offer readers.  Yet it also has swoon-worthy romances and broaches the questions about women’s roles and behavior that Brontë fans know to expect.  Altogether, an excellent work.