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One From the Archive: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ****

As far as classic novels go, Lady Audley’s Secret is a facile and rather stunning read.  I was surprised at the ease into which I slipped into the story; Braddon’s writing is beautiful, and casts a spell of sorts around the reader from the very beginning.

Lady Audley’s Secret is set during the 1850s, and centres around the novel’s named protagonist, who has rather a shadowy past: ‘The truth was that Lady Audley had, in becoming the wife of Sir Michael, made one of those apparently advantageous matches which are apt to draw upon a woman the envy and hatred of her sex.  She had come into the neighbourhood as a governess in the family of a surgeon in the village near Audley Court.  No one knew anything of her…  She came from London; and the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school at Brompton, where she had once been a teacher’.

Braddon’s initial descriptions of the house and its surroundings are stunning: ‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business imagesthere at all.  At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand – and which jumped straight from one hour to the next – and was therefore always in extremes.  Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.  A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county.  To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss.  To the left there was a broad gravelled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter’.

At the risk of quoting the entire book, I feel that it is worth sharing Braddon’s initial, charming description of the Audley Court abode: ‘A glorious old place.  A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.  A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenue…’.

Lady Audley’s Secret is both an atmospheric and compelling work, which felt rather modern at times.  At first, I was reminded a little of Ian McEwan’s marvellous Atonement, in terms of the style of the whole and the way in which Audley Court sprang to life before my very eyes.  Braddon seamlessly introduces her characters, and I very much like the structure of the whole; subsequent chapters follow different protagonists.  In this manner, those who own the house, as well as those who work there have been taken into account, and a well-rounded picture of the whole establishment is soon created.  The largely omniscient narrator takes the reader into his or her confidence through the use of small and infrequent asides, and this narrative voice works incredibly well with the unfolding whole.

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Readalong: ‘Our Mutual Friend’ by Charles Dickens – Book 1, Chapters 1-4 (May)

The lovely Katie of Books and Things had the glorious idea of organising a Victorian-style readalong of her favourite Charles Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend. What a Victorian-style readalong means is that we will be reading the novel as it was first published, a few chapters at a time, precisely how the Victorians themselves first read it.

our-mutual-friend1The novel started being serialised in May 1864 until November 1865, with either 3 or 4 chapters out every month. The idea is to follow this original publication pattern and read the chapters as they were published each month, from this May until November 2017. Katie has also created a Goodreads group where she explains all the details (I know my explanation is more likely to confuse rather than enlighten you) and where she has also prepared a schedule of which chapters are to be read each month.

Now, since I haven’t read as much Dickens as I’d have wanted to, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and participate in this readalong.  I had never heard of this book before, though, and after a quick research I found out it hasn’t been translated at all in Greek and so I had never heard about it growing up like Dickens’ other novels. Since I tend to feel quite intimidated by Dickens’ books, I think a few chapters per month will be a good idea to start with. I’m reading it in physical form while simultaneously listening to the audiobook, as it helps me concentrate more on the plot and pick up nuances I might have missed otherwise. So, I have already read the first 4 chapters of Our Mutual Friend and I’d like to share some of my initial thoughts with you. I will try to make it as much spoiler-free as possible, but you should proceed with caution nevertheless.

Chapter 1: The first chapter is more than intriguing and it definitely sets the mood for the story that is about to unfold. We are introduced to two characters, Gaffer and his daughter Lizzie, while they are on a boat at sea having just discovered something which is the source of an argument they have. Dickens’ language is rather challenging but his descriptions are vivid and eloquent.

Chapter 2: This must have been the most confusing second chapter I have encountered in my reading life so far! Forgetting the boat scene in the previous chapter, we are introduced to a brand new set of characters here, starting with the Veneerings, a couple who has recently become wealthy. They are hosting a dinner with many distinguishing guests, who Dickens doesn’t fail to comment on with the most poignant manner. His wit and irony is really evident in this chapter and I very much enjoyed this aspect of it.

During this dinner and the inevitable gossip that ensues, we learn of some John Harmon, who has just inherited his father’s fortune and is on his way back to England to claim it. However, some unfortunate news become known to the guests attending the dinner about John Harmon’s fortune. It definitely was an overwhelming chapter, with lots of new characters introduced, whose names I still cannot bring myself to fully remember.

Chapter 3: Continuing on from the previous chapter, two of our dinner guests, Mortimer and Eugene, set off to find out more about what happened to John Harmon. During this quest of theirs, they meet with Gaffer and Lizzie, the characters from chapter 1, who have some interesting information to share. A mysterious man appears, asking for information about John Harmon, too.

This chapter was much less confusing compared to the previous one, even more so because finally the characters come together and we find out what Gaffer and Lizzie were up to on the boat.

Chapter 4: We are introduced to yet another new set of characters here, the Wilton family and we learn that the daughter, Bella, was supposed to marry John Harmon. A man by the name of John Rokesmith appears to rent the Wilton’s first floor and even though he doesn’t seem very trustworthy, the family accepts as they are in dire need of money. We are informed, though, that this man is none other than the mysterious man of the previous chapter. The plot thickens slowly but steadily and I’m very intrigued to see what happens next.

Those first four chapters were surely challenging but very engaging, and I did enjoy Dickens’ witty writing, even though I was thoroughly overwhelmed by this plethora of characters. I decided to read about a chapter per week, because I’m reading this for the first time and I’m completely new to the characters and the plot, so I wouldn’t want to let too much time pass in between the chapters lest I forget who is who.

Chapters 5-7 are scheduled for June, so I will make a post discussing them at the end of the month.

Is anyone else participating at this readalong? Have you read Our Mutual Friend before? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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‘Without Knowing Mr Walkley’ by Edith Olivier ****

Without Knowing Mr Walkley is the autobiography of author Edith Olivier.  It was first published in 1938, and, as one might expect, spans her entire life, from her idyllic Wiltshire childhood to philosophical musings on those around her and the world in which she lived.

The prologue of Without Knowing Mr Walkley is quite charmingly called the ‘Preamble’.  In this, Olivier vividly evokes the latter part of the 1800s in which she grew up.  She has a marvellous way of placing herself back into her childhood, and describing the wonder which comes when viewing it in retrospect: ‘(except for Christmas Day) it is always summer in one’s childhood)’, for example.  One feels immediately that rather than shunning the way in which she behaved as a child, or becoming disgruntled with aspects of her early life, Olivier holds such an understanding for her young self.  From the very first, Olivier talks of the wonderful adventures which she and her sister Mildred had in and around the rectory which they called home: ‘In every house, an immense amount of space is lost to the grown-up people who never sit in cupboards…  When I remember Wilton Rectory, I think of it as larger by all those cupboards than it ever could have been for my parents, who only sat in the rooms’.

Mr Walkley, of the novel’s title, was the dramatic critic for The Times when Olivier was young: ‘and in those days it was my passionate desire to become an actress’.  As well as discussing her childhood dreams, Olivier touches upon so many elements of Victorian and Edwardian life – for example, money and the divide between rich and poor, eccentrics, prayer and churchgoing, entertainment, the elderly, common expressions, and her first years as a student at Oxford University.  She then moves forward in history, encompassing such things as the Women’s Land Army during the First World War, treaties, the death of King George V, and her writing career.

Throughout, Olivier’s descriptions are lovely, and she sets her scenes beautifully. Without Knowing Mr Walkley
is an interesting and wonderfully crafted memoir, which should be read by anyone who has an interest in Edith Olivier or her work.

x

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One From the Archive: ‘Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England’ by Sarah Wise ****

First published in October 2012.

The book aims to ‘revaluate our image of mental health and society in the nineteenth century’, and is said to be ‘both page turning and scholarly’.

Wise has set out to show twelve true stories from Victorian times, in which sane people were locked away when declared ‘mad’ by their peers. Those included in Inconvenient People have been ‘selected to highlight the range of people who had to fight for their liberty against the imputation of insanity’. Her preface to the volume is rather informative, and leads incredibly well into the stories which follow.

We learn about the cases of Richard Paternoster, sent to Kensington House Asylum by his surgeon father; a doctor named John Quail, perceived as a ‘dangerous lunatic’ for ‘pestering Whitehall officials about a pension and remuneration he believed he was owed’; eminent Edward Bulwer-Lytton who cruelly confined his wife Rosina to an asylum ‘in controversial circumstances’; and Louisa Crookenden, mother of four babies who died in infancy and who later tried to commit suicide, amongst others. Each case reads like a short story might, and Wise has encompassed all the information available to her and presented it in an accessible format. Whilst the volume sets out to show the reader twelve stories relating to misconstrued lunacy, however, there are only actually ten featured, which is a shame.

As one might expect, Inconvenient People is rather information heavy, and unless being read for scholarly purposes, it is a far more beneficial volume to read one case at a time so as not to get too bogged down with all the facts.

The book contains a note on the terminology used throughout, ranging from ‘pauper lunatics’ who were unable to pay the fees for their care, to ‘single patient’, which ‘usually implied a wealthy lunatic in non-asylum care’. Informative maps have been included, along with illustrations which go with the text. The only downside is that some of these pictures have not been given captions, and therefore look as though they have been placed haphazardly with paragraphs that do not relate to them.

To conclude, Inconvenient People is an incredibly interesting book, and it is clear that Wise has put a lot of thought into the varied cases she has used and the way in which she has presented her information. It is an informative volume, which is equally as useful to a scholar of Victorian history or psychiatry as to an everyday reader interested in lunacy and social conditions of the nineteenth century.

The book aims to ‘revaluate our image of mental health and society in the nineteenth century’, and is said to be ‘both page turning and scholarly’.

Wise has set out to show twelve true stories from Victorian times, in which sane people were locked away when declared ‘mad’ by their peers. Those included in Inconvenient People have been ‘selected to highlight the range of people who had to fight for their liberty against the imputation of insanity’. Her preface to the volume is rather informative, and leads incredibly well into the stories which follow.

We learn about the cases of Richard Paternoster, sent to Kensington House Asylum by his surgeon father; a doctor named John Quail, perceived as a ‘dangerous lunatic’ for ‘pestering Whitehall officials about a pension and remuneration he believed he was owed’; eminent Edward Bulwer-Lytton who cruelly confined his wife Rosina to an asylum ‘in controversial circumstances’; and Louisa Crookenden, mother of four babies who died in infancy and who later tried to commit suicide, amongst others. Each case reads like a short story might, and Wise has encompassed all the information available to her and presented it in an accessible format. Whilst the volume sets out to show the reader twelve stories relating to misconstrued lunacy, however, there are only actually ten featured, which is a shame.

As one might expect, Inconvenient People is rather information heavy, and unless being read for scholarly purposes, it is a far more beneficial volume to read one case at a time so as not to get too bogged down with all the facts.

The book contains a note on the terminology used throughout, ranging from ‘pauper lunatics’ who were unable to pay the fees for their care, to ‘single patient’, which ‘usually implied a wealthy lunatic in non-asylum care’. Informative maps have been included, along with illustrations which go with the text. The only downside is that some of these pictures have not been given captions, and therefore look as though they have been placed haphazardly with paragraphs that do not relate to them.

To conclude, Inconvenient People is an incredibly interesting book, and it is clear that Wise has put a lot of thought into the varied cases she has used and the way in which she has presented her information. It is an informative volume, which is equally as useful to a scholar of Victorian history or psychiatry as to an everyday reader interested in lunacy and social conditions of the nineteenth century.

– See more at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/inconvenient-people-lunacy-liberty-and-the-mad-doctors-in-victorian-england-by-sarah-wise/#sthash.Yba6AdpD.dpuf

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‘The Meaning of The Night’ by Michael Cox

This is truly an amazing work of Gothic mystery/literary fiction. Beginning with the discovered confession of the

‘The Meaning of Night’ by Michael Cox

protagonist, Edward Glyver, a tale of obsession in extreme unfolds over a narrative that incorporates facts, fiction and bibliophilic references to peak the interests of all readers, and numerous footnotes to promote a sense of authenticity.

It is not an easy book to review without the book sounding dull or pondering, but the plot is so well played out that it is difficult to give too many details without giving too much away. Anyway, it is great fun to read for the mystery and for fans of well done literature.  It is one of the best I have read in a while. The social aspects of the depictions of 1850s London and surrounding areas are realistic of the era, and are a story in their own right.  They also add another dimension to a well conceived and executed storyline.

Rating: 5 stars

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‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters

‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters

This is an amazing tale set in Victorian London and its surrounding villages. Waters’ structure of the novel owes to Dickens et al., but through her exquisite writing she gives it fresh appeal. The story revolves around a convoluted long con perpetuated by a group of fingersmiths (thieves), and eventually a host of characters that propel the plot.

Throughout, there is great character development and a stunning portrayal of the era. Her realism of the life of the poor and the grit of city and life are perfect, and worth five stars on their own. I have read The Little Stranger and enjoyed it, but with Fingersmith, the author is at the top in her writing.

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