Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Seeing a few reviews of Joseph Conrad books on other blogs recently reminded me that I’d had a copy of one of his novels, Lord Jim, unread on my shelf for a long time, so a few weeks ago I decided to read it. My previous experience with Conrad amounted to a failed attempt to read Heart of Darkness, so I wasn’t really expecting to love this book – and I didn’t, but at least I managed to finish this one!

Published in 1900, Lord Jim is the story of a young seaman – Jim – who, at the beginning of the novel is serving as first mate on the Patna, a ship packed with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. During the voyage, the ship hits an object submerged in the sea and begins to take on water. Believing that the Patna is sinking, Jim and the rest of the crew jump into lifeboats and abandon the ship, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. Although the other crew members manage to avoid taking responsibility for what they have done, Jim will be haunted by this moment of cowardice for the rest of his life.

Our narrator, Marlow, is a sea captain who is intrigued by Jim and decides to help him rebuild his life following an official inquiry into his actions on the Patna, during which he loses his seaman’s certificate and is told he can no longer serve as an officer. Jim takes up several new positions arranged for him by Marlow, but wherever he goes his past seems to follow him until eventually he ends up at a remote trading post in Patusan, a fictional land somewhere in Asia.

I won’t say any more about what happens to Jim after he arrives in Patusan, but I will mention the structure, which I thought was both one of the most effective things about the book and the most confusing. Because the novel is narrated by Marlow, in the form of an account told to a group of friends one evening, we never actually see things from Jim’s own point of view – and within Marlow’s narration, other characters also take their turn to narrate. This leads to lots of quotation marks nested within each other as one character tells a story that had been told to them by another character and so on, until it becomes very difficult to remember who each narrator is. To make things even more challenging, events are not always related in chronological order either and often the plot will go off on a tangent, jumping forward in time for a while and telling us about something that will happen later. All of this meant that I found myself really struggling to follow the story and stay engaged with it.

The way the book is written, showing us Jim only through the eyes of others, gives more complexity and ambiguity to his character than there would probably have been if he’d had the chance to tell his story himself, but it also makes it hard to connect with Jim and to try to understand what is going on inside his head. There’s always a distance between Jim and the reader, but of course that’s surely the whole point because Jim, after the Patna tragedy, has tried to distance himself from the people who knew him before and to avoid his past catching up with him again. As a psychological study, Lord Jim is a fascinating book and I found the writing beautiful and poetic; as an adventure novel I thought it was less successful – the Patusan sections raise some interesting issues about colonialism, empire and race, but the muddled structure disrupted the flow of the story for me and I have to admit that I was glad to reach the end of the book.

I think I’ve probably tried enough Joseph Conrad now, but maybe I’ll give him another chance at some point in the future.

Coincidentally, just after finishing this book I came across the 1965 film starring Peter O’Toole on Sony Movies last week and although it diverges from the novel quite a lot in the second half, I did find it helpful to see some of the scenes and characters brought to life!

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

This was the book chosen for me in the most recent Classics Club Spin and although it wasn’t one of the books on my list that I was particularly hoping for, I was pleased with the result as Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite Victorian authors. Today is the deadline for posting our reviews and for once I have managed to finish in time!

Two on a Tower was published in 1882 and is one of Hardy’s less well known novels, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one. Although I wouldn’t rank it amongst my top three or four, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It falls into the group of novels Hardy himself classed as ‘romance and fantasy’ and is set, like many of his other books, in his fictional Wessex. The romantic aspect of the book concerns Lady Viviette Constantine and her relationship with the younger Swithin St Cleeve.

Twenty-year-old St Cleeve lives with his elderly grandmother and dreams of becoming a famous astronomer. He has created an observatory in an old tower on land owned by Lady Constantine and her husband, who is away in Africa. When Lady Constantine meets the young man who is using her tower, she is struck by his beauty and by his passion for his work, and as Swithin introduces her to the wonders of the night sky with its planets and constellations, she becomes aware that she has fallen in love with him. She and Swithin spend more and more time together in their own private world at the top of the tower, hidden away from the prying eyes of society whom, she knows, would disapprove of their relationship – because she is ten years older and belongs to a different social class.

Even after news arrives from Africa of the death of Lady Constantine’s husband, the barriers of age and class still stand in their way. Will she and Swithin ever be able to marry and live together openly? How long will she manage to keep her romance a secret from her scheming brother Louis? And can she fend off the unwelcome attentions of the Bishop of Melchester?

Two on a Tower has a slightly different feel from most of the other Hardy novels I’ve read. It’s quite a gentle story, with none of the truly shocking, tragic scenes that you would find in books like Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. That’s not to say there is no drama, because there is, especially at the end – Hardy certainly doesn’t make things easy for Viviette Constantine and Swithin St Cleeve – but what I will remember most from this book are the descriptions of the stars in the night sky and the slow development of the two lovers’ relationship. However, I thought that the sense of place – usually such a strong element of Hardy’s writing – was weaker than usual. Apart from the tower itself, I felt that the surrounding landscape never came to life in the same way as, for example, Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native. It was as if, by concentrating on the wider universe, Hardy had less time to spend on the smaller details of everyday life. Maybe that was intentional; I’m not sure.

As I’ve said, this book hasn’t become a favourite – and I felt less emotionally invested in the central romance than I would have liked, probably because, although I completely believed in Viviette’s love for Swithin, I wasn’t convinced that she really meant much more to him than his telescope did. I was still gripped by their story, though, and overall, I really enjoyed Two on a Tower.

I have four Hardy novels left to read and they are all obscure ones too: The Well-Beloved, A Laodicean, The Hand of Ethelberta and The Trumpet-Major. If you have read them, please let me know which one I should read next!

This is book 14/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I keep coming across books that are said to have been inspired by or similar to Henry James’ 1898 classic The Turn of the ScrewFlorence and Giles by John Harding, This House is Haunted by John Boyne and The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware, to name a few – so it seemed ridiculous that I still hadn’t read the book itself. I decided to put it on my list for this year’s R.I.P. challenge, and have finally read it, appropriately just in time for Halloween.

The Turn of the Screw is presented as a ghost story told to a group of friends sitting round the fire at Christmas. It tells of two children left in the care of an uncle after the deaths of their parents. Not wanting to be bothered by his little niece and nephew, the uncle employs a young woman as their governess, giving her strict instructions not to contact him with any complaints or questions and to deal with any problems herself. The governess, who remains unnamed throughout the story, arrives at the family estate, Bly, and gets to know Flora, the younger of her two charges. Flora’s brother, Miles, is away at school but shortly after the governess’s arrival, he returns home, having been expelled. The governess can’t understand this, as Miles, like his sister, appears to be so charming and angelic.

When the governess begins to see two mysterious figures around the grounds of the estate, however, she begins to wonder whether the children are really as innocent as they seem. Learning from the housekeeper that the two figures she has seen closely resemble two previous Bly employees – Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, both of whom are now dead – the governess becomes convinced that she is seeing ghosts. But are the ghosts a figment of her imagination or do they really exist? Are Flora and Miles, as she strongly suspects, secretly aware of them too? And if so, what hold do the ghosts have over the children?

I do wish I’d read this book before now; it was a quick, short read and it would undoubtedly have been better to have read it before reading all those other novels it inspired! Already being familiar with the general outline of the plot before I began did spoil things a little bit, although I still found that some parts of the story were new to me. I didn’t find it particularly scary, which in a way I was pleased about as I live alone and don’t like to be terrified – but I was also slightly disappointed because surely a good ghost story should be scary. Anyway, it was certainly unsettling, mainly because of the ambiguity. Because of the governess’s unreliability as a narrator, we have to decide for ourselves whether the ghosts are real or whether they are not – and there are other questions that are never fully answered either, such as the true nature of the children’s relationship with Jessel and Quint or what exactly Miles said and did to get expelled from school.

This is the second book I’ve read by Henry James and although I found it more entertaining than my first (The Europeans), I don’t think I’m ever going to be a fan of his writing style which I find very dry and difficult to engage with. I’m glad I’ve read this one at last and I will try more of his books, but I’m not expecting him to become a favourite author.

This is book #7 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough – A book for the Persephone Readathon

This week Jessie of Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons. My choice of book this time proved to be very different from any of the other Persephones I’ve read, for several reasons. For one thing, it is one of only a few Persephones written by a man. With an original publication date of 1858, it must also be one of the oldest books they publish – the majority are from the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, it is written in verse, something which filled me with trepidation as I’m not really a fan of narrative poems (although, to be fair, I haven’t read all that many of them).

Anyway, Amours de Voyage follows a group of people who are visiting Italy during the political turmoil surrounding the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849. Their story is told in the form of letters written in hexameter verse and divided into five cantos. One of the letter-writers is Claude, a young man who is spending some time in Rome as part of his ‘grand tour’ and keeping a friend, Eustace, updated on everything he has seen and experienced. It seems that so far Rome has entirely failed to impress him:

Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand it, but

RUBBISHY seems the word that most exactly would suit it.

And then:

What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.

Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!

I love Rome and ‘rubbishy’ is certainly not how I would describe it, but Claude is the sort of person who appears not to like or admire anything or anybody. This includes his fellow tourists, particularly the Trevellyns, who find Rome ‘a wonderful place’ and are ‘delighted of course with St. Peter’s’. This is Claude’s initial impression of the Trevellyns:

Middle-class people these, bankers very likely, not wholly

Pure of the taint of the shop; will at table d’hote and restaurant

Have their shilling’s worth, their penny’s pennyworth even:

Neither man’s aristocracy this, nor God’s, God knoweth!

As he gets to know the family better, however, he changes his opinion slightly and the tone of his letters to Eustace starts to suggest that he has fallen in love with Mary Trevellyn. Through Mary’s own letters to her friends Louisa and Miss Roper, we learn that although her own first impression of Claude was that she thought him ‘agreeable, but a little repulsive’, she is also beginning to change her mind:

Yes, repulsive; observe, it is but when he talks of ideas

That he is quite unaffected, and free, and expansive, and easy.

Unfortunately, before a romance has time to develop, violence breaks out on the streets of Rome and the Trevellyns leave the city just before it becomes besieged by the French. Claude has no intention of fighting for or against the Roman Republic (he doesn’t have a musket, he tells Eustace, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to use it) so he sets off in search of the Trevellyns instead. Due to bad luck and a series of misunderstandings, they keep missing each other as they move around Italy. Will Claude and Mary ever be reunited – or has the opportunity been lost forever?

I found Amours de Voyage much easier to get through than I had expected; it hasn’t become a favourite Persephone but it was still an enjoyable one and the rhythm, structure and colloquial language make it very readable. Despite Claude being such an annoying character, the way his story plays out is quite sad and moving as he begins to regret not speaking to Mary and telling her how he felt while he had the chance. Mary could have made the first move, but she knows that Claude ‘thinks that women should woo him; Yet, if a girl should do so, would be but alarmed and disgusted.’

The poem’s historical background is interesting too. Arthur Hugh Clough himself was in Rome in 1849 during the siege so was writing from personal experience, which explains why the parts of the poem that deal with the conflict – such as Claude’s account of witnessing a priest being killed and Mary’s description of Garibaldi riding into the city – feel vivid and authentic. I know nothing about Clough as a person other than the little I’ve been able to find online so I don’t know to what extent the rest of the story is autobiographical or how much of himself he put into Claude’s character.

Amours de Voyage endpapers

Because Amours de Voyage is in the public domain, it is available as a free ebook from sites like Project Gutenberg, but the Persephone edition has an introduction by Julian Barnes, illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers, taken from a woven dress silk from 1850. It isn’t a Persephone that gets much attention, so if you’ve read it (in any format) I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

When the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin was The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, I was quite happy with that result. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a while, it had been recommended to me by more than one person and I thought I might find it more enjoyable than my last Spin book, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which I still haven’t managed to finish.

Jane Porter (1776-1850) was born in England but grew up in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott was apparently a regular visitor to the family. The Scottish Chiefs reminded me very much of Scott’s work, although it was published several years before Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I don’t know whether Scott read and was influenced by Porter’s novel or not, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have done.

The Scottish Chiefs was published in 1809 and tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, a story many people are familiar with through Braveheart. Like Braveheart, this is a highly romanticised account of Wallace’s life and can’t be assumed to be entirely accurate; however, there is a limit to what historians know about Wallace anyway and for centuries one of our major sources has been Blind Harry’s narrative poem from the 1400s, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The novel opens in the summer of 1296. Having recently acted as arbitrator in a dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne – resulting in John Balliol becoming king rather than his rival Robert Bruce of Annandale – Edward I of England has entered Scotland with his army and gained victory at the Battle of Dunbar. Balliol abdicates and is sent to the Tower of London, while the majority of Scotland’s other noblemen agree to acknowledge Edward as their overlord. William Wallace, who is ‘too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission’, is one of the few who refuse to accept this and at the beginning of the novel we see him visiting a fellow rebel, Sir John Monteith of Douglas Castle. Monteith presents him with a small, heavy iron box, which he had been given by Lord Douglas with the following message:

“…commit the box in strict charge to the worthiest Scot you know; and tell him that it will be at the peril of his soul, who dares to open it, till Scotland be again free! When that hour comes, then let the man by whose valour God restores her rights, receive the box as his own; for by him only it is to be opened.”

As Wallace rides away, the iron box is seen by English soldiers who assume that it contains treasure and soon the English Governor of Lanark, Heselrigge, arrives at Wallace’s home hoping to gain possession of it. In the violence that follows, Wallace’s beloved wife Marion is murdered by Heselrigge and when Wallace takes revenge by killing the Governor, he swears that he won’t rest until he has freed Scotland from Edward’s control and the day comes when the mysterious box can finally be opened.

I enjoyed The Scottish Chiefs, although I did find it a bit uneven. There are some gripping set pieces – such as the storming of Dumbarton Castle and Wallace’s infiltration of Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel – but there are other parts that were much less interesting and where I struggled not to lose concentration. It has to be remembered, though, that the book was published in the early nineteenth century and written in the wordy style that you would expect from literature of that period. It’s also a very long book – I read an ebook version and hadn’t appreciated just how long it was until I started reading!

Not many of the characters have the depth and complexity I prefer; most of the women, such as Marion and Helen Mar, are portrayed as paragons of virtue, while Wallace himself is too perfect and heroic to be true. The more villainous characters were the most interesting, particularly Helen’s stepmother, Joanna, Countess of Mar (in her notes at the end of the book, Porter says that Joanna was a real historical figure, daughter of the Earl of Strathearn and a princess of Orkney, but I haven’t been able to find any information about her anywhere). Porter doesn’t use any Scots dialect so her Scottish characters sound the same as the English ones, but some authors can write very convincingly in dialect and others can’t, so I think it’s best not to use it at all than to use it badly!

I ended up reading the free Project Gutenberg version of the book, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print. The book covers in this post are for illustration purposes only. I hope someone like Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics will decide to publish an edition at some point – with notes giving us more idea of which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional – as that might encourage more people to read this book; at the moment The Scottish Chiefs seems to be a bit of a forgotten classic, which is a shame as despite the flaws I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Scottish history or in early examples of historical fiction.

This is book 13/50 read from my Classics Club list.

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

This month Paula at Book Jotter is hosting Dewithon, a readathon celebrating literature by and about writers from Wales. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read How Green Was My Valley, a book from my Classics Club list, so I was surprised and disappointed to find that there is some controversy over whether or not Richard Llewellyn can be considered a Welsh author (although his parents were Welsh, he was apparently actually born in England, despite claiming to be born in Wales). I decided to read it anyway and am glad I did because I loved it and it seemed to me that Llewellyn must have identified strongly with Wales and its people, even though he didn’t grow up there.

The book was published in 1939 but is set several decades earlier, towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, which is something else I hadn’t realised at first. Exact dates are not given, but there are a few clues and references to historical events that provide some indication of the time period. The story is narrated by Huw Morgan, whose family live in a coal mining community in the valleys of South Wales. Huw is only a child at the beginning of the novel, watching his older brothers go off to work in the mine with their father; he expects that one day he will follow in their footsteps, but his academic ability opens up at least the possibility of doing something else. Huw’s school days are not easy – despite his success in the classroom, he is bullied both by the other boys and by his teacher – but at home he receives plenty of guidance and advice, of various sorts, from his family and friends.

Huw’s recollections of his childhood are full of nostalgia and affection, but there is always a sense that danger and tragedy could be just around the corner and we know that Huw’s valley was perhaps not as ‘green and bright’ as he remembers it. This is symbolised by the descriptions of the slag heap which is growing larger by the year as more and more of the earth is mined, casting a shadow over the valley as it spreads and threatening to engulf the houses below (it was hard not to think here of the Aberfan disaster of 1966). Mining is an integral part of the lives of the Morgan family and the rest of the community, so while it is a constant source of conflict throughout the novel – Huw’s father and brothers become involved in strikes, the formation of unions and protests against the sliding scale of pay – it is also an important source of employment and income.

Everything that happens in the book feels realistic and Llewellyn adds to the authenticity by trying to capture the patterns and cadences of Welsh speech both in the dialogue and in Huw’s narration (though maybe someone from Wales who has read the book can tell me whether it’s as accurate as it sounded to me). The story itself seems very autobiographical and I could have easily believed that Huw’s experiences were drawn from the author’s own life. I was surprised, then, to find that not only was Llewellyn not born in St Davids as he claimed, he also didn’t come from a mining background and was more likely to have carried out his research for the book by talking to miners rather than by going down the mines himself.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel with characters I came to love and care about, particularly Huw himself, his beloved sister-in-law Bronwen, who is such a big influence on him from early childhood onwards, and his sister Angharad, faced with choosing between two different men and two different ways of life. At first I thought it was going to be a long, slow read, but as I gradually became more and more engrossed in Huw’s story the pages started to fly by much more quickly than I’d expected. I’m not sure if I’ll look for any of the sequels, which don’t seem to be as highly regarded, but I’m so glad I read this one and got to know Huw and the Morgan family.