The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (I think we can see why the title is usually shortened) was originally published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. It’s the book I was supposed to read for a Classics Club Spin over a year ago, but I struggled to get into it at the time and decided to wait until I was more in the mood for Dickens. And you definitely need to be in the right mood for a book of this length – more than 900 pages in the edition I read! I’ve loved other very long Dickens novels, though, such as the wonderful Our Mutual Friend, so I hoped I would end up loving this one too. Unfortunately I didn’t, but I did still find a lot to enjoy.

The Dombey of the title is the wealthy owner of a shipping company who dreams of having a son and heir who will be able to continue the family business. Dombey gets his wish early in the novel when his wife gives birth to a son, Paul. However, she dies shortly after the birth, leaving Paul to become the sole focus of his father’s attention – even though Dombey already has a six-year-old daughter, Florence. Florence loves her father and does her best to please him, but no matter how hard she tries, it’s obvious that all of Dombey’s hopes and ambitions lie with Paul and that Florence is just a useless girl and an inconvenience.

Whether or not the proud and arrogant Dombey will ever come to love and value his daughter as she deserves is the question at the heart of the novel, but as you would expect from Dickens, there are also plenty of diversions and subplots and lots of larger than life characters to get to know. Of these, my favourites were Captain Cuttle, the kind-hearted retired sea captain with a hook for a hand, and Susan Nipper, Florence’s loyal nurse and one of the few people who will stand up to Dombey for his neglect of his daughter. There’s a great villain too: James Carker, the scheming manager of Dombey and Son, with gleaming white teeth and a devious brain. There are too many others I could have done without, though – mainly the ones who seem to be there purely for their comedy value, such as Major Bagstock, Sir Barnet Skettles and Cousin Feenix, without actually adding much to the central plot.

Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his treatment of female characters (I think Dora in David Copperfield is his worst), but the women in this book are well-drawn and interesting. Yes, Florence can be too good to be true at times, but her father’s rejection of her is so cruel and hurtful that it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her. Her stepmother, Edith Dombey, though, is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in a Dickens novel: a woman filled with self-loathing after being pushed into marriage by her mother, who then decides to take her fate into her own hands.

Although I really enjoyed parts of this book, other sections dragged and I’m afraid I can’t list it amongst my favourite novels by Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby is the next one I’m planning to read, so I’m hoping for better luck with that one.

This is book 17/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

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!