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 Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory was one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list that I never got round to reading, so I added it to my Autumn TBR list instead, hoping that would give me a push into picking it up sooner rather than later. Now that I’ve finally read it, I can say that it was worth waiting for – and it was actually a perfect October read.

The Doll Factory is set in Victorian London and follows three main characters whose stories become more and more closely entwined as the novel progresses. First, we meet Silas Reed, a lonely and eccentric man of thirty-eight whose ‘shop of curiosities’ houses stuffed animals, jars of specimens and cabinets of butterflies. He dreams of one day opening his own museum and hopes he will get his chance to make a name for himself at London’s upcoming Great Exhibition, but a chance encounter with Iris Whittle proves to be a distraction.

Iris – like her sister, Rose – works at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, painting faces on china dolls. What Iris really wants is to develop her skills as an artist and be taken seriously as a painter in her own right, so when she is approached by Louis Frost, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who asks her to model for him, she jumps at the opportunity…on the condition that Louis teaches her to paint. As she and Louis begin to spend time together, Iris discovers that she is falling in love – but she is being watched by Silas Reed, who has already decided that Iris is the woman he has been waiting for all his life.

Ten-year-old Albie has links with both Silas and Iris, providing dead animals for the curiosity shop and running errands for the doll factory. Albie is a bright and observant boy, but has grown up in poverty; he needs all the money he can get if he is ever going to help his sister out of prostitution and achieve his dream of buying a new set of teeth for himself. Albie can see that Silas is becoming dangerously obsessed with Iris, but will he be able to help her before it’s too late?

There are so many things to admire about The Doll Factory. I loved the Victorian setting, which in Elizabeth Macneal’s hands feels vivid and convincing, and I loved the way she blends her fictional characters and storylines together with real history. I enjoyed reading about the art world of the 1850s; although we do meet some of the real Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti and Millais, they are just minor characters while the focus is on Iris’s relationship with the fictional Louis Frost (and his wombat, Guinevere). As a woman trying to find her way into this world, Iris knows she faces huge challenges and obstacles but she knows she has talent as an artist and is determined to find a way to express herself.

Because of the Pre-Raphaelite element of the novel, I kept being reminded of Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato, another book in which a young woman becomes an artist’s model, although I think this is the stronger and better written of the two. It’s also quite a dark novel; the signs are there from the beginning with the descriptions of taxidermy, the collection of dead creatures and some of the macabre paintings Iris and her sister create for mourning parents in the doll factory, but it becomes much darker and more disturbing in the second half of the book as Silas becomes increasingly obsessed with possessing Iris. The ending wasn’t perfect – the climax of the story seemed to go on for far too long and was the one part of the book that, for me, felt contrived and over the top – but other than that, I really enjoyed The Doll Factory. It’s an impressive first novel and I will be hoping for more from Elizabeth Macneal.

Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve been reading more of it than usual over the last few weeks in preparation for Nonfiction November. Murder by the Book, an account of a true crime which took place in Victorian London, sounded appealing to me because it promised to explore the possible links between the crime and some of the bestselling novels of the day.

The book begins by describing the events of 6th May 1840, when Lord William Russell’s housemaid found her master in bed with his throat slit. Suicide was suspected at first, but with his head almost severed from his body, this theory was dismissed and a murder investigation began. Russell, an elderly widower, had been leading a quiet, unremarkable life, living alone (apart from his servants) in a respectable Mayfair street. Who could possibly have wanted him dead – and why?

The murder sent shockwaves throughout London, with everyone – including Queen Victoria herself – following the news and voicing their opinions. What made this particular case so shocking was that when the culprit was identified and questioned, it was found that before committing the murder he had been reading Jack Sheppard, a well-known novel by William Harrison Ainsworth. Based on the story of a real life 18th century criminal, Jack Sheppard had been published as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany from January 1839 until February 1840. With plots involving murder, theft and violence, crime novels of this type had become known as ‘Newgate Novels’ (a reference to the Newgate Prison), and were hugely popular with the public, partly due to the rise in literacy levels during the first half of the 19th century. Following the Russell murder, a debate began regarding the suitability of this sort of reading material.

I enjoyed Murder by the Book, but I didn’t find the true crime element particularly interesting. There didn’t seem to be a lot of mystery surrounding Russell’s death and the murderer was arrested quite quickly. Although Claire Harman did manage to flesh the story out, on its own it wouldn’t have been enough to form a compelling book. The parts where she discussed Jack Sheppard and other popular novels of the time were of much more interest to me. I haven’t read Jack Sheppard, or anything else by William Harrison Ainsworth, and I’d had no idea that it had been so successful in its time. The book was adapted for stage many times, including some musical versions, so even if people hadn’t read it they were likely to have seen it performed.

The reactions of other authors were interesting; Charles Dickens had apparently been a friend of Ainsworth’s, but distanced himself from him after the Russell incident, doing all he could to defend the reputation of his own Oliver Twist, which covered similar themes. Both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray followed the outcome of the murder trial and attended the hanging of the culprit and some of their thoughts on this are given in the book.

Anyway, the social aspects of the book were fascinating, even if the true crime parts weren’t – although I was surprised that Claire Harman didn’t draw more parallels between the Jack Sheppard controversy and the perceived influence of modern television, music and video games on violent behaviour. The book reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy and I think if you enjoy one you might enjoy the other.

Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins but it’s been a while since I last read one of his books, so when the Classics Club recently challenged us to read a classic Gothic novel, thriller or mystery during the month of October, I thought Jezebel’s Daughter would be a good one to choose. Published in 1880, this was one of Collins’ later books, although it was based on a much earlier – and apparently unsuccessful – play of his, The Red Vial. I wasn’t really expecting it to be as good as his more famous novels such as The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name or my personal favourite, Armadale, all of which I read and loved in the years before I started blogging, but now that I’ve read Jezebel’s Daughter, I can say that while it’s not quite in the same class as those other books, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

At the heart of the novel are two very different women who seem to have little in common other than the fact that they are both widows. First, in England, we meet Mrs Wagner, who has inherited her husband’s share of the business in which he had been a partner. Mrs Wagner is looking forward to becoming more involved in running the business and making some changes of her own – including employing more women. As a philanthropist, she also wants to use her money and position to help those less fortunate, such as Jack Straw, an inmate in the Bedlam lunatic asylum. Believing that Jack would benefit from some kindness and affection, she takes him into her own home, determined to prove that her theory is correct.

The action then switches to Germany, where we are introduced to Madame Fontaine, the widow of a French scientist who had devoted his life to the study of poisons. Since her husband’s death, she has found herself struggling financially, so when her daughter Minna falls in love with Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs Wagner’s wealthy business partner, she sees a possible solution to their money problems. Unfortunately, Madame Fontaine has a terrible reputation – she is the ‘Jezebel’ of the title – and Fritz’s father is strongly opposed to the idea of a marriage between his son and Minna. Can Madame Fontaine find a way to ensure that the marriage takes place before her debts are due to be paid?

Jezebel’s Daughter is a great read – it’s suspenseful and exciting and, because it’s a relatively short novel, it’s faster paced than some of his others as well. With a story involving poisonings, stolen jewels, unexplained illnesses, mysterious scientific experiments, morgues, asylums and plenty of plotting and scheming, there’s always something happening and for a long time I couldn’t imagine how it was all going to be resolved! As well as being fun to read, the book also touches on some important social issues, such as job opportunities for women (Mrs Wagner, like her late husband, believes that women should be employed in the office in positions that would normally be filled exclusively by men) and the humane treatment of people with mental illnesses.

The two central characters are wonderful – not the two young lovers, as you might expect, but the two middle-aged widows. They complement each other beautifully, one representing all that is good and the other all that is bad. But although Madame Fontaine can be seen as the villain of the story, Collins portrays her in a way that allows us to have some sympathy; she is an intelligent, ambitious woman for whom nothing has ever gone smoothly and most of the wicked acts she commits are done out of desperation or love for her daughter.

If anyone has read Collins’ better known works and is wondering what to read next, I would definitely recommend this one – or The Law and the Lady, Man and Wife or Poor Miss Finch, all of which I enjoyed too. I’m glad I decided to read this book for the Classics Club Gothic event – it was the perfect choice!

This is book 9/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

I am also counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII Challenge (categories: suspense, Gothic).

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

I love Anthony Trollope’s books, but sometimes I need to be pushed into picking them up; I know I’m going to enjoy them, but they are all so long and, once you start reading and become caught up in the lives of the characters, so intense, that I really have to be in the right mood before starting one. As I have already read the first four books in the Palliser series, I added the last two – The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children – to my Classics Club list to ensure that I got to them sooner rather than later.

The Prime Minister is the fifth in the series and, as predicted, once I got into it I loved it. It had been a while since I read the previous novel, Phineas Redux, (two years, in fact) but that didn’t matter at all – yes, we are reunited with some old friends, but there are new characters and new storylines too, so it wasn’t really necessary to be able to remember everything that happened in the last book. One of those new characters is Ferdinand Lopez, a handsome, charismatic adventurer, thought to be of Portuguese-Jewish descent, who sets his sights on marrying Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy London lawyer.

Emily is in love with Lopez, but Mr Wharton is not at all happy at the prospect of having him as his son-in-law. He has always hoped to see Emily marry her friend Arthur Fletcher, whose family have connections with the Whartons. However, as his main objection to Lopez as a suitor is based on the fact that he is not an Englishman and nobody knows who his parents are, Mr Wharton eventually agrees to let Emily choose her own husband. Will she be happy with her choice or will she end up regretting her decision?

Ferdinand Lopez is a wonderful character; it is obvious from the start that he is going to be the villain of the novel, but we don’t know exactly what form his villainy will take. Watching him plot and scheme as he tries to make himself rich and rise up the social ladder is what drives the story forward. It’s disappointing, from a modern day perspective, that Ferdinand’s background is seen as one of the factors against him, but of course it’s realistic that a conservative, conventional Victorian gentleman like Mr Wharton would have held those views. Anyway, he is much more interesting to read about than Emily’s other love interest, the likeable, socially acceptable but slightly boring Arthur Fletcher. The relationship between the three of them reminded me of the two similar storylines in the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?

But this book is called The Prime Minister and so far I haven’t mentioned the title character at all! He is a man we already know from the previous books in the series: Plantagenet Palliser, who has recently inherited the title of Duke of Omnium. With neither main political party able to form a government on their own, a coalition has been formed and Plantagenet has been made Prime Minister, mainly because no one else is considered suitable. And Plantagenet is not entirely suitable either; he is an honest, dignified, principled man but lacks the ruthlessness and the leadership skills that are needed in his new job.

The Duchess of Omnium – formerly Lady Glencora Palliser – is much happier in her role as Prime Minister’s wife than Plantagenet is in his as Prime Minister! In some ways she has a better understanding of politics than he does, but their very different methods of dealing with their new position in the world lead to some conflict and tension in their marriage – particularly when Ferdinand Lopez arrives at one of Glencora’s parties hoping to be shown some favour by the new Prime Minister.

Both stories – the story of Emily and her husband and the story of the Prime Minister – are interesting and compelling. Although it was published in 1876 some aspects of the plot still have a lot of relevance today, such as the power of the press and the integrity of politicians being called into question. This is one of my favourite books in the Palliser series and I’m now looking forward to reading the final one, The Duke’s Children.

This is book 4/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

This is the first book I’ve read by Alison Littlewood, although I do remember hearing about The Hidden People a year or two ago and thinking it sounded interesting. I was attracted to The Crow Garden by its striking cover, but it sounded appealing too, with its Victorian setting and comparisons to Wilkie Collins and Susan Hill, so I thought I would give it a try.

Our narrator, Nathaniel Kerner, is a newly qualified ‘mad-doctor’ on his way to Yorkshire to take up his first position at Crakethorne Manor, an asylum for those ‘troubled in mind’. The tone of the novel is set immediately, with descriptions of dark skies, desolate heaths and remote villages on the journey north and Nathaniel’s first sight of his new place of work, a bleak grey stone building with iron bars on the windows. The asylum is run by Doctor Chettle, a man whose preferred methods of treatment – cold baths, electric shocks and phrenology – are very different from Nathaniel’s. Nathaniel will have the opportunity to try out some of his own ideas when he is assigned his first patient, the beautiful Victoria Adelina Harleston.

Mrs Harleston has been brought to Crakethorne by her husband following an incident on a London omnibus. Accusing her of hysteria, he demands that Nathaniel and Chettle stop at nothing to find a cure for his wife. Believing that the best way to get to the bottom of a patient’s problems is by talking and listening, Nathaniel gradually begins to uncover Mrs Harleston’s story. Far from making things clearer, however, the situation only becomes more confusing. Is Mrs Harleston really insane or is there more to her hysteria than meets the eye? Nathaniel knows he is becoming too deeply involved in the life of his patient but he has vowed to help her and now there’s no going back.

This is the sort of story and setting I usually enjoy, but I think there’s a limit to how many novels about Victorian asylums you can read and I am now close to reaching that limit! I was pleased when, in the middle of the book, the action moved away from Crakethorne for a while and into the streets of London. Here Nathaniel is swept up in the world of mesmerists, spiritualists and séances and although these are also common elements in Victorian historical fiction, I found that the book became much more interesting from this point onwards. Nathaniel’s narration also starts to become increasingly less reliable (although I won’t tell you why as I want to leave you to discover some of the novel’s surprises for yourself) and it is difficult to tell exactly what is real and what isn’t, which gives the rest of the novel a disturbingly hypnotic and unsettling feel.

I appreciated the effort Alison Littlewood makes to tell Nathaniel’s story in language appropriate to the 19th century. It’s something that is always important to me in historical fiction, but even more so in books of this type in which the atmosphere and the setting play such a big part. A few poorly chosen words and phrases can so easily pull you out of the time period, but thankfully Littlewood gets it just about right.

The Crow Garden was an interesting read but, as I’ve said, I think I’ve read too many books with similar settings and themes to really get anything new out of this one. The Asylum by John Harwood, Affinity by Sarah Waters, The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding and, of course, Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White all came to mind while I was reading, and I would recommend all of those ahead of this book. It didn’t help that I disliked the character of Mrs Harleston so didn’t have the sympathy for her that I would usually have with a woman at her husband’s mercy and committed to an asylum against her will.

Despite not really loving this book, though, I did find it entertaining – and with its atmosphere, Gothic undertones and subtle touches of the supernatural, it’s an ideal autumn or winter read. If anyone else has read it, I would be interested to know what you thought.

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (re-read)

Since I started blogging in 2009 (which seems so long ago now) I have discovered lots of great books, have tried genres I had never thought about trying before, and have been introduced to some wonderful new authors. One thing that has been sadly neglected, though, is re-reads of my old favourites – something that used to form such an important part of my reading life. Making more time for re-reads has been a goal of mine for the last few years, but I have never actually done it; I’m determined that 2017 will be different! I have re-reads of Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo coming up soon for the Classics Club, both of which I’m looking forward to, but before I get to those two, I’ve been revisiting a book I first fell in love with as a thirteen-year-old: Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic, Wuthering Heights.

For those of you who have not yet had the unforgettable experience (in one way or another) of reading Wuthering Heights, here is a quick summary. The novel opens in 1801 with Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, paying a visit to nearby Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord, Heathcliff. Lockwood is hoping for some peace and quiet in which to enjoy his stay at the Grange and at first he is happy with what he sees in Heathcliff. It’s not long, however, before he discovers that what he had mistaken for quiet reserve hides a cruel and violent nature. After passing an uncomfortable night at Wuthering Heights, in which he is treated with hostility by the inhabitants and tormented by strange dreams, Lockwood retreats to the safety of his own lodgings, where he begs his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him what she knows of Heathcliff and his household.

Most of the novel is narrated by Nelly Dean, as she relates the story of Heathcliff’s first arrival at Wuthering Heights, a child brought back from Liverpool by old Mr Earnshaw, and raised alongside Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. As the years go by, the childhood friendship between Heathcliff and Catherine begins to develop into something more, but when Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange enters Catherine’s life, Heathcliff finds himself pushed aside. He devotes the rest of his life to causing misery for the Lintons – as well as taking revenge on Hindley who, unlike his sister, had never accepted Heathcliff as one of the family.

It seems that a lot of people who dislike Wuthering Heights approached it for the first time expecting a romantic love story and in that case I can understand why they would be disappointed. The relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is hardly a conventional romance and although there is love, it is an obsessive and unhealthy love. When I first came to this book as a young teenager, though, I had no idea what it was about and no expectations whatsoever, so none of that bothered me. At that age, I loved it for the darkness, the melodrama and the passion. The blurb on the back of my old Penguin copy (not the one pictured above) describes Wuthering Heights as “perhaps the most passionately original work in the English language” and I think I would agree with that. Who could forget the moment Catherine declares her love for Heathcliff:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Another reason people have for not liking Wuthering Heights is the unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. Well, I can’t argue with that. They are certainly unpleasant – not just Heathcliff and Cathy, but most of the supporting characters too, from Nelly herself, who puts the child Heathcliff “on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow”, to the elderly servant, Joseph, “the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours”. And although I’ve always had a soft spot for Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son, I struggle to find any sympathy for any of the others. But again, not liking the characters has never been a problem for me where this particular book is concerned.

This is not the first time I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights but it is the first time for quite a few years. I was worried that I would feel differently about it, but I’m pleased to say that I still loved it. I did find different things to notice and appreciate this time – with more knowledge of Emily Brontë herself than I had during previous reads, I could think about the ways in which she may have drawn on her own life for inspiration in writing her novel (the descriptions of Hindley’s drunken behaviour, for example, were surely influenced by Emily’s experiences with her brother Branwell). I also found myself constantly noting down favourite passages and phrases, such as the wonderful description of Cathy’s relationship with the Lintons as “not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn”.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and am looking forward to re-reading more old favourites during the rest of the year.

What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Do you love it or hate it?