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?

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

the-woodlanders I love Thomas Hardy but have been resisting the temptation to rush through his novels too quickly. I’m dreading there being none left for me to discover for the first time, so since reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 2010, I have been limiting myself to one or two a year. It’s been a while since my last Hardy, The Return of the Native, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to read another one.

The Woodlanders, published in 1887, is set in the small woodland community of Little Hintock. For generations, the people of Little Hintock have made their living from the trees around them. The timber merchant George Melbury, however, is keen for his daughter, Grace, to experience life outside the woodlands and so he sends her away to be educated. The novel opens as she returns to the village after several years of absence and finds herself looking at her old home through new eyes.

Although Grace is promised to Giles Winterborne, a neighbouring woodsman, now that she has become used to a different way of life she can’t help noticing his lack of sophistication, causing her father to question whether the marriage he had planned for her is still appropriate. Grace’s return to Little Hintock coincides with the arrival of a newcomer – Edred Fitzpiers, a young doctor whom Melbury decides will make a much more suitable husband for his daughter than Giles. Despite his good intentions, however, Melbury’s meddling only succeeds in making everyone unhappy in typical Thomas Hardy fashion!

One thing I love about Hardy’s books is that although most of them are set in his fictional Wessex, each one covers a different aspect of Wessex life, from the rural farms of Far From the Madding Crowd and the country fairs and markets of The Mayor of Casterbridge to The Return of the Native’s wild and beautiful Egdon Heath. In The Woodlanders, we see how the lives of the characters have become defined by the woods which surround them, we see Giles Winterborne cutting down trees and pressing apples to make cider, and we see his neighbour, a young woman called Marty South, stripping bark from branches and shaping wood into spars to sell for thatching. It’s the two outsiders in the story – the newly arrived Dr Fitzpiers and the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond – who disrupt the harmony of life in Little Hintock, and Grace who is caught between the sophisticated, cultured world they represent and the simple traditions of her childhood home and friends.

Although this book isn’t as dramatic or tragic as some of Hardy’s others, there were still some scenes near the end that moved me to tears and others that had me holding my breath – and I found the final page beautifully sad and poignant. Not everyone gets the happy ending I would have liked, but that’s true to life, I suppose, and I don’t really expect happy endings from Hardy anyway.

The Woodlanders was apparently one of Hardy’s own favourites; he is quoted as having said, “On taking up The Woodlanders and reading it after many years, I like it as a story best of all”. Now that I’ve read more than half of his novels, I have to say that I think I agree with him. It’s not as powerful or as heartbreaking as Tess or Jude the Obscure, for example, but I really enjoyed it and would definitely include it in my top two or three Hardy novels read so far.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

the-mill-on-the-floss Whenever I think about my favourite Victorian authors, George Eliot never seems to be a name that comes to mind – and yet I’ve liked everything I’ve read by her…Middlemarch, Romola and, years ago, Silas Marner. The Mill on the Floss is another one I can now add to this list; it was one of the titles on my Classics Club list I had been putting off reading and I really don’t know why. I didn’t love it as much as Middlemarch but I did enjoy it. It’s a beautifully written novel, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from George Eliot.

The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860, but set several decades earlier, beginning before the Reform Act of 1832. The story takes place in the fictional English town of St Ogg’s and at Dorlcote Mill which stands on the banks of the River Floss. The mill is owned by Mr Tulliver who lives there with his wife and two children, Tom and Maggie. He is keen for his son to receive a good education, so Tom is sent to school, but it’s nine-year-old Maggie who shows the most interest and aptitude for books and learning.

Remembering how much I loved reading myself when I was Maggie’s age and how much I value my 20th century education, I had a lot of sympathy for her when Tom’s tutor tells her that girls have a “great deal of superficial cleverness, but couldn’t go far into anything; they’re quick and shallow” or when she finds herself having a conversation like this one with her brother:

“Why, you couldn’t read one of ’em,” said Tom, triumphantly. “They’re all Latin.”

“No, they aren’t,” said Maggie. “I can read the back of this, – ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'”

“Well, what does that mean? You don’t know,” said Tom, wagging his head.

“But I could soon find out,” said Maggie, scornfully.

“Why, how?”

“I should look inside, and see what it was about.”

Although they don’t always see eye to eye (and despite Tom’s sense of superiority) Maggie and Tom do care about each other and their relationship is quite a strong one – until the day Philip Wakem, a lawyer’s son, joins Tom at Mr Stelling’s school. Tom dislikes Philip from the start, but Maggie grows very close to him and as the years go by they begin to have feelings for each other. Unfortunately for Maggie and Philip, their fathers have become sworn enemies following a lawsuit which has resulted in Mr Tulliver losing Dorlcote Mill. Maggie is forbidden to see any more of Philip, but when Tom discovers that they are still meeting in secret, she is forced to choose between her family and the man she is beginning to love.

There’s more to the story than this – a second love interest appears later in the novel and we also get to know several of Maggie’s aunts, uncles and cousins – but I’m not going to describe the plot in any more detail. I do want to mention the ending, though. It’s one of those endings which, when you first read it, is shocking, unexpected and not very satisfactory – but after you’ve had time to think about it, you decide it was perfect after all. That’s how I felt about it, anyway; I imagine other readers would have had a different reaction.

I don’t know very much about George Eliot as a person, but she writes so convincingly about Maggie’s childhood and about the ups and downs of sibling relationships that I wonder how much of it was autobiographical. These were my favourite sections of the book, but I liked, and had some sympathy for, the older Maggie too.

The Mill on the Floss is not a fast-paced novel and not a short one either, so it’s not the sort of book you can read quickly. I took my time with it, enjoying the beautiful writing, the descriptions of the town, the mill and the river, and the insights into life. And now I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Eliot’s books; I think Daniel Deronda will probably be next.