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.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell Now that I’m starting to come towards the end of my Classics Club list, I’m having to tackle some of the books I’ve been putting off reading since I put the list together in 2012. I’m really not sure why I haven’t picked up Wives and Daughters until now; I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Gaskell (North and South, Sylvia’s Lovers, The Moorland Cottage, Cranford and Mr Harrison’s Confessions) so it seemed likely that I would enjoy this one too. And did I? Yes, of course I did!

Wives and Daughters is set in a village in England in the 1830s, a world similar to the one Gaskell created in Cranford, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Molly Gibson, our heroine, is the daughter of the village doctor; her mother is dead and, as an only child, Molly is very close to her father. The two have a strong relationship built around love and trust, but the harmony of their little household is disrupted when Mr Gibson decides to marry again. His new wife is the beautiful widow, Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, former governess to the Duke of Cumnor’s children, and he hopes she will provide the seventeen-year-old Molly with the motherly guidance he is unable to give. Unfortunately, Hyacinth proves to be a selfish, manipulative woman and she and Molly don’t always see eye to eye.

As well as a new stepmother, Molly also has a new stepsister – Cynthia. Although she and Cynthia have very different personalities, the two girls become good friends – and it is this friendship which will get Molly into trouble when she tries to help Cynthia find a way out of her tangled love affairs. Meanwhile, there’s a romance for Molly too but it’s quite a subtle one and also quite one-sided, as the man she loves appears to be in love with someone else, so poor Molly has to keep her feelings to herself.

Wives and Daughters is a very long novel, with more than 700 pages, and there were times when it seemed to be going on forever, but I didn’t really mind because once I’d been pulled into Molly’s world I didn’t want to leave it again. I didn’t want to leave the characters behind either – they were drawn with so much care and in so much depth. I loved Molly for her honesty, intelligence and kind heart, and Cynthia, with all her charms, flaws and vulnerabilities, was also an interesting character. But I particularly enjoyed reading about the family at nearby Hamley Hall: the old country squire, his invalid wife, and their two sons, Osborne and Roger.

First published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, this was Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel, sadly left unfinished at the time of her death. I was aware that it was unfinished before I started to read, so I was prepared to be left feeling frustrated (as I was when I read Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood) but luckily this wasn’t the case. At the point where the novel finished I could see the direction in which the plot was heading and I was satisfied that, if the story had continued, things would have worked out in the way that I’d hoped.

Gaskell has a style all of her own, but I think this particular book would appeal to readers of Jane Austen; I could see some similarities in the characterisation, the dialogue and the shape of the plot. So far all of the books I’ve read by Gaskell have been quite different from each other. Wives and Daughters is probably my favourite so far, but I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels I haven’t read yet – Ruth and Mary Barton.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy It’s July 1895 and Robert and Nattie Coombes could be any two young boys enjoying the hot summer weather. They go to see a cricket match, they play in the park, they take a trip to the seaside and they go fishing. Their father, a ship’s steward, is at sea and the boys tell anyone who asks that their mother is visiting her sister in Liverpool and that a family friend, John Fox, is staying with them while she’s away. However, there is more to the situation than meets the eye and it’s not long before the neighbours grow concerned. Why did Emily Coombes not mention to anyone that she was going away – and what is that horrible smell drifting down from the bedroom upstairs?

When the police are eventually called to the house at 35 Cave Road, they make a shocking discovery: it seems that Emily Coombes has been there all the time, her dead body decomposing in the summer heat. Her eldest son, Robert, immediately confesses to stabbing his mother to death ten days earlier. In the trial which follows, the court attempts to make sense of this terrible crime. Robert is only thirteen years old (one year older than his brother, Nattie); what would make a boy of this age commit such a cruel and cold-blooded act?

This may sound like the plot of a crime novel, but it’s not – it’s actually a true story and the events I’ve been describing above really did take place in London’s East End in 1895. In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale gives an account of the murder, the inquest and the trial, exploring some of the factors which may have led to Robert’s actions before going on to look at what happened to him after he was found guilty.

This is the third book I’ve read (or attempted to read) by Summerscale. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which was also based on a true crime, but I found Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, about a Victorian divorce scandal, difficult to get into and I abandoned it after a few chapters. I’m pleased to report that I liked The Wicked Boy much more than Mrs Robinson, though not as much as Mr Whicher, which had a stronger mystery element. There’s really no mystery at all about the Robert Coombes case; we know almost from the beginning what the crime is and who is responsible for it. Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no more questions to be asked. The official verdict was that Robert was “guilty but insane” and no clear motive was ever identified, but Summerscale does devote a large portion of the book to discussing Robert’s childhood and family background in an attempt to understand what could drive a thirteen-year-old boy to kill his mother.

Where the murder and the trial themselves are concerned, Summerscale sticks to the facts and doesn’t resort to too much speculation or personal opinion. However, she also spends a lot of time looking at what life was like in general for working-class Londoners towards the end of the Victorian era. Robert and Nattie Coombes would have been among the first generations to be educated at the new Board Schools which were established after the Elementary Education Act of 1870, but there were many people who believed that making education available to everyone was a bad idea. It meant that more children were able to read and therefore had access to ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap adventure novels aimed at boys which were thought to be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Robert Coombes had a collection of these sensational stories, something that was seized upon in the same way that people sometimes blame violent video games for encouraging modern day teenagers to commit crimes.

I found all of this fascinating to read about, but was slightly less interested in the second half of the book which covers Robert’s time at Broadmoor, the asylum where he was sent after his trial, and what happened after he was released. I understand why the author wanted to follow Robert’s story through to its conclusion, but I just didn’t have enough interest in him as a person to want to read such a long account of his later life. Apart from this, I did enjoy reading The Wicked Boy and am glad I gave Kate Summerscale another chance after my disappointment with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

Shirley I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Shirley. I have read all of the other novels by the Brontë sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a teenager and Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor in more recent years) but for some reason haven’t felt motivated to read Shirley – until a few weeks ago when, looking at the remaining titles on my Classics Club list, I decided I couldn’t leave it to languish unread on my shelf any longer.

Shirley (published in 1849) is set in Briarfield, a small Yorkshire community in which a mill is the major employer. The year is 1811 and England’s economy is suffering from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Moore, owner of the mill, is struggling financially and, as the novel opens, he is preparing to take delivery of some new machinery which will enable him to lay off some of his employees. Needless to say, the millworkers are enraged by this and set out to destroy the machines; uprisings like these would take place all over the country and become known as the Luddite Riots.

Against this political and social backdrop, the stories of two very different young women are played out. One is the local clergyman’s niece, Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl of eighteen. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore but he is reluctant to return her feelings due to her lack of money and position. The other is the title character, Shirley Keeldar, a beautiful young heiress. Shirley is a strong and spirited person with independent wealth – and although Caroline likes her very much, she becomes convinced that her new friend is going to marry Robert.

The title of the novel is Shirley, but this is as much Caroline’s story as Shirley’s (in fact, Shirley herself doesn’t appear until Chapter Eleven). I found them both interesting characters; there are many differences in personality, situation and outlook on life, but as the two become close friends we see a bond developing between them as they discover shared values and interests. They are described in the novel as ‘a graceful pencil sketch compared with a vivid painting’. After finishing the book I learned that Charlotte Brontë is thought to have based the character of Caroline on her sister Anne, and Shirley on Emily (she would lose both of her sisters to tuberculosis during the writing of the novel).

Another interesting fact about Shirley is that before the book was published, Shirley was usually a male name rather than a female one:

…she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed.

I can’t say that I loved this book – maybe because, as Brontë hinted in the opening lines (quoted at the beginning of this post) it lacked passion and I never felt that I had been truly drawn into the stories of Shirley and Caroline the way I had been drawn into Jane Eyre’s or Lucy Snowe’s. This was a slow read for me and at times quite a dry one, but I did find a lot to like and appreciate, from the relationships between the main characters to the historical background. Even though this hasn’t become a favourite, I’m pleased to have now read all of the Brontë sisters’ novels.