Looking back at the Women’s Classic Literature Event

Womens Classic Literature Event

During the last three months of 2015 and throughout 2016, I have been taking part in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. The idea was simply to read classics written by women, a classic being defined as any type of work (novels, essays, biographies etc) which was preferably published before 1960.

Here are the books I’ve read for this event which were already on my Classics Club list:

My Ántonia by Willa Cather
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M. Yonge
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, but I think most people would agree that it’s a classic!

There are also two more books by Woolf which I read for Ali’s #Woolfalong:

Flush by Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

I can’t say that I loved all of these books, but I did find them all interesting, worthwhile reads. I particularly enjoyed Kristin Lavransdatter, Wives and Daughters, Flush and my re-read of Jane Eyre.

However, I have also read other books by women which may or may not be considered classics in the same way as the books above. Because they fit the Classics Club’s definition of a classic for this event, I’m going to mention some of them here.

Non-Combatants and Others

* I’ve read books by authors who are new to me – Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay, The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp and Mauprat by George Sand – and by authors I’ve read before – Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson, Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy and Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby.

regency-buck-heyer

* I’ve read some historical fiction published before 1960: The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff and several novels by Marjorie Bowen, Dora Greenwell McChesney and Georgette Heyer.

A Shilling for Candles

* I’ve read some classic crime, including A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey, Death in Berlin by MM Kaye and two Agatha Christies (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and The Labours of Hercules).

a-chelsea-concerto

* And one non-fiction book – A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell.

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So, that sums up my reading over the year-and-three-months of this event! Have you been participating too? What are the best classics written by women that you’ve read recently?

The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M Yonge

The Heir of Redclyffe I was supposed to be writing about Kristin Lavransdatter today – it was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and today is the deadline for reading it – but there’s been a change of plan. For the last few weeks I’ve been engrossed in a completely different classic novel, so Kristin has had to wait. I’ve started reading it at last (and like what I’ve read so far) but for today, I’m going to talk instead about The Heir of Redclyffe.

When the elderly Sir Guy Morville dies, his title and his estate of Redclyffe pass to his grandson, another Guy. Being only seventeen years old, the new Sir Guy is taken in by another branch of the family, the Edmonstones, who provide him with a home and an education. With his generous, warm-hearted nature, Guy quickly wins the respect of Mr and Mrs Edmonstone, the friendship of three of his cousins – Charles (crippled with a disease in the hip), the beautiful Laura, and little Charlotte – and the love of the fourth, Amabel (known as Amy). In fact, the only person who doesn’t seem to like Guy is Philip Morville, another cousin.

To Guy’s dismay, Philip – who happens to be the next heir to Redclyffe – makes no secret of his dislike for him. Philip is a well-educated, confident and accomplished young man, and based on a long-ago family rivalry, is determined to disapprove of Guy, finding fault with everything he does. After Guy and Amy declare their love for each other, Philip decides to do everything he can to put a stop to their marriage. Meanwhile, he himself has fallen in love with Amy’s sister, Laura, but due to his financial situation he is reluctant to make their romance public and so he asks Laura to keep their relationship secret from her parents.

And that’s really all I want to say about the story, as it does become quite convoluted and I wouldn’t want to spoil things for future readers. I knew very little about this novel before I started it (although I remember that Lisa enjoyed it a few years ago) and part of the pleasure in reading it was wondering how things would turn out for Guy and Amy, Philip and Laura, and the others. Yonge took me completely by surprise once or twice with some plot developments that I hadn’t expected, one of which was very sad – although I would have been prepared for that if only I’d remembered that in Little Women, Jo March is found “eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe”!

I liked Guy – it would probably be difficult not to – and I also liked Amabel, although it irritated me that she is always referred to (by herself and others) as ‘silly little Amy’ when it’s obvious that she has far more sense and strength of character than anybody gives her credit for. I never felt that I really knew or understood Laura, but as for Philip, I found him completely annoying, arrogant and overbearing. He’s not a villain exactly (there are no villains in this book – only flawed human beings) and he does seem to believe that he’s acting with the best intentions, but those actions cause a lot of unnecessary misery for a lot of people. My favourite character, though, was probably Charles, one of the few people prepared to stand up to Philip and say what he thinks, while also trying to come to terms with his own illness and disability.

First published in 1853, The Heir of Redclyffe was a popular bestseller throughout the 19th century, yet how many people still read this book today? It seems that Charlotte Mary Yonge’s novels haven’t stood the test of time as well as books by other female Victorian authors, which is a shame as I found a lot to like about The Heir of Redclyffe. Maybe it’s too sentimental for modern tastes and with too much emphasis on faith and spirituality – not that any of those things stopped me from enjoying this book. I would definitely consider reading more of Yonge’s work in the future!

Mauprat by George Sand

Mauprat When I was looking for suggestions for books to read for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, Camille de Fleurville suggested the French author George Sand (a pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) and pointed me in the direction of her 1837 novel, Mauprat. Having never read George Sand before, I had no idea what her books would be like, but whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this!

The novel begins with a description of Roche-Mauprat, an abandoned château in the French countryside, once home to Bernard Mauprat, an orphan raised by his wicked grandfather and violent, brutal uncles:

On the borders of La Marche and Berry, in the district known as Varenne, which is naught but a vast moor studded with forests of oak and chestnut, and in the most thickly wooded and wildest part of the country, may be found, crouching within a ravine, a little ruined château. The dilapidated turrets would not catch your eye until you were about a hundred yards from the principal portcullis. The venerable trees around and the scattered rocks above bury it in everlasting obscurity; and you would experience the greatest difficulty, even in broad daylight, in crossing the deserted path leading to it, without stumbling against the gnarled trunks and rubbish that bar every step. The name given to this dark ravine and gloomy castle is Roche-Mauprat.

Mauprat is set in the eighteenth century, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and in Varenne an ancient feudal system is still in place with the peasants living in fear of the powerful Mauprat family, who rule over them with tyranny and corruption. One night Bernard’s uncles take a young girl captive in the woods and bring her back to Roche-Mauprat. Her name is Edmée and she is a cousin of Bernard’s belonging to another, more civilised branch of the family. Instantly attracted to his beautiful cousin, Bernard helps her to escape, but not before making her promise to marry him in return.

Unfortunately for Bernard, he didn’t specify exactly when Edmée will have to marry him. Once she is free of Roche-Mauprat, she insists that she cannot possibly become Bernard’s wife until he proves himself worthy. And so Bernard begins a seven-year struggle to gain an education and transform himself into the sort of respectable, well-mannered man Edmée is happy to love. How much of a man’s character is due to heredity and how much to the way he has been brought up? In Mauprat, we see that even a man who has had the roughest of upbringings has the opportunity to change through love, guidance and his own desire to improve.

The novel is narrated by a much older Bernard, who is entertaining some visitors with the story of his life, but apart from the first chapter, the book is structured as a straightforward first person narrative. We are with Bernard through every step of his journey, from his flawed younger self – rough, impulsive, passionate and uneducated – to the more refined, cultured man he becomes after being shaped by Edmée’s influence. Along the way Bernard encounters several other men – from the reclusive philosopher Patience and the mole-catcher Marcasse to the Abbé Aubert and the American soldier, Arthur – all of whom provide help and advice and teach him some important lessons.

We see Edmée only through Bernard’s eyes and this makes it difficult to understand her motives. I had a lot of questions about Edmée as I read. Why was she determined to keep Bernard waiting for so many years? Did she truly love him – and if so, at what point did she begin to love him? And if you love someone, shouldn’t you be prepared to accept them for what they are? Some of these questions are answered, to some extent, by the end of the book but Edmée still intrigued and frustrated me.

Mauprat is also interesting from an historical perspective. Bernard spends some time in America fighting in the Revolution (this is where he meets Arthur, the soldier and natural scientist who becomes his friend and helps to continue his education), while France is also on the brink of revolution and society is already beginning to change:

The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.

As I’ve mentioned, Mauprat wasn’t quite what I’d expected (the Gothic atmosphere and the amount of melodrama surprised me) and I don’t know whether it’s typical of George Sand’s novels, but I did enjoy it. Sand herself sounds like a fascinating woman too. I would like to read more of her books, so any recommendations are welcome.

Finally, I should point out that I didn’t read the edition pictured above, but it was the only decent cover image I could find. I read the free version available through Project Gutenberg, translated by Stanley Young.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (re-read)

Jane Eyre was the book chosen for me in the Classics Spin in December. When I discovered that this was the one I’d be reading, I was delighted – it’s a book I love and which I hadn’t read for a long time. I immediately pulled my copy off the shelf to start my re-read and from the familiar opening line – “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” – I was drawn into the story once more. The gothic atmosphere of the novel made it a perfect read for dark December nights and I finished it just before Christmas.

Jane Eyre I think I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I had my first encounter with Jane but on that first read I didn’t get past the Lowood School section at the beginning and more than ten years passed before I decided to try again. My second attempt was much more successful; being older and better able to appreciate the story and the quality of the writing, I read the whole book and loved it. This most recent read was my third. I was curious to see whether I would feel differently about it now, after another long gap, but although I did notice things this time that I don’t think I picked up on last time, my overall opinion of the book is unchanged.

Jane Eyre, for those who don’t know the story, is an orphan raised in the home of an aunt and three cousins who make it obvious that they don’t like her and don’t want her there. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to a charity-run boarding school for girls, another harsh and unwelcoming environment. However, Jane is able to take two positive things away from her time at school – a brief but much-valued friendship with Helen Burns, and the education which later enables her to find a position as governess to Adele, the young ward of Mr Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Jane soon begins to fall in love with her employer but when she discovers that he is hiding a dark secret, it seems that her chance of happiness has been destroyed.

*Spoiler warning: I will find it difficult to discuss the book any further without spoilers, so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I would advise skipping to the end of this post.*

I loved the experience of reading Jane Eyre again. Although much of the story was familiar to me from my previous reads and many of the scenes had stayed in my mind – including Jane’s imprisonment in the red room at Gateshead Hall, the tragic death of Helen Burns, Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy woman and the revelation of Bertha’s existence – there were other parts that I had forgotten and that I enjoyed discovering again.

I also loved being reacquainted with the characters. I know there are a lot of people who have problems with Mr Rochester and I can understand why – apart from his treatment of Bertha, there’s the fact that he lies to Jane and that he’s prepared to enter into a bigamous marriage with her, but despite this I have always liked him as a character. Jane is not my favourite literary heroine (although I do admire her for her honesty, integrity, inner strength and sense of right and wrong) and Mr Rochester is not my favourite hero but they both feel so real and I can believe in their relationship and their love for one another – a love that I think they both desperately needed.

Of course, there’s much more to Jane Eyre than just the romance. There’s also some social commentary, with the descriptions of conditions at Lowood School and with the exploration of class, gender and religion. It’s an interesting read from a feminist perspective, portraying Jane’s search for independence and depicting the options open to a woman faced with making her own way in life in the early Victorian period. Having read about the lives of Charlotte and the rest of the Brontë family (something I hadn’t done when I first read this book) I can see how autobiographical some parts of the story are.

My least favourite section of the book is still the part where Jane leaves Thornfield Hall during the night and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters. I remembered intensely disliking St. John on my last read, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because of the character himself or just because I was impatient for Jane and Rochester to be reunited. However, I didn’t like St. John any better this time round. I find him cold and controlling – Jane herself describes his nature as “austere and despotic” – and he doesn’t seem to care at all about Jane’s own opinions and wishes. Even though I had read the book before, I was still relieved when Jane rejects him!

*End of spoilers*

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of Jane Eyre, if I haven’t already made that clear! I’ve heard it said that people can either love Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but not both – well, I do love both, but I have always preferred Wuthering Heights. I’m planning to re-read it soon too and it will be interesting to see if I still do like it more.

Since finishing Jane Eyre a couple of weeks ago, I have now read the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for the first time and will be posting my thoughts on that one soon. Then I have a copy of Lyndsay Faye’s new Jane Eyre-inspired novel, Jane Steele, which I’m looking forward to reading – and I also still need to read my only remaining unread Brontë novel, Shirley. It seems I’m having a very Brontë themed start to the new year!

Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay

Non-Combatants and Others Rose Macaulay is an author I’ve been interested in trying for a while (since reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram, which is set in Trebizond, and discovering that Macaulay had written a book called The Towers of Trebizond). I don’t have a copy of the Trebizond book, though, and do have a copy of Non-Combatants and Others, so it made sense to start with this one.

Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916, is set during the First World War and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of ‘non-combatants’ and other people who didn’t or couldn’t take an active part in the war. Our heroine, twenty-five-year-old art student Alix Sandomir, is the daughter of a Polish activist father who died in a Russian prison and an English mother, Daphne, who is a pacifist. As the novel opens, Daphne has gone to New York to promote peace, while Alix has remained in England, staying with family in the countryside.

At first Alix may seem to be a rather selfish character. She takes no interest in politics or in helping the war effort; unlike her aunt and cousins, she refuses to get involved in volunteering, nursing, driving ambulances, helping refugees or knitting for the soldiers. Instead she buries herself in her drawing, and at the first opportunity she goes to London to lodge with another set of cousins while she continues her studies at art school. She finds her new companions easier to live with, as they, like herself, are doing their best to ignore the fact that the country is at war.

We soon find, though, that this is just Alix’s way of trying to cope. Her health is not good – she walks with a limp following a childhood illness, and she has a very sensitive, nervous disposition which means she has trouble handling stressful situations. She is also worried about her younger brother, Paul, and the man she loves, Basil Doye, who are both fighting on the front line. Although Alix would love to be able to help in some way, she is frustrated by her own uselessness and decides that the solution to this is simply not to think about it. It is only when she learns the truth about Paul’s experiences in the trenches that she finally has to face up to reality – and when her mother returns from her latest conference, Alix must decide whether she too should join the battle for peace.

Non-Combatants and Others is an unusual novel but a very interesting one. I think what fascinated me the most about it was that it was published in 1916! With hindsight, we know that in 1916 the war would continue for another two years; when Rose Macaulay wrote this book she had no idea how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be. The novel is only two hundred pages long but manages to touch on a wide range of issues which affected those involved – or not involved – in the war: the role of women, the work of the VAD nurses (there’s a very moving chapter set during a visit to a London hospital), the reintegration of wounded ex-soldiers back into society, and the effects of shell shock.

I read an edition of this book published by Capuchin Classics which has a foreword by Sarah LeFanu. When I turned back to read the foreword after I finished the novel I was surprised to find that LeFanu was also discussing a short story called Miss Anstruther’s Letters as if it should have been included in the book. It seems there must have been another edition which included both Non-Combatants and Others and Miss Anstruther’s Letters, but this one does not, which was slightly disappointing. I hope I’ll have a chance to read that short story at some point in the future. I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking for historical fiction novels written by classic women authors and I have since discovered that Rose Macaulay wrote a book called They Were Defeated, set in the seventeenth century. Has anyone read it?

Historical Musings #8: Women’s Classic Literature

Historical Musings From now until December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by The Classics Club. You can read more about it in this post (which includes my answers to the introductory survey) and I have already made a good start, having read My Ántonia by Willa Cather a few weeks ago. I’m hoping to read lots of other women’s classics over the next year – and as historical fiction is my favourite genre, I’m particularly interested in reading historical novels by classic female authors.

I have already read several, many of which I have reviewed on my blog, and I thought I would list some of them below.

Romola George Eliot

Most of George Eliot’s novels were set in her recent past, so not quite contemporary but not truly historical either (Middlemarch, for example, was published in the 1870s but set in 1829-32). She did, however, write one novel set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance – this was Romola, which I read earlier this year. It wasn’t an easy read but I did enjoy it.

Daphne du Maurier:

Du Maurier is usually associated with gothic suspense, but many of her novels are historical fiction. The King’s General is set in seventeenth century Cornwall during the English Civil War and follows the story of Honor Harris and her relationship with the King’s General in the West, Richard Grenvile. Jamaica Inn, one of du Maurier’s best known novels, is set in the early 1800s and is an atmospheric story of smugglers, shipwrecks, and the inhabitants of a lonely inn on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor. Hungry Hill is a family saga covering five generations of the Brodrick family who live at Clonmere Castle in Ireland and whose fortunes revolve around the copper mine on Hungry Hill.

And there are others: The House on the Strand is a dual timeline novel in which part of the action takes place in the 14th century and The Glass-Blowers is based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived through the French Revolution. Mary Anne, which I haven’t read yet, is set during the Regency, and Frenchman’s Creek, also still to be read, is set during the reign of Charles II.

Sylvia's Lovers Madame de Lafayette

Published in 1678, The Princess of Cleves is thought to be the first French historical novel. It is set between 1558 and 1559 at the court of Henri II. I found the writing quite dry (although that could be the fault of the translation) but I loved the portrayal of the French court. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in French history or the early development of the novel form.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Sylvia’s Lovers is set in the 1790s in Monkshaven (a fictional English town based on Whitby, North Yorkshire). The story of Sylvia Robson and the two men who hope to marry her is played out against a backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. I haven’t read all of Gaskell’s other books yet, but I think this is the only historical one. It’s also, in Gaskell’s own words, “the saddest story I ever wrote”.

Orlando Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Baroness Orczy wrote many historical fiction novels, the most famous being The Scarlet Pimpernel, her adventure novel set during the French Revolution. I have tried two of the many Pimpernel sequels (there are at least ten, plus some prequels and short story collections) but so far they haven’t lived up to the original.

Virginia Woolf

The only Virginia Woolf novel I have read so far is Orlando. It could be described as historical fiction, though not in the conventional way: the protagonist, Orlando, lives for four hundred years and experiences the Elizabethan era, the Great Frost of 1608, the Restoration, the 18th century, and the Victorian period. I found this book a lot easier to read than I’d expected.

Margaret Mitchell

It’s been years since I last read it, but this list wouldn’t be complete without Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s classic story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler set in the American South during the Civil War.

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Womens Classic Literature Event

These are all I can think of at the moment, though I’m sure I’ve probably read more. There are plenty of other books that I consider to be ‘classic historical fiction’ but maybe not ‘classics’ in the usual sense of the term.

Can you think of any other historical fiction novels by classic women authors? Just to clarify, the Classics Club’s definition of a classic is a book published before 1960 (although this is just a guideline and would rule out some of the du Maurier titles I’ve mentioned above). I do already have Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset on my list to be read, but I would love some more suggestions.

And for those of you who are also taking part in the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I hope I’ve given you some ideas to consider!

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia Between now and December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. There are many classic female authors whose work I’m looking forward to reading, but I decided to begin with a book by Willa Cather. I read my first (and until now, my only) Cather novel more than five years ago; it was The Professor’s House and, although I did like her writing, I wasn’t very impressed. I suspected, though, that it just wasn’t the right book for me and that I would enjoy a different one more. My Ántonia, probably Cather’s most well-known and well-loved novel, seemed the obvious choice for a second attempt.

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a lawyer, who is looking back on his childhood and his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda. Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants who are hoping to build a new life for themselves on the plains and who will become the Burdens’ closest neighbours. Ántonia is only a few years older than Jim and a friendship soon forms between the two of them.

I loved the first part of the book, showing the struggles faced by a family of immigrants trying to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle (the Shimerdas are completely unprepared for the harshness of their first winter in Nebraska). Written in the beautiful prose I remembered from The Professor’s House, there are some wonderful, vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sod houses and rough dugouts in which the pioneer families live, the tall prairie grasses and the changing seasons.

Later in the novel, Jim’s grandparents decide they are growing too old to work on the land any longer and the family move to Black Hawk, their nearest town. It’s not long before Ántonia also comes to town, to work as a housekeeper, and she and Jim renew their friendship for a while – but due to differences in background, gender and education, their lives eventually take them in very different directions. Although Jim and Ántonia grow apart over the years, both characters continue to cherish their childhood memories and their shared experiences of life on the Nebraska plains.

While Ántonia is the title character, the whole story is seen through Jim’s eyes and there are long sections, particularly in the second half of the book, where Jim is discussing his time at university or his relationship with Lena Lingard (another immigrant girl) and Ántonia is barely mentioned. However, it is when Ántonia is on the page that the story comes alive and I think this is why I enjoyed the book more at the beginning than I did towards the end.

I’m glad I gave Willa Cather a second chance and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future. If anyone else is considering reading Cather for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I would definitely recommend starting with My Ántonia!