Sunday, May 26, 2013

Mary Anne

She thought of her vestal virgins in Boulogne and George in his regimentals, stiff and pompous, and suddenly none of them mattered, not even George; she was home where she belonged, in the heart of London.

In 1954, British author Daphne du Maurier turned from her Gothic romances like Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel and instead wrote a fictionalized account of her great-great-grandmother.  She tells of political intrigue, scandal, and revenge during the Napoleonic wars.  But more than anything she tells the story of a woman who overcomes her poor Cockney upbringing to find herself holding power over some of Britain's most influential men.

The Plot:

Born into a poor London family, Mary Anne Thompson grows up having to use her quick wit and feminine charms to keep her family off of the streets.  At a young age she impetuously marries Joseph Clarke who ends up being a gambling alcolholic with no sense of duty to his family.  Disgusted and desperate to keep her family fed, Mary Anne leaves Joseph and supports them all be "entertaining" men of position and wealth.  Eventually, she finds herself mistress to Frederick, Duke of York and living in style.

But the Duke does not understand money and Mary Anne has a hard time keeping up with the massive debts incurred to obtain her lavish lifestyle.  With war looming and many young men eager to obtain commissions in the Army, she begins using her influence with the Duke to help get them (for a fee, of course).  All seems to be going well until the Duke tires of her.  When she finds herself on the brink of ruin, she determines that she will have her revenge on the men who have "used" her and brings about one of the largest scandals in British political history.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I have been a fan of Daphne du Maurier's work for a few years now.  This story intrigued me partly for it's plot, and partly because it is based on fact and the author's own family.

As it's title says, this is Mary Anne's story.  There seem to be two sides of her that is portrayed in the novel.  The first is her indomitable spirit and her ability to play the game in a man's world.  From the beginning she is unwilling to give up.  Even when fate seems to have her beat, she goes down swinging and many times finds herself back on top.  Her family is her ultimate prize and most of what she does is to get them the best food, the best houses, and the best future that she possibly can.  But it is this very ambition that ultimately becomes her downfall.  She refuses to settle, even though she could have saved herself quite a bit of grief by knowing when to walk away.  So many times she could have had settled down and had love and basic comfort, but her desire for security drives her on and on to ruin.

While most of the right ingredients were there (interesting plot, historical fact, lively characters), du Maurier just didn't seem to be able to quite bring it all together.  The storytelling lacks the emotion of her other works, and it becomes fairly tedious at times.  Mary Anne is not an easy character to like, and thus you aren't too disappointed by her eventual fall from grace.  It isn't a bad book, it just isn't as gripping as some of her other works.

This is a book that you could take or leave.  If you are a du Maurier fan you will probably read it, just don't expect the greatness of Rebecca.  If you haven't yet read any of her works, I would not suggest you start here.  I didn't love it, but it did have some good points that made it an interesting read.      

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Relevance of Libraries

A little over a week ago, an article was published in the Huffington Post that sent the literary world into a tizzy.  Michael Rosenbaum's article "What's A Library" questioned what use a brick and mortar building is in today's increasingly digitized world:

"Frankly, I will not miss the library.  Even though I lived right across the street from it for many years, I never went inside. I never sat in its reading room. I never checked out a book. I never explored its stacks to go through old volumes of bound periodicals in some research project.  Why would I do that?  Why, when I can order up pretty much anything I want online, any time I want. Admittedly, the library is free (thank you Benjamin Franklin for that concept), but the web is also free (at least so far), and instant and much much easier to reference and find stuff than in the stacks (though less romantic, in a literary sense)."

As you can imagine, that elicited an immediate and passionate response from the reading public.  Librarian Rita Meade followed up with an article defending the relevance of libraries in the 21st century:

It's really important to remember that just because YOU (general "you") don't need to use something on a daily basis, it does not mean that others don't need to use it. Not to mention the fact that accessing the web ISN'T free, and it's not always easier to "find stuff" on the web than in a library.

As someone who has used libraries all of my life, I can't help but defend them.  While Rosenbaum's argument has some validity (the internet does have a lot of information for free), it by no means captures the whole picture of what a library's role in the community is.  First off, not everything on the internet is free and internet access is not usually free.  There are many underprivileged citizens who simply cannot afford personal computers or internet service.  But they can freely access it at their library.  Secondly, not everything is on the internet.  I enjoy researching my family history, and I can tell you that there are many facts and secrets buried in local libraries that you would never come across on the internet.  Finally, the library is a community experience.  Many libraries host classes, exhibitions, and other events that bring citizens together in a communal experience.  In my mind, libraries are repositories of knowledge, bringing together information from across all mediums (print, digital, and audio/visual) for us to access in one easy and free place.  And this report shows that Americans (or at least New Yorkers) are taking advantage of it more than ever.

What do you think?  Do libraries still mean something in our culture?  Or have we moved beyond them?

Picture credit: "Librarian Shortage" by Pushart Megan Berkheiser

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle

It is no secret that Downton Abbey is a world-wide phenomenon.  For the past three years viewers have watched it, discussed it, and bought any number of related merchandise.  We've obsessed over the characters, the costumes, and the house.  It is so popular that it even has a cameo in the new Iron Man movie.  Those who watch the show know that the estate itself plays such an important role in the story that it is almost its own character.  And like all of the other characters, there is a true story hidden inside of the fictional world of Downton Abbey.

In Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, the current Countess of Carnarvon (Lady Fiona) relates the true history of the house during the period covered by the first two seasons of the show (1912 through World War I), and in particular the story of it's mistress, Lady Almina who served as inspiration for the character of Lady Cora Crawley.  The illegitimate daughter of the wealthy Alfred de Rothschild, what Almina lacked in pedigree she made up for in money.  This bought her way into the upper echelons of English society where she would meet he future husband, the Earl of Carnarvon.  Her wealth was just what his estate, Highclere, needed to get back on track and his family gave Almina the social pedigree she lacked.  The Edwardian era was one of splendor and abundance at Highclere Castle, but it would soon be overshadowed by the horror of World War I.  It was during this time that Lady Almina showed her true strength as she worked tirelessly to turn Highclere into a premier hospital for wounded officers.

This little biography is a nice little read.  Though not a scholarly work by any stretch of the imagination, it certainly gives us a nice inside glimpse into a world that most of us can't really understand.  The first part of the book was a little disappointing.  It didn't really delve too much into the downstairs world, but rather focused on the parties, the famous guests, and what Lady Almina wore.  It is only after the war starts that we get some truly interesting stories, including some touching tributes to the brave young men who lost their lives.  I found the most interesting portion to be that which talked about the Earl of Carnarvon's love of Egypt and his partnership with Howard Carter to discover King Tut's tomb.

As an entertaining story, this is a charming and fast paced book.  As history, it is lacking in some areas.  Don't bother if you are looking for true and meaty historical accounts of Edwardian England, upstairs/downstairs relations, World War I, or the discovery of King Tut's tomb.  However, if you love Downton Abbey or are looking for a fresh and easy read relating to the above topics, then this is for you.  A fun read for any fan.    

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Summer Reading: Children's Classics

Over the last few years, I've given myself a summer reading challenge, using the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day to read a collection of books based on a certain theme.  So far these have included The Lord of the Rings, Southern classics, German literature, world literature, and detective fiction.  This year, I have decided to read some classics of children's literature.  I've always had an affinity for well written children's books, and the best ones will delight readers of any age.  Here are the ones I have selected for this year:

  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  This modern classic was turned into the Oscar nominated film Hugo, which I really enjoyed.  It tells the story of Hugo Cabret, a young orphan secretly living in a Paris train station in the 1930's.  While working on an automaton that his inventor father left him (and which he is sure contains a secret message), Hugo becomes involved with a toy shop owner (Papa Georges) and his granddaughter Isabelle.  It soon becomes apparent that Hugo's automaton has a connection to Papa Georges secret past.
  •  The Rescuers by Margery Sharp.  This is the first in a series of popular children's stories by English author Margery Sharp.  It is about a mouse named Miss Bianca and her involvement with the Prisoner's Aid Society of Mice.  This book would go on to be the basis for the Disney films The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.    
  • Heidi by Johanna Spyri.  This story is one of the best known children's classics and also one of the most famous works of Swiss literature.  Young Heidi is orphaned and sent to live with her grandfather on a farm in the Swiss Alps.  Though he is initially cold towards the girl, she eventually softens his heart and they lead a contented life.  Heidi is then sent to gain an education as a companion to a wealthy girl named Clara.  Though Heidi is surrounded by wealth, she longs to return to the mountains and her grandfather.
  •  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie.  This classic tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up has delighted readers for over a century.  After meeting this strange boy during his nighttime visit to their London house, Wendy, John, and Michael Darling embark on a magical adventure to Neverland.  Here they meet the fairy Tinker Bell, the Indian princess Tiger Lily, the gang of Lost Boys, and the infamous Captain Hook.
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.  This one is a re-read for me, but I love it so much that I really wanted to be able to properly review it.  This book relates the adventures of four forest friends, Rat, Mole, Toad, an Badger.  Their various escapades range from the simple, to the fantastic, to the supernatural and each shows the loveliness of pastoral England.
  •  The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Expurey.  This novella is the most read and the most translated work of French literature.  After crashing his plane in the Sahara desert, the narrator comes into contact with a young boy he dubs "The Little Prince".  As the narrator tries to fix his plane, the Prince recounts the story of his life.
I am very excited about reading these classic stories.  Have you read any of them?  If so, please let me know what your impression was.  And feel free to let us know what your own summer reading plans are.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.” 

After the sweeping success of her first published work, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte set out to create a completely different type of story.  This was to be a real story, about the struggles of real people.  Amidst the heartache caused by her own family's tragedies, Charlotte joined many other Victorian writers by creating a novel meant to highlight the problems facing their society.  

The Plot:

Set in Yorkshire in 1811-12, Shirley opens with mill owner Robert Moore's delivery of new machineryBecause of the large debt his mill is in, Moore has had to lay off several workers and this new machinery will only help him lay off moreHis seeming lack of care for the poverty his former workers now find themselves in causes much unrest with many threatening to harm the machinery and Moore himself.  One of the comforts Moore has is his friendship with Caroline Helstone, the orphaned niece of the local parson.  Though he has feelings for her, Moore distances himself from Caroline since she is penniless and he cannot afford to marry solely for love.

The arrival of an independent heiress  to the neighborhood causes quite a stir.  Orphaned and having no brothers, Shirley is now a landowner with many tenants, including Robert Moore, and she runs the business matters on her own.  She and Caroline quickly become friends and Caroline is fascinated by this strong, independent female.  As time passes, Caroline notices a certain preference growing between Robert and Shirley, and she dreads seeing the man she loves married to her best friend.  Tensions between mill owners and workers grow, secrets are revealed, and a new arrival further complicates the love triangleThere are decisions Shirley must make to bring resolution to this chaotic situation.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Those who have read my blog know that I am a huge fan of the Brontes, especially Charlotte's work.  My quest to read all of their works is slowly drawing to a close and Shirley is my next to last one.  Though it had a bit of popularity in it's original publication, it is no longer as well-known among readers today.  And that is for good reason.

Though you find some basic similarities in subject matter between Shirley and Jane Eyre, that is as close as you come to comparison.  This sweeping social novel is a far cry from the intimate Gothic romance of her earlier work.  Here, Charlotte tries to portray the all too real struggles of the poor in industrial England.  She takes shots at the government, the church, and greedy owners not only for not helping address the issues, but also for creating the problems in the first placeShe also addresses the role of women in society.  Though Shirley is an independent woman who has proven her ability to manage her own affairs, she is still expected to marry and turn over everything to her husband.  She, Caroline, and all the other women are meant only to marry, or to become lonely spinsters and governesses.  I found the use of a traditionally male name for this independent female character to be very intelligent, and it even caused the name to become a predominantly female name.  But though Charlotte was doing battle against many traditional views, readers did not find it as shocking as Jane Eyre.

And therein lies the problem with this novel.  When it comes to great Gothic novels with startling and shocking ideas, nobody does it better than the Brontes.  But Charlotte just wasn't meant for the relatively tame social novel.  The story is fairly boring, the romances uninteresting, and even the peculiar Shirley cannot really hold our attention.  Part of me thinks that if this story had been told in the first person by Shirley, it might have been more interesting, but our omniscient narrator doesn't really do much except chide society for its faults.  All in all, it fails to meet the same quality of social novels like those by Thackery, Gaskell, and Dickens.

So is this something you should read?  It all depends.  Us Bronte devotees have a bit of an obligation to read it, even if we don't really enjoy it.  For the casual reader, I would suggest sticking to novels like North and South for a better representation of a Victorian social novel.