I realized after my last Classics Club post that I’m bad at writing book reviews. I’d intended to just write a short “this is what the books are like, this is what I thought” post for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels but it turned into an essay on what makes a strong female character and the state of modern feminism. I think I’ll give up on book reviews. Apparently I can only write thoughtful, rambling essays.
That’s not a bad thing though, right? These are classics, after all. People have been writing reviews of them for decades or centuries. If you want to find out about the plot you can go on Goodreads. I’d much rather talk about the ideas prompted by these great books. And I think you might rather read about that, too.
NOTE: this post contains spoilers but not enough, I think, to ruin the book for you
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A Perfect Fantasy Book
I feel like The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle* should have been a re-read for me, but this was the first time I’d read it. You’d think as much as I love unicorns and fantasy novels I’d have picked this one up earlier. Especially considering how much everyone loves it. Even the guy who wrote the best fantasy book I’ve ever read says, “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again” (Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind*).
On the surface, The Last Unicorn seems like a pretty simple book. A unicorn overhears two men say there aren’t any unicorns left in the world. Worried that she might be the last one, she goes out searching for other unicorns and meets with the sort of adventures you’d expect in a fantasy novel. There’s a wizard, a merry band of outlaws, a wise woman, a curse, a wicked king, and heroic prince, a talking cat, and a beautiful princess. But there’s so much more than that, too.
How People See You
There’s a lot going on in this relatively short book, so I’m just going to focus on one theme that I found particularly interesting. When the unicorn first sets out on her search, I expected that problems would arise when people spotted a unicorn walking down the road. But all they see is a white mare. The unicorn is puzzled.
“I suppose I could understand if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated unicorns and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else — what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?”(p. 11).
I’m fascinated by female characters who find ways to live life on their own terms within their culture’s ideas of femininity. Many of my favorite “strong female characters” from Classic literature (like those in Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Francess Burney, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s books ) already have a sense of their own worth and, while they may push against certain confining ideas on appropriate female behavior, they don’t hate their own femininity or attack other women for being feminine. When they fight for their rights, they do it as women who are inherently equal to men — not as women trying to be men.
My two latest books for The Classics Club list are both written by Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South is a re-read for me and Cranford was a new one. I decided to blog about these two books together so I wouldn’t be devoting quite so many articles here to book reviews. I’d expected them to have enough similar themes that this would be easy to do (similar to blogging about Cooper’s sea tales together). But I was pleasantly (if somewhat inconveniently) surprised to find out that the two books are very different. Gaskell is a much more versatile writer than I’d been giving her credit for in my mind.
Characters Who Need Each Other
The contrast is immediately apparent. North and South (1855) opens with a wedding while Cranford (1853) opens with the line, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Men are extremely rare and viewed with much suspicion in Cranford, but in the world of North and South most of the action is driven by or centers around men. One might say Cranford is defined by the absence of men and North and South by the actions of men.
That wouldn’t quite be fair to the women of these books, though. Both stories are filled with what I would call strong female characters. They don’t punch things, shoot stuff, or walk around talking about how empowered they are while wearing sexy clothes. But I would submit to you they’re actually better-written and even “stronger” than the female characters who run around modern films insisting they don’t need anyone’s help. Gaskell’s characters model a connected community of both men and women who are stronger together. Read more →
I’m going to knock two books off my Classics’s Club List in this post. They’re both written by James Fenimore Cooper (best known for The Last of the Mohicans) and both take place on and near the sea, so grouping them together makes sense. In fact, the library book I read has both in a single volume. The Red Rover (1827) is a re-read for me, but The Pilot (1824) was new.
I really wanted to like these books. They’re the sort of stories that I usually love. But I just wasn’t really liking them and found myself skimming large chunks. It wasn’t until halfway through The Red Rover (which I read second) that I finally figured out why. My favorite books are usually character-driven, but Cooper isn’t really writing to tell his characters’ stories. He’s writing love-letters to the sea and the men who sail her waves.
Scarcely A Favorite With Females
In a preface to the 1849 edition of The Pilot, it says that this book “could scarcely be a favorite with females. The story has little interest for them, nor was it much heeded by the author of the book in the progress of his labors. His aim was to illustrate vessels and the ocean rather than to draw any pictures of sentiment and love.”
At first, I felt compelled to prove him wrong. I like books about vessels and the ocean. And the story’s plot centers around two young American naval officers (Griffin and Barnstable) who risk their real mission in trying to rescue the women they love. There’s also a mysterious Pilot, who has an equally mysterious connection with another woman at the house. It’s a perfect recipe for a romantic adventure.
But Cooper doesn’t take full advantage of the compelling plot he’s crafted. Oh, he keeps with that story line but the characterization starts falling apart. Cooper will spend several chapters describing in loving, minute detail how a ship’s crew navigates away from a particularly dangerous piece of coastline during a storm. But if you’re expecting such care taken with the characters you’re in for a disappointment. Read more →
I should never have stayed here. Nay, I should never have left Italy.
If my cousin Philip had not been so like Ambros perhaps I could have left. To see his face — that beloved, tormenting face — staring into my eyes once more was more than I could leave. More than I could resist when he asked me to stay. Or I should say ordered me. They were orders, though I turned a blind eye to it then because I wanted him. Or perhaps not him, but Ambros back in my life. I know not.
I’m in such fear. It was a foolish thing on both our parts, the midnight of his birthday. He knows too little of the world to realize what I gave him was nothing more than a thank you. A birthday gift that would mean more than that stupid little pearl cravat pin. And yes, I wanted it too. A younger, more devoted Ambros to worship me once again if only for a moment.
And how could I have known that he meant marriage by his comment about lacking warmth and comfort? Or that he thought I’d agreed to be his when he took me into those primroses? Or that he would get so drunk he’d announce our engagement to his godfather and poor Louise at dinner?
I still feel the pressure of his hands at my throat. Those big, powerful hands of a man who works on his farm every day and stands a head taller than me. Stronger than the ones Ambros once put around my neck. My cousin Philip could have snapped my neck, though he wouldn’t have had to. The slightest squeeze more and I’d not have been able to draw the thinnest breath.
Should I feel guilty for bringing Mary Pascoe into this house? Surely his fury won’t touch her, too. The worst he’d do is throw her out of the house. While me … I know not what he’d do were we alone now. Would he wrap his hands around my throat again and expect me to make myself his? Would he force me and afterward tell me I liked it and must marry him?
His fantasy is as complete as the paranoia that claimed Ambrose. I half-believe in his mind we’re already married. That he thinks I’m so sure to agree it’s as if I’ve done so already. That his ridiculous present of his entire fortune will surely convince me to stay.
I must get away. I have the means to do so now, though God knows it’s not why I came here. I simply wanted to see the home Ambros talked about. The symbol of what could have been before he turned on me. The idea of our marriage rather than the reality of it. The allowance my cousin Philip gave me was more than enough. More than I expected or even hoped. To have him honor the will Ambros never signed …
Did he think he’d bought me?
Will he let me leave?
This is quite a bit different than my usual review for books I’m reading on my Classics Club Book list. But I think Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1951) is the sort of novel that invites you to look at it from different perspectives. The fact that you’re trapped inside Philip Ashley’s mind for the entire novel leaves you guessing at what the other characters are really thinking. He’s an unreliable narrator and he’s hopelessly naive, especially when it come to women, so the motives he assigns to Rachel are likely untrue. But if he’s wrong about her, then what is right? Everything we know of her is filtered through Philip. We don’t know her true motive or any of her thoughts. We can only guess, as I’m doing in my little retelling from Rachel’s point of view (which overlaps Chapter 23 of the original novel).
I watched the 2017 film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel before reading the book. I suspected I would still enjoy the book after seeing the movie, but knew if I read the book first there was a good chance I’d spend the film grumpy about how they’d adapted it. It turned out to be a very faithful adaptation, though.
*Spoiler Warning* The only major changes were made at the end. The film provides less evidence of Rachel’s alleged guilt, pointing viewers towards the idea that she was not poisoning Philip. And it also has Philip sending her to ride along a dangerous path rather than choosing not to warn her about a dangerous bridge in the garden. The film pushes you toward believing he intended her to die where the book leaves it a little more ambiguous. But then again, Philip’s the one telling the story. Of course he’d make himself look as good as possible.
Philip wants us second-guessing his cousin Rachel. But I suspect Du Maurier wants us to look at Philip just as closely. Because even though we’re getting his perspective on things and he’s certainly not putting any blame on himself, there are things about being in his mind that make me as scared of him as I think Rachel is.
Repeatedly, Philip says he wants to isolate Rachel from everyone but him. And that’s before he starts becoming overtly controlling. And when he puts his hands around her throat, it’s not in the heat of anger. He presents it as a calculated decision to add fear to the list of reasons she should marry him. Later, he barely contains his fury and indignation when (after he’s given her all his property and she still hasn’t married him) she states that she can and will invite whoever she likes to stay with them because the house belongs to her and she doesn’t feel safe alone with him.
So instead of just asking, “Did Rachel poison Ambros and/or Philip?” I think we need to ask whether such an act could be considered self-defense. Abuse does not justify murder, but even if Rachel killed someone she may not be the evil and/or misguided character that Philip (who describes himself as feeling a strange compassion for her once he makes up his mind about her guilt) makes her out to be. It might have been more of an act of desperation and fear than calculating malice.
But that’s assuming she’s guilty at all. And there’s no clear evidence that she is. Laburnum (the plant Philip settles on as the murder weapon) isn’t even all that poisonous. The most common symptoms are nausea and vomiting, and that’s after eating several seeds. “Higher doses can produce intense sleepiness, convulsive possibly tetanic movements, coma, slight frothing at the mouth and unequally dilated pupils. … [However] the MAFF publication ‘Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man’, says that all stories about laburnum causing serious poisoning and death are untraceable” (The Poison Garden).
Perhaps Du Maurier believed her chosen poison really was deadly based on the rumors that have made it one of the most feared garden plants. But perhaps she did her research and knew that Philip was jumping to unjustifiable conclusions. Maybe she would have known, as Rachel surly did with her expertise in herb lore and gardening, that most gardens are home to far more reliably deadly plants (like foxglove and oleander). Perhaps Du Maurier meant for her readers to realize that a brain tumor (for Ambros) and a relapse of meningitis (for Philip) are the most logical explanations for symptoms both men attribute to “Rachel, my torment.”
There’s an argument to be made that Philip isn’t really concerned about whether or not Rachel poisoned Ambros at all. He decides her guilt based on whether or not she “conforms to his desires and whims” (from “My Cousin Rachel (2017) and Male Entitlement“). After all, he already possesses everything else that belonged to Ambros. Why not Rachel as well?
The question of whether or not Rachel poisoned Ambros consumes Philip only until their first meeting. After that he’s quite certain she’s innocent until she makes it clear she won’t marry him. All his worry about whether or not she’s guilty of murder covers the fact that his inability to deal with rejection brings out a desire to posses and control her. He and Ambros call Rachel “my torment” because she brings out the ugliest side of their natures and they blame her for their darkness rather than looking to the true culprits. Themselves.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I have something of an obsession with tall ships. This is probably a result of my love for stories set during the Age of Sail. One such story is Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, first published in 1922.
This book wasn’t on my original Classics Club list. I’d already read it and hadn’t intended a reread, especially after being disappointed by Sabatini’s Bardelys the Magnificent. But I ended up with a digital copy on my phone a year or so ago and started reading it while in a waiting room. So of course I had to finish it — one simply doesn’t abandon an adventure novel in the middle of the story.
I’m (once again) in the midst of a pirate obsession, for which we can thank the recent release of Daughter of the Siren Queen (sequel to my 2nd favorite novel of 2017, Daughter of the Pirate King). So I started reading a book on the history of pirates in reality and fiction, which prompted me to watch the 1935 version of Captain Blood. And that brings me to my decision to write a post for the classic novel.
But first, a brief digression about the film, which is really quite impressive. $1 million went into its production (to put this in perspective, online estimates tell me that $1 in 1935 has the same buying power as $17-18 today). It launched Errol Flynn’s and Olivia de Havilland’s careers and made an overall profit of $1.5 million. And it was scandalously realistic for a 1930s audience. In fact, a screenwriter named Robert Lord wrote to the producer, Hal Wallis, asking “Why do you have so much flogging, torturing, and physical cruelty in Captain Blood? … Women and children will be warned to stay away from the picture — and rightly so” (quoted in Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly, p.174).Read more →
I just started rereading Watership Down by Richard Adams last night. Normally I wait to write about the books on my Classics Club list until after I’ve finished them, but I’m also rereading Elain Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person In Love and I was struck by a connection between the two books.
In her research on high sensitivity (also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity), Aron discovered that it’s found in 15 to 20% of the population. And it’s not just humans. The trait “can be observed in all higher animals — mice, cats, dogs, horses, [and] monkeys” at about the same percentage. I’m going to add rabbits to the list as well.
Research on HSPs had barely started by the 1970s, so I doubt Richard Adams would have been familiar with it as a scientifically validated trait when he published Watership Down in 1972. I think he was writing about it anyway, though, with his character Fiver.
When publisher Rex Collins acquired the book, he wrote to a friend saying, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fiver’s insights do go beyond simply being a highly sensitive rabbit, but it’s also true that Fiver would pass the HSP test. Easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input? Check. Aware of subtleties in the environment? Double check. Made uncomfortable by loud noises, startles easily, has a nervous system that feels frazzled, and so on down the list.
He was small, with side, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension. His nose moved continually, and when a bumblebee flew humming to a thistle boom behind him he jumped and spun round with a start that sent two nearby rabbits scurrying for holes (Fiver’s introduction, Watership Down)
As a Highly Sensitive Person myself, I know that feeling all too well. The heightened awareness of the smallest noise. The tension so familiar you barely notice it until an unexpected sound startles you out of your chair (in fact, right after writing this sentence I jumped at a Facebook notification on my phone). And it’s kind of nice to see a character like that in a book, especially one with friends who don’t tell him he needs to change. They accept him for who he is, work with his weaknesses, and appreciate his unique strengths.
Can you think of any other HSP characters in fiction?