Two non-Iceland books now – I know! But I decided that I couldn’t read just books on Iceland all month (and by doing that, ruined my chances of reading them all – doh!) Plus I was already reading the amazing “Adam Bede”, and I wasn’t about to give up on that for a month! So here are two books by favourite authors – and a shock confession, too (not about book buying this time …)
George Eliot – “Adam Bede”
(19 August 2013 – bought on my last book-buying trip to Oxford)
Sorry, Mr Rochester, I might have grown up a bit and got a new literary crush (don’t worry, Reddle Man from Return of the Native, you’re safe!). Adam Bede is a stalwart countryman who puts up with his alcoholic father, clinging mother, lovelorn brother and faithless love, keeping calm and finding joy in working hard, in what must be a direct comment on the benefits of keeping with the older, more traditional ways of working (much as Hardy does with some of his supporting men and women when his heroes and heroines are going off being all modern and dramatic and doomy).
Again, like Hardy, Eliot sets this entirely in a rural community, pretty enclosed in an arable area of the Midlands, with the brooding industrial towns a safe journey away and only the saintly Methodist preacher providing a bridge between the two. While Good Things are not the only thing found in the countryside and Bad Things are not confined to the towns, it’s noticeable that the negative action does tend to happen in either the contrasted town or what I might call the liminal space of the cottage in the woods. Eliot also uses the pathetic fallacy to good effect, linking the woods, the weather and the characters’ actions and emotions in a way that had me constantly looking forward to my re-read of this in the future.
I did find myself doing a lot of Hardy comparisons, as Eliot has similar wayward women punished by society and a disdain for high-faluting higher class or towns people who mess with the natural order in various ways, either through estate (mis)management or dallying with the country girls. She also has local people with all their colour, variety, bravery and dialect, who are somehow a bit less annoying than Hardy’s can be. I appreciate that he’s not the only other writer who uses these features, though, so let’s move away from the Hardy comparisons for a minute …
One very ‘Eliot’ feature of this book is the author’s ability to create a seemingly perfect, virtuous, hard-working, attractive central character and make him completely believable and, frankly, not as annoying as he should be. She does this to great effect in her portrayal of Daniel Deronda, and here she is again. Maybe it’s the way in which she does give them human emotions, wobbles and an awareness of their own limitations. I’m not sure, but it makes for a banging good read which belies the length of the book – I really didn’t want it to finish.
Fate is allowed to be thwarted to an extent, and some have criticised the ending for being too obvious and pat, but I liked the truth of the dawning affection between two characters, handy as it was. As I said before, I did read it for the story this time round, to an extent, but with an eye to the re-read I will be looking forward to doing. Definitely a keeper.
And why, oh why have I read “Middlemarch” about five times, “Daniel Deronda” once and this one, now, once? At least I have a lot to look forward to!
Winifred Holtby – “Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir”
(Bought 19 August 2013 on the same Oxford trip)
Poignantly written while Woolf was still alive, this is not so much a “Memoir”, in that it doesn’t relate the books particularly to either Holtby’s or Woolf’s life, but it does address Woolf’s novels and other writings in chronological order, and examines the development of her style and use of language, especially her move towards stream of consciousness work. She has a good, thorough look at the themes and writing of the books, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, and pays particular attention to Woolf’s experimental work on the way towards her eventual mature style. It also looks at underlying issues of writing, creativity and gender, so there are a lot of layers and things to unpack.
It’s all done in Holtby’s lovely, flowing, deceptively simple prose, of course, so easy to read, even if this is a reprint which reproduces the odd spaces before semi colons that we don’t see now. It’s very good on “Orlando” and “A Room of One’s Own” (which it pairs, to good effect) and has the effect that is the best outcome of such a book, in that it makes me want to rush back to the Woolf oeuvre and devour it, possibly in chronological order. An unusual and lovely book – when writers write well on other writers, they do it supremely well (like Byatt on Iris Murdoch) and this was a real treat.
A small confession: OK, you probably guessed it from my comments above. I have come to the conclusion that I place George Eliot above Hardy and Austen in my Top Authors list. Up there with Iris Murdoch (in fact in the complicated relationships, depiction of closed societies and multiple echoes and pairings, they do have much in common, and I’m trying to get hold of a chapter in a book which treats the relationship between the two). I love Austen and Hardy, but Austen is sometimes a bit too light for me – I prefer “Mansfield Park” and “Emma”, as well as “Northanger Abbey” for their interaction with morals and other genres; and Hardy’s rustic choruses can grate at times, plus sometimes Eliot pips him to the post with her characters, metafiction and settings. It’s not like I’m eschewing them or saying that they’re no good, and it’s only very personal opinion … we’ll see, as I read more of Eliot’s books. That’s it – forgive me and stop gasping now, please!