The Black Moth

I have several Georgette Heyer books on hand and make sure to read at least one per year; she seemed the perfect last hurrah before the school year starts again. I decided to start with her earliest book, The Black Moth, from 1921.

Six years ago Jack Carstares, Earl of Wyndham, accepted an accusation that he cheated at cards. Though his sacrifice preserved his younger brother Richard’s honor and hopes of wooing the lovely Lavinia Belmanoir, Jack himself was disgraced and fled the country. Now he has returned to England and passes his time roaming the countryside as a highwayman. He is only Robin Hood by half, which I find less charming; he steals from the rich and…keeps it for himself. [But this is okay, because he has been unfairly denied access to his inheritance, and needs to stay solvent somehow. Besides, those odious people don’t need their money anyway.]

Though Dick did win Lavinia, he has never forgiven himself for allowing his brother to take the fall. Recently, however, it all but consumes his thoughts. He convinced his father to still will the title and estate to Jack before his death. He told Lavinia the truth right after they married and she cares not that she married a cheater, only that her social standing be maintained. His fear of losing her is the only thing still preventing him from revealing the truth. Well, also the fact that he is slightly intimidated by her brother Tracy, Duke of Andover, who just might have manipulated the whole card affair in the first place.

In one week, Jack has two roadside escapades that change events entirely. First, he accidentally holds up a friend from his former life, Miles O’Hara, a justice of peace who discovers his identity and is determined to see him restored. Second, he foibles “Devil” Belmanoir’s attempt to kidnap and marry the lovely Diana Beauleigh, and is wounded in the process. While recuperating at the Beauleigh manor,  he tries to convince Diana he is not worthy of her, and she tries to convince him of the opposite. Neither quite succeeds, and they might go on fawning at each other indefinitely if the Duke doesn’t have other plans to win Diana for himself.

The Black Moth does already have a lot of the elements that make a Georgette Heyer book great: multiple couples (happily married, unhappily married, and courting), likable chaperones, extremely fashionable gentlemen, and non-traditional females. Diana pretty much threw herself at Jack several times, even going so far as to propose to him, but he was too noble and self-sacrificing to accept (can you sense a theme with his character?). The writing was great, and if wit was lacking she made up for it with humor. For some reason, though, I just didn’t totally buy into the story of Jack and Diana. I liked the plot with Richard and Lavinia much more, and those were the parts I reread when writing this review. Perhaps its because they had weaknesses and regrets, and therefore more tension, whereas the main couple came off as a bit flat.

The Duke of Andover as a complex “villain” had the potential to be the best aspect of the book, but never quite achieved it. He was never friendly and often acted out of selfish ends, without caring if anyone else was hurt; if fact, he seemed to pride himself on his resolve and reputation. However, Lavinia adores him, and his closest friend Frank, who seems to have a good head on his shoulders, is also quite fond and often pities him. We are not given a reason for his being likable by those two characters, other than the length of their acquaintances. I was almost sorry for the Duke myself at times, but realized I never really had cause to be. He is neither likable enough to be an anti-hero, nor despised enough to be a true scoundrel.

Georgette Heyer doesn’t use any exact dates, but from all the fashions this seems to be set in the mid to late eighteenth century. The women wear silk dresses with wide skirts, and the men wear patches and tight jackets. Powder is even more prevalent than snuff. I love the American colonial era, but some of the European upper class fashions are a bit much for me. I prefer my men without fountains of lace and embroidered satin waistcoats, thank you very much.

All in all I don’t think The Black Moth will ever be among my most favorite Georgette Heyer romances, but it’s the book that started it all, and quite an output for a girl who was fifteen at the time!

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Published in: on August 29, 2011 at 6:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Deathless and the Dead

“They hate each other, you know. I’ve always realized that, ever since I was a little girl. They tear each other to pieces the whole time, whether there is anyone else present or not. I sometimes wonder why it is that one of them hasn’t murdered the other long ago.I suppose it’s because they enjoy quarreling so much that they’d miss it if one of them was dead.”

A few summers ago at a book sale I found four slim mysteries by a British author unknown to me, Anna Clarke, and figured that at fifty cents each they were worth a gamble. The cover calls them mysteries about crimes of passion in the tradition of P. D. James and Josephine Tey. I’ve yet to read either author (shame on me), so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally picked up The Deathless and the Dead, the most intriguing title of the bunch.

Poor young literature student John Broome has devoted himself to the study of [fictional] Victorian poetess Emily Witherington, who died young. He has few hopes of ever getting recognition for his work until Alice Heron, the girl he has recently begun dating, mentions that she believes her great uncle and great aunt who raised her may have met the poet in their younger days. When Alice brings him home, however, she warns him to be on his guard against Sir Roderick Heron and Lady Belle; they make the Spanish Inquisition look painless. The couple have been married for fifty years, and have hated each other even longer, thriving on insults and torment. Then there is the live-in servant, Lettie Mann, who seems to invite abuse hates Belle because she is in love with Roderick herself.

John is loathe to get involved in this hornets nest, especially because Roderick is imperiously shuts him down whenever the topic of Emily arises. For some reason, however, he can’t shake the conviction that Roderick jut may have been the anonymous beloved whom Emily wrote passionately about in so many of her poems. He makes a surprising ally in Auntie Belle when he bonds with her over her cat, and has hopes that she might know the answers instead.

Then a death occurs in the household, and John begins to wonder if someone here may know something about the accident that caused Emily’s premature death fifty years ago. He finds it virtually impossible, however, to investigate a crime from fifty years ago with no evidence, and that even the police at the time didn’t believe was a crime. Unfortunately, he’s been asking so many questions that another accident just might occur if he’s not careful.

I have a lot of respect for Anna Clarke’s skill as a writer. At first this book struck me as relatively mundane, even silly in how some of the characters behaved. About halfway through, though, the complexity of the book hit home. The plot is deceptively simple, and though it might come across as child’s play in the hands of another writer, she has kept me guessing long after I finished the book. There may have been four murders, or there may have been none; all we (and John) have to go on are the words and impressions of the characters, not all of which can be trusted. The psychological ambiguity here is just wonderful.

I also enjoy books with young lovers. John struggles a lot here with the fact that Alice comes from a background much higher than his own. He sees this break in his research as the chance to finally be worthy of her, but he’s also terrified here of Roderick, and of ruining any hopes he has of being with Alice. He also is extremely hesitant to voice any suspicions he might have about events for fear of offending her.

My one complaint is that it seems highly coincidental how John just “knew” that Roderick was Emily’s beloved. Granted, I’m sure he had read the descriptions in poems about him hundreds of times, and had Alice’s word that they had been acquaintances. It just seemed a little far-fetched to me. Perhaps the ghost of Emily really was spurring on his work, as Alice suggested. Also, if you are wondering about dates, the book seems set in the 1950s, so that those around when Emily died in the 1890s could conceivably still be alive. According to Fantastic Fiction, the author was somewhat of a scholar herself on Victorian literature.

Anna Clarke wrote over twenty five mysteries from the late sixties through the early eighties. Has anyone else heard of her? I’m curious to try the rest of the ones I bought to see if they are as good.

Published in: on August 28, 2011 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bleak House

The mathematician in me believes that there is an inverse relationship between the number of pages a book has and the ease with which I can write a review. With Bleak House
clocking in at over 800 pages, you can be sure that post has been a long time in the making. There is so much in this book that I fear I cannot do it all justice! I really do love Charles Dickens, and this may my favorite of his, even more than A Tale of Two Cities.

I’ve given up hope on presenting a coherent and comprehensive summary, so here are the bare bones. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a financial dispute, has been in progress in the High Court of Chancery for so long that it is practically treated as a joke. The bachelor Mr. John Jarndyce takes into his home at Bleak House the two young adult wards of the case, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. He also engages orphaned Esther Summerson to be a companion for Ada, and it is through her interspersed narrative that we see some of the action of the book.

The group has a lot of friends and acquaintances: Harold Skimpole, a middle-aged man with a wife and three daughters who is intentionally childlike because it makes his life easier; Caddy Jellyby, whose younger siblings run amok because her mother is too concerned with the plights of those in Africa; and Miss Flite, a muddled old woman whose entire life revolves around futile hopes for a small case in Chancery.

There is another entire cast of characters in the legal sector, including the odd Guppy who assists sometimes on the Jarndyce case. When a mysterious boarder dies alone in an apartment above a copy shop, he takes it upon himself to investigate with the help of his friends. After other events later in the story (including a spontaneous combustion!) the case is handed in a more official manner by Inspector Bucket. In another part of London we learn of the beautiful and celebrated Lady Deadlock, who has everything a woman could want and yet remains restless and unhappy. For some reason her husband’s solicitor Mr. Tulkinghorn is making her uneasy. Finally, we see glimpses of the poorer side of town through Jo, the sweeper boy who knows nothing about himself or any other subject.

Richard and Ada have fallen in love, but John advises them to wait until the case is resolved and they hopefully come into a little money. Unfortunately, this path is not an easy one to take. Esther, meanwhile, does her best to make everyone around her happy, and ease the prevailing gloom….I’m really failing at describing this plot, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it is excellent.If I had written more frequent reviews throughout (the book has sixty-seven chapters divided into nineteen sections), maybe I would have done a better job conveying this. I just love literature than has the potential to be dissected.

Charles Dickens is an absolute master as world building; I feel like I intimately know 1850s London because of him. The book has a monstrous cast of at least 100 characters, and yet each of them is distinctly defined, so that I could easily keep track of who was who over the long span in which I read this. Everyone has a name and identity, down to the women who comment in the streets of the law neighborhood after each shocking turn of events. I also absolutely loved how all of the characters are connected somehow in the wide web has created. Pick any two characters, and there are at most three degrees of separation. It’s remarkable, really, especially considering that the novel was originally serialized. Did Dickens write it all in advance, or just do an awful lot of planning?

There are two main branches of the story, as sprawling as the cast and plot may sound, and though Esther only narrates what she has first-hand knowledge of, she still stands out to me in this book. She is such a sweetheart! She reminds me of Beth from Little Women, who is actually my favorite March sister. For some reason she is more palatable than Fanny Price in terms of goodness, or Little Dorrit. Perhaps the difference is that we get to see Esther through first person, so she honestly tries to downplay her actions, and she has a believable motive for being so selfless. Esther knows nothing about her parents except that her mother was a sinner because she was born out of wedlock. Beginning at an early age, she was told by the woman who raised her that she could never be a good person, so she did her best to try. It’s also nice that the other characters appreciate her, even the other characters who are themselves emblems of kindness and generosity.

Dickens uses the book for a lot of social commentary, some of which are themes carried over from other works. He seems to have a confirmed distaste for institutions; in Little Dorrit it was big business, and here it is Chancery and the high court system. He also exposes the plight of poor, especially children like Jo who had no say over a situation they were born into. He ridicules those who are oblivious to the duties or sufferings around them, while praising those who are industrious and compassionate (like the marvelous Mrs. Bagnet). He is also able to pack an emotional punch, though. The chapter where Sir Leicester Deadlock is waiting on his deathbed for certain news was simultaneously one of the most moving and suspenseful scenes in the book.

“Now Miss Summerson,” said he, beating his finger on the apron, don’t you be disappointed at what I’m a-going to do. You know me. I’m Inspector Bucket, and you can trust me.”

As an additional element, Bleak House is also considered the first appearance of a detective in an English detective novel. I saw that website shortly before beginning the book and was surprised, even with the mention of a trio of sleuths on the back of my edition. As the mystery element developed and Mr. Bucket grew in importance, I realized that he really is a wonder. There is nothing of the cynic about this inspector! He is meticulously thorough in his quest for justice, but has a remarkable instinct for truth and uncanny ability to put good people at ease and nasty people in their place. Plus, he occasionally enlists his wife’s help on cases. I was surprised at how suspenseful the mystery was, even by today’s standards, though it did have a decidedly sensationalist bent. I wonder if Dickens wrote this before or after he became friends with Wilkie Collins?

I kept this book in my car over the summer, so that whenever I was on a lunch break or had time to kill I could squeeze a a little bit in. Though not a fast read, it’s definitely very readable (other than the Chancery chapters), and every little bit helps. I was surprised to be almost a little sad to reach the ending and bit Esther and her friends goodbye, even though it felt like it was time.

I make myself wait until after I’ve written a review to look at any literary criticism. I’m off now to finally read the introduction. I’m sure there is plenty of information online about the book, too. I could easily see myself reading this again someday.

Bleak House is on the 1001 Books List, and also the Guardian List (State of the Nation).

Published in: on August 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor

“I should never sleep easy, Mr. Crawford, did you not hasten to Mr. Dobbin this very moment. God forbid that Jane Austen should stand in justice’s way!”

~Jane and the Man of Cloth

 

Wishbone and Pride and Prejudice were my first introductions to Jane Austen, but I really fell in love with both the authoress and her time period through Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries. They actually inspired me to write my high school English lit research paper on the topic. It’s been several years since I read them, and wanted to go back to the beginning before continuing the series. The first volume is Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.

Jane is spending the holiday with her friend Countess Isobel Payne and her recent husband Frederick, Earl of Scargrave. During that time, the Earl is discovered dead in his bed, perhaps poisoned. Then an anonymous letter shows up suggesting that Isobel and Viscount Fitzroy Payne, the earl’s nephew and heir, had a certain tenderness for each other. The allegation is unfortunately true, though the pair never acted on their feelings. When additional implicating evidence turns up, the two are put imprison. Isobel’s reputation may never be saved, but she begs Jane to do what she can to at least save her life.

The cast of characters is quite entertaining, and well-written. Though you can see subtle nods to Jane’s own characters, who have by this point practically become tropes of Regency fiction, the book shies away from obvious doubles. It does not in any way feel like a retelling. My favorites were Isobel’s empty-headed cousin Fanny, and rakish lieutenant Tom Hearst, a younger brother who makes up in charm what he lacks in fortune. My soft spot for rogues will be the death of me someday.

My favorite part of the book, however, is the vast amount of historical detail and context it contains. Stephanie Barron fits her fictional tales in with Jane’s life experiences and correspondence. There are also several footnotes, which come across as informative rather than heavy-handed. As someone who can never keep straight the rules relating to various English titles, I find the included details both interesting and helpful.

One of the few aspects, perhaps even the only, that mars my enjoyment of the series is the presence of Lord Harold Trowbridge. Even though this is a reread with a fuller knowledge of events, I still do not like the man.

I read this for the Jane Austen Mysteries reading challenge.

Published in: on August 9, 2011 at 11:18 am  Leave a Comment  
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Thursday Throwback: The Doll’s House

How strange that a little farthing doll should last so long. Tottie was made of wood and it was good wood. She liked to think sometimes of the tree of whose wood she was made, of its strength and of the sap that ran through it and made it bud and put out leaves every spring and summer, that kept it standing through the winter storms and wind. “A little, a very little of that tree is in me,” said Tottie. “I am a little of that tree.” She liked to think of it.

I used to love reading books about dolls, and Rumer Godden had some great ones; I borrowed them first from my friend and then from the library multiple times. The Doll’s House
was all about creating a model house for two little Japanese dolls. I thought it was the coolest book ever, and can still remember it vividly. It was always my dream when I was little to have a doll house, but I had to settle for playing with the one at my grandmother’s.

When I found The Doll’s House at the book sale last week I couldn’t recall if it was one I used to read. The characters seemed very vaguely familiar, but it might have just been similarities to the other doll books. Then, about twenty pages in, Marchpane was mentioned in passing and I felt an inexplicable shiver of hate down my spine. She had not been introduced as a character yet, and I could not explain why I disliked her so, but I knew I did. Funny how strongly she must have affected me when I was a child!

The main character in the book is Tottie, a little wooden farthing doll over a hundred years old. She has been passed down in the family and currently belongs to two little girls named Emily and Charlotte. The sisters have also acquired other various dolls to put together a family. Birdie, the mother, is a celluloid doll from a party popper, who has good intentions but only room for one thought at a time in her head. Mr. Plantagenet is sturdier, but a great worrier. He belonged to a neighbor family and was much abused before being rescued by the girls. Apple is a little boy doll with a knack for getting into simple mischief.

This doll family lives in a shoebox, and dream of one day having a house like the one Tottie used to live in when she belonged to Emily and Charlotte’s great-grandmother. With dolls, wishing hard is their only way of making things happen, and in this case they wish hard enough. When an older relative passes on the house is found again, and delivered to the girls. Unfortunately, the house is in disrepair, and in order to get money to fix it up, the girls lend Tottie to a doll exhibit at the museum. Poor Tottie, however, does not understand that this is only temporary.

Along with the dollhouse, the girls inherit another heirloom, the snobby china doll Marchpane. She and Tottie have a frigid history dating way back to when they both used to live in the dollhouse. Unfortunately, Emily and Charlotte are quite taken with her exquisite looks. Everything is disrupted when they make her mistress of he dollhouse and relegate the other dolls to servant roles. Only when matters come to an extreme point do the girls realize what really makes a doll valuable.

The plot itself of this book is not necessarily my favorite; my distaste for Marchpane is too strong, and the ending is one of those “Little Match Girl” or “Tin Soldier” endings where I’m not really quite sure it’s happy. Nevertheless, Rumer Godden writes about dolls, and by extension, the children who own and love them, in a way that no one else can. She explains things so matter-of-factly that you can’t help but believe that dolls really are alive in a sense. The materials that the dolls are made out of, and their histories, are reflected in their characters. They are fully developed, and at the same time completely at the mercy of their owners. When Charlotte and Emily are in tune with the dolls they know exactly what they need and things go smoothly, but when that intuition fails the situation gets very bad indeed.

I was trying to remember all the other doll books I used to love, the ones I still own as well as the ones I borrowed. I could have sworn that there was a sequel, with a doll from Jamaica who practiced black magic. All of the other Rumer Godden books are stand-alones, though, so the one of thinking of must be different. I know it had a family living in an old doll house, like this, and they had issues with the voodoo doll, and there was a subplot with something valuable hung on the wall in the dollhouse. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? I couldn’t find anything online, so if this bother me enough I might need to ask on LibraryThing.

 

Published in: on August 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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