Only A Novel

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Posted in Books, Fiction, lgbt, Literature, Reading, Review, Sarah Waters by onlyanovel on April 11, 2009

We have to be gallant, people like us. No one else is bloody well going to be gallant on our behalf.

—Kay Langrish


The Night WatchSeveral months ago, I tried to convey my enthusiasm for Sarah Waters and her groundbreaking novels in my post about Affinity. Not long after I read Affinity, I naturally plunged headlong into The Night Watch. Since it is now many months since I read The Night Watch in October of last year, now that I’m finally sitting down to write about it, I’m quite surprised at how much of the novel has been retained in my memory. Rather than give credit to my rather good memory for this robust recollection, I will suggest—and this is what I believe—that it is more due to Waters’s storytelling prowess that I can remember so much of the story. As I tried to think about writing this post, many scenes and details and impressions from the novel came back to me without effort.

As I’ve already said in that other post, The Night Watch is different from Waters’s previous three novels in that this one is set in World War II London and its aftermath, rather than in the Victorian era. It was a time of air raids, bomb shelters, black-outs, rations, black-market trade in meat, coffee, soap, liquor, cigarettes, stockings, etc. The story follows a handful of characters, immersed within the confines of wartime but whose desires and ambitions are otherwise universal, as they make their lives—which are intertwined intimately or casually—in post-Blitz London. But they are followed in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1947 and ending in 1941. The novel, in effect, begins at the end, and by going back in time from there, the question which is silently asked is one that many of us are familiar with: In astonishment, we ask, “How did I get here? This is not what I had imagined or set out to become.” And, like the novel’s plot devise, we try to linearly recall, in quiet or otherwise, events of the past and see their contrast with the present.

Although the plot follows several characters, the novel belongs to Kay Langrish, a thirtysomething ambulance driver who, with her good friend Iris “Mickey” Carmichael, bravely drives through the bombed-out streets of London to either aid bomb victims or pick up bodies and body parts. Kay Langrish is the tale’s gallant hero, the one who makes selfless sacrifices, the one who rescues the damsel in distress with a courageously light and jocular heart, who acts tough but weeps at watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. As with other fairy tales’ likeable heroes, I wished for her a happy ending.

The picture that Waters paints of post-Blitz London is painstakingly detailed. Several scenes are described so effectively that they make their point unambiguously. It is a case of stories so well told that they make a movie in one’s mind, and these details make the novel. I also could not help but get the impression that there were several political statements made in this novel, encompassing different issues which, even today, are relevant. In short, I think that what I have tried to describe in this post is really good literary fiction.


Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters
Photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson
Source: NPR


Sarah Waters and her book, The Night Watch, were featured on National Public Radio in June 2006. Her latest novel, The Little Stranger, is scheduled to be released at the end of this month (Penguin/Riverhead). Read an extract from the novel on the Sarah Waters site.


  The Little Stranger



Affinity by Sarah Waters

Posted in Books, Fiction, lgbt, Literature, Reading, Review, Sarah Waters by onlyanovel on November 15, 2008

I remembered that comment of Arthur’s, that women’s books could only ever be journals of the heart. I think I thought that, in making my trips to Millbank, in writing of them here, I would somehow disprove or spite him. I thought that I could make my life into a book that had no life or love in it—a book that was only a catalogue, a kind of list. Now I can see that my heart has crept across these pages, after all. I can see the crooked passage of it, it grows firmer as the paper turns. It grows so firm at last, it spells a name—

Sarah Waters is the prize-winning author of four novels of historical fiction with gay themes, three of them set in the Victorian era and one set during the second world war. Three of her novels—Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, and Affinity—have been adapted into film, the former two by the BBC. Her fourth novel, The Night Watch is in the process of being adapted into film as well. That’s four for four for Miss Waters. I think that she deserves a lot of credit for the promotion of gay-themed literature into the mainstream, and this she accomplished because she is an outstanding writer. The mainstream acceptance of her novels has less to do with the fact that their main characters are gay than the fact that these characters embody universal human conditions.

I could not speak of Affinity without enthusiasm. I thought it was brilliant. Reminiscent of the confounding plot twists in Fingersmith, the plot of Affinity deceives and surprises well. One peculiar aspect of this novel is how Miss Waters writes out dialogues—at many points, she altogether gets rid of quotation marks and new paragraphs to mark dialogue, without causing any confusion to the reader.

Set in late nineteenth century London, the story is that of Margaret Prior and Selina Dawes, two women who apparently have nothing in common except, perhaps, for their needs. Miss Prior is a lady from an affluent family who, as her charity work and to fill her time, makes regular visits to the women prisoners of Millbank Prison. Selina is among those in the prison, convicted for the part she played in a mysterious affair gone wrong. The third main character in the story is Millbank Prison itself, a bleak, looming structure, by the River Thames, of odours and echoes and endless passages where one could easily get lost, and which sets the perfect atmosphere for a brooding story which is delicately wrapped in a veil of mystery and otherworldliness. It is in this world that the threads of Miss Prior’s and Selina’s lives are slowly and intricately woven together. What would be the quality of those threads?

Affinity is about longing for a connection, about desiring to be an essential part of someone. It is about loneliness and vulnerability. From start to finish, these themes evoke overwhelming pathos. And by the end, reading Miss Waters’s last few paragraphs is an intense experience. I think those paragraphs are exquisite, and their poignant impression, if not their exact words, would be hard for me to forget.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Posted in Annie Barrows, Books, Fiction, Literature, Mary Ann Shaffer, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on August 23, 2008
        I didn't like Wuthering Heights at first, but the minute that specter, 
        Cathy, scrabbled her bony fingers on the window glass--I was grasped by 
        the throat and not let go.  With that Emily I could hear Heathcliff's 
        pitiful cries upon the moors.  I don't believe that after reading such 
        a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda 
        Gillyflower's Ill-Used by Candlelight.  Reading good books ruins you for 
        enjoying bad books.

        --from letter of Isola Pribby to Juliet Ashton, dated 19th February, 1946

I first heard about this book on National Public Radio (NPR) a couple of months before it was even released in the US in late July, and therefore before it even got on any of this country’s bestseller lists, and it was mostly because of that brief radio spot that I decided to read it. Well, I’m glad I did, because it is simply a delightful book. I was guffawing from the first pages to the last. It was hard not to.

The book tells the story of how thirtysomething writer Juliet Ashton, looking to find an idea for her next book in a ravaged post-war London, fortuitously finds herself corresponding with the colorful inhabitants of Guernsey—one of the Channel Islands—about their experiences with reading a variety of books during the German occupation of the island, as well as their more sombre wartime experiences. Thus begins a touching, often funny, love affair between Juliet Ashton and the colorful, sometimes endearingly eccentric, islanders. Not even absence from the island, as is the case for one of the central characters, precludes active participation in the collective love affair. And, as this is set during the magical era of pre-email, this budding love affair is nurtured in the warmest, most swoon-worthy way that love affairs can be conducted—through post. It made me wish computers didn’t exist (I still do sometimes). But besides evoking the warmth and charm of a bygone time when letters were thoughtfully and lovingly written and eagerly exchanged, the story is really about the love of books and reading, and what this love does for us—especially during times when sources of comfort, hope, and wisdom are rare—, and the indifference of good books to our different stations in life.

The plot did have one quite mundane element in particular that potentially could have dampened my enthusiasm for the book, but I can forgive the authors that. My laughs more than excused it. Besides, there are cameo appearances in the story by some authors that I dearly love. And no, I place no significance whatsoever to the fact that the lead character’s initials are J.A. No, none at all.

About the coauthors: This was the first and last novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, longtime lover of books who, unfortunately for us who have enjoyed her book and wish for more, died in February. In an interview with NPR, Annie Barrows, niece of Mary Ann Shaffer and herself a published author, said that her aunt, when her health declined, asked her to help finish the book—which had already been sold by Shaffer—for publication. I include in this post images of two different book covers: the first for the book published in the US (The Dial Press, July 29, 2008), and the second for that published in the UK (Bloomsbury Publishing, April 8, 2008). You’ll notice that the US edition has both authors’ names, while the UK edition only has Shaffer’s name. I was just curious why that was.

Here is a review by Stevie Davies in The Guardian in case your interest has been piqued.

The Black Tower by P. D. James

Posted in Books, Fiction, Mystery, P. D. James, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on August 20, 2008

The sentence of death had been communicated, as he suspected such sentences usually were, by grave looks, a certain false heartiness, whispered consultations, a superfluity of clinical tests, and, until he had insisted, a reluctance to pronounce a diagnosis or prognosis. The sentence of life, pronounced with less sophistry when the worst days of his illness were over, had certainly produced the greater outrage.

—P. D. James, in The Black Tower

I’ve read a couple of James’s whodunits, and each time this formidable author never failed to draw me into her stories. It’s not so much that James contrives mysteries with intricate plots—in fact I think her plots are elegantly simple—but that her writing is exquisite. And it is this catchy writing style which makes me keep turning pages at what for me is an unwonted speed. She is also brilliant at conjuring a sense of place and atmosphere, and seems to favor the romance of the English coast as the setting for her stories. And always for this author, there has to be a good dictionary by my side. For James, there is a word for every object and thought, and the appropriate adjectives to describe them.

James contrived what for me is a most likeable sleuth in Commander Adam Dalgliesh, a detective at Scotland Yard who handles murder cases. Commander Dalgliesh is a thoughtful, feeling, sensitive soul, who is also a published poet, and who favors good literature and historic architecture, long country drives out of London, and a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, fruit, and wine. How can I not like such a sensitive and bookish soul? I’ve also happened to watch more recent Mystery! adaptations of a couple of James’s books, and so, inevitably, I picture Martin Shaw whenever I read Commander Dalgliesh. Which is all well and good since I think Shaw is perfect as Dalgliesh.

In The Black Tower, Commander Dalgliesh is not quite his usual keen and robust sleuthing self. A recent reminder of his own mortality has prompted him to seriously reevaluate his career at Scotland Yard, and to come to some life-altering decisions. And so, when, while conscientiously answering a summons from a friend from his childhood, he finds himself surrounded by circumstances which his accustomed gut tells him are suspect, Dalgliesh painstakingly comes up with excuses to the contrary so as not to get himself drawn into detective work. He finds himself at Toynton Grange, home for chronically disabled patients, where he meets forlorn characters, and where more than one death have occurred recently prior to his visit. Creating more than a handful of suspect characters, James had me guessing up until the end, when a physically weak Dalgliesh must once again come to terms with his mortality, and come to a decision about his work. Great scenes at the end.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Posted in Books, Emily Brontë, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on August 10, 2008

Nelly, I am Heathcliff!

—Catherine Earnshaw


I wouldn’t be you!

—Catherine Linton


Wuthering HeightsWhoa! Emily Brontë, where did that come from?! As I was perusing this novel, I was just as intrigued by the person who wrote the story as by the novel itself. Who was this Emily Brontë who dared imagine and put into words this bold, brash, intense, in-your-face story? How courageous; how risky; how different; how honest. I like her.

What is it about a good novel that gives us a connection with its author, even when the author is long gone and experienced a far different world from our own? I could read a recently published novel and would be indifferent about the contemporary author if he or she didn’t move me. But reading Brontë’s novel, I wished that I knew her, that I were alive when she was alive, so I could hear her innermost thoughts.

And I couldn’t help liking the novel either. Brontë didn’t like to beat around the bush, or so it seems. I think she wanted to expose us, herself included, in the starkness of our ugly souls. I almost hesitate to call it a love story, because it’s as if that part of the plot was but a tool to showcase some of the worst consequences of a most passionate love. And yet I am envious, envious of Catherine and Heathcliff. I covet the connection that enables two people to understand each other so completely and unmistakably thay they feel like one.

I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?

—Catherine Earnshaw

And yet the novel ends so that we see more than the ugliness. Ugliness begets ugliness, unless we find in ourselves a way out. The same emotional bond that destroys can save us. At this point in the story, Brontë threw me for a loop: After what has been a tumultuous plot comes in stark contrast the scene where Cathy is teaching Hareton how to read, and my heart leapt. Is the love between Catherine and Hareton less passionate than that between Catherine and Heathcliff? I do not think so. More sappy, perhaps, but maybe not less passionate; and one knew (or imagined) that they would love each other at least to the grave.

I thought that the narration of the story was unique. There were actually two narrators: Nelly Dean, the servant who was witness to most events, and Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, and who seemed to be socially inept, especially with the ladies. What makes it remarkable is that Brontë switched between these two narrators at some points in the story, and I hardly noticed. For a story that was savage at some points and chock-full with intense emotions throughout, the narration was low-key, and I can imagine myself peacefully rereading this novel in the near future on some rainy nights.

From Catherine Earnshaw to Catherine Linton; from Catherine Linton to Catherine Heathcliff to would-be Catherine Earnshaw; from Hareton Earnshaw to Hindley Earnshaw to Hareton Earnshaw, not to mention Heathcliff, just Heathcliff; from Edgar and Isabella Linton to Linton Heathcliff. Emily Brontë, oh how your imagination plays with us, and I love you.

Finally, here is another of Emily Brontë’s poems. I include it because, since we are on the subject of deep and abiding love, well, it seems to fit. And because I like it.

Remembrance Cold in the earth--and the deep snow piled above thee, Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave! Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee, Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave? Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover Over the mountains, on that northern shore, Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover Thy noble heart for ever, ever more? Cold in the earth--and fifteen wild Decembers, From those brown hills, have melted into spring: Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers After such years of change and suffering! Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee, While the world's tide is bearing me along; Other desires and other hopes beset me, Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong! No later light has lightened up my heaven, No second morn has ever shone for me; All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given, All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee. But, when the days of golden dreams had perished, And even Despair was powerless to destroy; Then did I learn how existence could be cherished, Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy. Then did I check the tears of useless passion-- Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine; Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten Down to that tomb already more than mine. And, even yet, I dare not let it languish, Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain; Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish, How could I seek the empty world again?

(Blogger’s note: I’m glad I have read this novel. I remember my Mom comically aping a scene from an old movie adaptation—where Catherine was shouting “Heathcliiiiiff!”—whenever Wuthering Heights was mentioned. She must have liked the movie. :))

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Posted in Books, Charlotte Brontë, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on July 6, 2008

Where my soul went during that swoon I cannot tell. Whatever she saw, or wherever she travelled in her trance on that strange night, she kept her own secret; never whispering a word to Memory, and baffling Imagination by an indissoluble silence. She may have gone upward, and come in sight of her eternal home, hoping for leave to rest now, and deeming that her painful union with matter was at last dissolved. While she so deemed, an angel may have warned her away from heaven’s threshold, and, guiding her weeping down, have bound her, once more, all shuddering and unwilling, to that poor frame, cold and wasted, of whose companionship she was grown more than weary.

—Lucy Snowe

Where to begin. Corny as it may seem, at one point while reading, to describe how I felt, forgive me but I came up with the words, “I have died and my soul has seen literary heaven.” This was somewhere in the beginning of Volume II, where the novel really took off in terms of Brontë’s writing and, from that point on, it never came back down from the clouds.

I would describe Brontë’s writing in this novel as passionate, as if every thought was first felt before it was written. Brontë holds none of her writing talents back, as if she was saying, “Reader, you shall feel the full force of my genius, and I will not apologize for it. Brace yourself.” And the patient reader who is able to survive the brunt of this relentless force is amply rewarded. I also found myself blown away by Brontë’s profound observations and knowledge of human nature, which were all exquisitely expressed and written.

Lucy Snowe is Brontë’s unlikely protagonist who doubles as our unreliable narrator. Lucy has neither beauty nor fortune, is lonely and prone to depression. She was once content to be shrinking, to be forgotten by the world, diffident and cowardly, until circumstances force her out of her comfort zone and to take steps necessary for survival, and then for the sake of budding aspiration and independence. For almost the entire novel, I was in heartfelt anguish reading about Lucy’s aloneness, but it was inspiring to watch her summon the courage to move forward on her own—I appreciated the novel most for these two themes. Yes, Lucy has a few friends, but friends, even good ones, just don’t cut it sometimes.

…peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.


The story is set in Villette, capital of the fictional kingdom of Labassecour, where Lucy eventually finds herself as a teacher in a Pensionnat de Demoiselles, which might as well be a prison castle in a gothic novel (and the novel does feel very gothicy). But don’t be misled by what I’ve written so far into thinking that Villette is a somber tome in every way. The chapters, rather, take the reader on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, lightheartedness and seriousness, hopefulness and hopelessness. My favorite chapter, Monsieur’s Fête, is in fact quite a funny one. Monsieur in this case is M. Paul Emanuel, Lucy Snowe’s eccentric colleague. Reading this chapter was like watching a romantic comedy film, only better. It was really funny, as well as touching, and it showed that Brontë had a wicked sense of humor. Why, the plot even satirically includes the ghost of a dead Nun.

The novel has very strong anti-Roman Catholic sentiments (another gothic element?), almost like a propaganda. At first, I was surprised about this. But then, I vaguely recalled my history lessons, and then I wasn’t as surprised. But then again, I’m still a little puzzled, and my question remains whether the strong sentiments could have been left out without doing harm to the novel.

I do have a few minor irritations:

  1. The ending. The notes at the back of my Penguin edition says that Charlotte had originally meant this novel’s ending to be written in another manner, but that her father asked her to change it. Well, Mr. Patrick Brontë, your daughter was doing very well, thank you, and you should not have intervened. I happen to think that the ending would have been much better if Charlotte had written it the way she originally intended!
  2. What on earth did Lucy Snowe tell Père Silas in the confessional? I suspect that Ms. Snowe told the priest more than she told her reader, and it is typical for Ms. Snowe, unreliable narrator that she is, to leave out this rather important detail! Arrrrgh!
  3. I briefly cringed at one particular point in the novel, when Lucy Snowe was offering “homage” to one who had been generous to her. I thought it was a bit much.

Do you read French well? This novel has a lot of dialogue in French, so if you don’t read French well, make sure to get a copy which has full translations at the back or you will miss out on a lot of lively conversation. My Penguin edition, for example, includes full translations along with copious notes.

And finally, one more reason why I think Villette was worth reading—Brontë’s extensive vocabulary. If I did not know the existence of half of the big words in the English language before, I do now. Forsooth! What was equally impressive was that the big words fit right in.


Peace, be still! Oh! a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered—not uttered till, when the hush came, some could not feel it: till, when the sun returned, his light was night to some!

—Charlotte Brontë, in Villette


The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Posted in Books, Fiction, Literature, Patricia Highsmith, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on June 14, 2008

It reminded her of conversations at tables, on sofas, with people whose words seemed to hover over dead, unstirrable things, who never touched a string that played. And when one tried to touch a live string, looked at one with faces as masked as ever, making a remark so perfect in its banality that one could not even believe it might be subterfuge.

—The Price of Salt

The Price of SaltPatricia Highsmith was the author of well-known suspense novels like Strangers on a Train (1950), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)—both of which have been adapted to film—and others of the “Ripliad” series.

The Price of Salt was first published in 1952, and its setting is contemporaneous. But far from falling into Highsmith’s trademark thriller category, this one is a love story—between two women. I imagine that, in those days, writing a novel like this was a bold thing for a serious, up-and-coming author to do.

Therese Belivet is nineteen, a struggling stage-designer in Manhattan, who has an unambitious boyfriend whom she is not in love with but who clings to her with tenacity. Carol Aird is an elegant and beautiful woman in her early thirties, financially well-off, and is in the middle of a divorce from her husband, Harge. At stake is their daughter, Rindy. Perfect strangers in the beginning, Therese and Carol lock eyes from across a room crowded with holiday shoppers and, at least for one of them, it was obsession at first sight. Some quick plot turns later, they become unlikely friends.

Meanwhile, Harge has won temporary custody of Rindy. To take some time away from the stress of the divorce and the battle for Rindy, Carol decides to take a road trip out West and asks Therese to come with her. Thus, the unlikely pair sets out on the road: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Chicago, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Salt Lake City, Denver, Colorado Springs… Along the way, they finally confirm their suspicion of love for each other, and fall deeper in love with each passing mile. But well into their trip, they discover that Harge has hired a detective who has been spying on them and following them on the road, in an attempt to collect evidence against Carol for the divorce case. With this discovery, Carol realizes that she must immediately return East to confront Harge and fight for Rindy. She leaves Therese behind in the middle of the country and, while apart, each gets a chance to think about the price to be paid in pursuing their relationship further.

Mercifully, and with respect for her readers’ intelligence, Highsmith includes a break-up letter which is thoughtful rather than sappy. In one part of the letter, Carol explains to Therese:

It was said or at least implied yesterday that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing—that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition.

Even in this love story—and that is what it is at its core—Highsmith displays her talent for suspense. With only a few pages left on the right side of my open book, I was still wondering how Highsmith would resolve the plot.

I thought, with a bit of a surprise, that the novel was quite well written, the story well told and unhurried. Highsmith wrote eloquently and simply, without making the words groan for seeming to try too hard. Notwithstanding the plot, there was a general lack of hostility in the tone, and the presence of possibilities. While a comparison would not be fair, the novel did remind me of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (which has a BBC adaptation of the same title).

And, no, there is no explicit description of sex between the two women. But Highsmith was able to convey the depth of the emotional and physical intimacy between her two protagonists better than if there had been that explicitness. Imagine that.

‘What do they say makes a play a classic, Therese?’

‘A classic—‘ Her voice sounded tight and stifled. ‘A classic is something with a basic human situation.’

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted in Books, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on June 8, 2008

‘We have dreaded men too much, and God too little, in the course we have taken.’

—Thurstan Benson

RuthI started writing this post immediately after I finished reading the book, and the tears have yet to dry from my eyes. It was a very strange, and seemingly unnatural, experience for me, for I was crying—at some parts uncontrollably—as I was reading the last few chapters of this book. I did not think that fiction could have this much of an effect on me. But by the last few chapters, it all seemed very real, and my emotions were deeply felt and real, and difficult to explain to myself. This was, indeed, strange and new to me. I am tempted to leave this post at that, but I thought that I should say more about the novel, in return for what it has given me.

This is the story of Ruth Hilton. Ruth had the advantage of being raised by good, loving, and simple country parents, but by the time she is sixteen years old, her parents have died, and she is alone in the world, has no one she can turn to for companionship and the continuing guidance and education that she yet needed. Into this emotional vacuum enters Henry Bellingham, a licentious heir to a fortune who is bewitched by Ruth’s loveliness and grace, combined with the ‘naivete, simplicity, and innocence of an intelligent child.’ Bellingham schemes to seduce the very young and very innocent Ruth, is successful in making Ruth fall deeply in love with him, and then abandons her. Ruth consequently wears the stigma of a sinful relationship and, to make matters worse, is pregnant with an illegitimate child. In the eyes of men, she and her yet-to-be-born child are doomed to a wretched life. But fate throws Thurstan and Faith Benson in Ruth’s path. They are brother and sister, both God-fearing and compassionate, Dissenters from the Church of England, he a beloved minister in the town of Eccleston. They welcome Ruth into their home as their own, and in this humble but loving home Leonard is born. At about seventeen years of age, Ruth is a mother.

Most of the novel is devoted to exploring the means to Ruth’s redemption, and the struggles and sacrifices that Ruth goes through to procure it. It is heavy on religion and biblical allusions, and even prayerful pleas to God. And throughout, Gaskell challenges her readers with questions. What is required, or, what matters—redemption in the eyes of men, or in the eyes of God? Is evil to be done that good may come? Should an innocent child be made to suffer for his mother’s sin, or can this child be an instrument for his mother’s atonement and purification? How is it that, at least in this case, men will not be as tender a judge as Christ (‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’)?

It is interesting that Gaskell’s Thurstan Benson, the most morally upright character in the novel, is physically deformed—a hunchback. Perhaps it is but part of the novel’s recurring theme: That it is not the external, physical manifestation of being that matters most, but the internal, spiritual one. In giving counsel to Ruth on how to help Leonard cope with the harsh treatment that will come his way for being an illegitimate child, Benson says:

‘The world is not everything, Ruth; nor is the want of men’s good opinion and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach Leonard this. You would not wish his life to be one summer’s day.’

This novel recalled from my more self-examining past, precepts learned long ago which today seem like ghosts to me, and I am grateful for the reminder. Admittedly, this was not an easy post to write, and is incomplete, because of the depth of the themes that Gaskell bravely chose. Themes of repentance, quiet suffering, sacrifice, faith, unselfish love, forgiveness, redemption. That is a lot for one novel, and I thought that Gaskell’s Ruth was a powerful one.

And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.

For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

—Revelations 7:14-17

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted in Books, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on May 17, 2008

‘Oh, Helstone! I shall never love any place like you.’

North and SouthSo exclaims Margaret Hale in a fit of passion after a long day spent in the country hamlet of Helstone in recollection of days past. North and South is a novel where the places are as much the central characters as the protagonists themselves. One cannot separate the people from the places. The Hales are from Helstone, the Thorntons and Higginses are from Milton, the Shaws are from London.

Margaret describes Helstone as “like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems,” where cottages had “roses growing all over them.” The manufacturing town of Milton-Northern cannot be more different: It had a “lead-coloured cloud” hanging over it, and its air “had a faint taste and smell of smoke.” And, of course, the ways of their respective inhabitants will be different in proportion.

This novel, first published in book form in 1855, tells a tender and touching story. It tells the story of Margaret Hale as she struggles through personal trials and changes of circumstances during the three-year period covered in the novel. Margaret Hale was born and raised at Helstone parsonage, where her father has a small living. But she spends the latter part of her childhood, up to her early womanhood, in London with her aunt Shaw and cousin Edith, and so she is used to the ways and accoutrements of fashionable society. You might guess as to the combined effect of these influences on the person that is Margaret Hale.

Pitted against Miss Hale is John Thornton, a talented, self-made, and powerful manufacturer in the town of Milton-Northern. She is from the idyllic south, he from the industrial north. She is genteel and well-read, he lacks refinement and a formal education. Superficially, they are as different as the places where they have known comfort. The novel gives Gaskell a platform for giving commentary on social issues relating to the manufacturing trade and industrialization, but she does so with a light hand, painting the issues on a personal scale rather than on a sweeping vista. Here and there in the novel, Miss Hale and Mr. Thornton clash in their discussions of the differences between North and South, and the social issues in Milton, among which is the extent of the social and moral responsibilities of the masters over their workers.

By all accounts, Margaret Hale is a stunning beauty, described by Gaskell as tall, stately, queenly, and eighteen years of age at the start of the story. Here is how Gaskell describes Miss Hale during her first meeting with Mr. Thornton:

She had taken off her shawl, and hung it over the back of her chair. She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom.

But to turn a good story, one does not rely on external appearances. Beyond her haughty looks and queenly, feminine graces, Miss Hale is a woman of deep and abiding faith, innate courage, with a kind and compassionate heart, and an overbearing conscience. Oh, and she’s smart and sensible, too. In short, she is a person who probably exists only in fiction, or in an earlier century. It is a wonder that Gaskell made the character believable. In one of her moments of self-examination for a sin committed, Margaret finds encouragement even for herself:

‘The way of humility. Ah,’ thought Margaret, ‘that is what I have missed! But courage, little heart. We will turn back, and by God’s help we may find the lost path.’

Gaskell does not shy away from making religion an integral part of the plot. The novel is replete with religious and biblical references. Indeed, faith and morality are core ingredients for the existence of the central characters that are Margaret Hale and her father, Richard Hale.

Neither does Gaskell shy away from the topic of death. There are no fewer than six deaths in this novel, with a scare of a seventh. At least two of the deaths caught me by surprise, the kind of surprise which makes me rouse from my pillow and yell, “No!” But Gaskell is not only adept at sneakily killing off her characters, but equally so at empathizing with her survivors: Gaskell knows how it is to grieve.

and when they came up, Margaret was standing, trying to steady her dizzy self; and when she saw her aunt, she went forward to the arms open to receive her, and first found the passionate relief of tears on her aunt’s shoulder. All thoughts of quiet habitual love, of tenderness for years, of relationship to the dead,—all that inexplicable likeness in look, tone, and gesture, that seem to belong to one family, and which reminded Margaret so forcibly at this moment of her mother,—came in to melt and soften her numbed heart into the overflow of warm tears.

With all these deaths, one would think that the novel has a gloomy and hopeless tone. But this is not so. The tone is on an even keel, even as the plot sails into rough waters. The characters find ways to move on, as real people move on, if not hope. In the end, after all her painful ordeals, but with much of her life before her, the heroine takes control:

But she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.

Indeed, there are parts of the novel which I thought were sweetly funny, as in the exchanges of light banter between Margaret and her sixty-year-old, gouty godfather, Mr. Bell:

‘But—Mr. Bell—have you come from Oxford or from Milton?’

‘From Milton. Don’t you see I’m smoke-dried?’

‘Certainly. But I thought that might be the effect of the antiquities of Oxford.’

Gaskell is known for writing “in the dialect,” that is, writing the way characters of a certain background speak. She does so in this novel in the case of Bessy and Nicholas Higgins, who are daughter and father, poor Milton laborers who are befriended by Miss Hale, and who play central roles in rousing her interest in the plight of the Milton workers.

And what of Mr. Thornton? He is a proud, intense, purposeful, morally upright fellow, who strives to crush any sign of weakness in his character. He strives to be “John Thornton in whatever circumstances; endeavouring to do right, and making great blunders; and then trying to be brave in setting to afresh.” Maybe he and Miss Hale are not so different after all. And, for most of the novel, the poor guy is also sorely in love with Margaret and goes about his existence with wounded pride. To him, Mr. Bell says:

‘I did hope you had had nobleness enough in you to make you pay her the homage of the heart. Though I believe—in fact I know, she would have rejected you, still to have loved her without return would have lifted you higher than all those, be they who they may, that have never known her to love.’

By the end, Margaret’s influence on his way of doing business is also evident:

and it had taken him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he might be now, to-day, here in his own town, his own factory, among his own people. He and they had led parallel lives—very close, but never touching—till the accident (or so it seemed) of his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance, they had each begun to recognise that ‘we have all of us one human heart.’

Gaskell writes beautifully, and this is a beautiful novel. She particularly excels in transcribing emotions and thoughts into outward, physical manifestations. As far as physical lust can be described in a work of popular fiction at that time, Gaskell did it in this novel, ever so delicately and ever so subtly. So delicately and so subtly that one hardly noticed it.

The ending was masterfully written, and this is a terrific read.

BBC has a TV production of this novel. I heard it’s good (and that’s probably an understatement). After having read the book, I’ll definitely be trying to get my hands on the DVD.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Posted in Books, Fiction, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on February 17, 2008

Well, there’s a perfect example of how life gets in the way of reading books (and reading my favorite blogs, for that matter). I started this book a few weeks ago, but had to put it aside to take care of some annoying curveballs. It’s an easy book, but I only got around to finishing it recently. I wish I were capable of reading during lunch breaks, but I find that those times are rather too short and distracting to get me into a reading groove.

People of the BookI picked up this book because of the hype. I think it’s been on many bestseller lists for a while now. I also heard it being featured, and Brooks being interviewed, on public radio. I usually don’t pick up a book just because it’s on a bestseller list–I actually try to avoid those books–but this one seemed and sounded interesting enough.

People of the Book is a fictional account of the origin and journey, through cities and centuries, of the brilliantly illuminated Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. According to Wiki:

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from Creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million.

Sarajevo HaggadahTo me, the Sarajevo Haggadah sounds like a fascinating historical and religious object. It is apparently a small but very striking book. In the Afterword of her book, Brooks says that scholars know little about this magnificent book’s creation and history. It is known, however, that this Jewish book was saved from destruction at least twice–during World War II and during the Bosnian war of the 1990s–by Muslim librarians, Dervis Korkut and Enver Imamovic, who risked their lives by doing so. Inspirational stories during these times, indeed, and therein lies the perfect opening for a promising novel. Brooks, who was formerly a war correspondent, also says in the Afterword that, “The librarians of Sarajevo are a very special breed. At least one of them, Aida Buturovic, gave her life as she saved books from Sarajevo’s burning library…” In her dedication, Brooks says that her book is “For the librarians.” And, appropriately, this is a story about the people of the book–as they represent the countless caretakers who, through the centuries, have ensured the survival of the wealth of the world’s knowledge and traditions that are preserved in books and manuscripts–more than the book itself. The novel’s heroine, Hanna, while trying to write an essay about the Sarajevo Haggadah which was about to be put on public display, thought:

I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.


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