Archive | May, 2011

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

23 May

I know I’m reviewing Charlotte’s books out of order here but this was a conscious choice. The Professor, while published last, was written first. Jane Eyre was first, and then this one, Shirley. But since Jane Eyre is the only one that has adaptations available, I’m saving that one for last. There was a silent version of this one done in 1922, but it’s not available.

Shirley, Charlotte Bronte’s second novel, was published in 1849. Charlotte apparently thought it would be wildly successful like Jane Eyre, but alas, it wasn’t that big of a hit. I feel bad for her because Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died while she was writing it. But…I’m not a huge fan of the book either.

The novel is quite different from all of her others- it’s told by an omniscient, 3rd person narrator, it’s set during the Napoleonic Wars, it follows two heroines, and it’s part social commentary/part Romance. Well, Charlotte only set it in the past because she didn’t want to cause controversy by commenting on contemporary issues, and it doesn’t really “feel” like a Regency novel, so that part doesn’t quite count, but you get the point. The two heroines are Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl living with her uncle, and Shirley Keeldar, an independent, free-spirited young woman. The two become friends when Shirley moves to Caroline’s Yorkshire town. Caroline is in love with her half-cousin, half-Belgian, Robert Moore, the local mill owner. But Robert proposes to Shirley (for her money), who rejects him. Oh, and Robert’s brother was Shirley’s tutor, with whom she constantly bickers. Along with the love triangle is the trouble at the mill. Robert ignores his workers’ problems and they riot and try to kill him.

Shirley was hit and miss with me. I enjoyed the love story, but I thought the book needed better editing. There was a lot of superfluous information. For example, the first chapter goes into detail about the town’s three curates at dinner- including their personalities and eating habits. It was so hard for me to even get through this and continue the book! And guess what, these three curates are VERY MINOR characters who don’t serve much of a purpose in the story at all. I guess there was supposed to be symbolic meaning or something like that, but I guess I’m too stupid to figure it out. As it is, the book is over 600 pages, but I think a good third of that could have been cut out.

It also bothered me that once again, Charlotte had to show her prejudices of anything anti-English and Anglican- the French/Belgians are bad, the Catholics/Methodists are bad, etc. It’s really ridiculous. I know these prejudices were very common at the time but Charlotte really isn’t even subtle about showing it in her writing. It’s just tiresome to read about.

Okay, so ignoring all of the prejudices and the extra detail, we have just the love story to look at. Admittedly, I found it enjoyable to read about, even if it did follow the usual Victorian cliches, like illnesses and coincidences. But there was one major thing that bothered me. Shirley, throughout the book, can be seen as an empowering, feminist character. Her parents are dead and she is rich- she runs her own life. But after she falls in love, she and her betrothed agree that she will now leave ALL decisions to him. Shirley no longer wants to have that sort of power and they both think it will be better to let her husband control everything. I know this was written in the Victorian era, but really? I thought it was over the top, even for back then.

My Rating: 5/10

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The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

17 May

The Professor is probably Charlotte Bronte’s least known novel. It was actually the first she wrote, at the same time her sisters wrote Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights. However, unlike the other two, it was rejected by publishers and remained so even after her success with Jane Eyre. It wasn’t until after Charlotte’s death that her husband finally got the book published.

The Professor follows William Crimsworth, an orphan who has been provided with a top-notch education by his wealthy relatives. He rejects their plan for him to join the clergy and marry his rich cousin and instead goes to Belgium and becomes an English professor at a Catholic school for girls. And there’s some love stuff involved as well.

What do I think about this book? Frankly, I wouldn’t have published it either. If it weren’t Charlotte Bronte I wouldn’t even have bothered reading it. What’s interesting about it? Well, it’s Charlotte’s only book written from the male point of view! I’m not a fan of Shirley or Villette either, but at least those have SOME redeeming qualities. I really can’t find much nice to say about this book. For one, it’s boring. If a book doesn’t entertain me, I really can’t like it despite how “well-written” or “intelligent” it is or anything. There was really nothing special about The Professor to endear it to me in any way.

Second, it’s OFFENSIVE. I’m not religious and even I was upset by the portrayal of Catholics and Belgians in this book. Charlotte seems to hate anyone who isn’t English and Anglican. It’s ridiculous because it’s not even subtle- she beats you over the head with it. The Catholic characters in this book are selfish, greedy, and deceitful. When William fell in love with a girl, I thought maybe Charlotte was going to have him have a change of heart and realize that not all Catholics or un-English people are bad. But no! It turns out the girl is kind and good because she was raised and educated by her Anglican grandmother. I can only roll my eyes.

I couldn’t bring myself to totally re-read this book for my Bronte reviews. I only skimmed through some parts for clarification on things I didn’t remember- it’s been nearly five years since I read it. Really, I don’t hate the book because it offended me. I could have tolerated all the blatant prejudices if the book had been interesting. But, it wasn’t. I can only recommend it to die-hard, curious Bronte fans to complete a collection. Oh and unless you understand French, make sure you have a version that translates the large amounts of French dialogue too.

My Rating: 2/10

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Miniseries

11 May

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has actually been adapted for the BBC twice, but the 1968 version is not available. Heck, even this version, from 1996, was not available in the US until 2008. I bought it last year but before that I had a version from the Netherlands- English with Dutch subtitles. Apparently it wasn’t even on DVD in the UK yet! This version is a three part miniseries which has some pretty famous actors in it- just pictured are Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Huntingdon, and Rupert Graves as Arthur Huntingdon. Many of the supporting cast are also big names or at least well-known in period dramas- Pam Ferris as Mrs. Markham, Paloma Baeza (Hetta Carbury from The Way We Live Now) as Rose Markham, James Purefoy as Frederick Lawrence, and Dominic Rowan (Mr. Elton from Beckinsale Emma) as Lord Lowborough, for example.

Despite the cast, this adaptation doesn’t seem to be that well-known. At least, it’s not up there with any of Jane Austen, Dickens, or other Bronte adaptations. Part of this may be because it was so hard to get until recently but I think it’s mostly because Anne Bronte and the book itself aren’t that popular in comparison with the other classic authors I listed. It’s a real shame, because the book is so brilliant and this version is also really good.

Helen and little Arthur Escape

The series changes the structure of the novel somewhat. We begin with Helen as she flees with her son in the early morning to Wildfell Hall-so we know right away that she is not what she seems. There are also  flashbacks throughout that can be kind of confusing. Then, the end timeline is fudged with a bit. Gilbert has not yet finished reading the diary when he finds out that Helen has gone back to her husband. I was so confused- I thought they just cut the rest out! But then Gilbert finishes reading it and it made sense. Still, I wasn’t a fan of the change!

Helen keeping Gilbert away

I have to say I wasn’t that fond of Tara Fitzgerald as Helen. I do think she’s a fine actress, but she’s not how I pictured Helen. For one, she sounds like she smokes a pack a day. This was especially jarring in the flashback diary scenes to when Helen was young and naive. Way out of place! And in the later scenes, she is a bit too cold. Helen in the book was afraid to let people get too close to her because of her bad experience and fear of being found out. But Tara Fitzgerald just takes it too far. It’s kind of hard to see why Gilbert falls for her. Also, this is shallow, but she had a really unflattering hairstyle for most of the series.

Growing Closer

I simply do not have enough good things to say about Toby Stephens as Gilbert, though! First of all, his ruggedly handsome look was beyond sexy, which was a definite plus! Secondly, they played down his less appealing character traits. They’re still there, just toned down. You can definitely see how Helen fell for him, at least!

Gossiping Villagers

All of Gilbert and Helen’s neighbors were really good. I only wish we got to see more of them! I loved Pam Ferris as Gilbert’s doting mother. I wasn’t very fond of Paloma Baeza as Hetta Carbury but that was more due to Andrew Davies’ terrible script than her acting. She was so cute in this as Gilbert’s sister, Rose. She recognized and commented on the inequality of the sexes in her household. But they weren’t the malicious gossip-spreaders. Pictured are the three major culprits, Eliza Millward, Jane Wilson, and Reverand Millward. The latter two were especially cruel in the book and I was disappointed we didn’t get to see them punished in this.

Fight!

Like in the book, Gilbert ignores all the gossip that Helen is her landlord, Mr. Lawrence’s mistress. That is, until he sees the two of them talking at night and of course, misunderstands. He comes upon Lawrence and beats the crap out of him until Helen tells him the truth. I really liked James Purefoy as Mr. Lawrence, but unfortunately his part wasn’t big enough. Like the other side characters, Mr. Lawrence’s subplot and happy ending was cut for time. One thing that really bothered me too was everyone gossiping that Lawrence and Helen’s son, Arthur, resembled each other….They looked nothing alike!

Arthur Huntingdon

Rupert Graves played the part of Arthur Huntingdon perfectly. His boyish good looks added to his charm. The guy was clearly a scoundrel even before Helen married him, but he kept charming her back to his side. Helen’s aunt tried to steer her towards a safer man, Mr. Boarham, but his name says enough about him. Graves did a good job with Huntingdon’s mood swings- one minute loving and kind, the next cruel and unfeeling. I have one big complaint about him though- his kissing. It was disgusting- loud, smacking, slurping noises for every little peck. Gross! I don’t know if he really kisses like that or it was intentional to add to the character’s depravity or whatever, but it was NOT appealing in any way!

Sexed Up!

Now we come to my main complaint about this adaptation- it’s sexed up. Really, really sexed up. You thought Andrew Davies was bad? Wait until you’ve seen this. It takes all the scenes that are in the background or hinted at in the book and brings them to the foreground. Did we need to see Helen and Arthur in bed after their wedding? Or any other times? Did we need to physically see him having an affair with Lady Lowborough? No, we did not!! The reader knows these things are going on without it being shoved in their faces, so why did they need to do that for the TV version? Especially given Rupert Graves’ gross kissing in this, it was really unnecessary! The sexiest thing by far in this version was Gilbert and he didn’t actually have any sex scenes!

Sexy Gilbert!

While I could definitely do without all the sexed up scenes, this version isn’t afraid to be gritty in other ways, which I did appreciate to an extent. I liked the dark look with all natural lighting. I liked seeing Arthur wasting away from his alcoholism. I’ve even come to accept the birth of little Arthur, which I thought was gross at first. You don’t actually see anything but the blood after the fact. Where I draw the line, though, is the sheep giving birth. This time, you DO actually see EVERYTHING. And it’s disgusting. I guess they meant to show how Gilbert was good with animals and crap, but no, I hate that scene!

So all in all, I would recommend this version but with some reserve. It’s really only intended for slightly more mature viewers. There’s no naughty bits actually scene on screen but I wouldn’t let anyone under 13 watch it, all the same. Still, it’s mostly a well-done adaptation with good acting. It’s also the only available adaptation of Anne Bronte, so there’s really nothing else to compare it to! It actually is pretty faithful to the novel for the most part. One thing that is cut is a lot of the outcomes for the side characters. In the end, we really only find out what happens to the three main people. And…two others in a funny role reversal of the book’s ending. I understand that things have to be cut for time and maybe it would have been too cheesy to conveniently tie up everyone’s loose ends. Still, I would have liked to see what happened to the Lowboroughs, Hattersleys, Hargraves, Millwards, Wilsons, the other Markhams, and Mr. Lawrence. Wow, after seeing all the names like that, maybe it would have been overkill after all!

My Rating: 8/10

Latest Georgette Heyer- The Toll Gate, Friday’s Child, A Civil Contract

7 May

The latest Georgette Heyer books I’ve read have thankfully all been good!

The Toll Gate- This one follows retired Captain John “Jack” Staple as he leaves a boring family party and stumbles upon a mystery- a boy running a toll gate by himself because his father is missing. He can’t leave things as they are and decides to stay and man the gate. He falls in love with Nell Stornaway, granddaughter of the impoverished local squire- whose family is involved in the mystery. I loved this one! It’s one of Heyer’s few Regency romance/mystery combinations and they’ve all been winners for me. I loved Jack and Nell, along with the side characters. My rating: 10/10



Friday’s Child-
Anthony Verelst, Viscount Sheringham (“Sherry”) is annoyed that he will not have control of his inheritance until he turns 25, unless he gets married. He says he will marry the next girl he sees, who happens to be his childhood friend, Hero (“Kitten”). Hero is actually in love with Sherry but he doesn’t know this and the two get married. Wacky hijinks ensue. After The Convenient Marriage and April Lady, my expectations for this were VERY low. But I actually highly enjoyed it! The couple were both young and immature with this one, and so I found their issues and misunderstandings more believable. I adored Sherry and Hero as well as the side characters. It had both lighthearted, funny moments, as well as touching scenes. My Rating- 9/10

A Civil Contract- Another marriage of convenience! This is the last one, as far as I know. Adam, Viscount Lynton, marries Jenny Chawleigh, daughter of a very wealthy but vulgar merchant. He is unable to marry his love, Julia, and would have had to sell his beloved estate, Fontley. Adam doesn’t remember meeting Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, who is actually in love with him. This story actually takes us through a year of their marriage. It’s much more serious in tone and I actually found it a bit depressing. Adam is a nice guy and is always a gentleman to his wife, even though he finds her unattractive and does not love her. It does have a happy ending, like all  Heyer novels but it made me feel down at times.                     My rating: 8/10

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Book Review

5 May

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte’s second and final novel, is the more well-known of the two, but still not as popular as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. That shouldn’t surprise you, given what I said in my Agnes Grey review.

Wildfell Hall is told in three parts- the first part is a letter from the hero, Gilbert Markham, to his brother-in-law, many years after the events of the story have taken place. Gilbert is a yeoman farmer in a small village who falls in love with the new, titular tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The supposedly widowed Helen lives alone with her small son, Arthur, and only one servant. She works as a painter to support them and is a bit on the reclusive side. Many of the villagers begin to spread gossip about her really being the mistress of her landlord, Mr. Lawrence. Gilbert attacks Mr. Lawrence in a fit of rage and so Helen gives him her diary so he can find out the truth.

The second third of the novel is said diary, beginning six years earlier when Helen was just 18. In it Gilbert learns of her infatuation with a handsome rake, Arthur Huntingdon. Against her aunt’s advice, and ignoring all the warning signs, Helen marries Huntington. He is soon revealed to be cruel and emotionally abusive, quickly going back to his libertine ways. For years the deeply religious Helen struggles to put up with his treatment but once he brings his mistress into the house under the guise of their son’s governess, Helen can take no more and escapes to Wildfell Hall.

The last third continues Gilbert’s letter and tells what happens afterwards. I won’t spoil it but you can probably guess how it will end.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, while it has largely positive reviews from what I’ve read, does have its criticisms as well. I’d like to get into those. Many complain that the characters of Helen and Gilbert are unlikable- Helen is too pious and “sanctimonious” and Gilbert is a spoiled brat who is little better than Arthur Huntingdon. I disagree. Helen, like Anne Bronte, is a devoted Christian but I did not find her sanctimonious. I admired her strength and ability to keep her faith while in such a destructive marriage. I do not feel that she was boring in any way- she had a sense of humor which was clear through her diary, more so in the beginning before she is worn down by Huntingdon. I also feel that while Gilbert is flawed, he does not even come close to approaching the cruelty and debauchery of Arthur Huntingdon! Gilbert is a mama’s boy but he grows through his friendship with Helen, and he did what Huntingdon and the other “bad” man in the story never did- he left Helen alone when she asked him to! If Gilbert had been perfect I feel it would have just cheapened the story and made it too fairy-tale like.

Wildfell Hall  is my favorite Bronte book. It’s largely regarded as the first feminist novel and I have to agree. It’s definitely feminist and I’m too ignorant to know if there was anything before it! It received harsh reviews of “coarseness” at the time of its publication due to its realistic portrayals of vice among the upper-class. Charlotte even disparaged her  subject choice and suppressed its republication after Anne’s death (the first publication quickly sold out).  During the Victorian era, a wife was considered her husband’s property, so Helen’s behavior would have been considered scandalous- locking her door against her husband (!) and running away. Like Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte drew from real life experiences to depict her characters (Arthur Huntingdon is likely based at least in part on her brother Branwell) and she pulls no punches. Both men and women in this book lead sinful lives, in turn both men and women are victims of some sort.

I would recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to anyone- you don’t have to be feminist and you don’t have to like the Brontes. I think it could appeal to fans of both. It’s just a really good, powerful book.

My Rating: 10/10

The Naming by Alison Croggon

2 May

I’m taking a short break from my Bronte reviews for something different. I’m a big fan of fantasy and strong female characters. I also read a lot of young adult literature. The Naming, by Alison Croggon, combines all of these things. It’s about a slave girl named Maerad who finds out she has special powers and goes on a journey to develop them. It’s the first of four in the Pellinor Series. It sounds like a winner, right?

Wrong. The Naming, to me, is a prime example of why you should not judge a book by its cover- or in this case, the spine. I was browsing the YA section at my local Borders and this series caught my eye. The spines have a really nice design on them that I thought would look pretty on my shelf. Before you start laughing at me for blindly buying a book for that reason, just wait. I actually did read the blurb on the back and went home and read several reviews before I purchased it. The large majority of the reviews on Goodreads are very positive and it did sound good from all the summaries! It’s supposed to be an “epic fantasy!”

Long story short, I was hugely disappointed. The storyline is very derivative, which is admittedly not necessarily a bad thing. There are no really original ideas anymore so everything depends on the execution- the author needs to put her own spin on things. Croggon did do this a little bit- her magical characters, or Bards, have powers based on language and music- that idea isn’t all that common as far as I know. Yet this book only ended up as a poor man’s Lord of the Rings for me. For one- it’s boring. While nearly 600 pages, it’s mind-numbingly slow-paced and nearly nothing happens! The majority of the book is just descriptions of the landscape and scenery on the journey Maerad and her mentor, Cadvan take. Croggon is apparently a poet and loves to describe all the forest and mountains and things in poetic detail. Although poetry’s not really my thing, I thought it was nice at first. But it ended up probably taking up 2/3 of the book! I didn’t need to read about every little thing the characters were eating.

Secondly, the characters are two-dimensional at best. At worst, less than one-dimensional. I knew  nothing more about Maerad’s personality at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, ditto Cadvan… and all of the other characters! I think the root of this problem was in the dialogue, or lack thereof. In between paragraphs of descriptions, the characters would have a couple lines of dialogue that usually sounded more like recited speeches than actual conversations. All the opportunities for character development were wasted.

I could go on and on about several more specific issues that bothered (or rather, bored) me, but this book isn’t really worth it. It was dull and cliched; the few action scenes were not enough to save the rest of the story. I’m still baffled as to how this series is apparently so popular! There is a minority of negative reviews similar to my own that I’ve read, but very few. I won’t be bothering with the rest of the series, no matter how pretty the set looks!

My rating: 4/10