On not finishing books and other bookish sins

In July, I took part in #Middlemarchalong, a readalong of George Eliot’s famous 1872 novel, Middlemarch, hosted by Claire Fenby. Claire organised things so well with a discord chat, and weekly videos to discuss various topics of the book. It was really nice to feel connected to other readers and feeling this sense of community. But (there’s always one) I didn’t really care about Middlemarch. I painfully dragged myself along for the first 300 pages, only to realise I had only read a third of the bloody book. I started skimming some pages but felt very tempted to do that up until the very last page, read the last line, close the book and shout at the top of my lungs, ‘I have finished Middlemarch’. It seemed to me quite silly so instead, I just put the book back on my bookshelf.

I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t care for it. There are so many things that I do every day that leave me indifferent but that I must do, so I don’t want my reading for pleasure becoming the same sort of drudgery I take no pleasure in. So I simply did not finish the book. I know that a lot of people would never think of doing that because they need to feel closure and read till the end, or they feel a certain pressure to not give up on something. But when it comes to books I read for fun, I’m 100% a quitter. It doesn’t mean I’ll never go back to them, it’s just at the moment I started reading these books they were not what I needed.

Here’s a list of a few books I started but didn’t finish:

  • Dolly Alderton, Everything I Know About Love (2018)
  • Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015) – This one I know is to do with language skills, unfortunately!
  • Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
  • Tracy Chevalier (ed.), Reader, I Married Him (2016)

Some of those I will never go back to because they were a bad reading experience for me, but some others I know I will reach for again at one point. I think that it’s okay to DNF a book if you’re not having much fun reading at a certain point in time – it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book or you a bad reader.

That got me thinking, what about skim-reading? I don’t think a lot of people approve of that, either. But honestly, this is what got me through my master (although if I believed everyone else, they were reading the whole of the books and articles?). I think I got pretty good at this, but it definitely requires some practice. Once again, I think it’s okay and in some cases, a rather clever thing to do. I remember that one week I had to read Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop alongside two other novels (plus all the different academic books and articles). It did break my heart to skim it as I thought it was such a nice novel, but it certainly saved my brain! I do skim passages of books I read on my free time as well, sometimes. Because it gets a bit boring or I’m dying to know what happens next and skip the descriptions, etc. 

What I’m trying to say with this article is that everyone should be free to read the way they want to (and what they want!) – especially if it’s for fun, on your own time. Of course, if you work on a book this might not apply to you. Still, I used the example of my degree because we all did at uni and we still got great marks, I’m sure. There’s sometimes pressure to read certain things a certain way, and I’m here to say ‘No, thank you’! 

What about you, do you always try to finish a book you started or are you happy to put it aside if you’re not enjoying? What is something considered ‘sinful’ by some that you do with your books?

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)

I may have just finished my MA in Victorian Literature, but I’m quite unfamiliar with Charles Dickens’s novels. However I had read A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) before I started Great Expectations, so I knew I was in for a treat. I wouldn’t consider myself a Dickens enthusiast but I do believe he is one the greatest storytellers of all times. With Great Expectations, your attention is caught from the very start with the gripping scene of the young orphan Pip being threatened by a convict on the run. I find it tricky to summarise a Victorian novel like this one; they are filled with more or less relevant story lines and characters, and chances are we all have different opinions as to which are better or more important. Essentially, this is the story of Pip who is destined to be a blacksmith but, thanks to an anonymous benefactor (ah, generous Victorian benefactors, how I wish they still existed today!), goes to London to be educated and become a gentleman.

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My copy is from the Penguin English Library collection, with an afterword by George Bernard Shaw (2012) – it’s very pretty but has seen better days indeed

What makes this novel stands out from the rest is Miss Havisham. When Pip is a boy, she requests he comes to visit her and her adoptive daughter, Estella, every week to play. Miss Havisham is an old woman for whom time has stopped on her wedding day, when she received a letter from her fiancé putting an end to the union. She is still wearing her wedding dress and her moth-eaten veil, and in her house, clocks have stopped at the same time and the table is still ready for the wedding reception – including the rotten leftovers of the wedding cake. The scenes in which little Pip visits Miss Havisham are my favourites, by far. Dickens uses Gothic tropes such as ghostly apparitions, the old mansion that serves as a prison – Estella being trapped in this time capsule by her adoptive mother – and introduces quirky characters in scenes that do not make much sense to Pip or the reader. In a little house in the yard, there is a boy who asks Pip if he wants to have fight, Pip has to walk Miss Havisham in a wheel chair singing a blacksmith song, etc. It’s all so wonderfully strange, I loved the atmosphere and really took time to savour my reading of these passages.

One of my favourite things to find in Victorian novels is London, or rather, characters walking streets I walk too. This might be personal as I find that some people are quite indifferent to it when I share my joy of reading novels that take place ‘RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET! OH MY GOD, IT’S HERE, IT’S WHERE I LIVE! I’M LIKE A VICTORIAN, I KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT’. I should also add that I come from a place which is absolutely never mentioned in novels, or films, or TV, or anything for that matter. I guess that if you’re from London or its surroundings, it not very surprising for you to see familiar places in films or books. But in any case, Dickens describes London in such an atmospheric way and writes about places that you can still see today. For example, in Great Expectations, the lawyer, Jaggers, has his office in Little Britain (the part of the street along Postman’s Park probably looks very much like what Dickens had in mind) and when Pip walks around Smithfield, he mentions the strong smell coming from the meat and poultry market which can definitely still be smelt today (although the current building was built a few years after the novel was released so I am sure the smell was nauseating back then).

A picture of Little Britain I took about a year ago

All in all, Great Expectations is a wonderful novel to read as it is thoroughly entertaining. Despite its length, it’s also very accessible in its writing style and subject matter. After all, social mobility, money and heartbreak are still at the core of our concerns today.

Cover image is a still from David Lean’s adaptation of the novel (1946).

Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester as A Hero of Romance

Last June, I took part in the MA conference organised by Queen Mary University of London, where I did an MA in Victorian Literature. I presented a paper on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, more precisely on its hero, Edward Rochester. I argue that he is a hero of romance as he is a fantasy, a true creation and most importantly, a space for the author to develop a new form of masculinity.

Edmund H. Garrett 1897

At first, Edward Fairfax Rochester, hero of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), appears as a strange hero of romance: he is ugly and sometimes rude, but most importantly, he is a forty-year-old man who tries to trick an eighteen-year-old girl into a bigamous marriage.  Surprisingly nonetheless, this strange character has fascinated generations of heterosexual female readers. In a review from 1849, James Lorimer already recognised his irresistible appeal as he wrote: ‘We cannot blame [Jane] for ultimately falling in love with Rochester, for in doing so she did nothing more than every woman who has read the book has done since’.[1] There is no doubt that Rochester’s attractiveness has been reinforced over the years by numerous cinematographic portrayals: for instance, among others, by the hugely popular Orson Welles in 1944; by Timothy Dalton in 1983 – who also played James Bond; and by Toby Stephens in a rather more erotic BBC take on Jane Eyre in 2006; the latest being Michael Fassbender in 2011. The regular intervals at which Brontë’s novel is adapted tells us that Mr Rochester is still a popular hero. Critics all agree that he is a Byronic hero, meaning he resembles the characters developed by the poet Lord Byron. Patsy Stoneman gives a thorough definition of the type: ‘Byron’s heroes are not heroic because of any moral or social excellence. They may in fact be moral outcasts, yet have passed somehow ‘beyond good and evil’. They are passionate, unpredictable, mysterious, irresistible to women, yet strangely vulnerable’.[2] Charlotte Brontë was herself an avid reader of the poet and so she was familiar with Byron’s dark and intriguing heroes.

As it happens, the Byronic is also an important element of popular romance novels. In 1867 Margaret Oliphant had already noticed the change that Jane Eyre brought to the literary landscape, noting that

Now it is no knight of romance riding down the forest glades, ready for the defence and succour of all the oppressed, for whom the dreaming maiden waits. She waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through, (and a host of other physical attractions, which she indicated to the world with a charming frankness.)[3]

If we take the example of popular books like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, we can see how true that is. Sarah Wooton explains that those are ‘fantasy romances that reinscribe our fascination with a damaged and damaging anti-hero – a seductive outsider who is superior in suffering, sinfulness, subversions, and perversions – as encountered by an inexperienced, yet curious, young woman’.[4] Of course, this pattern recalls Jane Eyre as Mr Rochester is an experienced older man who has ‘travelled a great deal, and seen a great deal of the world’ whereas Jane is a young governess of eighteen ‘little acquainted with men’.[5]

Immediately after the release of the novel, critics were quick to notice the appeal of Jane Eyre on readers, and the interest female readers had for Rochester. A critic for The North American Review noted that:

The hero, Mr Rochester […] became a great favorite in the boarding schools and in the worshipful society of governesses. That portion of Young America known as ladies’ men began to swagger and swear in the presence of the gentler sex, and to allude darkly to events in their lives which excused impudence and profanity.[6]

In spite of the satirical tone of the critic, the influence of a hero like Rochester can be understood in terms other than a mere female fantasy. We can see here that he also exerts an influence on young male readers who try to act as he would in order to attract women. Thus, his masculinity becomes an example to follow in order to gain female attention. Although some male reviewers recognised that ‘there is truth in the abrupt, strange, clever Mr Rochester’, most critics were adamant that Rochester could not but be ‘the vision of a woman’s fancy’.[7]

Yet, it seems that a character like Rochester is worth considering when evaluating the striking changes to masculinity which occurred in the early nineteenth century. After the French revolution, and the rise of industrialism, there was a shift from the eighteenth-century dandy to the bourgeois ideal, yet ideal manhood remained an elusive concept. In 1831, Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that; Werterism, Byronism, even Brummelism, each has its day’.[8] So Jane Eyre can be read as a  woman’s attempt to redefine masculinity, clutching the ‘phantom’ of the Byronic and replanting him in the early Victorian period. Mr Rochester embodies the change that occurred in the ideals of manliness during the period; during his time in Paris, he behaves as an aristocratic libertine who duels his love rival yet by the end of the novel, he is a manly man who nonetheless experiences his masculinity from within. As John Tosh explains, throughout the period, there was a ‘gradual transition from masculinity as reputation [so, from outside] to masculinity as interiority’.[9]

Although, as Patsy Stoneman claims, Rochester is ‘the father of Mills and Boon romances’, he nonetheless remains anomalous in the landscape of romantic heroes.[10] Rochester is like the Roman god, Vulcan, ‘a real blacksmith, brown, broad-shouldered’.[11] When asked, Jane even bluntly tells her master she does not find him handsome. However, as he is not ‘a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman’ Jane feels at ease with him. Because she is not impressed by him at first, she can undertake the role of a heroine of romance as defined by Janice Radway in her study on women and romance; the hero is a challenge to the heroine who has to reform and soften him.

Rochester swears, he is ‘very changeful and abrupt’ because ‘he has painful thoughts, […], to harass him, and make his spirits unequal’.[12] As we have seen, these faults are to do with the Byronic dimension of his character and, at the end of the novel, that trait of character doesn’t really change as he is still rough. His ‘vigorous spirit’ is still the same when Jane finds him at Ferndean, but it is subjugated ‘to a corporeal infirmity’.[13] Indeed, after the fire of Thornfield during which Rochester tries to save his wife, he becomes blind and loses the use of one arm. Rochester’s reform is thus firstly physical. Rochester’s physical strength is highlighted in the text through his athletic figure, ‘his unusual breadth of chest’; he is a ‘practised […] horseman, a ‘beauté mâle’, according to his French mistress.[14] These traits make him more manly according to the standards of the time. When it came to define manliness, the emphasis was very much put on the physical power of men; as John Tosh explains:

[the idea is] accurately conveyed by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the “possession of manly vigour” before “those virtues characteristic of a man”. Manly vigour included energy, virility, strength – all the attributes which equipped a man to place his physical stamp on the world. Next came the moral qualities which enabled men to attain their physical potential – decisiveness, courage and endurance.[15]

Yet, although his physical power makes Rochester more manly and desirable, Charlotte Brontë knows it creates an imbalance in his relationship with Jane. His strength gives him an ascendency over Jane that she will never have, even if she is morally and spiritually superior. When she refuses to flee to Europe to be his mistress, he holds her and says, ‘A mere reed she feels in my hand! […] I could bend her with my finger and thumb’.[16] The maiming of Rochester has always puzzled readers, and has generated a lot of criticism. It can be read as a punishment, as a vengeance, as an image of Jane’s inner anger against him, or as her victory over her lover; as Charles Buckhart puts it, ‘The almost ferocious ethic of Jane, her sense of duty, her Christian self-respect, are entirely victorious – Rochester now talks about God a good deal. She has brought him firmly into line, morally as well as sexually’.[17] In any case, in maiming him this way, even if it makes Jane victorious, Brontë restores the balance between the lovers.

Through her hero’s ‘infirmity’, Charlotte Brontë manages to develop a new idea of masculinity that mainly lies on mental strength and equality with women. Rochester may be physically harmed, but he is still a man and his masculinity is still present; however, it is not a threat to Jane’s integrity anymore and instead enables them to live in harmony. In that, Rochester is a hero of romance as he remains an absolute fantasy, a hero who has some truth in him but he is an ideal. His role in Jane Eyre is to attract the heroine and offer her a challenge of reform and education, but he also serves as canvas for the author to show what a more desirable sort of masculinity could be like.

[1] James Lorimer, in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed Miriam Allott (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 114.

[2] Patsy Stoneman, ‘Rochester and Heathcliff as Romantic Heroes’, Brontë Studies, 36:1 (2011), 111-118 (p. 112).

[3] Margaret Oliphant, ‘Novels’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 102 (September 1867), 257-280 (p. 259).

[4] Wootton, Byronic Heroes, p. 2.

[5] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. By Stevie Davis (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 124, p. 305.

[6] The North American Review, 67 (October 1848), 354-369 (p. 356).

[7] Allott, Critical Heritage, p. 72, p. 89.

[8] Thomas Carlyle, “Characteristics”, The Edinburgh Review, 1831 <https://cruel.org/econthought/texts/carlyle/carlchar.html&gt; [Accessed 30 May 2019].

[9] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 72.

[10] Stoneman, Rochester and Heathcliff, p. 117.

[11] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 509.

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 149.

[13] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 506.

[14] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 155, p. 284, p. 169.

[15] Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 87.

[16] However, he realises that for all his strength, he cannot bend Jane’s spirits, ‘Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it […]’; Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 366.

[17] Charles Buckhart, Charlotte Brontë: A Psychosexual Study of her Novels (London: Gollancz, 1973), p. 75; quoted in Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Charlotte Brontë: Truculent Spirit (London: Vision Press, 1987), p. 162.

Villette, Charlotte Brontë, 1853

Largely based on what Charlotte Brontë lived during her time in Brussels, Villette recounts Lucy Snowe’s journey, from her godmother’s house in England to a boarding school for girls in the fictional kingdom of Labassecour (but Belgium, really). Lucy is a very secretive and passive girl of fourteen when we first meet her, and she’s staying with her godmother at Bretton. The latter has a son who goes to school so he’s not always at home, but even when he is, Lucy doesn’t have any particular link with him. One day, little Polly comes to stay at Bretton as well, her mother is gone and her father needs to go to the continent for business so he leaves his daughter with Mrs Bretton. The six-year-old Polly quickly becomes infatuated with Graham Bretton, who’s on holiday from school. Lucy mainly observes this funny little girl in her relationship with sixteen-year-old Graham, who merely amuses himself. When her dad comes to get her home, Polly is devastated to leave although thrilled to see her beloved father again. Shortly, Lucy too leaves Bretton and since she has no relatives whatsoever – apart from her godmother, of course – she has to work. She becomes a caretaker for a dying old lady, and when the latter dies, she finds herself without purpose. She decides to use her small amount of money to go abroad and hopefully, find new perspectives on the continent. Somehow, she manages to get hired by Madame Beck in her pensionnat for girls, in the town of Villette, where she becomes an English teacher. In Villette, she will meet M. Paul, a strange man who teaches literature, and people from her past.

Villette book cover

When you start reading Villette, it is very hard to see what is so appealing about it. Lucy Snowe is so passive and odd, you actually wonder why she’s the narrator and how this could become interesting. But then, you get caught up in her story and finish the book wondering what actually happened to you during your reading. I did not think the story of this novel was peculiarly gripping or rich, but when I first started to sum it up here, I realised that it was quite the opposite. There are so many things to say! So many things to be told!

However, I would like to focus especially on the strength of Villette and how incredibly powerful this book is.

‘Descending, I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. i saw and felt London at last: I got into the Strand; I went up Cornhill; I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. (chap. 6, p. 54)

First of all, it seems to me that the passion Charlotte Brontë put in her fourth novel is nowhere to be found in the rest of her works – even in Jane Eyre. And that’s something to say! Like Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe has to come to terms with the fact that she will probably never marry because she has no situation and no family.  Both women are incredibly strong in their research for a life of their own. However, in Villette, there is a more personal dimension that changes radically from Jane Eyre. I don’t know exactly to what extent this story is autobiographical but it is clear that some characters and events are real. Charlotte and her sister Emily spent several months at Pensionnat Heger, in Brussels to improve their skills as teachers, in 1842. A year later, Charlotte returned on her own and spent a year there. We don’t know for sure what happened in Belgium, but when she came back to England, Charlotte started to write love letters to her former professor, Constantin Heger. Her letters remained unanswered, and we can only but guess that this was a traumatic experience for Charlotte; a heartbreak that she struggled to part with since she first wrote The Professor in link to her experience in Belgium, and then Villette. We suppose that M. Paul is a depiction of Constantin Heger, and that Madame Beck is actually a representation of Mrs Heger. With this novel, Brontë manages to rewrite history and face her female rival to end up with the man she loves… or does she ? The ending of the novel is very blurry and open, the reader is free to choose the ending he/she pleases. Unfortunately, I am not of the optimistic kind but in any case, because this story resonates so much with the author’s life, there is a great strength added to it when you read the novel.

Moreover, there is a fantastic cast of characters which has a true richness to it – each different and embodying a myriad of aspects of society. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued in The Mad Woman in the Attic, the women of Villette are representations of all the dimensions that constitute Lucy’s inner-self. I quite argue with that reading, of course, but even if we consider these female characters on their own, they are absolutely convincing. Even a 21st-century reader can see similarities between the women in the book and some women in real life. It is the same for the male characters. Charlotte Brontë had a remarkable eye for her characters’ psyche, and Villette is no exception. However, what is really significant is how these characters behave with our narrator, and main character. Some barely speak to Lucy throughout the whole novel or are quite cold to her (although not distant, in the case of Mrs Bretton); some have negative comments and attitudes towards Lucy (I think of the very blunt description Ginevra makes of Lucy, ‘you have no relations; you can’t call yourself young at twenty-three; you have no attractive accomplishments – no beauty.’, chap.14, p.169). Only two characters stand out of the crowd for their relatively warm appreciation of Lucy: Polly and M. Paul. It is quite interesting to consider that, if we consider that Polly is nothing else than the externalisation of Lucy’s repressed need for love and Paul is what we could define as a ‘love-interest’ (although, their relationship is a bit more complex than a simple crush, or romantic interest). Talking about these characters and their relationships with Lucy Snowe leads me to the core of the novel, and its main source of power – Lucy’s inner-self.

Indeed, the restraint that she shows is incredibly strong, she refrains herself from living and becomes her own prisoner, in a sense. Only the reader knows her true self, and we can still doubt about this fact since she holds information back. At first, Lucy appears incredibly passive, she observes people and lives through their experiences. During her trip to Labassecour, she becomes a little more active but keeps her voyeuristic habits once at Madame Beck’s school – just like the latter, who is described always observing others. Lucy is secretive, and even her reader wonders whether he or she actually knows her. She never explains what happened to her family, and we cannot help but to feel that she is in the waiting, she does not know what for but her life has yet to start. This is a depiction of the plight of many Victorian women considered as ‘redundant’ because they could not marry, and being a wife and mother was the only purpose of woman’s life. This is illustrated in the following quote :

‘I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass – the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion: why not I with the rest?’ (chap. 4, p.38)

Lucy has thus no choice but to refrain from expressing herself and keep her true self for the evening, when she is free to wander in the garden of the school. Unlike Polly or Ginevra, Lucy cannot rely on the sweet love or admiration of a man to grow up. She has to manage and do that on her own, because as Ginevra says, she has nothing – not even beauty. However the repression of her needs will lead her to a terrible nervous breakdown, when she is absolutely alone in the world with no one to care about her. This passage is strikingly powerful because Lucy is at a complete loss and the reader can but feel her utter suffering. Her strength also comes from her will, but also from her acute knowledge of her situation. She is a young woman and if she might start dreaming at one point, she quickly realises that she is not made to be the heroine of a novel (in the traditional sense of the term, for a romantic story, especially), although she wishes she could be:

‘The love, born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing to do with it: I could not dare to meddle with it, but another love, venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy, consolidated by affection’s pure and durable alloy, submitted by intellect to intellect’s own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction, in this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.’ (chap.39, p.555)

Villette is not a happy love story, and there is a dark pessimism that cannot be found in Jane Eyre, or not to the same extent at least. It is, however a book that overpowered me and swept me off my feet. It is so very powerful in the strength of its feelings! I first started to read it  year ago, but was definitely not in the right place for that. I relate to Lucy, a lot, so I have to feel alright to read her story or I am the one having a mental breakdown. Also, I sometimes felt a bit insulted because Charlotte Brontë did not like Catholics, and French people. Here is a quote about the inhabitants of Villette, ‘The natives, you know, are intensely stupid and vulgar; but there are some nice English families.’ (chap.6, p.61)

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

The featured image is Richard Redgraves’s The Sempstress (1846). Although Lucy is not a seamstress, this painting is Lucy Snowe. The woman is wearing a pink dress, like the new dress Lucy wears to go to the opera with the Brettons. She seems to be a prisoner of the room, whilst people seem to be starting to live outside. Maybe this house in the background is La Terrasse? The way her face is lit is rather dramatic and reminds me of more religious paintings. She appears as a martyr, a representation of the many Victorian women who could not be themselves and did not really belong anywhere, because of the impossibility of them getting married.

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

Vanity Fair is a novel that has first been serialised in 1847 in Punch Magazine, before being published as a whole in 1848. It focuses on two women, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley who are as different as their names might suggest; Becky is a quick and witty woman, who has to fight to make her way into the world, whereas Amelia is a soft and passive girl, who comes from a middle-class family and has always had everything planned for her.

It is a very long book, indeed, but it is so immensely rich! I find myself absolutely unable to sum this story up so here is what I found on schmoop.com:

Vanity Fair is so broad and sprawling that trying to summarize its plot is almost impossible. Still, let’s give it a try. It’s the story of two young women whose lives take them in and out of every segment of English society, each of which can be mocked and displayed for laughs in turn. But what’s more important than plot is the style of the novel – its bitter and caustic humor. This genre of satire is called “picaresque” and it’s part of a pretty long tradition that goes all the way back to Don Quixote in the 16th century and weaves through the awesome Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century. The idea is to start with a character (a picaro) who is young or looking for a place to settle down, then to lead this character around all the types of people and situations that the author wants to ridicule. And this novel really does have something for everyone to laugh at: snobby merchants, greedy social climbers, illiterate aristocrats, nosy servants, evil nobles, macho soldiers, bossy women, bumbling men, British people, German people, Belgian people, and every other kind of group of humans that can be crammed in.

(There is also a summary chapter by chapter and very insightful comments and analysis on there )

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray 001

The story takes place during the Napoleonic war, so it is technically a historical novel – although it really is a satire. Having the action set several decades ago enables Thackeray to be very vivid and acidic in his criticism of society. No one is spared in this book, especially not men and that’s why I really wanted to talk a bit about this novel here – I found very interesting to study what power women manage to have in Vanity Fair.

Towards the beginning of the novel, the narrator states that:

‘And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.’

And that is what actually happens in the novel; two women, disguised as silly ‘beasts of the field’, have a hold on men.

Becky is the only woman in the novel who manages to escape the hold of men absolutely and that makes sense because she is very conscious of what she wants and what she needs to do to obtain it. Her father was a painter and her mother, a French dancer, she has thus been accustomed from a very young age to the customs of the world and knows that if she does not show herself merciless, she will never gain a comfortable situation. She knows very well the intricate system of society and that is what enables her to deceit people and tell them exactly what they want to hear. And the way she uses language is redoubtable. She does not speak like most women of the time were supposed to speak – you can just compare Amelia’s words to Becky’s and the difference is striking. Rebecca actually behaves like many ambitious women of the period who wanted to communicate efficiently and assert themselves. Such women had an outstanding understanding of how speech works and they managed to mix a very masculine tone into their feminine language.

You may say that she goes too far in her enterprise, however, it is still very easy to understand what pushes her to be so eager to climb the social ladder. She comes from a very poor background and she is well aware that there is no viable alternative available for her – she does not have a family, so she needs to find a husband. She eventually manages to marry a member of the upper class, Rawdon Crawley who may not have money but has a prestigious name. She can almost be compared to Napoleon, in that that she tries to conquer all spheres of society, almost succeeds but end up isolated from the world after her defeat.

‘The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?’

The other main character of Vanity Fair is Amelia. Contrary to Becky, she is not clear about her intentions and one can wonder whether she realises the extent of her influence on the men of her life. She is described very clearly as a parasite clinging to a tree (Dobbin, in this case), ‘Farewell, dear Amelia — Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!’. She makes men act according to her will because she manages to get to their emotions. Whilst Becky mainly plays with language, Amelia plays with her typical femininity – she is soft and fragile. It becomes obvious when Mr Osborne refuses his son to marry Amelia even though the two had been planned to marry from their childhood. At first, it does not really matter to George because he was getting somewhat bored of Amelia, but when his friend Dobbin tells him she is dying of unhappiness, he decides to marry her anyway – amongst other reasons as well, of course. Her behaviour is just as parasitic with Dobbin who remains with her at the end of novel, not so much by choice than by duty, because she just cannot be on her own. As a consequence, she is arguably even more dangerous than Becky because her ascendancy is much more insidious.

Of course, Amelia’s conduct agrees perfectly with her position of a woman in a traditional, patriarchal society. However, Becky’s is far more masculine, whilst some men have a very feminine attitude. George Osborne and Jos Sedley, in particular, practise coquetry as women traditionally do. For instance, Jos sports stylish outfits and is very self-conscious about always being very fashionable. He is obviously ridiculed by the narrator with his ‘several immense neckcloths that rose almost to his nose’ and he is later referred as ‘the head under the neckcloth’. His good friend George is also peculiarly vain as regards his physical appearance and he is guilty of loving his reflection in the mirror, a traditionally feminine attitude. Mirror-gazing was for women and aristocrats, at this time, and these two categories were expected to be decorative and without purpose. As a result, these two men find themselves in the position of a woman and that enables women as Becky to gain ascendancy over them. It is especially true when we take a closer look at George and Becky and how they interact together. They both are the most eager to climb the social ladder – George always yearns for male aristocrats to like him and accept him in their circles. Whilst Becky has to act in a more manly, in her speech for instance, George is quite effeminate in his consideration for his appearance and his interest in other powerful men. It is just as Sarah Rose Cole argues in this essay, ‘The penetrating social mastery of the female Napoleon finds its necessary inverse in the effeminate of George’s social ambition.’

‘Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?’

As you may have understood, I highly recommend reading Vanity Fair. It may be quite long but it is very interesting, but most importantly, it is absolutely hilarious! Honestly, this is one of the best novels I have ever read.


Further readings:

‘The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair’, Lisa Jadwin, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 32, No.4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1992). pp.663-687, Rice University

‘Serpent or Parasite?’, Jenni Calder, Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976)

‘The Aristocrat in the Mirror: Male Vanity and Bourgeois Desire in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair’, Sarah Rose Cole, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol.61, No.2 (September 2006), pp. 137-170, University of California Press

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

“A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times.”


Louis Trevelyan is young and wealthy English man who meets Emily Rowley during a visit to the Mandarin Islands. Emily is the eldest daughter of the governor of the island and quickly the pair falls in love, and Louis proposes to Emily. Louis and Emily, and her sister Nora goes to live together in London. It is a very happy household, quickly joined by a baby boy.

However, quite rapidly, the marriage of Louis and Emily starts to wither when an old friend of Emily’s father visits her. This old friend is Colonel Osborne and he has the reputation to maintain quite close relationships with married women, let’s say. Louis does not like to have his wife’s name associated with such a man and orders Emily not to see him anymore. She feels hurt by his mistrust and decides to disobey him because she feels like she has nothing to feel guilty about. This lack of obedience drives Louis so angry that he decides to have a separation. Emily and her sister, and the boy, have to go from a relative to another to live as they can – their parents being too far away to be able to do anything at all to help them.

Louis gradually loses his mind for he keeps thinking about his wife’s attitude and whether or not she did have an affair with Osborne. He ends up in Italy and is but the shadow of his former self. Emily joins him there in the hope of winning him back and restore him to health, also because he has brought their child with him. Somehow, Emily manages to convince Louis to come back to England with her to start afresh.

That is the main story of this novel, but being an almost 900-pages book, there are many parallel stories like that of Nora’s suitors and Miss Stanbury’s inheritance, so it is very hard to sum up this great tome in just a small paragraph. There are so many interesting characters and turns in this story, it is so rich that I am not sure whether I am able to do it justice.

“Words spoken cannot be recalled, and many a man and many a woman who has spoken a word at once regretted, are far too proud to express that regret.”

I find very interesting to study relations between men and women during the Victorian era, and I have learnt so much with He Knew He Was Right. For instance, I know that it was not uncommon at the time to send a small photograph of you to the man you love. I thought that this practice really started much later in the century, and I found that very important to see how relationships could evolve. There is a fantastic set of characters of all ages and backgrounds, and so many details, that you get a good grasp of the period. And although, there’s some literary goodness to it of course, I found the style to be of very little importance when it comes to what was actually said.

Trollope was not really an advocate for the rights of women since he was quite Conservative, but with this novel, you could really doubt it. His strongest characters are women who manage to live their lives as they intend to. First, there is Miss Stanbury. She’s a rich old woman, and a spinster. She had a love story with a man in her youth but they never married – it seems to me evident thus, that this dear Jemima lived in sin for a while, which I find quite shocking for such a Conservative woman. She struggles to accept and understand progress, especially when it comes to young women’s dresses and hair – she just cannot stand chignons – and the author makes fun of that with, I think, a lot of tenderness. She is an old woman, and as many old women still today, they love to criticise the new ways in ridiculous terms. But although I laughed at her, I couldn’t help but to notice that she was a very strong woman who deserved respect. She has very strong values, sometimes maybe too strong when she disinherit her nephew who has become a writer for a radical penny newspaper, and she follows them without compromising her heart and feelings. She is well-aware of people wanting to take advantage of her for her money, but she never lets them play too long.

But she is nothing compared to Nora. Jemima Stanbury can afford to be stubborn in her ways, Nora Rowley just cannot. But still, when a rich aristocrat proposes to her, she refuses. She understands all the advantages that such a union would bring but her mouth says no. There was something in the proposal that did not feel quite right, and there was something missing from her as well. Her mind is set on Hugh Stanbury (Miss Stanbury’s nephew) and although, he cannot support her, she decides that she will marry him anyway. It is obviously as romantic as it sounds, but in a very realistic novel like this one, it is more a proof of Nora’s strength.

And then, there is Priscilla Stanbury, Hugh’s sister. She is not rich at all, she is quite plain and fully accepts the fact that she will never marry. And she even clearly states that she doesn’t like men this much. Of course, she’s thought of it because every girl is raised towards that goal and she knows the comfort it would bring her. But she is alright with being single and not knowing love – also because she is very pragmatic and clever, she knows love is not the foundation of most marriages around her. Somehow, she reminds me of Jane Eyre: Jane at first accepts the fact that she has to work for herself and will never be part of the ‘married world’. She is not too sad about it – she seems quite indifferent to it before she meets Rochester – but she still knows that this is not a satisfying life, either.

“If I had a husband I should want a good one, a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man’s wife.” 

It’s no secret that the Victorian society was absolutely patriarchal, but it is very interesting to read about what the impact was on ‘real’ people. I say people because men suffer from this attitude, too. In the novel, the victim is Louis Trevelyan. He slowly becomes mad because of all the pressure he puts on himself: a wife has to obey her husband. And his wife doesn’t, which makes him a bad husband. I do not think he actually cares that much about the details of Emily’s relation with Osborne, what is important to him is his wife’s obedience because that is the way a marriage is supposed to work. He believes what he has been told and thinks that a woman on her own is not much, she has to let her husband guide her towards morality and propriety. However, Emily is not so submissive and she has a rather strong personality and set of principles. She obviously is a victim of Louis’s patriarchal beliefs since she found herself with nowhere to live with her child. A woman had just no right at the time and without her father or husband, she was nothing. Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a brother who helps her find shelter, but Emily only has an uncle who can’t really support her.

Nonetheless, I believe the first victim of this authoritative society is Louis. If he hadn’t has as much pressure to tell him how to behave as a husband, he would not have started this in the first place. But because society expected him to behave a certain way, he acted accordingly and dragged many other victims in his downfall.

He Knew He Was Right is an amazing novel that I can’t recommend enough. Because it is so long it obviously suffers from repetitions, which are sometimes very heavy and boring because you understood the first time you read it, a couple of chapters ago. And although, they had me sighing with exasperation quite a few times, it was nothing compared to the richness of what I was able learn.

The novel was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2004. I haven’t watched it but I read it was quite good and must be probably more digestible than this massive tome!

Reuben Sachs, Amy Levy (1888)

A few weeks ago, I went to Persephone Books in London. If you have never heard about this wonderful little publishing house/ bookshop, let me tell you a bit more : this London-based publisher publishes almost exclusively women’s works. Most of them have actually been forgotten and Persephone gives them a new life so that they can be loved again. As a consequence, you won’t find many contemporary works but mostly stories from the 20s-50s. That being said, at their wonderful little shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street, they also sell art books and some novels that they picked and which beautifully complement the tone and spirit of their work. But since they’re mainly a publishing house, you are likely to find them in your local bookshop or library – or you can order online, of course.

Anyway, I went there and picked a couple of books including Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs. I did not know anything about this book, apart from the description of Levy as of ‘a Jewish Jane Austen’. I was really curious to read that book because it is a Victorian story about a man, written by a woman and that’s exactly the sort of things I want to work on in the future.


Reuben Sachs is a young man who’s been struggling with handling stress lately and he has been prescribed a stay abroad by his doctor. When the novel begins, he is back in London and ready to lead a successful career in politics. His whole family is introduced as he comes back and meets with them – his mother, his sister, his cousins, etc. And then, Judith Quixano whom we soon understand Reuben is in love with. She loves him too, but she is very sensible and knows she’s far too poor for him, who needs a wealthy wife in order to succeed in his career.

It sounds pretty basic for a Victorian novel, right? But trust me, it is everything BUT basic.

I found it very hard at first to understand what was the author’s point of view, because the narrator rarely states an opinion clearly. But after reading the very last line, it all made sense: this is a book about the complexity of identity, and all the paradoxes that come with it.

Levy, writing at the end of the 19th century, had in mind racial theories that are no longer acceptable today. She describes Reuben’s figure and movements as typical of his race in a rather unflattering way, but somehow places him on a pedestal. To me, he appears as the wise one through most of the novel. It turns out that he was not entirely, because he sacrificed his happiness for money and got punished for that (I’m staying as vague as possible in order to not spoil the ending – but it must still be easy to guess, though!). However, the reader cannot help but to look up to him as every other family member does in the story. You almost have to admire his devotion. This dedication can be found in most characters here, be it work-related or family-wise. Surprisingly enough, it is not so obvious as regards religion – apart from Solomon and Mr Quixano, none of the characters seems very concerned as to why they believe in this particular orthodoxy. Leo and Esther are a bit more critical, especially the former who seems to be a free spirit in this family: he doesn’t live in London because he studies in Cambridge in order to be a musician. Obviously, his family does not really agree with this goal, but he is still arguably free since he’s away from them. He prefers Cambridge to London, which he hates. On the contrary, Reuben is dearly attached to his hometown and we can understand so from the very first lines : ‘he was back again: back to the old, full, strenuous life which was so dear to him: to the din and rush and struggle of the London which he loved with a passion that had something of poetry in it’. Somehow, the city is also rather harmful to Reuben and we can’t really know for sure whether Levy praises life in London or not.

This paradoxical side to the novel is omnipresent, especially when it comes to religion, and I’m still not sure what to think. Most characters accept their religion without much questioning, as I previously mentioned, but they make a point to live by the rules and traditions that come with it. This novel comes as a response to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where the Jewish community is romanticised – Levy directly criticises this book in her novel. Here, we seem to have a realistic portrait of the community, it is certainly not perfect (Levy has been accused of antisemitism because of how she describes her people) but it feels truthful. What is confusing is the internal fight that seemed to have taken control of the author: she is Jewish and that’s a part of her personality and culture in which she grew up, but she’s a woman, and quite a feminist, so she can’t really stand the way her religion has to look down on women ‘“Blessed art Thou, O Lord my God, who hast not made me a woman.”  No prayer goes up from the synagogue with greater fervour than this.‘. She is for a more modern vision of it all, she considers herself as Anglo-Jewish, but turning to the English society somehow means to turn her back on where she comes from… it is a vicious circle that seems to have no end in Reuben Sachs.

Speaking about the title, this novel should really be called Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano. The novel follows Judith for the most part, although it always has something to do with Reuben. Judith is beautiful, sensible and humble; she basically is the perfect Victorian woman. But there is not much else to say about her. The only really interesting thing she does is to turn to poetry when she is utterly desperate. She realises how important it is, even though she does not understand it.

Although on the whole the book was a nice little read, I found the style to be a bit too much: too pompous and not exactly fitting the tone of what was told. It didn’t prevent me from crying like a baby and using up half a dozen of tissues at the end, but it seriously prevented my enjoyment for most of my reading. In the end, I think that the most interesting facet of Reuben Sachs is Amy Levy: a genuinely interesting person, through whom it is nice to ponder on identity and religion, especially in a time of change like that of the 19th century, but I wouldn’t absolutely recommend to read it since it feels way longer than it actually is.