Bookish Gift Guide

There are two things I love doing in my free time: reading and browsing websites to find beautiful things. It’s a little bit of a problem, really. I spend hours looking at books, clothes and various random things that I find beautiful, but I actually never buy them (well, sometimes but very rarely!). I just like looking at them. For that reason, I love gift guides because they gather all these pretty items in one place for me to admire. I thought I would try my hand at those this year, although I know that there are so many gift guides out there already. Hopefully, you will find my personal touch a nice addition!

Last time, I shared some books that would make a great present for Christmas. Today, I thought I would share some bookish accessories and gifts that would please every bookworm in the world.

Bookmarks

I think bookmarks are a perfect gift if you’re shopping on a budget or doing a Secret Santa because they’re always useful, and there are some amazing designs out there. I especially like these hilarious bookmarks from BookmarkBoys on Etsy. Each bookmark costs £3.75 but you can get a bundle of 3 for £10 – perfect for someone who’s always reading several books at once!

A book-inspired notebook

Everyone loves a good notebook, and Country House Library has the most beautiful selection of notebooks with vintage book covers. I also love Paperblanks notebooks as they are extremely luxurious journals which you can close and that have a pocket to put loose papers. They’re also beautiful and I have gifted a few in the past few years… to myself!

Writing Sets

I think that most people who love to read equally love to write. As we not be able to see all our friends and relatives for a few more months, writing letters might a nice way to make communication a little special. If you’re looking for something to gift to a Jane Austen fan, then look no further: this stationery set is just perfect. It seems to be quite popular, though so I have linked it in three places in case it runs out!

Waterstones | Blackwell’s | Amazon

Bookish Clothing

It’s not often that you come across bookish clothing that is both cute and stylish. Joanie Clothing managed to do just that, and they have a wonderful selection of bookish slogan tops to choose from. They go up to a size 22, which also a great bonus! My personal favourites are their famous Avid Readers Club sweater, their Read More Books t-shirt, and 1984 sweatshirt.

Something from a Museum Gift Shop

If you know that your bookworm is particularly fan of a specific famous/old author, it’s definitely worth checking the museum’s online gift shop. You will find beautiful gifts there, and you will help supporting a museum in what has been a very tricky year. You can also make a donation to the foundation, in the name of the person you’re offering this donation to. I linked to the Bronte Parsonage Museum because it’s a very special place to me, but all museums have an oline shop.

I hope this little guide will have provided you with some inspiration – if not for this Christmas, then next year. You can also definitely pick from this list to treat yourself, I won’t tell!

Book Review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

In the town of Bethel, the Prophet reigns over the villagers – the ‘flock’ as he calls them. He can speak the will of the Father thanks to his visions, and his duty is mainly to make sure that the community is free of sins – especially women who are more sensitive to the temptations of witchcraft. Bethel was created after the first Prophet defeated the Witches of the Dark Wood in a bloody battle against the army of Bethel and the Dark Mother. In this inherited fear and hatred of women, the Prophet and his apostles can have several wives and are never afraid to publicly humiliate women who have had relations with men outside marriage.

This is in this oppressive society that we meet Immanuelle, who’s a young woman who feels like she’s full of sin because her skin is a lot darker than everybody else’s, and her mother brought shame to the whole family by spending many months in the Darkwood, where the witches live. Immanuelle is paying back for her mother’s sins, so she focuses on her faith whilst still feeling a strange attraction for the wood.

There is so much to say about this book because Henderson tackles so many different topics that are all so interesting and important to talk about. I will focus mainly on the topic of womanhood in this review, mainly because this is one that I can mention without spoiling any parts of the plot. But if you’ve read the book, I’d like to talk about it more in the comments, I have so many thoughts about it!

Before I go any further, though, I would like to preface this review with some sort of trigger warning. This is a novel that deals with many aspects of female oppression, including sexual abuse and assault. It’s very well done in the book as it’s never said explicitly and is never represented in a graphic way, but if this is something that you are particularly sensitive to, it’s something you should know. Secondly, this is a horror novel which means there are some pretty gorey bits. Also, blood – there’s a lot of it in this book. A lot.

Blood is extremely important in general as when a girl has a period for the first time, she can be finally considered a woman and do all the things that she is supposed to do: marry and birth children. Sounds familiar? Oh yes, Bethel is just a slightly exaggerated version of our society – minus the witches. Even before their first periods and for the rest of their lives, girls and women are considered dangerous as if they were always trying to maliciously seduce men. This is something this book made me realise: throughout history, women have been oppressed because men were not able to control their sexual impulses. Women were not necessarily doing anything to provoke desire in men, but the latter nonetheless considered them this way and were afraid of that. It always takes two people to have a relationship, but in Bethel – and in our lives – only women are held responsible for it.

Not only did this book remind me of the MeToo movement, but it also echoed the debate around abortion that is going backwards in many countries. I won’t say too much about it as I know this is a sensitive topic and it would spoil an important part of the plot, but there is at one point a childbirth scene that is not exactly going according to plan, shall we say. The older women are debating what to do, and the consensus is to get the child out no matter what happens next. They have no regard for the mother’s life or even the child’s wellbeing, growing up without a mother. Of course, this reminded me of pro-life arguments that only take into consideration the new life and never care about the mother and/or the trauma that it can cause to a child to grow up in an environment where it’s not wanted or can’t be supported financially.

The witches themselves are broken women – literally. They’re disfigured by their injuries and some of their limbs seem dislocated. They looked like abused women who have had to stand tall under the beatings of men for many centuries. This is the topic more relevant than ever with so many women trapped with their abusive partner during lockdown. As you can understand, this is a book that will make you reflect on many issues that every woman has to face, especially women of colour as Immanuelle is mixed-race and I wonder if the interest one of the characters shows her is not an embodiment of the offensive and sexualising ways white men will interact with black women. Something to think about, as well!

I would really recommend reading The Year of the Witching, if you’re interested in the issues I’ve mentioned and if you’re in the mood to prolong Halloween. It’s not a scary novel, as in you’ll be able to sleep at night, but there are definitely some gruesome scenes that will keep you on your toes. I love novels that manage to combine perfectly entertaining stories that you can’t put down, and clever commentary on our society.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know if you haven’t but would like to read it! Happy reading 🙂

Book Review: Saltwater, Jessica Andrews (2019)

Winner of the Portico Prize this year, Salwater tells in vignettes the story of Lucy who grew up in Sunderland, moved to London for her studies, and ended up in Ireland after the death of her grandfather, living in his cottage in county Donegal. Every vignette is written as a diary entry, as if Lucy had just jotted down some memories that constitute the beginning of her life and made her who she is, now.

As you can guess there isn’t really a plot as such in Saltwater, it is more about Lucy navigating life and her relationship with her mother. The latter is a common thread throughout the book – from the unbearable physical distance between their two bodies to the desire of being like her, and reproducing her behaviour in the only way Lucy understands. Mother-daughter relationships are always fascinating and complex, and I think it is perfectly encapsulated in this novel.

In my life in Donegal, I am learning how to take what I want. There are unfulfilled desires, curdled inside of me. I have buried things; swallowed them down and turned off the light. I must learn how to listen to my body again. I must learn how to need, how to ask, how to want.

I briefly mentioned this book when I was reading it in this article, and as I said, it moved me deeply. From the way Andrews writes about her shifting class when she arrives in London and her alcoholic dad, I’m guessing that Saltwater is highly autobiographical. It felt so real and powerful, because I have felt and lived the same things. Seeing adults behave strangely and never being sure of what you’ll find when you get home, running after someone who disappeared… these felt like scenes I have lived and Andrews put words on these feelings of utter despair and shock in such a beautiful way, it was absolutely devastating.

It was also interesting to see Lucy arrives at university in London and being faced with people who had grown up in more privileged backgrounds. Those people have grown up to be who they are and had the space to be so, but Lucy is still figuring herself out because she never had the opportunity to expand on her tastes and desires. In her teenage bedroom, she romanticised a life in London with drunk poets and musicians, but once with them she realised that it wasn’t what she needed but a teenage dream.

I was too full. I was brimming with the possibility of everything. Other people’s lives were carefully curated whereas I was a tangled knot of all the people and places I had ever wanted to be. I was distracted by every bright thing and enamoured with every person I met who promised a more solid version of myself.

She truly finds herself in the loneliness of her Irish cottage and, although I found this part of the novel a little to idealised and romantic, she can start her life from there. Everything leading up to her standing on the beach was a necessary step in her journey to be herself, and not her mother. This is what I think anyway, as this is a coming-of-age story, many things can happen in Lucy’s life after the time of the novel – possibilities are endless, and that’s why I love that kind of stories!

I absolutely loved Saltwater and cannot recommend it enough. Going through the passages I highlighted for this review made me very emotional again, there is both power and calm in this text – it’s just overwhelming. It might not be for everyone as it is told in vignettes, but the structure of the book enables Andrews to be lyrical and dive deep into her memories. I’m not sure she would have had such freedom with a more traditional form. I think it’s a very promising debut, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever Jessica Andrews writes next.

Books by Black Authors that Changed my Outlook on Race

I have been silent for a little while on here… I wanted to talk about Black Lives Matter but didn’t know how, and then I figured I would use books to convey what I want to say. A lot of non-fiction books have been shared all over social media and I have kept these useful lists for my own education, but I thought I’d share here a few fiction novels (apart from the first one) that I found very useful in making me more aware of racism.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

Olaudah Equiano was a pioneer in the fight against slavery during the late eighteenth century. According to his memoir, he was born in Africa and was stolen as a child to be sold as a slave. He later bought himself free and joined the Sons of Africa, a group of Africans living in London who led a campaign to abolish slavery. He is a very important figure for me because in history class, we tend to study the white intellectuals who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (who were definitely instrumental and I think we should still appreciate what they did today) and picture black people as ‘only’ suffering.  Here, you have a black man who is taking full possession of his narrative by writing up his life story and leading the fight.

I have to say that I don’t know of a lot of writing by black people prior to the nineteenth century, but I think it is important to amplify historical voices from minorities and give this part of history back to those who own it.

I guess I need to add that not everything is true in Equiano’s memoir; we now know that he was born in the US rather than in Africa, but we shouldn’t forget that this memoir has a political agenda. When he evokes a childhood in Africa, Equiano is depicting a romanticised version of tribal life which makes his abduction only the more violent and cruel – in order to make his European audience understand the inhumanity of the slave trade.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

I’m not sure this novel needs any introduction by now, as it is a classic in its own right, inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped, and killed her baby after being captured. In Beloved, the child, Beloved, comes to haunt her mother, Sethe, and sister, Denver, as a ghost – representing the impossibility for Sethe to ever forget where she comes from. This novel gave me a true sense of the impact of slavery on black people, even long after it was abolished. The story of Beloved is the heavy burden that African Americans have to carry on their shoulders, as their country was built on their blood and that of Native Americans.

This is not an easy book to read, no matter who you are. But of course, I am talking as a white person and I think that in history books, we study slavery as a distant concept without taking into actual considerations the individuals who were affected by it. We know, of course, that it was cruel and inhumane, but we need a book like Beloved to hit us in the face and show us why.

I have recently read Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered (2019) which is really reminiscent of Beloved – it too is a novel of magical realism and deals with the notion of collective memory for African Americans, especially women and its impact on motherhood. A collective memory is the memory of a group of people passed on to the next generations, and slavery is at the basis of many black communities’ collective memory… and how could it not be? I think that it’s important that we read about slavery and its impact on individuals, and I think fiction is a great way to immerse yourself in this dark but essential part of history.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (2015)

The Sellout is about a man who tries to reintroduce slavery in 21st-century California. The premise of this novel is bold, absurd, and absolutely awful; I think we can agree on that. It reminds me of the TV series, The Wire, when a desperate police captain legalises drugs in a specific neighbourhood of Baltimore. The Sellout is a little more satirical and really highlights racial issues in the US.

Yet another book I had a hard time reading, as it made me deeply uncomfortable! I guess I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else because I only found the idea of reintroducing slavery half-absurd. I find that American politics have always been absurd and sometimes ridiculous in its lack of subtlety – like when Native American affairs were directly dealt with by the Land Bureau, clearly showing their interest in Native lands but their disregard for the people that inhabit them. I think I can believe anything can happen in the US, especially given the current president’s never-ending succession of idiotic comments.

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

When we first meet her, Queenie is in complete denial that her boyfriend has broken up with her, she has to move back to her grandparents’, and she feels like she’s going nowhere in her career. Queenie is presented as a dark comedy and of course, there are funny bits and the characters are, for the most part, really loveable but I found it to be a very uncomfortable and heavy read. I related a lot to Queenie because she is a bigger girl with mental health issues, but I never realised how easy I had it compared to a black woman… I’m ashamed to say that I never knew, before reading this book, that racism permeated every single area of daily life. My self-esteem was never deteriorated by nasty comments from doctors who can’t examine me correctly because ‘they can’t see properly’, or by men who objectified and sexualised my body with racial clichés. I’ve never had to think that my appearance could potentially be the reason why some people can’t stand me to start with or are prejudiced against me.

Queenie is a very important book to read, because even if it might make you uncomfortable at points (which is okay, by the way, I think we need to face the disagreeable facts first to then be better allies), it is very nice to read – it was more of a page-turner for me – and most importantly, it shows how much we need feminism to be more intersectional and refuse the too widespread branch of feminism that is exclusively white.

There are a lot of free resources online, especially on Instagram and Twitter, which are really great to educate yourself on racial issues and allyship. When you’re not in a position to donate or protest, I find that reading and sharing are the best alternatives.

Frances Burney, Evelina (1778)

Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, is an epistemological novel retelling the young Evelina’s adventures in Georgian London. Evelina was raised in the countryside by a minister, in relative solitude. Her mother had married a certain Sir John Belmont who abandoned his wife shortly after she was pregnant with their daughter; she died whilst giving birth to Evelina. The young girl is thus an orphan at the beginning of the novel because, although she knows who her father is, she has never met him and he has never acknowledged her existence. One Spring, Evelina goes to London with her friend, Maria Mirvan, to welcome home the latter’s father, referred to as ‘The Captain’. In London, Evelina discovers the life of theatre and opera-going, of balls, and polite society; but because she grew up away from all this, she is not too aware of the manners she should adopt. Yet, because she is extremely beautiful, her entrance into society doesn’t go unnoticed and many men admire her, even if some have suspicious intentions towards her. Evelina is a sort of Bildungsroman in which a young woman has to come to terms with the ways of the world, and is rewarded for her exemplary conduct in the end with a marriage to the man she loves.

Evelina

What interested me the most whilst reading this novel was to see how French people were seen and treated by the other characters. Evelina finds her grandmother, Madame Duval, in London, who also happens to be French. She is always escorted by Monsieur Dubois – another French man. From the moment Evelina and her party meet them, the Captain’s favourite occupation is to tyrannise them. There is a certain disgust for the French that transpires through Burney’s words. The way they are described contrasts with the opinion English artists might have of their French counterparts later in the nineteenth century – a view that is more familiar to a twenty-first century reader, in my opinion. Here, France is not the country of refinement and astounding poets, but of singularly repulsive individuals. Although Madame Duval is supposed to be a rather well-off French lady, she is portrayed in the same unflattering light as her impoverished English relatives. Evelina is ashamed of her, and is embarrassed when people within the higher ranks of society see her with such company. Actually, Madame Duval reminded me of the French governess in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) who is one of the most ridiculous characters I have ever read.

Of course, Franco-English rivalry is not a new thing and I think it will always be there. I remember when I was little and my grandfather – who was probably the French-est man that has ever been – would mock the English with their Queen and their silly cuisine. I wonder what he would think now that I live in London! I especially like this mutual ‘hatred’ in the late Georgian and Victorian period because with the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the fact that these two countries ended up being the most powerful European countries by the end of the century, there’s just so many sources for rivalry and mockery – which almost always hide a certain degree of fear or admiration. (I’d like to note that I talk about England, and not Britain, because there’s nothing of that kind with Welsh, Scottish or Irish people) It’s just something I particularly enjoy, because it’s not a toxic rivalry, and it’s not really harmful to any one; like two siblings who keep on teasing each other but are bored on their own. Here is an extract of a conversation between Madame Duval and the Captain that I think illustrates well what I’m trying to say:

Pardi, Monsieur,’ returned she, ‘and so I shall; for, I promise you, I think the English a parcel of brutes; and I’ll go back to France as fast as I can, for I would not live among none of you.’

‘Who wants you?’ cried the Captain; ‘do you suppose, Madam French, we have not enough of other nations to pick our pockets already? I’ll warrant you, there’s no need for you for to put in your oar.’

‘Pick your pockets, Sir! I wish nobody wanted to pick your pockets no more than I do; and I’ll promise you, you’d be safe enough. But there’s no nation under the sun can beat the English for ill-politeness; for my part, I hate the very sight of them, and so I shall only just visit a person of quality or two, of my particular acquaintance, and then I shall go back again to France.’

‘Ay, do,’ cried he, ‘and then go to the devil together, for that’s the fittest voyage for the French and the quality.’

‘We’ll take care, however,’ cried the stranger, with great vehemence, ‘not to admit none of your vulgar, unmannered English among us.’

‘O never fear,’ returned he coolly, ‘we sha’n’t dispute the point with you; you and the quality may have the devil all to yourselves.’

Evelina, p. 58.

To go back to Evelina itself, it’s a very amusing satirical novel about the roles of women in society, and it looks at fatherly duties with a very sharp eye. I found it wonderful to read about a very old – and much smaller – London and I think it is the perfect book for a Jane Austen fan who would like to broaden their horizon. Highly recommend!

Featured image: Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. Jame’s Park (1783)

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.

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (2013)

the-night-guest-by-fiona-mcfarlane-1

Ruth and Harry retired to their beach house a few years ago. Harry did not get to enjoy much of the house, since he died shortly after moving in, leaving Ruth on her own, in this isolated house. Her sons are in New Zealand and Hong Kong thus, although they call her regularly, she does not get to spend much time with them. One night, Ruth feels as if a tiger is in her house. She knows there is no wild animal, but she can feel it. The morning after, a woman knocks at Ruth’s door; she’s been sent by the government to take care of her. Her name is Frida and she moves everything around in Ruth’s life and breaks the routine of the pensioner with her extravagant hairstyles which she changes on a daily basis. She is tall, stout, and dark and to Ruth, she looks Fijian which reminds her of her childhood, her missionary parents, her first love, and the sight of the young Queen Elizabeth at a ball.

‘She thought of Harry as she lay there in the garden because she knew he was dead, and she knew she had forgotten he was dead. That seemed the same as forgetting he had lived.’

It is incredibly difficult to sum up The Night Guest and do it justice, without completely revealing the end. What I can say is that this is a wonderful little gem about ageing, love, and trust. It is quite rare that recent releases give me a lot of things to say about them, I tend to read them to relax and shift gears from my beloved lengthy Victorian tomes. However, Fiona McFarlane’s debut is an accomplishment and it moved me beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I actually found very refreshing to read the story of a 75-year-old, I am too used to reading Bildungsroman so I rarely deal with the elderly (except when they are old spinsters with a lot of money to inherit of) and this novel challenged my habits, putting things into perspective as a consequence. It really made me ponder on being older and alone, which is a tragic reality of our society. Ruth lives in a isolated house on a beach in Australia, but it is a fact that, past a certain age, you can live in a big city and be just as isolated as her.

Of course, this novel also deals with dementia. I thought this term was a bit too strong for Ruth, at first; she feels there’s a tiger in her house, but she deals pretty well on her own and lives a nice and quiet life with her cats. What I felt at first, is more the fact that at a certain point, the brain is not as efficient as it used to be and some connections are late to be made – if made at all. But then, I realised that she mentions her sons as infants, and her husband on several occasions, but never really thinks in details of her adult life. What Ruth mostly remembers is her childhood on Fiji, she looks back on this episode of her life and remembers all the little details. Obviously, this hints strongly at the fact that she may have started a degenerative phase of her life. The story is narrated at the third person, but really you are in Ruth’s head so you do not understand fully all the situations and because of her age, she doubts herself so you find yourself doubting absolutely everything. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate truth from lies: a guest comes to her house… or not? Frida locked her in… or did she? This feeling kept me on edge and made the novel gripping, as well as incredibly hard on an emotional level.

‘It was one thing, maybe, to die […] but it was quite another to go on being dead. That was obstinate; it was unkind.’

The Night Guest gave me a lot of food for thought, and I cannot recommend it enough. Ruth is a very endearing character because she is very sweet with her taste for swearing and her constant daydreaming. She just wants to tell her story to someone, and it is very pleasant to be this person.

Le Reve Douanier Rousseau
I thought of that painting to illustrate my article, it’s The Dream by Douanier Rousseau (1910). A fragile woman with two tigers lurking in the dark… that’s our story!

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.”

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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.

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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.