Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

When her childhood friend Lila disappears in her old age, Elena decides to write their two intertwined life stories. They both come from a working-class neighbourhood of Naples but whilst Elena goes on to study and become an author, Lila remains in the neighbourhood. This is the premise of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, made up of four tomes: My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave  and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015). The whole series is based on the two friends’ different lifestyles in spite of which they always end up together again, as a constant movement of push-and-pull in which Lina seems to have the upper hand.

my brilliant friend
I am not happy with the original covers of this series. Seriously, it’s not good because it is not a good representation of the content of the book. And personally, I find them a bit ugly – but that’s my opinion. I feel bad because I do like Europa Editions as their work is so important, but I just don’t understand what happened there. I saw that they had released new editions that look quite nice, though!

To me Lila is an embodiment of Elena’s origins, her socio-economic background, and in fact, the Neapolitan working-class neighbourhood which she is desperately trying to escape from, from the youngest age. The movement of push-and-pull between the two friends is Elena’s repulsion and attraction to this neighbourhood she never calls home but always come back to.

new name
This was the most appropriate cover, in my opinion.

Everyone in this neighbourhood is profoundly unhappy and envious of others’ possessions. The unhappiness is transmitted from generation to generation, an inherited burden you must carry your whole life. There is a false sense of social mobility with the Solara brothers, and Stefano Carracci at the beginning, as they have a lot of money and are able to buy new homes outside of the neighbourhood. Except that the new constructions are referred to as ‘the new neighbourhood’ because it is nothing else but a modern extension of the old one. Young people are recreating what they have always known and join the vicious circle of violence and hatred. It’s also interesting to note that Stefano loses his money, which he got from his relatively honest business (even though his father wasn’t really an honest man) because of the Solaras, and so only criminals have access to a comfortable lifestyle – when most characters of the story live in dark and insalubrious lodgings.

In fact, social mobility is just an illusion reserved to women who can fake their backgrounds with the jewels and clothes their lovers gift them. But behind the trendy makeup, they are as unhappy as all the others and they never leave the neighbourhood.

those who leave stay
Spoiler alert: Motherhood is not depicted as a breezy journey, rather, it is a constant conflict between doing what’s good for your children and what your needs are, as a woman.

The neighbourhood is close to the city centre, but seems miles away. It feels like an enclosed space delimited by the stradone. I think it might be why it reminded me so much of where I grew up and my own family history. My mum started to have a look at our family history and since the 1780s, my family have moved in a perimeter of… 35kms. From her side, I am very much an Auvergnate peasant and everyone has lived in the same villages for generations. But when I look at the people around me, I am not sure they’ve ever been truly happy and looked back at their lives with a sense of pride and achievement. I feel harsh writing this words, but when I look back, the adults I had around me as models when I was a child were all deeply unhappy and jealous. Just like Elena, I spent hours wondering whether this was my destiny too, whether I would end up stuck in a place I hate, looking at my wealthier neighbour with envy. Just like her, I went away to study but came back and got caught in the spiral of unhappiness and anger. Finally, like her, I found it hard to leave – physically but also mentally. I’ve been in London for a few years now, but a call to my family brings me right back down to where I was before. I refuse to think about where I come from too much, to talk about it even, but exactly like Elena, I’m always brought back to it when I meet new people, especially in middle class London. But unlike her, I won’t give in to the temptation of the familiar (which I think Nino Sarratore embodies in the novel – he was born in the neighbourhood and left as a child, but Elena kept on loving him for years after that) and I will keep on carving my own path, which I hope will be happy and self-sufficient.

lost child
I’m very sorry for rambling on about these covers, but look at this last one… It makes me question my reading of the books.

I loved, loved this series of books. They were everything the cover doesn’t represent: they were beautiful, complex, thoughtful, and oh so addictive. As this review might suggest they made me reflect on very personal things, and it was sometimes difficult for me to face those thoughts but it’s such a joy to read a book that challenges you on such an intimate level. I realise this is probably just the case for me, but in any case Elena’s story is excellent and relatable at points – no matter where you come from. There is also an HBO show going on, I think series 2 was released recently, I have not watched it yet so I can’t really talk about it but I would be very curious to know how they translated the books for TV!

2019 – A Year in Reading

As I have done for the past two years, I want to take the time to reflect on the books I have read this year thanks to the Year in Books page on Goodreads. Here are my previous posts:

2018 Year in Reading

2017 Year in Reading

I wanted to read 40 books this year and I ended up reading 42 so that’s pretty cool. I have not read so many whole books during a good chunk of the year since I was researching and writing my dissertation. I did reread Villette and Jane Eyre for the occasion as I was working on the portrayal of men in these two novels. I have published an excerpt on here, a paper that I presented to a conference and which is a summary of a chapter of my dissertation. You can find it here: Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester as A Hero of Romance. From April to August, I think I mostly read journal articles so of course, that does not count in a reading challenge but really, I have never read so much in my whole life as I have in 2019. At one point, my eyes got so tired I thought I was going to need glasses! Thankfully, that was not necessary, I just had to calm down and set myself a proper reading schedule – especially of Victorian texts, the font is always too tiny! After my Master, I took a month to completely relax and recover from the stress (and anxiety) which allowed me to read great books I had been waiting to read for a while. Now, I am unemployed so of course, I have time to read but I’ve recently found it hard to focus because I have not been feeling so good in my head. This will be for another post though, so let’s get cracking with the books.

bartleby

The shortest book I have read this year was Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) with 80 pages. I doubt this result as I have just finished The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) but as I intend to write a post on it later, I’ll stick with Bartleby. I first read it during my undergraduate degree when we were studying Antebellum American Literature. I hated it. I absolutely hated it and told anyone who would listen that that was the most boring story I had ever read. I found it so boring I could not focus on a paper copy so I downloaded an audiobook which would make me fall asleep very quickly. I can still hear the voice of the narrator saying ‘I prefer not to’… But this time around, I actually really enjoyed it. Bartleby is the new clerk at a law firm and just refuses to do any work. In the 1850s, in a time of industrial revolution and intense activity where the utmost sin was idleness, that could not go down very well. I actually read this novella because I read the Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007) for a class and was reminded so much of Bartleby (he too refuses to eat and speak whilst everyone around him gets angry and even violent with him) that I thought I would write an essay on it. I think I could but it was way too ambitious a project for a 4,000 words MA essay! In that context, I really liked Bartleby’s silent and peaceful revolution against the capitalist obsession with productivity and I find it still quite relevant to this day.

The longest book I read was 922 pages and a combination of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1857) and Shirley (1849) as I have that Everyman’s edition:

shirley and prof

I definitely want to write more extensively on these two novels as I love Charlotte Brontë so much and could talk about her work all day long. To make it short, I loved The Professor and think it deserved more interest as it is such a beautiful way to see the evolution of her writing and storytelling. Shirley however, not such a fan. I would definitely need to read it again but I found it very bland and banal unlike all her other novels. It’s a good book, but there’s no power in it – I think.

friendship

The least popular book I read this year was Friendship: a History, edited by Barbara Caine (2010) and I really wanted to mention it here because it was that good. I used it for research as I wrote an essay on Rousseau’s views on friendship (fell in love with Rousseau btw… only took me to cross the Channel to do that!) and ended up reading most of it out of sheer pleasure and interest. Even though it’s an academic book, it’s very accessible and so fascinating as friendship is a fundamental part of being a human being. Highly recommend if it’s in your library or if you can find it second-hand as I know scholarly books can be very expensive.

I read lots of different varied things this year, and overall it was all quite good apart from two which I can remember not liking at all. Both are going to be controversial because they are well-loved works of literary fiction. The first one is Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) because, in spite of getting the message of the book, enjoying the Spanglish, and loving to learn about Dominican history, it really didn’t work for me. It was too much for me, too rough, too vulgar and I just could not deal with it. It made me angry. I would read it and then violently close the book to throw it at the other end of the bed. I see the point of the book, but I just don’t like that kind of literature.

oscar wao

Second one is, I know, very controversial as it Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) aka the book that everyone loved this year. I have very little patience with people who relish in self-destruction and I don’t like to read about unromantic and messy relationships as something good or even okay. I did not find an ounce of love in Marianne’s and Connell’s story, they’re just having sex. Marianne is messed up because of her unfunctional family and she needs help that I don’t think Connell brings her at all. By the middle of the novel, he doesn’t love her, he is used to her; she is familiar and that’s why he feels attracted to her (that’s how I read it anyway). Marianne’s confession that she’s a masochist read for me as a confession that she is definitely not, but does not know how to deal with tenderness because she’s never encountered it. I think it was all too messy for me, and I couldn’t deal with the mess for personal reasons, maybe. I loved the writing, though, so I will try to read Rooney’s other works (past and future) in the hope there is less sex and more actual feelings.

normal people

So as I said, I read lots of good things this year and it’s been tricky to just pick a few of my favourites so here is my top 5 (in no particular order):

  • Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2011)

my brilliant friend

Someone had told me this book was not what it seemed and that it was quite bad. They were certainly right in that it is the opposite of what it is marketed as, but immensely wrong with regard to the content of the book. What a powerful story! It is so complex and addictive, I haven’t read many things like that. From the cover, I imagined a romance which would make me travel to Italy. Rather, I was transported to a popular neighbourhood of Naples where everyone is unhappy and violent and where there is very little room for romantic dreams. Instead, the relationship at the centre of the story is Lila’s and Elena’s friendship, which you see grow from childhood. It is a beautiful, awful thing of attraction and repulsion, something very real and very difficult to come to terms with, I think. There are not any really likeable characters in this novel, but somehow, they gripped me and stay with me once the book is closed. This is the first volume of the Neapolitan series and I have read the second one, The Story of a New Name (2012), this Summer and loved it just as much. I really want to read the two other tomes of the series next year.

  • Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce (Lullaby) (2016)

lullaby

I should start by saying that this is not a book for everyone. The novel begins with a nanny murdering the child and the baby she is in charge of. I don’t think I could read that if I were a mother, and I hope I won’t think of this story too much when that time comes! After this intense beginning, we go back in time to try and uncover the reason for such a terrible crime. The sense of superiority of a middle-class Parisian couple, the isolation of a working-class nanny, a naughty little girl… these do not explain why the nanny did what she did, but Slimani draws a great portrait of different categories of people whilst keeping you on the edge of your chair. The author was interviewed on the High Low last year, which you can listen here (all in English) and I found this podcast really interesting.

  • Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (2016)

nutshell

I was quite interested by abuse on babies this year apparently… But Nutshell is lot funnier. McEwan rewrote Macbeth from the perspective of an unborn baby. His mother and uncle are having an affair and plot to kill his father. It is incredibly funny because the foetus sounds like a middle-aged man rambling about wine and the state of the world, all the while seeing his parents as semi-Gods. In reality, the adults are mediocre at best and none of them seem to actually care about the baby to come. His mother rarely mentions him, she drinks – a lot – and she is just terrible. Her lover never acknowledges the fact that she is pregnant. The father is bad poet who lets his wife basically steal his family home. A strange family portrait but such a great book!

  • Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1869)

little women

It was obvious I would love this novel. Nineteenth century, women, writing, sisterhood and just sheer kindness all throughout – that sounds a lot like me. Yet, I had never really wanted to read it because I remember the TV adaptation being shown every Christmas and my mum complaining about it, saying it was too corny and boring. I can see why some people would say it’s cheesy, but it is also such a cute story of sisterhood! I cannot say too much as I got my copy from a Church book sale and didn’t realise it was just the first part of the story. I got a beautiful edition with the whole thing in it for Christmas so I will start reading it straightaway, and watch the film adaptation by Greta Gerwig which looks quite exciting.

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Le guetteur (The Eye) (1930)

the eye

Finally, I read Nabokov for the first time, and absolutely loved it. The narrator is a Russian emigrant in Berlin in the 1920s (I think) and after a failed attempt of committing suicide, he thinks he might be a ghost but lives a very normal life nonetheless, amongst other Russians living in Berlin. Up until the end, this novel seems to have no meaning, the narrator lives like a ghost because nothing ever happens to him and he only describes what others do. At the close of the book, you realise you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator and that this is a story about identity, finding who you are and where you belong. I found it all very poetic, beautifully written and as someone who lives in another country and struggled for a while to find myself, this novel really resonated with me.

I hope you too had a great year in books! x

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

sister killer

What an eye-catching cover! I had seen this book absolutely everywhere this year and had been drawn to its memorable cover design with this beautiful yet intriguing face on a black background and neon green font. I finally decided to pick it up and yield to the temptation.

The beginning of the novel was just as gripping: Korede is pondering on different techniques to scrub off blood whilst she is cleaning around the corpse of her sister’s third victim. After reading the first couple of chapters, you would think it’s all in the title; the sister, Ayoola, is a serial killer and this novel is a classic thriller – except it really isn’t.

In my opinion, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a novel about sisterhood and what it means to be the older sister. My sister is much younger than me and I know I would do everything it takes to protect her and make her life easier. Would I cover her every time she murders a boyfriend ? Definitely not. But Ayoola and Korede grew up with a violent father and ‘witnessed’ the death of the latter, which has to damage one’s vision of righteousness as well as strongly increase solidarity between sisters. I say ‘witness’ because I am not sure whether Korede is the most reliable narrator and I am sure there are many voluntary omissions in her story… as you might expect from a serial killer’s accomplice!

This novel has been described as a comedy, but I don’t remember smiling once whilst reading it… I did enjoy the depiction of sisterly help, although Korede’s way of loving Ayoola is rather strange as she is cold and distant, even though she is always here for her in case of trouble. I also found it quite refreshing to read a story set in Nigeria but which is not solely about that setting. Although Korede mentions the corruption that pervades in institutions like the Police and Government, this is not a story about Nigeria. Of course, we need to read and learn about the terrible conditions in which people live in certain parts of the world, but it’s also very nice to have an African country as a regular setting of a story – it normalises such a setting and creates more diversity, I think. Yet, I don’t think I will remember My Sister, the Serial Killer in a year from now. I did not laugh, I did not feel for any character, and I found the writing rather bland. There were many hints at great story lines but they were all given up on very quickly. However, I will keep an eye on what Oyinkan Braithwaite comes up with in the future as I am sure my problems with her writing comes from the fact that she may not have completely found her voice yet.

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.

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)

2018

Well, it was about time I did my annual summary of my readings on here! 2018 was a pivotal year for me; I recovered from a very dark time and I started my Masters degree in England – which I still can’t quite get my head around.

I thought I would reflect on the books I have read this year with the great Goodreads tools ‘My Year in Books’ as I did last year. I wanted to read 35 books in 2018 and I have read… 60. I haven’t read much at all between March and August if I remember well, but I have been reading so many texts every week for uni that I ended up reading about 40 books in three months. I am very happy with how much I have read because it means I have discovered many new stories and authors, which is my main motivation. However next year, I won’t set a very high number in my reading challenge either because I don’t want to feel pressured.

malachi550Anyway, let’s begin with the books. The shortest one I have read this year was Malachi’s Cove by Anthony Trollope (1857), which is about 40 pages long. So it’s not really a book but a short story, but in any case, it was very good. It’s set in Cornwall and Malachi is a young woman who pulls out seaweeds out of the beach in order to sell them. She lives with her very old grandfather, and this is their only income and way to survive. She’s a rough girl, in her manners and appearance, but she is also very endearing. It was a very nice story, but what especially interested me was the characterisation of the landscape. Very different from the Yorkshire moors but it was not that far from reading Emily Brontë.

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The longest book was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), which was 912 pages. I have already written on this one earlier this year, but I will repeat myself and say that it is a very hilarious read and although it’s quite long, it’s really worth the commitment – and it felt way less long that Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (1869), my god.

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I have read a few mangas this year, as well. I love to borrow from my sister’s shelves when I’m back in France for the holidays, it’s such a nice way to unwind. The one with the highest ratings on Goodreads is Fruits Basket Perfect Edition vol.1, by Natsuki Takaya (2016) – it’s a collection of the first 3 or 4 volumes of the series. Fruits Basket is the first manga I have ever read when I was 13 and I absolutely loved it. It was very nice to rediscover this lovely story of humans who can transform into zodiac animals.

 

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As far as mangas are concerned, I read the six volumes of the Orange series, by Ichigo Takano (2012-2017), and this was one the best things I have read this year. A young high school student receives letters from her future self, giving her advice on how to prevent the death of one of her friends. It’s very moving but also very sweet, I just love everything about this series. And also, it’s not long at all so there’s no excuse not to read it.

 

Is it time for my favourite book of the year? I think it is. This will come as no surprise, I think. Obviously, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) is the one. I wrote about the power of this book on here, already, and that’s really the most important thing to remember about this book in my opinion. Lucy Snowe is poor, obscure, and plain (possibly more than Jane Eyre), but she has a will and an inner-power that I had never found in any character before.

Villette book cover

2018 was a good year, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what 2019 has in store for me. I know it will be a challenging one, but I have high hopes it’s going to be a good one too. I wish everyone the best for the year to come, no need for silly resolutions, just do you! x

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 )

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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

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

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After the death of her father, 28-year-old Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes goes to live with her brother, her sister-in-law and their two daughters in London. There, she becomes a sort of nanny, always busy with very few moments for herself.  She is seen as somewhat of an eccentric because she never really expresses any sort of interest in getting a husband. But after years of good services, she decides to be in charge of the money that her father left her (which her brother had been responsible for so far) and rent a room in a village in the Chiltern Hills. There, for the first time in her life, as a forty something, she leads the life she wants to have and has no one to tell her what is proper to do. Her nephew, Titus, falls in love with the place, too, and decides to move in with his aunt. Laura, feeling her independence slipping through her fingers, becomes a witch and after a series of misfortunes, Titus goes back to London leaving his aunt on her own, doing whatever she feels like doing.

“The night was at her disposal. She might walk back to Great Mop and arrive very late; or she might sleep out and not trouble to arrive till to-morrow. Whichever she did Mrs Leak would not mind. That was one of the advantages of dealing with witches; they do not mind if you are a little odd in your ways, frown if you are late for meals, fret if you are out all night, pry and commiserate when at length you return. Lovely to be with people who prefer their thoughts to yours, lovely to live at your own sweet will, lovely to sleep out all night!”

I first heard about this novel in the amazing How to Be a Heroine, by Samantha Ellis. I was obviously very intrigued by the story of this middle-aged woman turning to witchcraft to gain independence. It is a very intriguing story, indeed, but not one about wizardry per say. Most of the novel tells Laura’s childhood and family history, and her life in London with her brother. Only about a quarter of the book is devoted to Laura’s life at Great Mop, the little hamlet where she finds shelter from everybody.

To me, this story reads more like a proto-feminist manifesto. Laura’s loving father taught her many thing, but not exactly how to be the perfect Edwardian housewife (the story starts in 1906, when Laura is 28). He shared with her many things that have led her to be her own person. And so the book is about Laura’s quest to be her own, on her own. Everyone who enjoys time on their own will understand Laura. Imagine your life if the only time you could have for yourself was at night, when you sleep. It would drive you insane, actually. But her sister-in-law, Caroline is very active and busy and never leaves a moment to rest to herself or Laura. So during one of her errands, Laura stops at this grocery shop and falls into a reverie and dreams of being in an orchard, where she can enjoy nature on her own.

A few hours later, she has made her decision to move away from London… on her own. Everybody is rather angry and astonished by this strange decision but here she goes anyway. At Great Mop, she is alone or at very best lonely, and she loves it. She feels young again and reconnect with some habits she had in her youth – when she was living in Somerset with her dad. It seems like a rather drastic decision nowadays that, in order to have time on your own, you have to leave everything and everyone behind… or is it? I can relate to Laura, although my move was quite the opposite of hers: I escaped my small French village to settle down in London, and there only, away from my friends and family, did I manage to find some peace of mind. Obviously, I did not have to wonder on what people would think because it is now pretty common for a woman to move away on her own. But Laura, in the end, did not have to face that problem either because at Great Mop, nobody really asked her questions on where she would spend her day or why she would roam the fields at dusk.

Three years later, Virginia Woolf asked for a room of her own to write, but in Lolly Willowes, Susan Townsend Warner is asking for a life of her own in order to actually live, and escape this state of merely living that most women – especially single – could have. As a result, this novel is very moving because it just asks for one simple thing, a thing that every human being should be entitled to have.

“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance.”

This book is also very moving because it praises a simple life, turned towards nature and simple relationships. It is quite easy to feel close to Laura because she is a very normal person, but she is also surprising in the strength of her character – which, obviously, is really enjoyable. I loved how she was just not interested in having a husband. Not because she didn’t like the men she had met, but just because she didn’t feel the need to be married. She remarks the handsome figure of her young neighbour farmer, but there is never desire for more. She also explains how she particularly liked to dance with a young woman during the Sabbath, and that may be the only hint at a sexuality. The author was a lesbian and she lived with a woman, a writer as well. However, I like to see Laura as an asexual (although the term would be quite anachronistic, I think); and having a character with no desire for sexual or romantic relationships, even today, is somehow groundbreaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lolly Willowes and would recommend it to absolutely anyone. The only problematic issue for me was that Laura got helped by Satan, who has the appearance of a man, and she recognises that she belongs to him, now that she’s a witch. Although this “man” helps her in a way that makes her independent, I couldn’t help but to think that it would have been amazing if she didn’t have to belong to anybody or anyone.

However, this is still a very modern and original book that won’t leave any reader indifferent. I have finished this story a while ago, now, and I am still thinking of it, I have so many questions! And that, I think, is a sign of a great book.

“I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed. Doing,  doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them like a housewife, and rouses them up – when they might sit in their doorways and think – to be doing still!”

2017

I am so glad 2017 is behind us, now! This year has been like the opening of A Tale of Two Cities for me: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Sheer bliss and utter despair have cohabited this year and it did not feel amazing.

As for books, this has not been a fantastic year at all. In 2015 and 2016, I read a bit more than 50 books so I set my Goodreads challenge to 60 books for 2017… That may have been a bit too much for me, or that may just have been the wrong year to set such a challenge to myself. In the end, I read 32 books – which I know is still pretty decent. I also realise that it’s a bit silly to count your love of reading in books read, because it just depends on the size of it and the pace at which you read. I was just a bit disappointed because I know that I can do better than that…

But that’s exactly the point of 2018 for me: this year will be the year of self-love, or at least an attempt at being softer with silly old me. As a result, I decided to go easy on me and set my challenge for this year to 35 books whilst keeping in mind that the important thing is to read anyway. And if possible, to read fulfilling books that make me react and think.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little summary of my reading year on here because I just love to read that sort of articles, and like to reflect on the things I read.

The shortest book I read this year was The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, which is 128 pages long. I don’t remember every detail but I still have the feeling of proper weirdness I had when I read it. It’s about a couple who’s on holiday and they meet a very strange man and the story becomes very weird, indeed. The sort of weird that you can’t really let go but that you can’t fully make sense of. The writing was beautiful, though!

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The longest book, with 590 pages, was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. This book is absolutely amazing and whilst I was reading it, I thought ‘I can’t wait to re-read it.’ – which I’d like to do this year, maybe. It’s the story of this mysterious woman who arrives in a village with her child. No one knows who she is or where she comes from, but she seems to be over-protective of her child which raises the villagers’ curiosity. Especially that of Gilbert, the main narrator, which is one my favourite male character ever, hands down. I cannot recommend reading this novel enough, it is just perfect.

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I re-read six books this year, including one of my all-time-favourites: L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream), by Boris Vian. This is the most poetic and creative book I have ever read, but it is also bleak and dreadful. Colin meets his wife, who quickly becomes sick and he has to spend all of his money in order to cure her. Meanwhile, his best friend Chick gets more and more obsessed with philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (yes it is a not-so-subtle reference to the one and only Jean-Paul Sartre) and spends huge amounts of money in fake relics. With a very jazzy soundtrack, there is also a vivid criticism of the world of work which Vian despised. I first read it when I was 14 and I am quite happy I have re-read it as an adult because I have been able to understand things a lot more and make more sense of the different messages Vian tried to convey.

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It is quite funny because the book I read in 2017 which has the best ratings on Goodreads is also the book I enjoyed the least. I am talking about Coleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us. It deals with very serious issues like domestic abuse but I was just not convinced. First, I thought it was not really realistic and I could see the writer behind every plot twist or things like that. Besides, there were a few sex scenes which made me cringe a lot. I am not a big fan of sex in novels for I often find them unrealistic and just badly written, but here it was particularly the case. I went to the London Girly Book Club to talk about it in August, and I feel like most of the girls there thought about the same as me – which I found quite comforting.

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My two favourite books of 2017 are Clair de Femme (Womanlight) by Romain Gary and How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis.

9782070296064-usRomain Gary is one of my favourite authors and I remembered why by reading Clair de Femme. It’s about this man who runs away from home because his wife is very ill and has decided to commit suicide. He thus decides to stay away whilst she does that and reminds himself of all the time they’ve spent together whilst he slowly loses his mind. This a sad, sad story but this is beautiful. Sometimes, it doesn’t make much sense because the narrator is going absolutely nuts – and you can understand why – but it is filled with poetry. I saw there is a film adaptation with Romy Schneider and Yves Montand, so maybe that can be good, who knows!

 

how-to-be-a-heroine-by-samantha-ellisLater on this year, I felt deeply in love with non-fiction thanks to Samantha Ellis’s book, in which she goes through the heroines she had when she was younger and re-evaluates them now, as an adult. It is fascinating, and very easy to relate to if you’re obsessed with books. But the reason why it made me fall for the genre is because I just loved hearing somebody’s story. Ellis comes from a very background and tells her story in such a natural and realistic way, I feel like I learnt so much with her. And she also provided me with a massive to-read list, which is always a nice bonus.

 

Anyway, 2017 was the year of massive ups and downs and I am very glad to start afresh with lots of things to look forward, and hopefully, many more fascinating books to come.

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