The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (2013)

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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.

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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!

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

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!

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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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.