Friday, March 23, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

The below contains minor spoilers.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë was first published in 1853. It is the story of Lucy Snow. We first meet the book’s protagonist at age 14 when she is staying with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, Mrs. Bretton’s son, John Bretton, and Polly Home, who is a child temporarily staying with the Brettons. The narrative eventually jumps ten years into the future when Lucy, who has lost her family and is penniless, sets out for France on a quest to secure work. She eventually obtains employment at a girls’ school run by Madame Beck. After a few months, Lucy is reunited with Mrs. Bretton and John, who is now a doctor, as the mother and son have emigrated to France. Polly also returns to the circle. For a time, Lucy is romantically interested John, but he eventually falls in love with Polly. Later, Lucy and Paul Emanuel, a professor at Madam Beck’s school, become attracted to one another. Several characters conspire to keep the two apart, however. There are numerous twists and turns in the story, including the appearance of what seems to be the ghost of a dead nun who haunts the school.

There is a lot going on in this novel. At the center of it is the remarkable character of Lucy Snow. Lucy is very complex, and this complexity is difficult to summarize. On one hand, she is unassuming and unpretentious. She does not try to inflate herself or put on airs in any way. When she occasionally begins to fall into self-pity, she rouses and steels herself as she becomes more determined to push on in life. On the other hand, she is extremely spirited and articulate. When others try to lecture her, criticize her, demean women in general, etc. she responds with vigor and defends herself. Paul Emanuel is a very virtuous man who is also very flawed. Initially, he tries to browbeat Lucy for what he perceives as her immodesty and strong personality. Lucy gives it back to him and then some. Eventually, she begins to enjoy her verbal sparring and him and even goads him at times. As time passes, the verbal sparring between the two turns to something that they both seem to enjoy, and the pair fall in love. Paul Emanuel is a fascinating character is his own right. I could devote a separate post to him.

Lucy tends to see through people and pretention. She has a biting wit that she directs at bad behavior and shallowness. At one point, she turns her attention to art criticism. She is unimpressed by a picture called Cleopatra that she encounters in an art museum,

“It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude, suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat— to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids— must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She, had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material— seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery— she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans— perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets— were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor.”

I find the above passage very amusing. It illustrates much in Lucy’s personality. Her keen intellect, her strong opinions and her tendency to be critical of excess and silliness are all on display here.

Lucy is also a realist who does not believe in sugarcoating the truth. Later, she contemplates the benefits of facing up to what can be harsh reality,

“I always, through my whole life, liked to penetrate to the  real truth; I like seeking the goddess in her temple, and handling the veil, and daring the dread glance. O Titaness among deities! the covered outline of thine aspect sickens often through its uncertainty, but define to us one trait, show us one lineament, clear in awful sincerity; we may gasp in untold terror, but with that gasp we drink in a breath of thy divinity; our heart shakes, and its currents sway like rivers lifted by earthquake, but we have swallowed strength. To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage. “

The above passage says a lot about Lucy and the way that she thinks. I also find it to be illustrative of Brontë’s wonderful writing. I think that the imagery is sublime.

There is a theological conflict going on here between Catholicism and Protestantism. Lucy is Protestant. Paul Emanuel is a Catholic who is influenced by theologian friends and acquaintances that try to convert Lucy to Catholicism. The strong-willed Lucy will have none of it. There are some interesting descriptive passages that delve into the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism.  Here, it becomes evident that Lucy is capable of thinking for herself as she rejects the arguments made to her. She also recognizes that some of what she is being presented is highly biased and sometimes downright silly. It becomes obvious that Brontë herself is critical of Catholic ideology and the actions of the Catholic Church.

Lucy is not simple, however. There are other times in the book when she shies away from confrontations with others. Like a real person, she reacts differently in different situations. Brontë manages to convey this in a very believable way.

These assertive personality traits embodied in a female character seem to be far ahead of their time in the 1850s.  Plenty of strong female characters were portrayed in literature before Lucy, but the verbal assertiveness and reason embodied in Lucy seem unique, at least for a romantic heroine.

This book is not perfect. The plot moves slowly and seems to go off in various directions that I did not always find interesting. While the character development is excellent, that also seems to develop slowly at times.

I have just scratched the surface above. I chose to concentrate upon Lucy’s personality, but many other aspects of this novel would support separate posts. Though I did not think that this work is the monumental metaphysical masterpiece that I found Jane Eyre to be, there are times when Brontë reaches out in a few passages and delves into some of the big universal stuff. The prose in this book is also superb. Many of the characters are interesting and enjoyable to read about. The ending is poignant and crafted in a creative and unique way.

A Google search indicates that several critics have observed that they find this to be a better book then Jane Eyre. I would argue that is not the case. However, I found this to be a superb character study that was well ahead of its time. The book is full of other things to recommend it. Ultimately, this is a very worthy read for those who want to go beyond Jane Eyre.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Crucible of War by Fred Anderson

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 is Fred Anderson’s comprehensive study of the French and Indian War and its aftermath. For those unfamiliar with the conflict, the French and Indian War refers to the war in North America that was part of the larger world conflict known as The Seven Years War.

The conflict pitted Great Britain and her Native American allies against France and her Native American allies. It mostly occurred in lands west of the original thirteen English Colonies as well as in Canada.

Though I found this book interesting and worthwhile for many reasons, my initial reason for reading it was that the French and Indian War had a great influence upon the American Revolution, which broke out about twenty years later. I wanted to read a book on this earlier conflict. I did a little research to decide which book to read on the subject.  There are several respected histories out there. This one had a reputation of being the most comprehensive. Some reviews described it as being too academic. I did not find that to be true. Instead, I thought that this work was very accessible and understandable. With that, this is a long book. My edition was more than 700 pages in length, not including endnotes.  

This book is mostly a political and military history. Those not looking to read a lot of military history might want to avoid this one. Personally, I found this work engrossing. The structure of the book is little unusual. The first two thirds or so is an account of the war itself, with a heavy emphasis on military history. The policies and politics of Great Britain’s government are also covered in some detail.

The final third of the book covers history after the war. It is fairly heavy on analysis and makes a strong point that the French and Indian War led to the American Revolution. I found the combination of these two parts to be a little odd. The mix of a detailed political and military chronicle, with a targeted history attempting to prove a point, seems unconventional. With that, I loved reading about both the history of the war itself and the tie-in to the American Revolution.

The nature of the major fighting that occurred during this conflict is explored in some detail. Most military activity centered around British and French forts located in wilderness areas. Each side assembled small armies that traversed the wilderness in an attempt to reach, besiege and capture the other side’s forts. Native American support was key to each side. The British better managed to cultivate Native American allies, which gave them a major advantage. In the end, however, it was control of the sea that gave Great Britain her final victory as French troops and resupply to North America were eventually cut off.

As mentioned above, Anderson explores many connections between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. Great Britain ran up an enormous national debt during the Seven Years War. She was still expending large sums on protecting Canada and the other territorial acquisitions that were taken during the war. As a result, Parliament levied taxes on the thirteen colonies to help pay these expenses. These taxes were a major cause of the revolution.

New territories were also taken from France to the west of the thirteen colonies. The colonists were eager to move out and settle those lands. Great Britain, wanting to avoid conflict between the colonists and Native American tribes, attempted to close off these western territories to the colonists. These restrictions caused enormous friction. Anderson’s analysis of this issue contains his take on the philosophy that related to British ideas of Empire and colonialism. I found this line of inquiry intriguing.

 Tensions between British troops and the colonists actually began during the French and Indian War, when British generals demanded that the colonists provide quarters to British troops. Also, British troops and Provincial forces served together. Instead of harmoniously working together, this only added to the friction.

The colonists, having fielded large military forces and expended great resources during the conflict, came out of the war feeling that they had sacrificed and done their part. They felt that they had contributed to the world victory that Great Britain achieved. The British on the other hand, generally had the impression that the colonists were unreliable and hesitant to fight.

For these reasons and others, Great Britain and the American colonists were set on a collision course. Anderson writes,

The Seven Years’ War had reshaped the world in more ways than anyone knew. But the lessons both Britons and Americans derived from the conflict would prove inadequate guides when men on opposite sides of the Atlantic tried to comprehend what those changes meant, and dangerous ones when each tried to understand the actions of the other.”

This book may not be for everyone. As mentioned above, it is heavy with military history. There is an incongruity to its two parts. With that, I loved this work. Both segments were of great interest to me. I found it to be a comprehensive chronicle of the conflict. In addition, Anderson digs deeply into the reasons for the American Revolution. This is a subject that fascinates me. The book’s length provided me with a level of detail that I often look for. Ultimately, for those interested in these subjects, this is an extremely informative and fascinating book.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a very a famous work. Surprisingly, I had never read it before.  For those unfamiliar with the story, the novel tells the tale of thirteen-year-old Jim Hawkins. Most of the tale is told in first person from Jim’s point of view. Captain Flint, an old pirate, lodges at the inn owned by Jim’s parents. Flint dies of a stroke just when his old shipmates show up looking for a treasure map that Flint possesses. After Jim, his mother and local authorities fight off Flint’s old pirate friends, the map falls into Jim’s hands. Jim quickly shares the map with a local doctor named Livesey and a local Squire named Trelawney. The adults outfit a ship, bring Jim along and set sail in search of the treasure. Unbeknownst to them, most of their crew are ex-associates of Flint and are themselves pirates. When the ship reaches Treasure Island, the pirates begin to battle with the noncriminal members of the party, including Jim. A violent battle of wits and arms ensues on both land and sea. Though written as juvenile literature, a lot of people die in the fighting, and Stevenson describes the violence with some degree of detail.

I found this book to be fun and entertaining.  Stevenson is a master at depicting action and suspense.  Though his characters are not too complex, many of them are colorful and engaging creations. This is especially true of the pirate leader, Long John Silver.  I think that adults as well as young adults will find the novel enjoyable.  As an adventure story, the book holds up very well after all these years.

So much has been written about this novel that it is difficult to come up with anything original. Something I read about Stevenson on Wikipedia struck me as interesting, however. As part of the argument that Stevenson was not a lightweight author and that his works deserve serious consideration, some critics have noted that Stevenson was an influence upon Joseph Conrad.

I usually read commentary about a book only after I have read the book itself. However, I read the Wikipedia snippet before reading the bulk of this novel. As a result, I was on the lookout for similarities with the writing of Joseph Conrad.  Most obviously, both authors explored nautical themes.  However, the similarities go further.  I found the parallels between the two writers most apparent when it comes to descriptions of nature. In particular, certain descriptions of the jungle in Treasure Island bore a resemblance to the descriptions of some things that I read in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The following is a description of the landscape of Treasure Island,

"Grey-coloured woods covered a large part of the surface. This even tint was indeed broken up by streaks of yellow sand-break in the lower lands, and by many tall trees of the pine family, out-topping the others— some singly, some in clumps; but the general colouring was uniform and sad. The hills ran up clear above the vegetation in spires of naked rock. All were strangely shaped"

and later,

"the look of the island, with its grey, melancholy woods, and wild stone spires, and the surf that we could both see and hear foaming and thundering on the steep beach"

Compare this to Conrad’s description of the African jungle in Heart of Darkness.

"There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps."

 and later

"the great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not."

 I wrote about these passages in Heart of Darkness here. I do not find that Stevenson is as skilled a writer as Conrad. Nevertheless, his descriptions of nature are excellent and atmospheric. There seems a certain similarity between the authors that manifests itself in these quotations.  It is interesting that Stevenson uses adjectives like “melancholy” and “sad” to describe the vegetation. There is also something “strange” about the hills. Conrad also ascribes various attributes relating to emotion to describe the jungle.  Conrad’s jungle seems more complex, however. He endows the jungle with all sorts of human emotions.  His use of the words “monotonous grimness” seems similar to Stevenson.

As I have previously written in my commentary on his works, I think that Conrad is delving deep into all kinds of symbolism as it relates to human psychology. Though Stevenson, writing at an earlier time, may not match Conrad’s intricacy, he also was interested in humanity’s tendency to have a light and a dark side. That was prominently displayed in Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. I detect a little of this duality in Treasure Island as the good and bad of the various characters is compared and contrasted. In the passages that I posted above, Stevenson does not seem to be highlighting anything evil about the nature or the jungle, however. Instead, he is exposing the sad, the melancholy and the strange. Is this a reflection of the mind of Jim who is viewing the jungle? Is it a reflection of the world?

In the case of Conrad, I have little doubt that he is trying to reflect something about the human condition in his description of landscapes. In the case of Stevenson, I am not sure if this was intentional or not. Either way, he seems to have influenced Conrad.

I think that fans of either one of these authors will find something worthwhile if the give the other a try. Both of wrote compelling works. Both were very skilled at describing nature while delving into the mysteries of human nature.