Review: Basil

Basil

Basil (Oxford World Classics), Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1852).

Summary: The account of a secret marriage between an aristocrat’s son and the daughter of a shopkeeper and all the ways things went terribly wrong.

You are the second, and favored son of a wealthy aristocrat. Your older brother, Ralph, is alienated from your stern father because of his indiscretions. Your sister, Clara, adores you, and delights in your company and wants only the best for you in all things.

And then one day you are smitten with a young girl you see on an omnibus–so smitten you discretely follow her home. Subsequently you see her in her window, talking to her parrot. You know this is love. You learn she is Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, a shop keeper well below your social class. You know your father would never countenance such a relationship. Keeping your intentions secret from him and your sister, you manage an interview with Margaret’s father, speaking of your love, and seeking her hand in marriage. Mr. Sherwin agrees on one condition–that they marry in a week but not consummate the relationship for a year. He also has to take an insurance policy on his life. Without consulting anyone, he accepts. And so begins a strange relationship that eventuates in a betrayal, insanity, exile, death and mortal danger to the title character.

Basil goes through with the wedding, and is permitted to see her regularly, chaperoned by Mrs. Sherwin, who seems disturbed in some way about all this. Basil keeps all of this secret from his family. They know he has a secret, which estranges him, even as they respect the secret in their rectitude, and in Clara’s case, her affection and concern. At first, things seem wonderful between Margaret and Basil, with evenings spent reading and talking together.  Then Mr. Sherwin’s assistant Robert Mannion returns, with whom Mrs. Sherwin is decidedly uneasy. Margaret’s mood seems to change at this time, even as Mannion acts with unfailing courtesy toward Basil, even welcoming him to his apartment on a stormy night. As they part, a bolt of lightening illuminates Mannion’s face, giving it a sinister appearance. Only on the evening before the year is up does Basil discover the evil when he spots Mannion escorting Margaret, not to her home, but a hotel room!

I won’t spoil the rest of the story except that this is where the tale of insanity, betrayal, mortal danger, and death comes in–along with an element of family revenge. The buildup to all these things occupies roughly the first half of the book, and, at least this reader found himself wanting to shake Basil and alert him to how he is being taken advantage of by this conspiracy of father and daughter, and of the sinister Mannion. Ah, love is blind! It is the second half that is riveting as all of this blows up in Basil’s face, and his secret is exposed to his family. These pages seemed to read much more quickly, particularly as we discover the mania of Mannion (interesting name for a character!).

This is early Wilkie Collins, his second novel (the first was destroyed) and second publication, the first being a memoir on his father’s life. The plot seems a bit to obvious, and the characters are caricatures to a certain degree. It is obvious that Collins can tell a story, in this case through a first person narrative of the title character, and the story redeems some of the other flaws.

There are at least two aspects of Victorian society that Collins exposes. One is the rigid class structures that prevent marrying below one’s class and engender both the harsh rectitude of Basil’s father, and the resentments of Mr. Sherwin and the vengeance of Mannion.

The inferior place of women in this social structure also is in evidence. Basil and Mr. Sherwin really decide Margaret’s fate. Mrs. Sherwin is silenced (at least until the climactic events of the story). Clara is the loving but ineffectual sister. Ralph, the outlaw brother, is the one who gets things done. Margaret can only assert her wishes through manipulation, or an adulterous affair.

It seems here that Collins evolves in his later fiction. Consider the contrast between these characters and Valeria in The Law and the Lady (review). The Victorian structures still exist, but Collins has begun to envision stronger women characters and more creative plot possibilities for them.

If you are a Wilkie Collins fan and have read works like The Moonstone, or The Woman in White, or the above-mentioned The Law and the Lady, you will find this work of interest not only for the themes, but to see the development of Collins’s skill. If you are just discovering Collins, one of the first to write in the genre of crime fiction, I would go with either The Moonstone or The Woman in White first, and if you find you like him, then delve into other works, including this, the earliest published of his novels.

 

 

Review: Adam Bede

Adam Bede

Adam BedeGeorge Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (first published 1859).

Summary: A tale centering around the love of Adam Bede, a woodworker, for Hetty Sorrel, a dairy maid who is eventually tried for murder of her infant child, conceived in an affair with the local squire, Arthur Donnithorne.

One reviewer of this book wondered why this book was not titled Hetty Sorrel. It’s a fair question. So much of the story seems to center around Hetty, the niece of tenants Mr. and Mrs. Poyser, who works with them as a dairy maid. She knows she is beautiful and one to turn the heads of all the young men around, including the hard working, respectable Adam Bede, a woodworker. Instead she falls for the son of the local landowner, Arthur Donnithorne, who woos her into a love affair, which he breaks off when forcibly shown the error of his ways by Adam. Unknown to either, Hetty is pregnant. Finally, Hetty recognizes Adam’s qualities and agrees to marry him, until realizing she is pregnant and can no longer conceal her condition. She flees to London, seeking Arthur’s help. But he is far off in Ireland. During a harrowing return journey, she gives birth, then abandons her child to die, and is arrested for murder.

It turns out that Eliot indeed wrote the story around a real-life incident in which a similarly afflicted woman, Mary Voce, murdered her child, was tried and sentenced to death. This edition includes journal entries from Eliot describing the genesis of the book in this incident. Why then should the book not have been titled Hetty Sorrel?

The answer, it seems to me, lies in the portrayals of a number of the other characters, local figures of no great distinction, as ordinary people with both foibles, and great qualities of character leading to actions that sustain the fabric of a rural community, and when tragic errors rend the fabric of local life, act with quiet wisdom and grace.

Chief of these is Adam Bede, elder brother of Seth and son of Lisbeth, the widow of a drunkard. His hard work as a woodworker gains the respect of all around, and while his father was living, finishing much of his neglected work, including a coffin on the night when he drowned in a local creek after a drunken binge. Eventually, his childhood friend, Donnithorne, taps him to manage his forest while the owner of the carpentry workshop is hoping Adam will succeed him, and even marry his daughter. It is Adam who searches for Hetty when she does not turn up when expected and keeps vigil during her trial.

But there are others. There is Dinah, the Methodist preacher, the object of Seth’s love, not to be returned but who has a way of gently coming alongside all from the elderly to children who are in distress, eventually including Hetty. There are the Poysers, salt of the earth farmers, she of strong opinion but warm heart, he of sturdy affection and integrity. Rev. Adolphus Irwine, the local rector, is no religious firebrand, but exhibits quiet pastoral wisdom that seems “the word fitly spoken” in every situation. Crusty Bartle Massey, the schoolmaster, cares deeply for the pupils of his night school, Adam chief among them. Even Arthur Donnithorne, now the landowner when his grandfather dies, is transformed by the tragedy, perhaps in ways surprising to the other principals.

This passage, full of insight, representative of many, reflects Eliot’s focus on the development of character among all these “ordinary people”:

“For Adam, though you see him quite master of himself, working hard and delighting in his work after his inborn inalienable nature, had not outlived his sorrow–had not felt it slip from nature, had not outlived his sorrow–had not felt it slip from him as a temporary burthen, and leave him the same man again. Do any of us? God forbid. It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it–if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness” (p. 487).

Yes, Eliot could spin some long sentences! Yet as I followed her into this story, I was reminded of the instances in real human life in the communities of which I have been a part of ordinary people, decent people who meet tragedy and grow through it, acting with resolve and compassion toward each other and sustaining the bonds of society. She challenges our attraction to superficial beauty and charisma, and calls us to a quiet greatness of character that endures.

Don’t Judge a Classic by Your High School Experience!

Publisher’s Weekly recently ran a post titled, “10 Classic Books You Read in High School You Should Reread.”  Most of the post is devoted to a list, which by and large I think is pretty interesting. The writer notes that there are some choices that would evoke a “meh” from him, such as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter.  Not sure I would agree with either, even though the latter was pretty tough going. Here are some of my thoughts about why we shouldn’t write off the “classics” we struggled through in high school.

1. Most of us were more pre-occupied with the girl or boy sitting next to us than what the whale symbolized, or the complexities of sexuality we encountered in Anna Karenina that were still years ahead for us.

2. In high school, we just didn’t have that much life experience to find the life experience in these works making much sense. It seems to me that one of the attractions of Young Adult fiction is that it connects to current, not future life experience. I also suspect for this reason, it will be less interesting as these Young Adults go on in life.

3. Conversely, as we do go on in life, we need works that explore life in its complexities and ambiguities, that explore the depths of human experience and character.

4. Not all high school teachers were created equally. Some were able to capture the imaginations of their students enough to have them explore worlds beyond their own in the literature they read and then find the connection back to their own world. Others were less inspiring and not a match for the works they were called on to teach, as valiantly as they tried.

5. Hopefully you are a better reader now than then, though that cannot be assumed. As I explored in “Digital Brains?” our internet usage may militate against the kind of attentive, slow reading great books require. Along the way, I hope you have had to do enough of the attentive, focused reading that you are able to engage the worlds of classic writers.

I really didn’t get into Steinbeck in high school. Reading him more recently, I discovered what a great work East of Eden  is and the profound insights into mid-life, and human nature more broadly that we gain in Winter of our Discontent. What I find as I go on in life that I hunger for something deeper than quickly browsed stories on the internet, tweets and status updates. I long for something deeper than I find in a “beach read”.  Centrally, my faith answers to that longing, but great works that explore the human condition also capture my imagination and “read” me.

What high school classic have you reread and what was your experience.?

 

When is a Book “Great”?

A post in Salon this week by Laura Miller on “What Makes a Book a Classic?” raises again a perennial and oft debated question. It’s a great post and I’d encourage you to read it. I thought I might take a slightly different tack because one definition of “classic” is that it has stood the test of time, which automatically disqualifies recent authors, including the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, who Miller mentions. I’ve not read David Foster Wallace yet although I have Infinite Jest on my Kindle, and I have to admit that Slaughterhouse Five is the only Vonnegut book I’ve read and that I actually gave up on it.

What I want to explore is what makes a book “great”? Certainly this is also open to debate but this framing allows for current as well as “classic” books to considered. As you consider my criteria, keep in mind that I am not and have never been an English or Literary studies major but rather am simply a dedicated reader who wants to read great books because there is not enough time to read everything.

1. A great book explores great questions about life, questioning both my assumptions and even my questions. Whether it is Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesan, or Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, it explores the large issues of love, relationships, grace, justice, life, and death and the Ultimate.

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2. A great book matures as I mature. At very least it stands the test of the times of my life. If a book speaks to me at 30 and speaks more profoundly at 60, there is something to it. If I come back to a book and find myself asking, “what did I ever see in that book?”, it may have been entertaining, interesting or even significant for a particular time in my life–but it’s not great. I’m re-reading Pilgrim’s Progress right now and it makes far more sense to me than when I read it in my twenties. This suggests that our early judgments on a book should be provisional. Maybe an immediate clue is that I want to read the book again on completing it because I have a sense that there is “more” there.

3. Normally, great books reflect the elements of good writing in terms of plot (if fiction), character development, narrative, pacing, organization of ideas, felicity of expression, etc. As Miller notes, there may be exceptions such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I’m also convinced that our standards of “good writing style” have changed over the years.

4. Great writing can be found all over the bookstore. Miller notes that a book is “classic” to booksellers if that is the section where most people look for it. It might be a George Will book on baseball or Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln or Ray Bradbury in science fiction or St Augustine in theology. One of the things I realize I haven’t thought about is how widely this applies. Is there great horror writing, or romance novels, or dystopian fiction (I guess 1984 might qualify here)?  This also raises the question of whether there are genre-specific criteria of greatness.

5. A great book is becoming part of a sub-cultural or cultural conversation. It keeps coming up as the standard of reference around its subject matter. You can’t talk about Russian fiction without talking about War and Peace.

6. I do think that whatever the genre, great writing somehow helps me understand and better live in my world. It clarifies rather than distorts reality, it leads to greater self-understanding, and evokes “the better angels of my nature.”

What are your thoughts on great writing? What, for you are examples of great writing?