How are the Mighty Fallen…

11:48 AM 15 JULY 2018

I haven’t tackled Thomas Hardy since my high school syllabus, but what a treat I had been denying myself. Various maxims spring to mind from this book (‘you reap what you sow’; ‘no man is an island’; ‘what goes up…’) emerging from the chronicled life of Michael Henchard. From very humble beginnings as a twenty one year-old hay-trusser, the main character is hard to like. He is deeply flawed on a number of levels and yet it is surprisingly fascinating to bear witness to the harsh fate which inexorably catches up with him.


As early as the first chapter, Hardy deliberately seeks to discomfort the reader, when a drunken Henchard sells his wife (Susan) and newborn child (Elizabeth-Jane) for five guineas. Notwithstanding his subsequent sense of shame and self-imposed repentance in the sober light of day, this repugnant act haunts his private life and has the attendant potential to also scupper his subsequently crafted image as the first citizen of Casterbridge.


Fast forward eighteen years and the reappearance of Susan with their now adult daughter offers the chance to make amends, but the intervening years have generated an inevitable trail of complications and though circumstances have changed, Henchard’s tempestuous nature has not. Yet, it is the tension between the social norms of English society at the time and Henchard’s earthy country perspective which is a constant source of friction. The mayor has risen to the gentrified classes a ‘self-made’ man, to be partially shackled by upper class expectations. In some ways Henchard is courageous, proud and willing to withstand public opprobrium, but he is also ruthless, manipulative and selfish, a powerful man used to getting his way (undoubtedly another key adage of the story is that ‘with power comes responsibility’).


In any event, this book is a beautifully written, unsentimental fiction, which transports the reader to a pre-industrial Wessex, by no means a bucolic idyll, but rather a class-ridden, male-dominated site of incessant struggle. Nevertheless, the characters are masterfully constructed and Hardy manages to marshal the reader’s emotions from outrage and anger through to triumph and pity, as the label of ‘victim’ seems to alight, at different times, across the cast of characters. A thoroughly absorbing read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Bygone Terrorism, A Not So Distant Memory…..

9:46 PM 26 MAY 2018

The list of ‘classic books’ yet to fill my waking hours is long, but whilst I am embarked on a lengthy (albeit belated) campaign to put that right, I was inspired to elevate this Dickens novel based on a recommendation read in ‘The Big Issue’. Alas, I don’t remember the name of the celebrity endorser, but my reasoning was that if the book is worthy of inclusion on anyone’s list of five favourite novels, it has to be worth a read. In any event, it proved a good call.

The titular cities are of course London and Paris, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the capital cities of England and France were presiding over tumultuous and historic social change. As our Gallic cousins warmed to the task of revolution and the permanent overthrow of their aristocracy through systemic decapitation, a newfound population of Anglophiles crossed the channel to escape the carnage. However, what is so delightful about Dickens’ approach to this dramatic backdrop and a hallmark of the author’s writing, is his primary focus on the working and middle classes and an exposé of his characters’ experiences, amid the shifting tectonic plates of European politics. Dickens can also be relied upon to craft for the reader extravagant phrases in which to luxuriate and there can be few more famous openings.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Lightit was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

The novel is split into three ‘books’. ‘Book the first’ (“Recalled to life”), set in 1775, introduces Mr Jarvis Lorry, dutiful employee of Tellson’s bank and regular traveller between the firm’s London and Paris offices. He is to chaperone Miss Lucie Manette, whom he previously escorted to safety in England upon the death of her parents, back to Paris, to explore news that her father may in fact be alive. Dr Manette was a physician of some repute and has been imprisoned for many years ‘in secret’ before being released, an apparently broken man, to the dubious care of his former servant, Monsieur Defarge, now proprietor of a wine shop in the St. Antoine district. Indeed, Dickens’ description of the garret room in the attic used to incarcerate Dr Manette, as surely as the Bastille, the pitiable occupant and the loathsome landlord quickly establish for the reader a vignette of the approaching tempest and the descent into wider chaos.

Book 2 – “The Golden Thread”, picks up the story in London five years later (1780) and establishes Manette’s daughter, Lucie, as another key character. Uniting her father “to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery…” Lucie dotes on her resurrected father and nurses him back to relative health and in so doing comes to the attention of another imperilled refugee from France, Charles Darnay and the two English lawyers who help successfully defend him from a charge of treason at The Bailey.

Notwithstanding Darnay denounces his heritage, the nephew of a despised French Marquis, any return to the country of his birth is likely to be fraught with danger. Moreover, his marriage to Lucie and their subsequent child confers similar risks to his family. Throughout, Dickens cultivates a stark contrast on either side of the channel and the operation of Tellson’s bank as the means of connecting affairs in Paris and London feels remarkably contemporary. But, while England plays host to the peaceful pursuit of life among family and friends, exemplified in Charles and Lucie, in France Monsieur and Madame Defarge are at the eye of the revolutionary storm. By 1792, the rising tide of discontent is watched ominously, as the Monseignor are scattered and take to their elite heels. For those with foresight, a foreign bank is a sensible depository for assets, but also acts as a magnet for revolutionary agents, to ensnare the treacherous upper class and slake the public thirst for bloody retribution.

However, though safely ensconced in England, when Darnay receives a letter from an imprisoned loyal servant of his family, clearly he does the honourable thing and returns to France, leaving letters for his wife and father-in-law.

Finally, Book 3 – “The Track of a Storm” magnifies the tension surrounding Darnay’s inevitable imprisonment and impending execution, through the selfless courage of his family and friends, who attend despite the risks. The cat and mouse tactics of Madame Defarge especially, desperate to seal the fate of the whole family, merely preying on casualties of a depraved process of social cleansing.

Still, cometh the hour, cometh the man and the final sacrifice is tragically heroic, but Dickens also reinforces the notion that nobility of character is not the sole preserve of the aristocracy. Indeed, the doctor, the banker, the lawyer and the daughter are all exceptional in their courage and fortitude and provide a glorious panoply of the human spirit. Again, Dickens has the turn of phrase to match the poignancy of the moment

“…It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

For me, this is tale that stands the test of time and though the reader glimpses exceptional demonstrations of love, its examination of the corrupting potential of power is the more potent lesson, as is the need for good people to show courage and resolve for what is right. 

In a timely update of the story, an adaption by BBC Radio 4 last weekend also gave the tale a contemporary twist, linking London instead with Aleppo (Syria). It remains powerful stuff, though perhaps sobering that the human experience continues to incorporate such destructive tendencies centuries later.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Peasants are the real heroes…

4:50 PM 10 JUNE 2017

That’s the thing with free ‘purchases’ on the Kindle isn’t it, one wonders ‘why’? Is the offering so value-less? Even with the pedigree of George Eliot there is a temptation to look such a gift horse tentatively in the mouth. But, I needn’t have worried.

Published in 1858, “Adam Bede” was the author’s second novel and came more than a decade before “Middlemarch” (see previous review) and yet it turned out to be wonderfully self-assured. Set in Hayslope in Loamshire, which we learn is in the north midlands, the book focuses on a slice of nineteenth century pastoral life, but Eliot’s examination of social divisions and connections across class, gender, generations, religion, wealth, etc has some powerful resonance with contemporary Britain. For example, preaching by Christian women (150 years later and still being debated!!); the moral conundrum of support for the poor; teenage pregnancy; gender inequality; and even the responsibility of powerful elites to wider society.

As the title of the book suggests, the central character is Adam Bede, who is a master carpenter and curiously in this homage to the humble working man/woman, Eliot offers a compelling antidote to the modern obsession with fame and celebrity. Indeed, the book deliberately lauds several characters of substance and I particularly liked Lisbeth Bede (Adam’s doting mother), Dinah Morris (who might equally have been entitled to entitle the book, if you see what I mean) and Mrs Poyser (wife of a local farmer and a complete tartar). Each of them is made all the more praiseworthy in that they must make their respective ways without the advantages conferred by privileged upbringing. Moreover, the characters are buffeted by the twists and turns of life, but it is their capacity to ‘do the right thing’ in the context of their respective social codes that set them apart. What Eliot seems to be implying is that it can be very difficult to warrant the deceptively simple epithet of a ‘good’ man/woman and consequently they represent the best of us. Yet, they are “…reared here and there in every generation of our peasant artisans – with an inheritance of affections nurtured by a simple family life of common need and common industry, and an inheritance of of faculties trained in skilful courageous labour…..They have not had the art of getting rich, but they are men of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who employed them says, ‘Where shall I find their like?’ “

This shining of a perceptive light on the value of the industrious working class was rather more interesting to me than tiresome tales of the innately powerful and rightly elevates the author among her Victorian peers.

Curiously, at a couple of points in the book, Eliot affects a ‘time-out’ and proceeds to explain her approach to the story. “So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dread nothing indeed but falsity…. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult.”

This could be perceived as almost an apology for a tale steeped in realism, which might be deemed banal and yet, I found the book thoroughly absorbing. Rather, it was this signposting, explicitly leading the reader to understand an underlying theme and not trusting for it to be gleaned from the narrative that was interesting, but slightly odd.

Adam Bede is seen as quite eligible in his community and has set his cap towards local beauty Hetty Sorrel, but she in turn has come to the attention of the heir of the local squire, Captain Arthur Donnithorne. Indeed, the story deftly describes two successive love triangles, with Adam featuring in both, but these are hardly mainstays of the book. Instead, it is the strength of the ‘supporting cast’ that truly sets this book apart and the meshing of the various cogs in the community machine that mesmerize the reader as smoothly as the engine in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Certainly that compelling desire to know what happens, not only to Adam, but to half a dozen characters, is the hallmark of a great read. And ‘love’ in its many guises – romantic, familial, communal – triumphs, not in some mushy sentimental way, but as the warm oil that soothes the heat and grinding of components.

For me, the only grit in the Eliot machine was the language, which, true to form, was also kept ‘real’. That is, the Loamshire dialect was written as pronounced,and slowed my reading until I got the hang of the rhythm. But, even that faint criticism had faded by the end and on reflection was absolutely right for the rural inhabitants and further separated the workers from their (not so much) ‘betters’. I don’t give out five stars lightly, but then my favourite shelf is fairly sparse too and yet I have placed Adam Bede there with little hesitation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.