The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe: B-

From the back cover:
‘Her present life appeared like the dream of a distempered imagination, or like one of those frightful fictions, in which the wild genius of the poets sometimes delighted. Reflection brought only regret, and anticipation terror.’

Such is the state of mind of Ann Radcliffe’s orphaned heroine Emily St. Aubert, who finds herself imprisoned in her evil guardian Count Montoni’s gloomy medieval fortress in the remote Apennines. Terror is the order of the day inside the walls of Udolpho, as Emily struggles against Montoni’s rapacious schemes and the threat of her own psychological disintegration.

Wikipedia says it best: “The Mysteries of Udolpho is a quintessential Gothic romance, replete with incidents of physical and psychological terror; remote, crumbling castles; seemingly supernatural events; a brooding, scheming villain; and a persecuted heroine.”

As the novel begins, Emily St. Aubert lives with her parents on a small estate in Gascony in France, where they dwell happily disengaged from the world and enjoy hanging out together amongst nature, thinking virtuous thoughts, and composing insipid poetry. These tranquil days come to an end when Emily’s mother dies of an illness. When her father soon after contracts it himself, they embark on a journey to the seaside where his health might be restored. Ultimately, he too passes away, but not before meeting and approving of Valancourt, a noble young man who develops a fancy for Emily.

After her father’s death, Emily is delivered into the custody of her aunt, Madame Cheron, an odious social climber who derives much enjoyment from the “exercise of petty tyranny” and refuses to consent to an engagement between Valancourt and her niece until she learns he has some wealthy relations. Meanwhile, the flattering advances of an Italian named Montoni secure him Madame Cheron’s hand in marriage, and soon the family is whisked off to Venice, where Emily pines away for Valancourt and composes more shitty poems. Eventually it becomes clear that Montoni hasn’t much money and is connected with some shady people, and the family dashes off once again, this time to the gloomy and isolated castle known as Udolpho.

At Udolpho, Emily is assigned a room to which a secret passageway connects, hears ghostly voices, spies apparitions on the parapet outside her window, and lifts a black veil on the wall in a secluded chamber to reveal a scene of such horror that she faints for the fourth out of what will be a total of eleven times. Montoni pressures Emily to marry a wealthy count, but she refuses to give her consent. After enduring threats and trickery on this point and others, Emily escapes in an anti-climactic fashion and returns to France with the intention of joining a convent. Ultimately, Emily and Valancourt reunite and there is much angst about the life of dissipation he led in Paris. Their storyline ends in a predictable fashion, but a few of the other small, lingering mysteries offer surprises.

While I can by no means claim that The Mysteries of Udolpho is a good book, it’s nonetheless an entertaining one. Though it has many flaws at which one might enjoy snickering, the depiction of Udolpho is a vivid one; I’m sure most readers, like me, find the middle section of the book to be most interesting because of the castle setting. I also appreciate that Valancourt is not depicted as the perfect hero, but is often hot-tempered and impulsive. Still, problems are abundant, and I shan’t shirk from enumerating them.

Firstly, and most significantly, Emily is fairly annoying. She’s sweet, graceful, pretty, skilled in the elegant arts, and keenly aware of propriety. This means she doesn’t actually do very much. She seeks to embody “the placid melancholy of a spirit injured, yet resigned,” which means she’ll suffer the horrible behavior of her aunt and Montoni to a highly frustrating degree, or permit misunderstandings to linger when some very basic explanation would clear up the matter. She occasionally shows some backbone and pride, but is equally likely to demonstrate incredible stupidity, like when she’s unable to tell the difference between the corpse of a strange man and that of her presumed-dead aunt. (If you believe this sight makes her faint, award yourself a cookie.)

Secondly, the writing is annoying. I’ve read classics before and am accustomed to there being more commas present than I would deem necessary today, but The Mysteries of Udolpho is positively inundated with them. Here’s a particularly egregious example:

As she walked round it, she passed a door, that was not quite shut, and, perceiving, that it was not the one, through which she entered, she brought the light forward to discover whither it led.

There is also a great deal of weeping and trembling going on. I consulted an e-book edition and, in a total of 831 pages, the word “tears” is used 199 times. “Trembling” yields 89 results. Assuming that each usage of “tears” is the only one on a page, that means that for nearly 25% of the book, someone is crying!

Lastly, I didn’t find The Mysteries of Udolpho to be at all spooky. “Atmospheric” is about as far as I would go in that direction, though I did enjoy the way Emily’s imprudently chatty maid, Annette, freaks out over various creepy circumstances. More than a horror novel or ghost story, the book reads as a kind of moral lesson, best summed up by Radcliffe herself in the novel’s penultimate paragraph:

O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!

In the end, I’m glad to have read The Mysteries of Udolpho, particularly because I’ll now be able to understand the references made to it in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. And I admit I had fun counting how many times Emily faints.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: B+

From the back cover:
Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece of the duality of good and evil in man’s nature sprang from the darkest recesses of his own unconscious—during a nightmare from which his wife awakened him, alerted by his screams. More than a hundred years later, this tale of the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll and the drug that unleashes his evil, inner persona—the loathsome, twisted Mr. Hyde—has lost none of its ability to shock. Its realistic police-style narrative chillingly relates Jekyll’s desperation as Hyde gains control of his soul—and gives voice to our own fears of the violence and evil within us. Written before Freud’s naming of the ego and the id, Stevenson’s enduring classic demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the personality’s inner conflicts—and remains the irresistibly terrifying stuff of our worst nightmares.

In his lecture on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is used as the introduction to this edition, Vladimir Nabokov urges readers to “consign to oblivion” (what a great phrase) their assumptions about the work. Thanks to myriad adaptations, the image of milquetoast Dr. Jekyll gulping a potion that turns him into a huge, monstrous creature is pretty much ingrained in our brains. In actuality, the original book is quite different.

The tale is told from the perspective of Gabriel Utterson, a friend of Henry Jekyll who also serves as his lawyer. Utterson is troubled because of a recent amendment to Jekyll’s will, which stipulates that in the event of his death or disappearance, his money should go to a man named Edward Hyde. The more Utterson learns about Hyde—his cousin, the “unimpressionable” Enfield, relates a story in which (pale and dwarfish) Hyde trampled a little girl and inspired in one a feeling of immediate hatred—the less he likes this arrangement. Thinking Jekyll is somehow being blackmailed by Hyde for “the ghost of some old sin,” he earnestly attempts to help extricate his friend, but Jekyll is curiously unwilling to accept aid.

There’s a fun feeling of fog-filled suspense as Hyde becomes a murderer and fugitive—and as Jekyll first becomes more sociable then a total recluse—until Utterson is eventually summoned by a servant to break into Jekyll’s office where they find not the doctor but Hyde. The truth comes out in a series of sealed confessions, which, though they contain the truth about the transformation, are actually rather anticlimactic. I bet reading this completely unspoiled was quite fun, though it’s virtually impossible for anyone to have that experience now.

Although I feel like the story is too short and doesn’t come to a very satisfying conclusion, I nonetheless enjoyed the read and was particularly impressed by Stevenson’s powers of description. In just a few lines, he describes Utterson so well that I found it easy to visualize him completely.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.

I think the part I love best is “scanty and embarrassed in discourse.” Here’s another great example, describing Dr. Lanyon, another friend and a respected scientist.

This was a hearty, healthy, dapper, red-faced gentleman, with a shock of hair prematurely white, and a boisterous and decided manner. At sight of Mr. Utterson, he sprang up from his chair and welcomed him with both hands. The geniality, as was the way of the man, was somewhat theatrical to the eye; but it reposed on genuine feeling.

Economy and clarity will always be qualities I admire, I think. It makes the writing feel fresh, despite its age. (And to achieve this when “written in bed, at Bournemouth on the English Channel, in 1885 in between hemorrhages from the lungs,” as the intro informs us! If I was suffering hemorrhages the last thing I’d be capable of is penning a classic!)

Though it be short and, to us, predictable, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains a worthwhile read.

Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: A

From the back cover:
A celebrated playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde also penned incomparable nonfiction and fiction—and lovely gem-like fairy tales. Filled with princes and nightingales, mermaids, giants, and kings, his tales carry the mark of his signature irony and subtle eroticism. This volume brings together all the stories found in Wilde’s two collections, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. Published here alongside their evocative original illustrations, these fairy tales, as Wilde himself explained, were written “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”

I was first made aware of the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde by Stephen Fry, whose recording of six of the stories is nothing short of delightful. This print edition has its charms, too, including three additional tales as well as illustrations and a great introduction that acquaints readers with not only the tragedies of Wilde’s life but with the fond recollections of his friends. I’d say it’s worthwhile to invest in both.

Wilde published two collections of children’s stories and both, obviously, are included here. On one level, the stories are amusing and imaginative, featuring a bevy of talking animals—whom Wilde often uses for satirical purposes, as with the mother duck in “The Devoted Friend” who frets that her children will never be in “the best society” unless they can stand on their heads—and even a sentient firework with delusions of grandeur. Often, though, a surprising degree of darkness is also present, as various characters die, realize the suffering they have caused others, commit valiant acts of self-sacrifice for ultimately no purpose whatsoever, and persist in their misguided ways despite the best attempts of others to show them the light.

In these stories, Wilde mingles the fantastic with the quotidian and the heartwarming with the bittersweet in a way that really appeals to me. Here are my three favorite examples (spoilers ahead):

In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale overhears a student bewailing his plight: the woman he loves has agreed to dance with him at an upcoming event if he brings her a red rose. Alas, there are no red roses in his garden. The bird, believing him to be the very embodiment of true love, which she is always singing about, tries everything in her power to procure such a flower for him, ultimately deciding that it’s worth sacrificing her own life for the sake of love. And what is the recipient’s reaction to the rose when it is presented to her? “I’m afraid it will not go with my dress.” It ends up in the street and is promptly run over by a cart. The end.

A similarly awesome ending can be found in “The Star-Child.” One winter, a pair of poor woodcutters are returning to their homes when they see what appears to be a falling star land nearby. When they get there, they find a baby, and one of the men takes it home. The boy grows up fair and comely and becomes vain and cruel because he is convinced of his own lofty origins. One day, a beggar woman shows up to claim him as her son, but he rejects her. This action renders him ugly, and he spends the next three years in search of the woman to beg her forgiveness, learning mercy and pity along the way and sincerely repenting of his former actions. A happy ending seems imminent when he not only gets his looks back but is revealed to be a prince, but Wilde concludes the story (and A House of Pomegranates as a whole) with the following paragraph:

Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. And he who came after him ruled evilly.

The end. Is that not amazing?

My very, very favorite story, though, is “The Happy Prince.” Once upon a time there was a prince, and he was happy while he lived in his isolated palace and remained ignorant of the world outside. After his death, the townspeople erected a beautiful, gilded statue in his honor and set it on a tall column, from where he can see (with his sapphire eyes) all the misery in the city that he could not see before. One day, a swallow—delayed in departing for warmer climes because of his devotion to a fickle reed (“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows. “She has no money and far too many relations.”)—lands near his feet and becomes the messenger for the Happy Prince, plucking out his jewels and stripping off his gold and delivering them to the poor and needy.

The swallow eventually succumbs to the cold, but not before sharing a kiss with the statue he loves. The mayor, once he notices how shabby the statue has become, decides that one of himself would do much better and pulls it down. Here, instead of a wholly sad ending, Wilde offers up a sweeter alternative that sees both the statue and the bird rewarded for their benevolence. It’s an immensely satisfying tale that also portrays pure love between two males, though they be not human; I like it immensely.

The one author of whom I was reminded while reading these stories is Neil Gaiman. I’m now convinced he was at least partly inspired by Wilde, so, if you’re a fan of his short stories, you might like these as well!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith: D-

ppandzFrom the back cover:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy.

What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield. Can Elizabeth vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.

The plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is generally well known. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy meet, do not get along, form incomplete and incorrect notions of each other, see the error of their ways, and eventually end up living happily ever after. To this scenario, add some zombies, toilet humor, and a whole lot of innuendo and you have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Except that’s not entirely true, because somehow by adding more, Seth Grahame-Smith has robbed the original of nearly every bit of charm it possesses.

The version I read was the deluxe heirloom edition, which, in evident response to criticism about insufficient zombie presence, includes “new words, lines, paragraphs, and all-new scenes of ultraviolent mayhem throughout.” The black-and-white illustrations of the original edition have also been replaced by color paintings. Judging by what I’ve seen of the former, this is a vast improvement, even though Elizabeth looks to be wearing the same white gown throughout the entire novel. In the preface, Grahame-Smith describes how he came to be involved in the project (he was unfamiliar with the novel until the idea was suggested, and this definitely shows) as well as how he wrote it by obtaining an electronic copy of Austen’s novel and inserting his own text (appropriately colored red), vowing to change at least one thing on every page. Sometimes the changes are indeed just a word here or there, and sometimes entire excursions to a nearby village to fend off some “manky dreadfuls” are shoehorned in between two paragraphs. Not content to merely add text, Grahame-Smith seems to delight in removing it, as well. Among the casualties are many of the cleverest examples of Austen’s snark, especially those that reveal character, like when Austen writes of Mr. Bingley’s sisters that they “indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations.”

To fit the story, the characters have changed as well. Some—like Jane and Mr. Collins—manage to emerge essentially unaltered, but the leads are very different. Elizabeth is bloodthirsty, quick to consider violence as a response to dishonor, and at one point yanks out the still-beating heart of a ninja she has just defeated and takes a bite. Ew! Darcy not only has zombie-fighting prowess, he’s now a lecherous git. He’s scandalously rude to Miss Bingley, whose transparent advances he fended off in the original with implacable politeness, and often makes lewd remarks, like, “On the contrary, I find that balls are much more enjoyable when they cease to remain private.” Again I say, “Ew!” I used to adore this couple and now I don’t like either of them! Other crass (and needless) adjustments find both Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner engaged in extramarital affairs, Mrs. Bennet afflicted with recurring bouts of nerve-induced vomiting, and Wickham grievously injured seemingly for no other purpose than to allow for repeated references to his newfound incontinence.

By and large, the zombie encounters are boring and pointless. In this regard, I think Grahame-Smith might actually have been better served by altering the story even further. If the undead menace had progressed to such an extent that our protagonists were forced to undertake a final climactic battle, for example, then their presence might’ve been leading up to something. As it is, the biggest effect the zombies have on the plot is in providing explanations for the sudden departure of Bingley’s party after the Netherfield ball and Charlotte Lucas’ acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr. Collins. Grahame-Smith invents a number of “dear friends” of the Bennets to serve as zombie fodder, but these passages—like the Christmas visit from an entire zombified family—are so embarrassingly banal I truly hope nobody reading this book without foreknowledge of the original thinks Austen’s work contained anything similar.

To sum up: this is exceedingly awful. Grahame-Smith butchers the characters of Pride and Prejudice more effectively than a horde of zombies ever could. I would almost go so far as to say that I outright hated it, but every so often, an untouched bit of Austen would shine through the muck and make me smile for an instant. Now I’m going to try very hard to forget I ever read this.

Other reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can be found at Triple Take.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: B

From the back cover:
From its sharply satiric opening sentence, Mansfield Park deals with money and marriage, and how strongly they affect each other. Shy, fragile Fanny Price is the consummate “poor relation.” Sent to live with her wealthy uncle Thomas, she clashes with his spoiled, selfish daughters and falls in love with his son. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of a pair of sophisticated Londoners, whose flair for flirtation collides with the quiet, conservative country ways of Mansfield Park. An outsider looking in on an unfamiliar and often inhospitable world, Fanny eventually wins the affection of her benefactors, endearing herself to the Bertram family and readers alike.

I feel very much that I ought to love Mansfield Park, Austen fan that I am, but I simply can’t. With any Austen novel—satirical as they are—one is bound to encounter excessively foolish and self-aggrandizing characters. I fully expect that and am accustomed to disliking a few in each novel. I did not, however, expect to dislike nearly everyone, which is lamentably the case with this novel.

Fanny herself is the biggest problem. She’s meek, weak, weepy, and irksomely virtuous, to the point where other characters annoyed me simply because they gave her fodder for her hand-wringing. Her cousin Edmund, our ostensible romantic hero, isn’t much better. He’s a wet blanket, too, fond of lecturing others about what is right, but also a hypocrite, since his objections to the scandalous idea of producing a play at Mansfield Park are easily overcome when he learns one additional man is required to play the suitor of his lady friend, Miss Crawford.

Everyone else is self-absorbed, indolent, or deluded to varying degrees. Though Fanny’s personality is the biggest blow to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, the character I hate most is actually Mrs. Norris (though at least with her I can feel assured that this doesn’t run counter to Austen’s intentions). She’s Fanny’s aunt, a frequent visitor to her sister and brother-in-law at Mansfield Park, and is fond of claiming charitable acts for herself that she actually had no part in executing, getting into everyone’s business, and making snide remarks about Fanny at every opportunity. No wonder J. K. Rowling named Filch’s cat after this odious woman! The only character I truly like is Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, for he’s one of those gruff but kind paternal types that I can’t help but love.

The plot itself, like Austen’s other novels, involves the social interactions of several country families, with the importance of marrying well uppermost on everyone’s minds. The back cover blurb quoted above says that Fanny “wins the affection of her benefactors,” but that implies that Fanny actually does something to bring this about. In reality, Fanny pretty much sits back, sticks to her principles in refusing one undesirable suitor, and, when he is proven a rake and her female cousin disgraced, is suddenly valued for all of her propriety.

Thus brings us to the inevitable conclusion, wherein Edmund realizes that Fanny would make a better wife than Miss Crawford. There’s no romance leading up to this, since he spends the majority of the novel longing for the latter and often employs Fanny as his confidante in this regard. Though I am probably supposed to be happy for Fanny at this outcome, I instead find it pretty icky. True, Fanny has sheltered romantic feelings for Edmund throughout the novel, but he has always treated her very properly like a close relation. In fact, as he ponders the match, he holds hopes that her “warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.” To that I must say, “Ew.”

Although I had plenty to complain about, Mansfield Park is still an Austen novel, which means that the writing is excellent and the characters vividly drawn and memorable. Though it’s my least favorite of the four I’ve read so far it by no means decreases my regard for her in general.

Emma by Jane Austen: A

From the back cover:
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable house and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

With this opening sentence, a reader might seem quite justified in thinking Jane Austen to have painted herself into a corner. What could possibly happen from here? In Austen’s comedic masterpiece, however, Emma fancies herself a superb judge of human character and becomes entrenched in the amorous affairs of her friends. In doing so, she remains oblivious to her own romantic possibilities, and the resulting comical misunderstandings are highly entertaining.

This book is the acme of Jane Austen’s work, wry and funny all at the same time.

Merriam-Webster defines bildungsroman as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that fit that description more than Emma.

I didn’t much care for the title character at first. In fact, she initially reminded me of Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, dispensing unsolicited advice and basing many of her opinions on assumptions and an inordinate amount of focus on social standing. I found myself gleefully anticipating her comeuppance.

When she did begin to improve, Austen handled the transition incrementally, using friends to prompt Emma to give up meddling or urge her to accept a social engagement she’d believed beneath her notice. She learned from rebukes and mistakes and gradually became someone more likeable. The feminist in me tells me I should be perturbed that so many of these chastising remarks were delivered by her eventual love interest, but since Mr. Knightley was my favorite character, I can’t really be bothered.

The events of the plot were somewhat predictable, in a “the young lady introduced into the story in act two must be destined for the young man introduced not long after” sort of way. A big secret revealed toward the end was not a particular surprise, and also seemed recycled from Sense and Sensibility. Also, as I’m coming to find common in Austen’s novels, the sillier characters were given such free rein to display their ridiculousness that they really got on my nerves.

The end of the novel, however, was satisfying. I liked the way in which Emma was forced to finally realize her feelings for Mr. Knightley, as well as the mortification and regret over her past conduct that ensued. The conclusion could be called too tidy, I suppose, with no one left lonely or unhappy, but I found no fault with it.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome: B+

From the back cover:
“There were four of us—George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency.”

Three men, and a dog, in a boat on one of the prettiest waterways in the world—the Thames—in summer. Idyllic, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps, if George hadn’t insisted on camping, and if someone had remembered the can-opener, and if… well, maybe not idyllic, but certainly hilarious, as you’ll discover when you take the trip yourself with three men and their dog.

Typically, things deemed “hilarious” rouse in me only a smile, but this book really did elicit a large quantity of giggles and one all-out cackle. This last, however, was the result of a bit of creative license taken by the fabulous narrator, John Rainer (who sounded like a cross between Sylvester McCoy and Ringo Starr—a compliment, I assure you!), where he added some panting sound effects to a bit of doggy dialogue. I seriously rewound it, like, six times and made other people listen to it, too. His performance was responsible for making this book even funnier than it ordinarily would have been.

The premise of the book was simple: believing themselves to be generally ill, overworked, and in need of rest, a trio of friends decided it would be beneficial to their health to have a jaunt up the Thames. What followed was a mix of travelogue, silly mishaps and escapades, random and tangential musings, and the occasional rhapsodic ode to nature. The majority of the time, these were entertaining—I particularly liked the segments on “delights of early morning bathing” and “disadvantages of living in same house with pair of lovers”—but occasionally, especially in the case of the rhapsodic odes, it got rather dull. It seemed the end was especially laden with these episodes and so, in consequence, dragged.

I was a fan of British humor to begin with, but I definitely enjoyed this book more than I’d expected to. I’ve heard the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, isn’t quite as amusing, but I’ll probably check it out all the same. Rainer doesn’t appear to’ve recorded it, alas.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: A+

From the back cover:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Thus memorably begins Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the world’s most popular novels. From the initial friction between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennet and the arrogant, wealthy Mr. Darcy, this witty comedy of manners dips and turns through its interlocking plots to reach an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Filled with highly entertaining dialogue, Pride and Prejudice is, in the words of Eudora Welty, as “irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”

There isn’t much that I can say in praise of Pride and Prejudice that hasn’t already been said often and better. So, instead I shall just enthuse on various things.

I love that Darcy secretly despises those who constantly court his approval, and loves Elizabeth for her liveliness of mind and playful, unaffected manner.

The writing is snarky and very cleverly wrought, with sentences like: “Their indifference towards Jane, when not immediately before them, restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her original dislike.”

I adore Mr. Bennet, especially his amusement in the foolish behavior of others. Best line (occurring in a scene where his wife expects his cooperation in furthering her aims): “Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

There are many great scenes, but my favorites are possibly those at the Netherfield ball, where most of the members of the Bennet family behave in a highly embarrassing fashion and where Darcy and Elizabeth have a conversation about Wickham whilst they dance. I also quite enjoy his bungled first proposal.

The minor characters are often very amusing. They’re also capable of grating on the nerves, though, especially Lydia and her absolute lack of repentance after her scandalous behavior with Wickham.

So, I find I concur heartily with the quote above. “Nearly flawless,” indeed.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton: B+

From the back cover:
Full of enthusiasm, young English schoolmaster Mr. Chipping came to teach at Brookfield in 1870. It was a time when dignity and a generosity of spirit still existed, and the dedicated new schoolmaster expressed these beliefs to his rowdy students. Nicknamed Mr. Chips, this gentle and caring man helped shape the lives of generation after generation of boys. He became a legend at Brookfield, as enduring as the institution itself. And sad but grateful faces told the story when the time came for the students at Brookfield to bid their final goodbye to Mr. Chips.

This was a charming little novella that trod a little close to sentimentality sometimes but was nevertheless a pleasant thing to spend a morning reading. Hilton well conveyed the peaceful atmosphere of a British boarding school at the turn of the century, and also made some bittersweet points about everything that once seemed so important eventually fading out of collective memory.

I also liked the discussion of teaching itself, particularly as Mr. Chips at one point felt that he was capable of giving service but not inspiration—the very reason I myself recently stopped teaching. Having comparable experience, I can also affirm that this statement is completely true: “In my mind you never grow up at all.”

Many live action adaptations have been made of this book; it’s definitely the kind of story that one could expound upon without violating the intent of the original material. I think I shall be investigating some of them.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: A+

Book description:
Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility is a wonderfully entertaining tale of flirtation and folly that revolves around two starkly different sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. While Elinor is thoughtful, considerate, and calm, her younger sister is emotional and wildly romantic. Both are looking for a husband, but neither Elinor’s reason nor Marianne’s passion can lead them to perfect happiness.

Startling secrets, unexpected twists, and heartless betrayals interrupt the marriage games that follow. Filled with satiric wit and subtle characterizations, Sense and Sensibility teaches that true love requires a balance of reason and emotion.

I had never read this before. And I call myself an Austen fan!

There is much to recommend this book, but primarily I would say that the characterizations were its best asset. It can’t be easy to create a very sensible character like Elinor, and yet perfectly convey that she is also a person of great feeling and compassion or to create a very emotional one like Marianne, and yet also make clear that she isn’t flighty or stupid. Additionally, Austen populates the novel with a host of memorable minor characters, at whose expense she occasionally engages in some breezily skewering satire. Here’s a favorite passage of mine:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one’s attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished.

If pressed to note a flaw, the only thing I could mention is the character of Edward, and Elinor’s feelings for him. Because they are formed before the start of the novel, and then Edward is never quite himself on his subsequent appearances, I didn’t really get why she loved him.

As a random observation, I was struck with how often the Dashwood sisters were compelled to accept invitations they would have preferred to refuse, be it to reside in a certain house for a time or to spend time associating with tiresome people. Once there, they often had to sit around for hours being bored or discussing which of a pair of children was the taller. Dreary! Happily, the same cannot be said of Sense and Sensibility.