A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster

Every once in a while, I turn back to a book that I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy at all) in my  early teenage years, only to find that my experience of the book has completely changed.

So it was with A Room With a View. While I didn’t read the book until I was about 16, I believe I must have first watched the film when I was about 10 (and this is one of those instances where the film is astonishingly loyal to the book).

A Room With a View

This was the first film I saw Helena Bonham-Carter in, which has made her subsequent films quite startling.

When I first watched and read A Room with a View, it was in the same sort of way that I generally read classic romances (a dreadful habit I need to get out of): as a character study with a love story in it. I think that A Room with a View  can still definitely be read in this way – after all, there are so  many interesting characters in this novel.

However, this is the first time I have read the book, and felt something deeper in it – understood a sort of moral standing within it, I mean, which can definitely be applied to one’s own life. In this instance, the novel suggests a way of living that is true to yourself, and true to decency, while disregarding the niceties of society.

The View

The story follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who is travelling in Europe with her poor older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two of them are shocked to meet two men in their Pensione in Florence who not only come from the working class, but also disregard tact – when they mention dissatisfaction with the room they’ve been given, the men (Mr Emerson and his son George), immediately offer them their own room in exchange. Note: this is considered inappropriate because it leaves the two women beholden to strange men.

While they are in Florence, Lucy finds herself in a number of situations which challenge her ideas of how to behave; she is separated from her chaperone while exploring the city, witnesses a murder, and finally finds herself being kissed by George, in a field above Florence. Charlotte convinces her that George views this as an exploit, and they leave.

In the second part of the book, Lucy returns home with her new fiance Cecil (in the film, played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Cecil

This was also the first film I saw Daniel Day Lewis in – which made all his other film roles even more of a shock than those of Helena Bonham-Carter.

Cecil is a bit of a snob – he looks down on her friends and family as being too middle-class, closed-off, and not interested enough in the higher things of life (such as art and music). He is actually a fascinating character: he doesn’t become a villain at any point, when it would be very easy to make him one. Nor is he particularly ridiculous. His one fault is that he is a restraining influence on Lucy, wanting her to fit into a particular mould, mix with particular people and live in a particular way.

I will leave the ending to you to discover, but I will say that this is a wonderful book, both as a character study of Edwardian society, and as a way of understanding a radical lifestyle lived in an unobtrusive manner. It is well worth reading, and also very short. Also, the film is lovely.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a Plantagenets binge lately, and no mistake!

As you might remember from my glowing review of Blondel’s Song, I am a massive fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart. She’s just incredibly interesting. And so it was with some excitement that I turned to Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England. After all, Blondel’s Song only featured Eleanor tangentially – here was a whole book on the subject!

Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover

Unfortunately, I was… a bit disappointed.

Alison Weir certainly did her research for this book, and there’s a great deal of information on Eleanor’s life and the lives of her children and husbands. And, since Eleanor’s life and times were so interesting and over-the-top (have you ever ridden dressed as an Amazon on crusade? Because it seems Eleanor did), there is still a lot to interest an amateur historian here.

However, I’m just not sure who the book is designed for. It seems to be giving information too basic for someone with prior knowledge of the era, but too detailed for someone reading out of general interest. There is, in fact, too much information, and it is quite densely written. Take this paragraph, for example:

The House of Capet had ruled the country (France) since 987, when the feudal lord Hugh Capet had been elected king after the death of Louis V, the last monarch of the Carolingian dynasty, which descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. The surname Capet, which probably means ‘cap-wearer’ or ‘cape-wearer’, was not used for Hugh until the thirteenth century, and the dynasty he founded was not referred to as Capetian until the eighteenth century.

The paragraph comes from a chapter on the relationship between Aquitaine and France. There is just so much going on here: the name of the dynasty of French kings, the establishment of said dynasty, information on the previous dynasty, the meaning of the name… And, in my opinion, we don’t really gain from knowing all of it, since what we really want to know is how this relates to Eleanor’s life.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor, and possibly her children and grandson.

I did get some things from reading this; it covers the entirety of her life very well, so I now know a lot more about her activities following the death of Richard. However, for a basic level of interest in the topic, I would say: go for Blondel’s Song, or just watch The Lion in Winter.

H is for Hawk and To the River – a review

As you know, I have only just begun reading non-fiction for pleasure. Already, I have found a genre I rather like, although the specificity of this genre makes it difficult to say whether it really counts as a genre, or possibly even as a sub-genre.

In both H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, and To the River, by Olivia Laing, the authors are women who, on experiencing a loss – in the former the loss of a father, in the latter the lose of a partner at the close of a relationship – take solace in an earlier, natural, pleasure.

In H is for Hawk, this pleasure is falconry. Macdonald decides that, in the wake of her father’s death, she should begin one of the greatest challenges for those who tame birds of prey – she chooses to train a goshawk. Her desire to tame the hawk is tied up with T. H. White’s horribly botched attempt to do the same thing, as he described in The Goshawk. While she, unlike White, actually knows what she is doing, their anxieties, and the desire to escape from humanity and be loved by their birds, are definitely the same, and binding.

Olivia Laing,meanwhile, chooses to walk down the length of the river Ouse. Her book has less focus on a single person who has gone before – although the spectre of Virginia Woolfe’s suicide in the river frequently hovers over the pages of the book. Instead, she relates a number of historical people and events linked with the river and its surroundings.

The reason why these two books seemed the same, in some way, is more than the semi-autobiographical, semi-historical content, and more than the desire to flee into nature: it is also, in a strong way, the tone. Both writers meander back and forth between their own lives and the lives of their subjects. Both writers also discuss strange physical reaction to natural surroundings, which seem to suggest a sort of madness that comes from leaving human society. For Laing, the effect of sunlight upon grass, for example, becomes a kind of blinding, golden glow; for Macdonald, bushes and trees become some kind of plantlike people who stand, motionless, in the background of her hawk-flying.

Both books have a slight feel of delirium to them (actually, Macdonald is diagnosed with depression at a late stage in her book, but seems to have expected the feelings she was having since they mirror White’s), and both suggest, in a way, a strange mixing of past and present in particular pastimes. They are both excellent – I have learned an awful lot about Sussex and about T. H. White from them, but most certainly not in a dry manner/ These are the sort of books that mix history, nature and the soul, and make the world seem a more interesting place when you emerge.

The Abundance, by Amit Majmudar

Mala and Ronak are adults now. They’ve married, begun their own families and moved away from the suffocating world of their first generation immigrant parents. But when they learn that their mother has only months to live, the focus of their world returns to her home.

Having shown little interest in the Indian cuisine they eat at every gathering, Mala decides to master the recipes her mother learned at her own mother’s knee. And as they cook together, mother and daughter begin to confront the great divisions of their lives, and finally heal their fractured relationship. But when Ronak comes up with a plan to memorialise his mother, the hard-won peace between them is tested to its limits.

The cover also attracted me: it was possibly the most colourful book I could find.

The cover also attracted me: it was possibly the most colourful book I could find.

When I bought this book, from a W.H.Smith in Victoria station, I was tired. I was tired, a little grumpy from travelling and the extra one-and-a-half hours I had yet to travel on Southern Rail, and I was just looking for a simple and gentle read. Besides, I had already picked out another book, and it was buy one get one half price.
The blurb was what attracted me to this book: it looks like a typical women’s bonding book. You know the sort of book I mean: women come together and learn empathy and such. Now, this is not by any means the kind of book I actively enjoy, but it’s a safe choice for a relaxing read and a destraction from my growing terror of travelling via train.

Having made these assumptions, I was a little surprised by the actual contents of the book. First of all, I thought that it would be written from the perspective of the daughter, or in the third person, whereas actually it is written from the perspective of their mother. This makes it a great deal more interesting, especially because of the sympathy which Majmudar has for his main character. She is an Indian-born woman living in America. She is firm in maintaining her traditions, most of all the tradition of the mother literally nurturing the family through food. While I am not familiar with Indian traditions myself, Majmudar manages both to be sympathetic to his narrator and to her children (who pursue a far more Western lifestyle).

While I initially thought that The Abundance would be about a mother and daughter bonding over food and cooking, it is in fact about a family. The impending death of the mother through cancer is used as a catalyst for her to reflect on their lives together, as well as the death of her own mother. Mala and Ronak are both interesting characters as we see them grow up, especially when they are seen through the mother’s eyes – she learns things about them, which were originally hidden, all the time.

This was a beautiful book to read, one of those which feels somehow nurturing to the soul. It encourages readers to think about the way others behave with compassion, rather than judgement. I would recommend it to anyone with a horrendous train journey, or a stressful day, ahead of them.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, originally published under a pseudonym. Its title refers to the feeling which the narrator has of being trapped under a bell jar, and unable to breathe. Credit for this artwork goes to lazykitsuneReading The Bell Jar was a very odd experience for me. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the main character and narrator, recalling her experiences in New York. She is a poor girl, who won an opportunity to live in a hotel in New York, working at a magazine. The beginning chapters of the book are all, in my opinion, terribly dull – tales of dinners that Esther attends, her friends getting up to no good, steering her down the wrong path and so on. Frankly, it reads like a kid’s TV show with a moral to it.

Then, the tone changes. Esther returns home from New York, and finds that her life lacks direction and meaning. It was at this stage that I realised the first chapters had not, in fact, been an after-school special, but had been dull for a reason. Esther’s unhappiness and depression was, to an extent, present the whole time, and can be read from the beginning.The rest of the book, detailing Esther’s downward spiral, is wonderful. It details the experiences of depression in an incredibly realistic manner – as might be expected, given that Sylvia Plath suffered from depression, and tragically killed herself a month after The Bell Jar was first published in the UK. Sadly, the book’s theme, that of a young person being depressed, has made it a symbol of teenage angst, and a quick search on google shows that this is not entirely unfounded.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

One of the reasons why it stikes such a chord with the angsty teenage crowd, among others, is because it reflects the ways in which so many people can feel alienated, and find difficulties with life’s demands. It is far from a cheerful read. Indeed, it so vividly portrays the detatchment of depression that the reader is at risk of becoming detatched and gloomy themselves. It would not make for good bedtime reading, but for a greater understanding of the mind, and the serious problem of depression with which a number of people today still struggle, I believe that no book written can match it.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowleged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There is something about a really beautiful beginning to a book which just makes me smile. Same goes for The Odessey. And the wonderful thing about the beginning of Pride and Prejudice is that it is one of those quotes that everyone knows, or at least recognises. Type it into Google, incidentally, and it links to the Wikipedia post on Irony.

It’s going to be hard for me to write about Pride and Prejudice and say anything bad about it, because it’s been almost an ever-present novel for me ever since I was eleven years old and watched the BBC miniseries.

Yes, this adaptation.

Yes, this adaptation.

Soon after that I read the book for the first time, watched the miniseries a lot more times, was bombarded by references in popular culture (a Lot in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice), and was baffled at the speed with which Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen got through their lines in the 2005 film adaptation.

Needless to say, I like it. A lot.

The basic plots of Jane Austen novels are more or less identical. I say this lovingly – she took one basic formula and added on characters and situations which make a massive difference so that you can’t easily confuse her novels. The formula goes like this: a middle-class, Regency-era young woman meets, or is already friends with, a man. She gets a crush on another man, who turns out to be horrible in some way, or lying to her. The first man saves the day, she realises she has loved him all the time, and they marry. Then the dramas of additional characters are added on.

In Pride and Prejudice, our young woman is Elizabeth Bennett, who is one of five daughters. Her father is not wealthy enough to give them all dowries (money to recompense their husbands for the expense, basically), and because of what is basically the Will of an ancestor, they are not going to inherit their father’s estate after his death, because they are all female. Her First Man is Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has a large estate in Derbyshire and is very rich, but is also a bit rude. Darcy has a wonderful character – he is rude, but in part it seems it is because he is shy, or things come out the wrong way sometimes. Elizabeth casts her eye instead on Mr Wickham, who claims to have been wronged by Mr Darcy. Mr Wickham turns out to be a nasty piece of work, who seduces 15 and 16 year old girls to get their dowries.

But he's not as seductive as this...

But he’s not as seductive as this…

Mr Wickham proceeds to seduce Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia. In those days, and for the middle class, this meant that a woman was shamed for ever – and her chances of marriage would be gone. Luckily Mr Darcy saves the day by paying a dowry for Lydia and forcing Mr Wickham to do the right thing and marry her. He proposes to Elizabeth, who accepts (he also did this earlier, but was a bit of an arse and she turned him down).

Jane Austen was a very witty and cynical woman, and this is really shown to its best in Pride and Prejudice. From the very beginning we are shown her sarcasm in the form of Mr Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, her ability to create ridiculous yet realistic characters in Mrs Bennett, and one of her strongest heroines in Elizabeth.

To continue Jane Austen month, next week’s review will be on Emma.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel with a message.

That message is “you are living life wrong”.

Urgh.

D. H. Lawrence frowns on your fakeness!

So, the novel is most famous for its sex scenes. These, and the fact that the main characters swear, led to it being a banned book. This led to the most famous British obscenity trial ever, in which it was claimed that the novel is not obscene.

In my mind, that does not prevent Lady Chatterley’s Lover from being really truly horrible.

The novel focusses on Lady Chatterley, also known as Connie. She married Lord Chatterley because she found his mind interesting, and he was then disabled in WWI (and can no longer have sex). She grows depressed, then has affairs – first with a playwright and then with the gameskeeper. She and the gameskeeper fall in love, and she leaves her husband.

Connie is originally built up pretty well. She is a young woman interested in getting interesting experiences in life, and not that interested in sex. Her marriage to Clifford (Lord Chatterley) keeps her from anything new – she is more or less trapped in an industrial part of the country which horrifies her, and has little access to anyone other than her husband, who she realises that she doesn’t care for. Once she starts her affair with Mellors, the gameskeeper, however, she changes to become somewhat selfish and unfeeling, not appreciating anything in life and thinking that everything and everyone is fake and tacky.

The character of Mellors is almost impossible to like, from my point of view. It is also a bit of a problem: he is supposed to be a Real Man, unlike most other men. So far, so good, but that means that he must express himself as he pleases – and he generally wants to be unwelcoming. I can understand that the point is that he is not subservient to those who consider themselves above him, but when this means being generally standoffish and speaking in his vernacular rather than the more generic English he normally speaks, it feels as though he is trying to put peoples’ backs up and thus make himself superior to them. And is that the point? He also gives endless speeches on how no real men or real women exist anymore, and people fool themselves into thinking that things are real. He alone knows the secret to be happy, and despite that he himself is not happy, nor is he trying to improve anyone else’s life. Also he never tells Connie that he loves her, not even when she asks him to say it.

Finally, a word on the sex scenes, since they must be mentioned.

They are not very sexy. Unless you like the idea of naming your genitalia and chatting to it (his is called John Thomas), and unless you think that sex should be quick and animal-like, this may not be the book for you. Oh, also, if you have any friends who are fans of Sean Bean and want to torture them, you can find extracts of the adaptation in which he plays Mellors on Youtube.

We came off together that time… it’s good when it’s like that.

Reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover made me quite sad. It has such a gloomy vision of the world, one in which the human race is only getting worse, where the working classes care about nothing but money and the upper classes care about nothing at all, one in which only this one couple truly care about one another. It may be a great work of art, but I just can’t see it.