Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Classic Club September Meme: Jane Austen and Émile Zola

Jane Austen.
Émile Zola.
This month's Classic Club question:
"Select two classics from your list (by different authors) that you have finished reading. Now switch the authors, and contemplate how each might have written the other's book. For example, what if Charlotte Brontë had written David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens had written Jane Eyre? How might the style, focus and impact change in a work of literature by a different author's pen? What about William Shakespeare writing Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Austen writing The Taming of the Shrew? Etc. If you discuss the story, please of course remember to warn folks plot details are forthcoming."


Pride and Prejudice by Émile Zola.

Pride and Prejudice (Orgueil et Préjugés) was one of Émile Zola's later novels, written a decade after Germinal, Nana, L'Assommoir, and Thérèse Raquin. It is believed to be one of the last novels of his famous Rougon Macquart series, to be published between The Debacle (La Débâcle), 1892, and Doctor Pascal (Le Docteur Pascal), 1893, however Zola himself rejected the novel not long after its completion.

In it, Zola tells the story of sisters Elizabeth and Jane Benné, distant cousins of Gervaise Coupeau (née Macquart, who we meet in L'Assommoir, 1877), who was the daughter of Antoine Macquart and Joséphine Gavaudan (who we meet in The Fortune of the Rougons, 1870). Elizabeth and Jane's father, Monsieur Benné was once a wealthy man, however his wife, Madame Benné (née Macquart) who is typical of the immoral and unruly Macquarts, ruined him. Driven by frustration and envy, she sought to outshine her wealthy (though equally immoral) cousins the Rougons, and she encouraged her husband to speculate what little he had on shipbuilding, and by luck and sheer bloody determination he was successful, however, as we learn at the start of the novel, driven to despair at his unhappy marriage and to pay his wife's debts, he eventually ruins himself and his family with alcoholism, and he relies on the marriages of these two sisters in order to pay his many debts. His wife is unsympathetic and infuriated: trapped in a loveless marriage, she endeavours to ruin Benné, even if it means ruining Elizabeth and Jane's only chance to escape. She plays the fool, however we quickly learn her intentions.

The book begins in a prison cell: Benné has once again been imprisoned and his wife (despite secretly sitting on a fortune made from silk-smuggling) tells him she is unable to pay for his release. His future bleakly staring him in the face, Madame Benné remarks, "We all know, my dear, there are rich men, married or not, in Paris more than willing to pay a great fortune for a young wife - let one of them have our Jane". And so it begins, Madame Benné guides Benné into laying the foundations of Jane's marriage to Monsieur Le Charles, a wealthy and attractive man who has made his fortune in constructing the recently erected Eiffel Tower (1887). He is a good man, but lacks the confidence and spark of his close friend and colleague Monsieur D'Arcy of Aquitaine (south west France), whose fortune appears to know no bounds. Madame Benné conspires with her younger daughter Lydia, a prostitute working on the streets of Paris, and she, Lydia, bribes Monsieur Le Charles, into meeting Jane. Madame Benné, unbeknown to Le Charles, then poisons Jane, and he insists upon her staying at his home and being attended to by his own doctor.

Elizabeth, Jane's closest sister, visits her sister daily. She is a sharp tongued, sarcastic, and violent young woman, who, sadly like her father, inherits his love of alcohol and gambling. She first meets D'Arcy in the home of Le Charles, her feet filthy and covered in cuts and bruises from walking barefoot through Paris. D'Arcy is disgusted, barely disguising his contempt for her as he shows her in to see her sister. Recognising this, Elizabeth decides to get her own back, and from that day she regularly outstays her welcome (also partly to avoid a debt collector, Monsieur Collin, nicknamed "the Rev." owing to his frequent quoting of the Bible, particularly "Vengeance is mine" as he collects his debts) and the two sisters lie in bed together dreaming of a better future even after Jane has long recovered (Le Charles, in his naivety, mistakes Jane's laudanum addiction for illness). Though, essentially, they are not likeable characters (both are foul-mouthed, and are constantly in trouble for theft and, in Elizabeth's case, violence) I couldn't help but warm to them. As with the other Rougon Macquart novels, a great deal of the emphasis is on heredity and environment. Both sisters were brought up in the filthiest part of Paris and their manipulative and scheming mother has clearly had a great impact on their characters. One cannot help but wonder how different their lives would have been if, for example, they had been brought up in the countryside, with a father who loved books instead of betting, and a mother who really was as simple-minded as she pretended to be.

But this is not Jane Austen, this is Émile Zola, and he crafts a dark and bleak tale in which he rails furiously against the injustice and hypocrisy of Second Empire France. Ultimately, we learn of D'Arcy's own laudanum addiction, and Le Charles eventually loses all of his money as a consequence of trying to save his friend from losing his family's fortune. In Elizabeth, D'Arcy sees himself, and, in her revenge for his prejudice, she does all she can to distress and provoke him. Driven mad, he falls in love with her and begs her to marry him, sobbing how unwillingly he loves and admires her, but she rejects him. Humiliated, he takes to walking the streets at night, and one night he fails to return; a week later his body is found in the Seine. Whether or not he killed himself is for the reader to decide. Meanwhile, left destitute and racked with guilt over the death (or suicide) of his friend, Le Charles leaves Paris for London and is never heard of again, though there are some vague hints that Le Charles too dies.

Elizabeth and Jane are therefore left unmarried, and because of their various schemes they are left undesirable and so are of no use to Madame Benné. Their fate is unknown (perhaps to be revealed in the final of Zola's Rougon Macquart novels, Doctor Pascal). The book ends almost like it began: Monsieur Benné is once again found in prison, but this time his wife refuses to see him. It is Lydia who he turns to, and final words in this disturbing and distressing scene are from Lydia, who reminds him that they still have two other sisters, Kitty and Mary, to save them.

It is one of Zola's bleakest tales, and also one of his angriest. He highlights the hypocrisy of Paris's pride in its two representatives, Le Charles and D'Arcy, who are, in the former's case, intensely naive, and in the latter's, deceptive and prejudiced. Neither are any better than the Bennés, despite their money and despite D'Arcy's pretensions. Although the actions of the sisters essentially lead to the ruin and death of these two men, they are, conversely, the victims of Paris and the Second Empire. They are left homeless, however their craftiness will ensure their safety. How life will turn out for Kitty and Mary, however, is also uncertain.


L'Assommoir by Jane Austen.

L'Assommoir (1813) is Jane Austen's second novel published after Sense and Sensibility, and is her only novel in French, however Austen decided against publishing it, frightened that it was "rather too light, and bright, and sparkling" (a quote is frequently misapplied to Pride and Prejudice).  It is one of Austen's warmest and most comic of novels.

The title literally translates as "The Stunner" and refers to Austen's beautiful heroine Gervaise, who is born and brought up in the Hertfordshire countryside. Her father is Anthony MacBennet, a country gentleman who is kind and generous, though often distracted by his studies, and her mother whose fortune supports the family. The novel begins with Gervaise sitting at the window of the nursery with her younger siblings pining after the dashing Captain Lantier, who has gone to war. Though passionate, Gervaise is an intelligent and reasonable young woman, essentially embodying the Neo-Classical philosophical inclinations of the turn of the 19th Century. Though she suffers at his departure, she keeps her feelings hidden: not even her best friend, Mrs. Boche is aware of the strength of her love. When Gervaise learns of Captain Lantier's marriage to the high society Lady Adèle, she strives to forget him.

Gervaise is a wonderful creation - she is bright, lively, and sociable despite her upset. Her joie de vivre and her love of books, her friends, and her sisters, as well as her willingness to adapt to circumstances ensures her happiness. Through Mrs. Boche she meets Mr. Coupeau, an attractive, rich, and deeply intelligent man, and despite the many twists and turns along the way she marries him (the description of the wedding procession and reception in Bath alone is worth reading this novel!). They live happily together in Bath, and have a daughter (Anna).

It is, as I say, one of Austen's warmest books, very witty, and it does indeed sparkle, however it is not to be dismissed as "fluff". Like many of her novels, she explores social class and its impact on marriage. However well-meaning Captain Lantier is, he proves unsuitable and the reader is ultimately left relieved that they did not marry. Gervaise's willingness to change and adapt prove to be essential to her happiness, and I believe she was most suited to Mr. Coupeau, and I wonder how their marriage (and indeed their daughter) turned out...


So there it is! If Zola wrote Austen and Austen wrote Zola, how different would the world of literature be....?

Monday, 1 September 2014


September! This is one of my favourite months, it's so full of beauty and possibility. Even though I graduated from university nine years ago I still feel the electric buzz of new starts, new books, and new notebooks! I love this time of year, and October too, the equinox (vernal or autumnal) is such an exciting time.

I'm happy to be leaving August. It's been a sad month, though three good things came from it - a new Classics Club list (which I have to admit I altered slightly despite declaring I wouldn't any more, now, though, I'll leave it alone!), and the two baby budgies - Zola and Pepys. They're doing very well and are in the very early stages of being tamed. My only goal is to get them to sit on my hand and be able to move them, and I can just about manage both but only when they're very tired. As for the hens: they're all well, though not enjoying all the rain we've been having. Daisy's finally learned that it's not good to get wet: until recently I've had to bring her in from the rain, but now she does it herself. And they're getting on almost perfectly (Charlotte's very irritable when it comes to even the very idea of someone stealing her food, and Daisy's very greedy so it's sometime to keep an eye on. But apart from that it's all good). 

As for reading: I'm nearly at the end of my 20 Books of Summer: I have half of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot, and The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope left, and the goal is to finish them by 23rd September (first day of autumn). And I have The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky to read for my Classic Club spin. Since around the end of May I've had a very rigid reading list, which is something I will never do again! Once I've finished these titles, the only book I'm really planning on reading is Keats: the Poetical Works. If I can, I would like to get to Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford, but I'll see. I've been meaning to read it for far too long!

So, there are the September plans. This is a rather short post because I say I've had a rigid reading list for some months now, so I fear I'm rather repeating myself with these titles! It'll be good to finish, and all I'll have left is my Russian Literature Challenge and the TBR 2014 Challenge (I hope to read all the books, but I don't think I'll be writing about them all - I read Middlesex last month, and I did enjoy it, but I'm not sure I'll get a good post out of it).

Happy September, everyone!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

"... beware the fascination that lurks in Catherine Heathcliff's brilliant eyes."

The 1840s saw the publications of Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, and Agnes Grey. Then, in 1847, along came Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, writing under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell. What a shocker of a book it must have been then, yet today it is generally acknowledged to be one of the finest books ever written. Unlike many of our much loved English classics, this is not based in London or the south of England but in the north: the West-Riding of Yorkshire. It portrays a romance of the most brutal, violent, and unwholesome kind between two fascinating characters, at once magnetic and repulsive. Charlotte Brontë wrote, in a preface to the new edition (I'm not sure of the exact date),
To all such [who are unfamiliar with the West-Riding of Yorkshire] 'Wuthering Heights' must appear a rude and strange production. The wild moors of the north of England can for them have no interest; the language, the manners, the very dwellings and household customs of the scattered inhabitants of those districts, must be to such readers in great measure unintelligible, and - where intelligible - repulsive. Men and women who are, perhaps, naturally very calm, and with feelings moderate in degree, and little marked in kind, have been trained from their cradle to observe the utmost evenness of manner and guardedness of language, will hardly know what to make of the rough, strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions, and headlong partialities of unlettered moorland hinds and rugged moorland squires, who have grown up untaught and unchecked, except by mentors as harsh as themselves.
"Harsh" is indeed the word for this novel, everything about it is harsh. The love, the landscape, the characters, their conversations, and even the cursed house, Wuthering Heights itself. Everything is amplified, it is not merely grim, it is violently so. It is not "wild", as Charlotte Brontë wrote later in the preface, but almost bestial. It is a natural horror, with or without its supernatural element, and the moors, the wild and windy moors are a character too, untamed and inhuman. 

Charlotte went on to write, "Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is". He is seen as a great romantic character of literature, whose love was strong and unchanging even in the face of her death.
"May she wake in torment!" he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. "Why, she's a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there - not in heaven - not perished - where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings - Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you - haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe - I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!"
Earlier in the novel, Catherine says, in the much-quoted passage of Volume I Chapter IX,
"... he's more of myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mind are the same, and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire."
And at the beginning of this speech of hers, she says she dreamt she went to heaven, and "heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke up sobbing for joy." To call Catherine and Heathcliff "unchristian" is the very mildest criticism of their character. 

Their love, on the face of it, seems to be the very height of romantic, however their love is destructive: it destroys each other and everything and everyone else in its wake. It is a selfish and possessive love that turns Heathcliff bitter, cruel, sadistic, and inhuman. It twists him, and everything he does not have is all he can see, and he violently punishes those around him for his misfortune. I cannot imagine a less desirable lover for anyone, so how he has become a great romantic hero is anybody's guess. It is, for that reason, often misunderstood, and furthermore, it is a novel in two parts: so often in adaptations the second volume, the story after Cathy and Heathcliff, is forgotten. For all it is loved, the entire story is not quite as well known as it ought to be.

Ghosts and devils lurk within Wuthering Heights. It's a frightening book with so much energy in its pages that can scarcely be contained. It is the wind, the moors, and everything that is wild. And because Brontë was so familiar with the landscape she captured she knew better than to make it a beautiful romance, and, with regard to Cathy and Heathcliff, I think remembering it as such does Brontë a disservice. What it is exactly, I do not know. But it is compulsive reading: it draws you in and secures you in the nightmare, and even after reading it for what is now a third time, I cannot look away. The more I read it the more I love it.

So, finally, to conclude, here are some photographs accompanying the 1911 edition Thornton edition:

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen's first published novel, written in 1795-97 as Elinor and Marianne, then redrafted in 1809-10, then finally published in 1811. This is my second read: the first time I read a few years ago (I remember it was a December, and I'm guessing it was either '11 or '12) and I really did not like it at all. In fact, I was incredibly bored by it. I'd already read Pride and Prejudice at this point and enjoyed it, but, having gone on to read the rest of Austen's novels, the best feeling I could muster up was one of respectful enjoyment. A re-read of Pride and Prejudice made me see Austen in a different light, however, and with Sense and Sensibility I decided to test my new appreciation of Miss Austen. And I'm pleased to say it was a success - I loved this novel! 

The "sense" of Sense and Sensibility is Elinor, prudent, reasonable, almost dispassionate in some of her judgements; "sensibility" is Marianne, imprudent and emotional. I sympathised with Elinor, but of course Marianne was my favourite. Yet, as Jane Austen wrote, Marianne "was without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself". Power, of course, relates to attracting the right man, and thus the right marriage, which relates to financial security. And this is the threat in Austen novels, the dark spectre, the fear: an unhappy marriage, an unsuitable marriage, or no marriage. Both sisters suffer from misunderstandings and miscommunication (like Pride and Prejudice), and each suffer their problems in very different ways. In wider context, Sense and Sensibility alludes not only to the differences between the two sisters, their outlook, and the way they cope with romantic disappointment, but the clash in late 18th and early 19th Century between Neoclassicism and Romanticism.

The former, Neoclassicism (a term that would not be used until the mid-19th Century), is represented of course by Elinor, and it was a movement that sat very well with the Age of Enlightenment (which began in the late 17th Century). The emphasis was on reason and on science. It relied, as did Elinor, on calculated judgement. The emphasis was on intellect; the mind, not the heart of Romanticism that Marianne represented, a movement which began around the beginning of the 19th Century. Romanticism rebelled against what the Enlightenment represented, and would also rebel against the Industrial Revolution. It was a liberal movement whereas Neoclassicism was conservative, and it was all beauty and emotion. Marianne's favourite poets, for example, were Romantics. Elinor would retreat into herself when faced with disappointment, whereas Marianne would cry for days and make herself ill. Yet the sisters, on the whole (not always) were in basic harmony with one another. Their happiness was realised not by doggedly pursuing their path but by learning from one another.

Analysing Sense and Sensibility this way suggests that it is a dark and heavy book, but it's not, far from it. Austen is author who seems contemporary: whilst I knew the publication dates for her novels, I was still surprised that she was born in 1775. It is incredible to me that she was born nearly 240 years ago. She writes beautifully, with great warmth and wit, and is, as I say, so accessible. Though I favour Marianne, Elinor is a sympathetic character too. One hopes for the best for both of them. It is truly a thoroughly engaging novel because of this. And I'm so happy I enjoyed this novel. I've spent a long time disliking Jane Austen, and now, finally, I can say that I've changed my mind!

What else is there to say, but to leave a few illustrations by Hugh Thomson in the 1902 edition. There are quite a few, and it's been hard to narrow down my favourites!

'Mr. Dashwood introduced him'
'His son's son, a child of four years old'
"I have found you in spite of all your tricks"
'Came to take a survey of the guest'
'Mischievous tricks'
"I can answer for it," said Mrs. Jennings.
'At that moment she first perceived him'
'How fond he was of it!'
'Offered him one of Folly's puppies'
'A very smart beau'

'Mrs. Jennings assured him directly that she should not stand upon ceremony.'
Mrs. Ferrars.
"You have heard, I suppose."
"Of one thing I may assure you"
'Opened a window shutter'

Thursday, 21 August 2014


We're now a four budgie household! On Monday we bought two baby budgies, Zola and Pepys (no need to explain where the names came from!). Budgies are flock birds, and one of the worries of losing Myshkin was that Oliver and Trotwood may feel a little lonely just being two of them. So now they are four :)

Zola, or Zozo, is very energetic. He is a very bright blue (the picture above doesn't do him justice, but I hope the pictures below do), and his personality is as vibrant as his feathers. He's obsessed with Oliver: he follows him about, stares at him almost constantly, and squeaks whenever I have Oliver sitting on my hand. Pepys on the other hand is very shy. He loves Trotwood, and follows him about. It's amazing how well they've gelled together - there's not been a single argument or any kind of unpleasantness. Zozo, on being let out, flew straight to Oliver, and Pepys straight to Trotwood, and if they're not in pairs then they all sit together. 

I've not had budgies this young before. They still have their huge black eyes, and they're a fair bit smaller than the grown-ups. They're highly excitable, particularly Zola, so taming them is quite a challenge (let alone actually training them!). So far, at night when they're tired, I've managed to get them to sit on my finger but they don't stay too long. But it takes time. Trotwood was very easy to train because he's generally quite a serious chap, but I remember Myshkin took a very long time. Trot, Mysh and Oliver were a little older, but I think Zozo and Pepys (who are brothers from the same "batch") are about six weeks. 

I think I mentioned somewhere (possibly Twitter) that I'd got them a tree (it's actually a fallen branch), so that sits by my desk now. It's very big (floor to ceiling and stretching right across the window), so all of them seem to be in state of high excitements from morning until it gets dark. They're very happy with it, and I'm very happy with them :)

Here are a few more pictures!

Pepys and Trotwood
Zola and Trotwood
Oliver and Pepys
Oliver and Zola
Oliver and Zola again.