#Repost: #Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Once again this week (another busy one for me), I’m sharing an old review of a Classic, Vanity Fair, from 2018 when I reread it with a Goodreads group. The story of two young girls, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp from very different stations in life, who leave school together to start their lives. Both also have very different personalities–the angelic Amelia is unable to stand up for herself while Becky is ready to manipulate others and climb the social ladder at any cost. The review was posted on Goodreads but not this blog.

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Vanity Fair, the novel ‘without a hero’ aptly opens with our two very different heroines leaving Miss Pinkerton’s school/establishment heading to very different destinations, and perhaps destinies. Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a well-off merchant, well-liked by all her fellow students and teachers is heading home to a comfortable life, and marriage to the son of a family friend, the very handsome George Osborne, while Rebecca ‘Becky’ Sharp who has been an articled pupil, teaching other students in exchange for her own board and keep, is to be governess in a family after spending a few days of rest in Amelia’s home. But fortune has other things in store for them both. Not only are their circumstances different but the two girls themselves are as different as chalk and cheese―Amelia is simple, straightforward, good-hearted, but just a little bland, while Becky, who has had to and must continue to make her own way in the world, has a grudge against the world at large, is manipulative, and looks at nothing but her own advantage in everything she does, and needless to say, as a result is the more interesting of the two, even if not the most likeable.  Fate of course has something different in store for Amelia whose father loses his money, which leads to George’s father literally disowning their family and breaking off the match with Amelia. Becky on the other side takes up her new appointment and begins to use her brains, charm, and manipulation to work her way up the social ladder. Things aren’t that easy for her either for there as many miscalculations along the way and her plans too backfire. But while Vanity Fair is the story of these two young women and the people in their lives, it is really the story of Vanity Fair itself, representative of society at any point in time where money, power, position, and status are valued but not the human person for himself or herself, where social success is, for most, the ultimate measure of achievement, where greed, hypocrisy or opportunism are part of daily life, and where life is certainly not ‘fair’ not does everyone necessarily get their just desserts. 

I read this book in instalments over two months (March–April) with the Victorians group on Goodreads. While thinking back over the characters for this (long overdue) review, I realised that there wasn’t one whom I really liked, though they were all quite human (even the angelic Victorian heroine Amelia finds her voice once in a way), and there were times when I felt sorry for one or the other characters. There are times one is cheering on Becky, others when one disapproves of her actions, times (much of the time for me) when Amelia’s ostrich-like attitude to some things, and one-track mind got on my nerves, yet there were moments when I cheered for her too; Dobbin too gave me cause for both annoyance and cheer; and so did Rawdon Crawley, who I found myself feeling sorry for at one point, as well as Old Sir Pitt, who was otherwise despicable at most moments. The story has plenty of twists and turns, with unexpected incidents in some ways happening even up to the end and was in itself interesting to follow, but more than that I think, the value of the book lies in its look at Vanity Fair itself, for while the times may have changed and many other facets and aspects about society, human nature with respect to it remains the same, the same ‘false gods’ (money and power) continue to be worshipped and sort, and the same wiles and machinations employed to get them. It sees life and people as it is and they are, not always in black and white, and not always fair. While I can’t say as such that I loved this book, I certainly did appreciate it and the picture that it was trying to paint (rather than a message being given of any sort), and the discussions with the group made it a far more enjoyable experience than it would otherwise have been.

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

#Repost: #Review: A Country Gentleman and His Family by Margaret Oliphant #Classics

Today, once again, I am sharing an old review, of a book by an author I only discovered through a book friend’s shelf on Shelfari and ended up enjoying so much that I have read quite a few by her, and have some waiting on my TBR pile as well. What I liked about many of her stories are that they don’t take the expected course, and have some fairly interesting and strong female characters. The review was first written in 2016, and hasn’t appeared on this blog.

Theodore Warrander is used to having much made of him, mostly by his teachers (and to a lesser extent by his family who think him something of a scholar). He has the potential, no doubt but his tendency to think that it is HE who everyone worships and not his work is something that affects the whole course of his life. On his father’s death he comes into the property and finds himself falling in love with Lady Markland, a young widow who rather tragically loses her (debauched) husband. His love is very deep and sincere even, but as is his character, he wishes his chosen partner to be “perfect”—which essentially means to agree with him on everything. But wait, forced agreement is not what he wants but some magic by providence which will prove his opinions to be the only correct ones which his partner shall independently reach. And then there is her son, who he detests. In short, Theo Warrander is no more than a spoilt brat (however much he claims to be or thinks himself a man). Lady Markland (only a little older than him), on the other hand, has not only had a life apart from him but is somewhat more independent and has her own opinions. 

Margaret Oliphant’s book takes us through their story, which is very realistically done. Theo one seriously dislikes (may be too mild a word). Lady Markland tries desperately to balance her love for her son with her own need to be and feel loved but with Theo, this becomes a very hard thing indeed. I don’t really care much for children in real life but little Geoff I felt terrible for. He puts up with so much for his mother’s sake and bravely but helplessly bears the possibility of losing everything that he had (his mother, her company, and love—even all sense of a family)—in fact watches this happen, even. Yet dear self-absorbed Theo can see nothing of this. I quite liked how their story ended—it had quite a modern feel to it and was certainly not what I had expected though may be wanted.

But wait, this is not only the story of a Country Gentleman but also of His Family. The book is also about the other Warranders. Mrs Warrander, Theo’s mother who had an outgoing and lively temperament compared to her rather dull husband finds herself wanting to start life afresh, to breathe in the fresh air once again away from the stifling Warren, after her husband has passed on. I liked her as a character—she is sympathetic, sensible, not blind to her children’s’ faults. Minnie, the elder of Theo’s sisters is a prig and a little too pompous for anyone’s liking but finds a match to suit her. Chatty on the other hand is a sweet and very likeable girl and the story of her romance with Dick Cavendish (a very nice young man, but with a secret of his own) one follows with the greatest interest—on a different note than Theo’s her’s is the one that one hopes will end well for her but since I had read Mrs O before I wasn’t too sure how she’d end it.

Oliphant certainly draws her reader into the story and the first fifty or so pages in and one finds oneself reading on to solve the little mysteries and see what lies ahead for her characters. The characters are well drawn and one finds oneself relating to some (but not quite liking some others). A very good read.

Have you read this one or any others by Mrs Oliphant? How did you like them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Image source: Goodreads

Having some busy weeks lately has meant I haven’t been able to write new reviews and posts though I have been reading. After next week, I should be able to get back to these. But until then, I will be sharing reviews of some books I liked very much, but written some time ago.

Shelf Control #96: Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant #Classics

Wednesday, the 24th of June, and time for Shelf Control once again! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, and such. If you participate, link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks as well!

This week, my pick is another unread classic, but this one from a series I’ve pretty much read most of the rest of–Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant, part of her Carlingford Chronicles. The Chronicles of Carlingford are said to be inspired by Trollope’s Barsetshire series, and are set in a little country town, Carlingford. Each of the books is centred around different characters. This one, Salem Chapel, is the story of young Arthur Vincent, a dissenting minister at Salem Chapel who finds that his congregation of middle-class shopmen and tradespeople is not quite what he was prepared for with his idealism and intellect. Things take a different turn however when he finds himself smitten with the beautiful Lady Western, and involved in a kidnapping case. His sister’s disappearance added to this takes him to breaking point. The book was published in 1863.

I’ve read quite a few books by Oliphant now including five of the Carlingford Chronicles and a few other titles. Many, possibly most I’ve read so far, have rather exceptional and strong heroines, and her endings, I found, are not always predictable–sometimes more realistic than storybook, at others, rather ‘modern’ as well. The Carlingford stories I have read so far are a mix of some rather sweet titles like The Rector, to more ones more serious in tone and theme, but in all of them, the characters and their stories draw one in. As part of the series, and even generally as one of her titles, this one I’m certainly looking forward to picking up sometime. Margaret Oliphant (1838-1897) was a critically acclaimed writer, with over 120 works to her credit including short stories, biographies, histories, and literary criticism.

Have you read this one or any other titles by Oliphant? Which ones and how did you like them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

The cover image as always is from Goodreads, and the description of the book from a Margaret Oliphant site here. Find more about her and her works here.

Find Lisa’s pick this week here and Cheryl’s here.

Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

This was a revisit, read in serial with the Victorians group on Goodreads. North and South (1854–55) is Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65)’s fourth novel, and one of her best known ones, also adapted for TV three times, most recently a BBC series in 2004. As the story opens, eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who has been brought up mostly in London by her aunt Mrs Shaw, is preparing to return home after her cousin’s wedding. Home is Helstone, a small rural parsonage in the South where her parents live and her father serves as vicar. When she returns, she finds the rural idyll she had remembered, at least as far as the place is concerned, but inside her home, things are a little different. Her parents don’t seem to be getting along as they should though they do love each other, and quite soon after settling in, she finds her father is giving up the living because of doubts about the church, and they must relocate to Milton Northern, a dusty, grey, smoky industrial town in the north (based on Manchester), where life is busy, fast, and completely opposite to the peace and calm of Helstone. Here Mr Hale is to tutor pupils in the classics. Among these is a much older pupil, a millowner, John Thornton who had to give up his education to support his family, and now having made a success of his business wishes to start again. Margaret when she arrives has no high opinion of tradespeople, or of Milton in general.

Both these things change as we move along in the story following two sets of threads, one involving Margaret’s personal opinions and relationships, both with Mr Thornton who begins to admire and love her (a thread that moves somewhat similarly to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s story in Pride and Prejudice), and the Higginses, a family of workpeople who Margaret befriends, and through whom she begins to get a better idea of life in Milton. Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy both work in factories, and Bessy is suffering a fatal illness as a result of the fluff in the factories which most millowners have not taken precautions to address. Through these relationships and interactions, we move into the social threads of the story which explore working conditions in factories, wages and strikes, but most importantly relations between millowner and workmen who each need and rely on each other, and yet seem to think that their interests are at odds with each other. Margaret plays a role in these threads of the story too, being in a position to hear both sides of the story, the millowners concerns and genuine problems (such as cheaper goods becoming available) that the workmen don’t see, and the workpeople’s plight—from living and working conditions and wages, to lack of a voice at the workplace.

As the novel moves on, Margaret begins to see the merits and demerits of life in industrial Milton and rural Helstone and to realise that neither is entirely better or worse than the other, going from one who was critical of Milton, to one who can defend its ways. Alongside, Mr Thornton and Higgins—millowner and workman—begin to understand each other a little better, Mrs Gaskell making the point that both in personal relationships, or matters of work, understanding the other side and communication are key—these can mitigate even if not resolve many a situation.

Though difference, between north and south, scholar and industrialist, millowner and workman, etc is central in the book, it isn’t the only theme, other threads, of personal relationships, the Hale family’s own difficulties—Margaret’s brother Frederick’s story, the Shaws and Lennoxes’ (Margaret’s cousin has married Captain Lennox) stories and lives are also part of the book, and bring in both anxious and lighter moments.

Margaret is a strong young woman, and in much of the book finds herself having to bear a lot of responsibility and burden which she does very well; but she has to face her own prejudices, overcome them in order to become a better person. Mr Thornton too, a self-made man has his flaws, in the way he sees his workmen particularly, and changes too as things move along. Nicholas Higgins shows that perhaps we end up applying stereotypes when considering workmen. The other characters, Mr and Mrs Hale, and Mrs Thornton might give us a lot to fault them for (the latter only her harshness, perhaps, but that too is understandable), but are well drawn out characters, as are most of the others.

The ending of the book is a touch rushed, and one might feel like there was room for more, but overall, this is a really good read, one I’ve enjoyed each time I’ve read it!