Romance and Outlaws

I listed Lorna Doone as a re-read on my Classics Club book list, but suspect I hadn’t actually read an unabridged version before. I didn’t remember whole pages worth of conversation written in dialect or so much time spent building John and Lorna’s childhood relationship in the first half of the book. Pretty sure I read a copy that modernized the dialogue and skipped straight to the most exciting action. That’s probably why the book felt so long this time through, though I was thoroughly enjoying it by around the half-way point.Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Grounded In History

Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore is a historical novel published in 1869 and set in the late 1600s. I hadn’t realized before re-reading it how much the novel borrows from real events. My falling apart ex-library copy (published in 1943) even includes pictures of the locations Blackmore references. The brief introduction written by Basil Davenport states, “Blackmore made good use of his schoolboy memories of Devon; the outlaw Doones, the De Whichehalse family, the highwayman Tom Fagus and his mare, and even the mighty John Ridd, have at least some foundation in fact, while the book is full of local historical allusions, like the bales of wool that were used to repel bullets at the siege of Exeter Castle.”

The historical grounding is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this classic novel. It soaks through every page in tiny details, sweeping historical allusions, and our narrator’s word choice. Though I had a little trouble getting really “into” the first half of the story, it’s not because Blackmore isn’t painting an immersive world. Since this is a first-person narrative, we get to see the world through John Ridd’s eyes. And John isn’t shy about sharing his opinions on everything from farming to women to outlawry. It really feels like we’re there listening to John tell the story as he lived it.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Carl Benton Reid as Sir Ensor Doone and Barbara Hale as Lorna Doone (1951)

Outlaws As Villains

We’ve all read stories where the outlaws are romanticized. Stories with dashing rogues, defensible pirates, and code-following outlaws fill our collective imagination. Not so in Lorna Doone. Even beloved highwayman Tom Fagus must mend his ways and conform to law and order before securing his happy ending. The more prominent outlaws in the story, the Doones, are decidedly cast in the role of the villain. Rather than seeking to romanticize and excuse the outlaws à la Robin Hood, the story focuses on rescuing Lorna (and by extension the romance plot) from them.

Several times, John talks about the Doones as a fixture in the neighborhood. The surrounding people have gotten used to them and they’re willing to put up with certain things. Since the Doones are a noble family, their neighbors consider it their right to steal sheep, run off with a few unmarried women, and even kill people who get in their way. The Ridds and their neighbors even resent external efforts to bring the Doones to justice, partly because they fear pay-back if/when the Doones win and partly because the Doones just seem to belong. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about having a nest of outlaws in their backyards.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Polly Walker as Lorna Doone and Sean Bean as Carver Doone (1990)

But What Does It Mean?

Though tolerated and occasionally defended, the Doones are viewed as a local plague, not as tragic heroes or admirable figures. They eventually cross a line and are wiped out by the very people who put up with them for so long. Interestingly, all this happens at a time of political unrest in Britain as a whole and there are numerous tongue-in-cheek references to political corruption and the failures of the nobility. I suspect that on some level at least, we’re meant to identify the overtly lawless Doones with the more subtle legalized injustice running through the British government. And we’re to root for the common man of good sense rising up to put an end to his “betters” ruining the country.

On a more obvious level, Lorna Doone really is a simple romance novel. And while there are plenty of romantic novels I enjoy more, I do love the story. John and Lorna aren’t my favorite literary characters, but even the fact that I didn’t like them 100% is in a way a testament to Blackmore’s writing. Though John is telling the story and he worships Lorna, Blackmore manages not to present either as unrealistically idealized “perfect heroes.” It reads like the honest account of two real people navigating romance in a world of outlaws. And that makes for a good story.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Amelia Warner as Lorna Doone and Richard Coyle  as John Ridd (2000)

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A Visit To Middlemarch

My main goal before the end of 2016 was to finish George Elliot’s Middlemarch. I’d resolved to read at least one huge book from my Classics Club book list each year and this was my second after Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. Alas, I didn’t finish until January 1st, but we’ll still say it was close enough to count as part of the #ccwomensclassics event.

Though I’m an avid reader of British classic literature this is only the second George Elliot book I’ve read. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan at first. I felt like the story spent far too much time on trivial details while skipping over scenes I would have expected more focus on (like weddings). But even when I was tempted to skim some sections I realized I would loose the plot thread if I missed even a few paragraphs and by the last 100 pages I felt everything coming together. It’s a much tighter story than I’d first given it credit for.click to read article, "A Visit To Middlemarch" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Middlemarch chronicles the lives of a quite a large cast of characters, but Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate are the main characters. Interestingly, they are not love interests for each other. Rather, their stories parallel each other and intertwine in unexpected ways that you really don’t start to appreciate until close to the end.

Thematically, Middlemarch explores the nuances of marriage (among other things. It is, after all, 800 pages long). This aspect of the novel brings to mind the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The main characters’ marriages happen for various reasons and become unhappy in different ways. Dorothea’s was made because she wanted to marry, and support, a man whose mind she could admire. Her husband wasn’t actively trying to deceive her, but he wasn’t at all the person she expected and turned out to be far more small-minded than she. Lydgate married because he fell in love with Rosamund, who married him because she expected him to rise socially. When he didn’t become her mental image of who he should be, she stopped loving him and Lydgate discovered he was trapped trying to make her happy while struggling to not completely abandon his dreams.

There are also three happy marriages made in this novel. And that gets us to the first part of Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are all alike.” Middlemarch’s happy marriages have one thing in common — they start from a place of honesty. The man and woman have known each other for years, neither is trying to deceive the other, and their expectations of their spouse are (at least mostly) realistic. It’s kind of sweet to see how the two marriages that take place near the end of the story develop throughout the novel. The two unhappy marriages are made quickly and soon deteriorate, but the ones that we see grow and develop over several years end up thriving.

After reading the first 700 pages or so with a fairly low level of engagement, those last hundred pages made me not want to put the book down. My two month investment with this book (I started it at the beginning of November and took a couple breaks to read shorter books like Heartless) was more than paid-off with the conclusion. This might seem weird to say for a book that’s 145 years old, but I don’t want to say too much more and spoil it for you. Sufficient to say everything really does go together and there’s a satisfying ending in store if you keep going through all 800 pages.

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Reading Henry IV

Warning: English nerd content ahead.

I’ve been quite fond of Shakespeare since high school. Freshman year I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and then read the play for extra credit. I loved it so much I choose to read it again the year we studied British literature, along with Taming of the Shrew (my mother’s choice) and As You Like It (recommended by a teacher).

Since homeschoolers can pick their own curriculum and my mom hated reading Shakespeare’s tragedies when she was in school, I didn’t get a hold of those until college. There, I discovered Hamlet was almost as good as Henry. Almost, but not quite. When I took a Shakespeare class where the professor included Henry V on his syllabus I was in literature nerd heaven.henriad

The only strange thing (to me at least) about this whole Henry obsession is that it took me so long to read Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two. In these plays, the character I knew as noble King Henry V is the riotous Prince Hal. I did put them on my Classics Club book list, but I probably wouldn’t have read these plays for another year or so if I hadn’t decided on a futuristic/sci-fie re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad for my NaNoWriMo novel (click here to learn more). I’d seen them, though, in BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

This brilliant adaptation is remarkably faithful to both Part One and Part Two (it leaves out more scenes and changes a few parts of Henry V, but that play’s not the topic of our post today). I enjoyed reading the Henry IV plays, in part because of associating the on-paper scenes with what I’d seen in The Hollow Crown. Here’s a small clip of Tom Hiddleston as Henry, but you should really check out the series and watch it for yourself.

For reading Part One, I picked up a copy without annotations or notes. I was rather pleased with myself that I didn’t feel like I needed them. This is also the play I enjoyed most. It feature a more straight-forward and active story line, and more scenes with Prince Hal. I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s main plots and noble characters to the sub-plots and more comedic characters, and that held true for these history plays.

Part Two follows the Henrys less and I’m glad I had a Folger edition to read for that. There were whole sections of Falstaff’s speeches that left me puzzled (the notes made me feel better, though — apparently scholars can’t figure out some of his lines either). You need this play to get from Part 1 to Henry V, but it’s my least favorite of the three.

Whether or not you already love Shakespeare, I’d recommend starting with The Hollow Crown if you’re interested in these plays. They’re really meant to be seen and heard more than read. I suspect the man who begged pardon of his 17th century audience for daring “On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” as Henry’s life would approve of the scope film provides for storytelling (Henry V, 1.1.11-12).

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Become A Book-Swapping Ninja

Do you like books? What about surprise packages arriving on your door full of goodies? Or getting the chance to make someone else’s day?

If any of that sounded good, you’ve got to join us for the Ninja Book Swap. I tried it for the first time this spring and it was fantastic. Not only do you have the opportunity to give and receive books, you get to tell all your friends you’re a ninja. There’s literally no down-side.Become A Book-Swapping Ninja | Ninja Book Autumn Book Swap Blog Tour | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here’s how it works: you sign-up on the Ninja Book Swap website, say “Hi” on the blog or Bex’s Twitter if you haven’t swapped before (just so she knows you’re real), answer a few questions, and give them a link to you book wish-list. Then, you’re matched with two other people. One will be sending you a package (you don’t know who this is) and the other is who you’ll be sending a package to (they won’t know who you are).

Become A Book-Swapping Ninja | Ninja Book Autumn Book Swap Blog Tour | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Ninja goodies wrapped and ready to send

The rules ask that you send your book swap buddy one book from their list, a gift you think they’ll like based on the questions they answered, and a note telling them who you are and saying “Hi.” You can also send more if you want and dress-up the packaging to make it special (which I highly recommend). Try browsing #ningjabookswap on Twitter for ideas of what people have done in the past.

Become A Book-Swapping Ninja | Ninja Book Autumn Book Swap Blog Tour | marissabaker.wordpress.com

the package I received from my spring book-swap buddy

Registration for the Ninja Book Swap opened on Saturday and will stay open until October 2. I hope you’ll join us! Here are all the links you’ll need for more information:

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Becoming “Noble Harry”

Check out this article I wrote for Femnista’s Shakespeare issue (and perhaps a few of their other articles while you’re at it)! It’s always a pleasure to write for and read this online magazine/blog.

I have no trouble answering the question, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” (though it sadly isn’t asked very often). My answer has been Henry V since I first read it in high school. I grew up immersed in classical tales of adventure and heroism–stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, legends about Robin Hood and King Arthur. In that context, my affection for Henry V comes as no surprise.

“Noble Harry,” as Shakespeare dubs the character, is the quintessential heroic figure. He’s a man of action, a brilliant soldier, a king committed to justice only where he cannot show mercy, a believer in God’s sovereignty, and a romantic figure in his wooing of Kathrine. Shakespeare is far too talented a storyteller to leave even his heroic figures one-dimensional, though. There’s much more to Henry’s character than being a perfect king.

Continue Reading: Becoming “Noble Harry”

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Female Difficulties

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comMy title for this post is the subtitle for Frances Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer. It was one of the first books I put down when compiling my Classics Club Book List, and I’m reading it this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event. Finishing this book means I’ve now read all Burney’s major fiction works (that is a grand total of 3,133 pages of text, so it’s a pretty big deal). I am Reader, hear me roar.

Note: spoilers follow for this 202 year old book.

The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties is the tale of a penniless emigree from revolutionary France trying to earn her living in England while guarding her own secrets. Combining the best elements of the gothic and historical novels, this newly appreciated work is an extraordinary piece of Romantic fiction. Burney’s tough comedy offers a satiric view of complacent middle-class insularity that echoes Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s attacks on the English social structure. The problems of the new feminism and of the old anti-feminism are explored in the relationship between the heroine and her English patroness and rival, the Wollstonecraftian Elinor Joddrel, and the racism inherent within both the French and British empires is exposed when the emigree disguises herself as a black woman. (Goodreads summary)

This is probably the Burney novel that I found most frustrating. Evelina, her first novel, is the easiest to read, though it still engages with the darker side of 18th century romance. Her next two, Cecelia and Camilla, are more difficult (especially if you’re expecting an Austen-style romance). The heroines are persecuted relentlessly, in grave danger several times, and the heroes fail to live up to the name.  The Wanderer takes these themes a step further. Instead of giving her characters ineffective guardians, Burney doesn’t leave the Wanderer, who goes by the name “Ellis” for much of the book, anyone to turn to at all. Instead of revealing the plight of a young woman having difficulty navigating the marriage market, Burney shows the struggles of a woman completely alone without name or resources to protect and support her.

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comThe Wanderer is a scathing rebuke of society on many different levels. Burney takes full advantage of her lengthy text to discuss the French Revolution, snobbery in the upper classes, gender inequalities, racial stereotypes, modern suspicion of an afterlife, suicide, social perceptions and stereotypes, abusive/coercive relationships, and duty to family (just to name the ones that come to mind within a minute). The amount of ground she covers is really quite impressive. Even more impressive is that she manages to show both sides of most issues. Sometimes you can easily tell where Burney stands, but not always. For several of the ideas discussed, it seems she just wants readers to open their eyes and see that things aren’t always black and white.

What frustrated me when reading The Wanderer wasn’t the issues being discussed or even so much the drawn-out plot line. It was Ellis’ character. The narrative stays with Ellis but maintains a distance that makes it very difficult to sympathize or identify with her. For the better part of the book, we don’t know any more than the other characters about who she is and what her motivations are. We rarely even know what she’s thinking. What’s worse, we seldom hear her say anything. There are a few scenes where Ellis speaks clearly and decisively, but mostly she stands mute. She is silent while other characters misconstrue her motivations, put words into her mouth, accuse her unjustly, and even propose romantic connections. A few words pass her lips, but mostly she stands in acute emotional agony hoping the other characters will understand her inarticulate protests. Even Mr. Harleigh, the heroic figure in this story, becomes so frustrated by this that there are times he is almost violent in his insistence that she give him a straight answer.

Silencing the main character frustrated me, but it also draws attention to the difficulties Burney is discussing. It might be tempting to read the subtitle “Female Difficulties” simply as a critique of the challenges women faced in 18th century society. We could say that it is the other characters who make life difficult for Ellis because society is set-up to be suspicious of a woman alone and to limit her options. But it goes even deeper than that. The type of femininity ingrained the naturally elegant and lady-like Ellis make her situation even more difficult. She is one of her own worst enemies because of her limiting view of her own role as a woman. It’s not seemly for a lady to perform in public, so she refuses to give a concert until she’s shamed into it by a need to pay her debts. It’s not ladylike to accept pecuniary aid from a man, so she becomes entangled in a host of embarrassing situations trying to return gifts that were made anonymously to spare her delicacy. It’s a shame for a woman to run away from her husband, so she conceals the fact that she was forced into a marriage that’s barely recognizable under the law even when it means leading on another man who’s falling in love with her.

Like today, 18th Century culture was struggling with ideas surrounding gender definitions, roles, and expectations. Burney recognized that the problems regarding inequalities between men and women weren’t just external, but also ingrained in prevailing ideas about what constitutes masculinity and femininity. I argued when writing my undergrad thesis about her other novels that Burney countered the gender crisis of her day by advocating for a return to Biblical gender ideals where men and women are recognized as having unique strengths and roles yet also viewed as equally important. In this book, published 18 years after Camilla, there’s little evidence of that hope. Burney seems more cynical about society’s ability to change and points out problems without offering a way to fix things. It’s up to us, the readers, to try and find a solution or to live with the consequences of inaction.wanderer

 

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