Thursday, January 9, 2020

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The only Austen I have read so far is Sense and Sensibility - and I disliked it! So, it took me quite long to have a heart to take another. And following Ruth's suggestion, I finally picked Persuasion. Now I'm glad I've done it. Though still not my favorite, I can at least say I've finally found an Austen to like, LOL!

I have read the book many months ago, so I won't go into much detail now (which I've forgotten anyway). The main theme is love and marriage, and of course, the unwise act of persuasion in delicate matters, such as love and marriage. Our heroine, Anne Elliot, was engaged to a Captain Wentworth when she was 19 years old. However, her pretentious family saw it as unsuitable, as Wentworth did not fit, socially and financially, to the Elliots. Lady Russel, an aunt, who acted as a mother (who died earlier), and was very attached to Anne, persuaded Anne to broke the engagement, which she complied, despite of the couple's love for each other.

Seven years later, Anne was much more matured, and regretted that she ever complied with Lady Russel's persuasion against marrying a man she truly loved. Since the break up, Anne never found another man equal to her refined mind and principle. She also noticed how shallow, pretentious, and hypocritical the society she lived in, that she often felt out of place. Being an intelligent and introverted woman in 19th century, I can imagine how difficult it was to find a companion with whom she could have a fulfilling relationship. With the women, she would find them shallow; with the men, why, she couldn't be too free to avoid causing unnecessary rumors, and most of them didn't like to talk with "too intelligent" woman anyway. I can relate to Anne very well, as I, too, often experience similar condition, though not as acutely as Anne's.

This (seemingly) simple story opens layer upon layer of how complicated the 19th century society have treated marriage. Why two young people who loved each other could not decide their own faith, always perplex me. It seems that people were sure they knew what make others' happy, and felt obliged to decide and act upon it by themselves. What a nuisance!

Persuasion gives us a glimpse of this, so well crafted by Jane Austen. Anne Elliot is the embodiment of how a woman could be strong without being rebellious. She persevered in her love for Captain Wentworth, but at the same time she also regulated her action so as not hurting others' feeling - letting them learn their own mistakes. She fought (bad) persuasion by giving (good) example. There must have been many girls at that time who felt grateful with Austen's powerful lesson!

My rate: 4/5

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

Another non-detective crime story from our beloved Dame; and again, this one picks an intelligent, strong, determined young woman to be the leading heroine: Emily Trefusis. The collaboration between the police (Inspector Narracot) and young sleuths (Emily and a journalist named Charles Enderby)  might remind us much to Inspector Battle and Bundle's relationship in The Secret of Chimneys and Seven Dials Mystery. But Emily's character here is much more prominent than Bundle's mere function to add a youthful vigor into the story.

It all begins with a séance, or table-turning, which was originally done casually to cheer a cold winter afternoon. A group of people sat at a table, and began to play, what they thought was at that time, a foolish game. However, it quickly turned to worse, when the "spirit" revealed the death of a prominent character: Captain Trevelyan, at an exact hour: five and twenty minutes to five.

Major Burnaby, a retired army, is a close friend to Captain Trevelyan. Friday is his day of visiting his friend, but that day the snow was so thick, the road was impassable. However, feeling uneasy, Burnaby insisted on walking through the terrible blizzards to "check on" Trevelyan. And of course, Trevelyan was found dead, sandbagged at the head.

A nephew, a "weak" young man called James ‘Jim’ Pearson was arrested by the police, as he was near Exhampton (place of the crime) at the time of the crime, without proper alibi, and he has just borrowed money from his uncle (and was refused). Jim was engaged to Emily, and so that's how the girl got involved with the case (to prove the innocence of her beloved fiancée), helped by the journalist, who, soon, was also smitten by her.

Overall, Sittaford Mystery is a light, funny (at times), and enjoyable crime story with a romance touch. This is another typical "inside" murder - small rural village, retired army men, widows, boring existence with gossips as the center entertainment. Then add restless and reckless young people, bad financial investment which accumulates to debt, and, of course, a wealthy miser, and voila, that's it!

One element I loved the most, is the psychological aspect of the romance, which is rarely exposed in Christie's. Emily is loved by two men; in the end, which one will she choose? Along the story we got to know Charles as a cheerful, energetic, intelligent man. His keen journalistic instinct would be perfect when combined with Emily's logic and deduction skill. Partnered, they would be another Tommy and Tuppence! Everyone said it will be a perfect match. But, is it really? Like Tuppence, Emily is a domineering woman, the leader in a marriage. Charles knew this, but I think he won't feel happy to be under his wife's lead all the time. He is a dedicated professional, and he would love to strive farther in his career. No, as foolish as it seems, the ‘poor fool’ Jim is the most suitable husband for Emily, because they'd fit perfectly. The one needs to lead, the other needs to be led.

My final rate: 4 to 5

Monday, December 16, 2019

The House of Mirth Readalong Week #6: Book 2 Ch. 10 - end

=Rosedale isn't that bad after all

I can see now that, compared to the other men in Lily Bart's set, Rosedale isn't that bad. He had ambitions, yes, but at least he also possessed compassion towards Lily. He's the only one who still regarded Lily as a friend, while her former 'friends' all denounced her. That he could not relinquish his selfish ambition, it's in accordance with Wharton's theme of determinism - the Naturalists' formula. And it struck me also that Rosedale is actually very similar to Lily, in regards of their struggles between two passions.

=The battle of influences - which will triumph?

Chapter 11 reveals again Lily Bart's heroism in her persisted rejection of Rosedale to the end, despite of her longing to be freed from poverty. In the end, I should say that Lily's inheritance from her father, sharpened by Selden's republic of the spirit, has finally (slightly) triumphed over the influence of her mother's upbringing.

=Lily and Selden - is it possible?

Selden and Lily loved each other - theirs is the only relationship that is pure, without concession. So, why couldn't they be together? I think there's two reasons:

1. On Selden's part:
It's because Selden and Lily came from two different world. Selden was attracted to Lily, but he also 'judged' her as the member of her world. He couldn't marry her because he hated her crude passion for money. This is also Selden's personal struggle between two influences: his love for Lily, his longing to save her; and his critical view of her world. It's so difficult to put trust on something you have taught all your life to hate. So, when, after hearing so many rumors about Lily, Selden saw Lily in Gus Trenor house, how he supposed to think about this suspicious situation? How was he supposed to believe in Lily, when she herself was always swayed to the world she started to hate? No, it's almost impossible on Selden's part to be 100% percent sure of Lily. And Selden has been enjoying his life all along, why would he sacrifice it, when Lily herself rejected him twice (or thrice?) when he heroically proposed to marry her?

2. On Lily's part:
Her world was her habitat, so she clung to it to the end. That's why, though Selden's world was much attracted, and part of her longed to live in it, she couldn't uproot herself from her world.

Then, when her case started to look hopeless, I think it's also partly her pride that made her shrinking from Selden's humble offer altogether.

In the end, they are not destined to be together. If this were Victorian novel, things could be different. Selden perhaps, would brave himself to marry Lily at critical moment, and Lily would be touched, and relented, and... a happy ending. But, this is a Naturalist fiction, and we were not supposed to 'triumph' over the force of nature.

=Suicide or accident?

Should you even ask? Of course it's suicide. Every sentence in the last chapter leads to this conclusion. Lily was terribly unhappy for the time being, and in chapter 14 she has lost all hope. Suicidal person doesn't deliberately end his life just like that, because human instinct is always to survive, to cling to life. It is a mental process, which at the end, when he or she did not see any tiny spark at the end of the tunnel, then the most natural step is just added a little drop of the drug. It's a decision one takes when there's nothing to lose - death becomes more and more alluring. And so at the end, the mind gave up to the mental.

It always a devastating read, The House of Mirth is! But, what a beautiful vivid writing from Edith Wharton! I always nickname her 'the female Zola', and how appropriate it is!

I must thank Cleo @ Classics Carousel for hosting this readalong. It has been fun and wonderful, though I have not as actively participated as I have hoped, due to my works, but it's always amazing to read a piece of magnum opus like this with some friends. :)

Monday, December 9, 2019

The House of Mirth Readalong Week #5: Book 2 Ch. 6 – 9

Chapter 6 & 7

I'm glad that Lily wasn't tempted to take revenge to Bertha through George Dorset, even when she just needed to say "yes" to him to activate it. And the persistent way she rejected Rosedale is rather admirable, though I still think that Rosedale isn't as evil and selfless as the other men in Lily's set. He's clearly in love with Lily (his jealousy over Selden is one proof), though he's also ambitious. But isn't Lily too? Here, again, I saw the "shadow" of how her mother's education (to follow the money) and her father's character (to seek subtlety) have influenced Lily - from which she was always torn between two impulses, without being able to compromise them. And that explain Lily's indecisiveness and contradiction from the beginning. Poor Lily... I was tired just of reading about it, let alone she who must live it through!

Chapter 8 & 9

=Will Lily ever get married?

We have come to the stage, where Lily's only possible marriage was either with Rosedale or Selden. Rosedale had the money but not the subtlety. His scheme regarding Bertha Dorset's letters disgusted Lily. Okay, then how about Selden? He had the subtlety, but not the money. In her present situation, that's the best thing to accept. But no; if she was disgusted with Rosedale, she felt ashamed to Selden - one thing I don't quite understand. Was she trying to prove to Selden that she's different from the society he detested? Why did she always imply to Selden that she did not need his help, every single time she really needed it - and Selden's ready to give it? Was she too proud? I began to think, her pride has made her situation going from bad to worse.

Lily should have known that with Selden she would be a free woman, an equal in the marriage. Wasn't it that that she thought after? Well, without the large drawing room or the jewelry, perhaps, but, hey... one can't always get everything in life, right? Or maybe, that's Lily's real problem - that she has brought up by her mother as a spoiled brat, who always gets the best of everything?

If so, then she is a child-woman who never grew up. She had a vague sense of better qualities she inherited from her father - that she deserved to achieve more in life. But she had no father to guide it. And she certainly needed her mother to guide her through the slippery stairs of society. But on top of everything, it's a rotten society, where a girl does not have chance to improve by herself and be independent.

I have actually read through chapter 10, but I think I'd better stop here, because after this we'd come to the hardest part of the story, and I need to brave myself!

Monday, December 2, 2019

The House of Mirth Readalong Week #4: Book I Ch. 13 – Books 2 Ch. 5

Book I

Chapter 13

=It’s payday, the broker came to collect his commission.

It's quite incredible that an adult woman like Lily did not understand that money cannot multiply by itself. It's true that she, like many other people of that era, was ignorant about investment market. But she must have been realized that men in her set could not have expected nothing but little coquetry when she received from him regular money. She, of all girls, could have seen Trenor's expectations long ago before it's too late. But, again, the crude passion for money she inherited from her mother, forced her to ignore these facts.

Chapter 14

=The power of rumors upon women

I kept regretting Lily's cold ignorance towards Selden after the tableaux vivants. Otherwise, their intimacy would, at least, have stopped any rumors about her and Trenor, even if she did not instantly paid her debts. Because it's clear that Lily's downfall mostly came from rumors. When Selden, even after Lily's cold reception, came (perhaps) to propose to her, saw her rushed from the Trenors', it instantly dawned on him what people has hitherto talked about Lily. At least, he thought he has seen the proof. And who could blame him? Selden was attracted to Lily because he knew she was different from others, so her being alone with Trenor, why, it justified her being still embracing the corrupted society. First her cold reception, then the proof, it's enough to make a man like Selden fled away.

The rumors eventually ruined also Lily's chance of Mrs. Peniston's inheritance (by which she could have paid her debts and bought her independence). Do you believe she's ignorant of the rumors? She might have known that rumors are bad for girls' reputation.

Chapter 15

=How long will she survive the challenge?

Rosedale's proposal came when Lily still had a tiny hope that Selden would help her. At that point, what do you think she would do if she knew Selden has left her? I believe she would be rejected nonetheless, though without fully closing the door to Rosedale. I think the inherited passion issue (from her mother and father) went both ways in Lily. It's only a matter of which would triumph over the other.

Book II

Chapter 1

=Selden is what Lily would be if she were a man

It struck me that Selden was actually "made" with similar ingredients as Lily. He ran away from Lily because he was disappointed that Lily still failed to detach herself from her set - which he detested. However, he was also fond of the entertaining luxury the same set offered. And he inherited that taste also from the mother side.

The only thing differs him from Lily, is that he could detach himself anytime he wants to. He could act as mere spectator, or just a little involved (even flirted with somebody's wife), and others won't mind, he's still respectable. With Lily, they imposed upon her certain rules, as if saying: if you want us to receive you, you have to always be charming, but not too charming that our husbands get attracted to you.

As Lily said in chapter 1, it is acceptable for men to wear shabby coat, as long as he amuses others with his wit, but women must look charming all the time, because their only function is to entertaining men's eyes.

And finally, Selden's means of his detachment is his professional career - the ultimate means of independence women at that era didn't have opportunity of!

Chapter 2 & 3

=Personal or inherited flaw?

If Lily Bart has one negative quality which was not inherited or influenced by the environment, it was her shrinking from (ugly) obligations, as Wharton wrote in this passage:

"Moral complications existed for her only on the environment that had produced them; she did not mean to slight or ignore them, but they lost their reality when they changed their background."

After the Trenor incident, and especially when she knew to what extend Bertha could ruin her, how could she fled to the Riviera with the Dorsets?

Then, after Bertha's too-obvious-scandal, Lily should have seen the hints from Bertha's accusation to her of having an affair with her husband. Couldn't she predict that somehow she could be in danger? Selden could, and people said women's intuition is better than men's... She should have stayed away right then and there!

Chapter 4

=Lily Bart's original qualities vs inherited flaws

It's said that one's true character will only appear when one's in hard situation. Her humiliating defeat has actually revealed Lily's true capacity of toughness. Her maintaining her dignity at the testament reading, and her manner towards her ex friends at the restaurant, are truly heroic!

Chapter 5

=Lily's waning (marriage) chance

Now she even gave serious thought on Rosedale. :( It's so sad to think that there was time when girls have no chance of happier life outside marriage.

The next chapters are the most interesting because we'd get to see how Lily would settle her final choice!

Monday, November 25, 2019

The House Mirth Readalong Week #3: Chapter 7-12

Blunders, Force of Nature, Corrupted Society

From chapter 7 on we saw how Lily was 'jumping out of the frying pan into the fire'. It seems that one blunder led to another (worse) in rapid succession; it's like watching a snow avalanche. But are they really her blunders, her series of personal bad decision? Could she have avoided them? Here are my random thoughts.

Chapter 7-8

Lily trusted her money investment to Gus Trenor. Okay, to escape poverty she needed to have money fast. Solution: investment. It's perfectly understandable. She couldn't do it by herself, so she used her charms to induce Gus Trenor to help her. I cringed at this, but then, what can a woman in her position do to get assistance from men? So, okay, she had an income now, replenished her wardrobe, and back to the game again. The problem is Lily's 'crude passion for money' which she inherited from her mother. She has become a gambler, who couldn't stop at the right moment. She should have stopped when Trenor began to charge for "commission"! So... yes, it's a blunder.

Chapter 9

She shouldn't buy those letters from the char woman. Better save the money for emergency - but how she supposed to understand that, when her mother has taught her from childhood to spend, spend, and spend. It's a force of nature-the cursed inheritance things, then, though perhaps indirectly related to her downfall. Still, did she really think she could get even with Bertha Dorset with the letters? Haven't she learned enough of the power of money? Or did she do it for Selden's sake? Nah, I don't buy it. It's just her defense to soothe her reasons.

Chapter 10

And she shouldn't spend money lavishly on charity, either, especially when it was for pure selfish purposes! But, again, Lily hasn't been taught of saving money, so again... put the blame on her mother. Or, on the corrupted society where she grew up in.

Lily, who has hitherto prided herself of the wide knowledge of men's psychology had miscalculated (or more precisely: neglected) the "Rosedale consequences". Blunder no. 2.

By the way, I loved Wharton's nature symbols of the bluebottle:

"Because a bluebottle bangs irrationally against a window-pane, the drawing-room naturalist may forget that under less artificial conditions it is capable of measuring distances and drawing conclusions with all the accuracy needful of its welfare."

Chapter 11

As was with her miscalculation on Bertha Dorset, Lily well understood men's vanity, to use it for her advantage, but failed to recognize the same in women. Yes, I am talking about Grace Stepney's poisonous story to Mrs. Peniston. Of course, Lily wouldn't have known its huge implications with her dear hypocrite aunt, so it doesn't really count as blunder, right?

Chapter 12

I have always wanted to lecture Lily on this chapter, so I'll take this opportunity to pour it out here.

"Lily, you have once technically turned down Percy Gryce - which was perfectly understandable, because that's not what you have wanted. But don't you realize that you're not getting any younger, and the possibility to find a suitable [rich and respectable in her circle] suit gets thinner and thinner? So when a guy who, though hitherto seemed reluctant to marry you, is now smitten by you - DON'T THROW HIM AWAY! He's your last chance! And what if he's not as rich Percy Gryce? He has a quite comfortable professional career. And though is out of your circle, he still loves to attend the parties and enjoys the luxury you love once in a while, and they respect him. You could still charm them with your skill. What more, he is funny, intelligent, and with him, you will achieve the freedom you have dreamed of. He's the most suitable man for you! And most importantly he loves you, understands and respects you, and will never treat you like a trash - like some men! And you love him too, so what more do you expect? Now when he finally made up his mind to love you - and even has sealed it with a kiss, for Heaven's sake, Lily... TAKE IT!"

Oh... this chapter is so heartbreaking to read, I must stop for a while. After her 'triumph' in the tableaux vivant, and topped with Selden and Lily's romantic moment in the "almost midsummernight's dream" garden, Lily's declaration of: "Ah, love me, love me - but don't tell me so!" always gets me. Why Lily, why can't you?? And this, I think, is the worst or biggest blunder Lily Bart has ever did (the rest is just the snowball effects). She could have done it, or at least could nurture Selden's love a bit longer before saying ‘yes’. To "throw the door on his face" so soon is terrible, terrible mistake!

Well, after this, The House of Mirth began to be uncomfortable, and even painful in the last chapters, to read. But one must get on, because it also gets interesting. So... I’ll brave myself ‘till next week!

Monday, November 18, 2019

The House Mirth Readalong Week #2: Chapter 5-6

Chapter 5

Sundays at Bellomont means going to church. Like in many other societies, attending the church gives them sense of honor. No matter what they do on the other six days, going to Church on Sundays seemed to neutralize everything, and they got out of it clean and pure again, to go back to your corrupted life the next day. What a hypocrite!

Anyway, the last touch of Lily's conquest of Peter Gryce would have been for her to put on her grey dress, bring a prayer book, and go to the church with him. She certainly knew it, as she have known how to "woe" the shy Mr. Gryce on the train. But instead, she played truant and went for walk with Selden. Is it really Lily's strategy to whet Gryce's appetite - as Selden's suspicion (and Lily's defense to her own conscience)? I don't believe it. I think, Selden has shed new light on her view towards her circle of society. She could see now how freeing the outer side of it was. Her procrastination is not of laziness, but because she dreaded the dull and monotonous life she would lead on marrying Gryce (or anyone from her set). She delayed because she wanted to know more about her alternative - which she hitherto only saw vaguely; she was still weighing the choices. Unfortunately, she miscalculated the Bertha Dorset factor. Lily's wide knowledge on human psychology, apparently, didn't touch much on that of her own sex.

Chapter 6

The most important chapter of the book - the center of the story, where Wharton poured her personal view towards the corrupted society.

=Selden and Lily

Selden's attraction to Lily started with amusement. Selden the spectator perhaps admired her subtle skill to climb the society stairs, and - you got to admit it - it was almost heroic, her continual struggle to get out of poverty!

Lily's attraction to Selden was because of his detachment from her circle. She admired his freedom and easy going manner, while she must calculate every step through the slippery stairs as she belonged to the circle he despised. But their leisure walk changed everything. It was the turning point for both, but most of all for Lily.

Now Selden realized that Lily was not thoroughly shallow like her friends, and not that haughty as he thought she was. Also after he detected her "weakness", he was flattered to be "the unforeseen element in (her) career so accurately planned".

On the other hand, Lily viewed Selden as the representation of freedom; and because he was "as far removed as possible from any assertion of personal advantage" and "being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest man she had ever met." Shortly, they attracted to each other because Selden and Lily were both different from the others.

=Wealth vs happiness

The priceless philosophy from Wharton: the republic of the spirit. Through Selden, Wharton criticized how society saw money as the highest achievement of life, and a means to buy freedom (it is merely illusion, because rich people eventually became the slave of their money). She wanted to remind us that the real freedom is when you personally feel free to lead whichever life or role you want to lead, whether you were rich or not, and no one can dictate you, or impose on you rules to obey. She wanted to emphasize that money only brings corruption; especially when "so much human nature is used up in the process". That was the core of this story; that was what The House of Mirth is about.

=Who was the real coward?

The character of Selden-Lily's relationship could be concluded in this passage - beautifully crafted by Wharton:

'Why do you do this to me?' she cried. 'Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?' 
'No, I have nothing to give you instead', he said, sitting up a d turning so that he faced her. 'If I had, it should be yours, you know.' 
She received this abrupt declaration in a way even stranger than the manner of its making: she dropped her face on her hands and he saw that for a moment she wept.

People always discuss on who is the real coward, Selden or Lily, as they called that to each other in this chapter. Well, for years I have been switching opinion from Lily to Selden. But this time I can give my definite answer, that neither of them is a coward.

Selden couldn't marry Lily, unless he succeeded to convert her to his "republican of the spirit", otherwise he couldn't afford her. On the other hand, Lily, though despised her society, could not bring herself to denounce her "natural habitat". It is in accordance with the theory of determinism of 18-19th century, which was based on the idea of heredity and environmental influence on human's behavior. So, in this theory, Lily was not a coward - she's a victim of the corrupted society.

I have actually read through Ch. 7, but just didn't have time to put my thoughts into this post. Until next week, then.. ;)