I just finished “Wives and daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell (for free ebook, see the link below.. it is 700 pages though!)
It was written in the 1860s (she was a contemporary and friend of Charlotte Bronte), but set in 1820. It’s very delicately observed and sweetly felt, and you grow to feel quite indignant on behalf of the long suffering Molly even as you can’t help yourself liking the thoroughly bad and unrepentant Cynthia.
This is a comfortable goose down quilt of a book -the pace is very gentle and you feel lulled and lured into a world of good, kind doctors and clumsy gentleman farmers, ascerbic countesses and gossiping old dears. Mrs Kirkpatrick is a wonderfully shallow character and much gentle fun is poked at her complete lack of self awareness – however she never gets her come-uppance – in fact everybody is redeemed – Mrs Gaskell seems far too kindly to let any of her characters come to harm. Even Preston, the cad, has excuses made for him and behaves in quite a gentlemanly way when finally confronted.
I was saddened to find that this was her last book and she had not managed to finish it before she died, but I think it’s pretty obvious what was going to happen next. I don’t think Molly could cope with many more setbacks before finally getting her man.
There was a sense of how limited and frustrating life was to a girl of reasonable family – ruination lurks in every corner, the only safe activities being the reading of novels like this, and the endless hopeless embroidering of one’s trousseu.
It also made me think how in those days, in most novels there are at least a few characters who “take to their beds” and die of un-diagnosed conditions, rents supported by their parish. Contrast and compare with the way we treat the ill and the poor today.. shame on IDS and ATOS.
His arms are full of broken things – PB Parris
I bought this in a charity shop (as the only other reviewer I saw, at Goodreads, said) and it looked as if it would be impenetrable, so I left it for some months before picking it up in a fit of ennui. I wish I had read it earlier – it’s a beautiful, delicate book and it’s introduced me to the poetry of Charlotte Mew, who until then was just a name to me. I am not normally much for poetry but read together with her life story even I cannot fail to see the beauty and strength in her poems, the subtle rhythms and unpredictable patterns, and the way she penetrates to an uncomfortable truth without being twee or strident.
The book attempts to tell her story from her own eyes, based on her correspondance and poems. I don’t know how accurate the depiction of her early life, her awkward sexuality and stunted romances, but it’s compelling reading – feeling, gentle, never lurid. She was born in 1869, one of seven children, three of whom died early and two of who were committed – due to the history of mental illness, she and her surviving sister Anne pledged never to marry. They supported themselves and their mother with their art and writing – unusually for women at that time. But the life was hard, and shortly after Anne died, she went herself to an asylum, where she committed suicide. Poor Charlotte! If she had lived in a different time she would have had more friends, more fame, more love and life.
KEN – by Charlotte Mew
To read her poems, free: http://www.poemhunter.com/charlotte-mary-mew/
I could not find a free ebook, but it is worth buying: http://www.amazon.co.uk/His-Arms-Full-Broken-Things/dp/0670873152