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.
.. every chapter has a fascinating piece of her poetry, like a jewel.
KEN – by Charlotte Mew
The town is old and very steep
A place of bells and cloisters and grey towers,
And black-clad people walking in their sleep—
A nun, a priest, a woman taking flowers
To her new grave; and watched from end to end
By the great Church above, through the still hours:
But in the morning and the early dark
The children wake to dart from doors and call
Down the wide, crooked street, where, at the bend,
Before it climbs up to the park,
Ken’s is in the gabled house facing the Castle wall.
When first I came upon him there
Suddenly, on the half-lit stair,
I think I hardly found a trace
Of likeness to a human face
In his. And I said then
If in His image God made men,
Some other must have made poor Ken—
But for his eyes which looked at you
As two red, wounded stars might do.
He scarcely spoke, you scarcely heard,
His voice broke off in little jars
To tears sometimes. An uncouth bird
He seemed as he ploughed up the street,
Groping, with knarred, high-lifted feet
And arms thrust out as if to beat
Always against a threat of bars.
And oftener than not there’d be
A child just higher than his knee
Trotting beside him. Through his dim
Long twilight this, at least, shone clear,
That all the children and the deer,
Whom every day he went to see
Out in the park, belonged to him.
“God help the folk that next him sits
He fidgets so, with his poor wits,”
The neighbours said on Sunday nights
When he would go to Church to “see the lights!”
Although for these he used to fix
His eyes upon a crucifix
In a dark corner, staring on
Till everybody else had gone.
And sometimes, in his evil fits,
You could not move him from his chair—
You did not look at him as he sat there,
Biting his rosary to bits.
While pointing to the Christ he tried to say,
“Take it away”.
Nothing was dead:
He said “a bird” if he picked up a broken wing,
A perished leaf or any such thing
Was just “a rose”; and once when I had said
He must not stand and knock there any more,
He left a twig on the mat outside my door.
Not long ago
The last thrush stiffened in the snow,
While black against a sullen sky
The sighing pines stood by.
But now the wind has left our rattled pane
To flutter the hedge-sparrow’s wing,
The birches in the wood are red again
And only yesterday
The larks went up a little way to sing
What lovers say
Who loiter in the lanes to-day;
The buds begin to talk of May
With learned rooks on city trees,
And if God please
With all of these
We, too, shall see another Spring.
But in that red brick barn upon the hill
I wonder—can one own the deer,
And does one walk with children still
As one did here?
Do roses grow
Beneath those twenty windows in a row—
And if some night
When you have not seen any light
They cannot move you from your chair
What happens there?
I do not know.
So, when they took
Ken to that place, I did not look
After he called and turned on me
His eyes. These I shall see—
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