Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

“In this matter of the Diamond”, he said, “the characters of innocent people have suffered under suspicion already - as you know. The memories of innocent people may suffer, hereafter, for want… of a record of the facts to which those who come after us can appeal.  There can be no doubt that this strange family history of ours ought to be told.”

The Moonstone is a diamond with a history.  

It received its mysterious name from an association with the Hindu god of the moon, Shiva. Originally set in the forehead of a sacred statue of the god at Somnath on the western coast of India, and later at Benares, an Indian city on the banks of the Ganga south-east of the state capital, Lucknow, it was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu and to wax and wane in brilliance along with the light of the moon.

Originally published in serial form in 1868 in Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round, The Moonstone is an epistolary or multi-narration novel and is generally considered one of the first and best detective novels in the English language. A precursor of the mystery and suspense novel form, it was greatly successful in its first publication and each installment release was marked by crowds of anxious readers waiting expectantly outside the publisher’s offices in Wellington Street.  Collins’ enlightened social attitudes became apparent in The Moonstone in his honest depiction of servants in the novel, for his respectful treatment of Indians and their religious motivations and the sympathetic characterizations of reformed criminals. 

But it is first and foremost a detective novel and established certain features that became thereafter expected in the genre.  Facts and details most certainly were central and contributed to the well-developed plot, where the storyline moved and how the novel was ingeniously wrapped up at the close.  It has been suggested that some incidents from The Moonstone were taken from the real life historical Constance Kent Road Case and that the plot for this novel is certainly Wilkie Collins at his most detailed and intricate best.

Wilkie Collins was born William Wilkie Collins on January 8, 1824 in Marylebone, London - an area where he resided for most of his life. During his lifetime he wrote over thirty major books, a dozen or more plays, and over a hundred articles, short stories and essays.  His best known and most popular works, however, are assuredly The Woman In White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

Collins lived within the very heart of British Victorian society but rarely conformed to its rigid strictures on conduct and lifestyle.  He lived to the excess in almost everything he enjoyed; food, wine, flamboyant clothes, his relationships with women and his growing dependence on opium as he dealt with issues of ill health.

The eldest son of a popular and celebrated landscape artist and portrait painter, he spent much of his childhood traveling to such places as France and Italy and received an education at Maida Hill Academy and later Cole’s boarding school. But Wilkie Collins felt that his travels provided him with more of the information and experience that promoted his imagination and development towards the art of avid story telling than his school attendance.  Never completely in good health, Collins’ condition had already begun to decline when he produced The Moonstone.  He suffered from “rheumatic gout” or “neuralgia” which effected his eyesight enough to have a secretary often at his disposal and various remedies were tried until he was eventually prescribed opium in the form of laudanum.

For almost 20 years Wilkie Collins remained fast friends with Charles Dickens, with whom he regularly collaborated as well as other novelists,  playwrights, theatrical personalities, musicians, publishers and other society figures of the time. In one of Collins letters he said: “We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be. Nobody (my own dear mother excepted, of course) felt so positively of the future before me in literature, as Dickens did.”

T. S. Eliot described The Moonstone as the “first and greatest of English detective novels”. Dorothy L. Sayers - often crowned “queen of crime” in the 1930s and 40s - described the novel as “probably the finest detective story every written”. It was a landmark novel that influenced many authors who followed Collins including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and in its long existence has never been out of print.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is the third read in our current study of British Victorian Authors. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Winter Book Breakfast to take place on Saturday, January 24th, 2015 at 10am!

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. 
Book I, Chapter 1, The Period. (Opening lines.)

Charles Dickens wrote 15 novels, 5 novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fictional articles. He gave lectures, was a prolific letter writer and edited a weekly journal for 20 years. Because of his personal experiences in early life he was a dedicated campaigner for children’s rights, education, and social reforms including his stance as an outspoken proponent for copyright law and protection of intellectual property.  But he was most renewed for his pioneering of the narrative serial novel.
Born at No. 1 Mile End Terrace, Landport, Portsmouth, England in February of 1812 and the 2nd of 8 children, Dickens was forced to begin work at 12 years old at Warren’s Blacking Factory after his father’s poor head for finances led to his imprisonment for debt in the Marshalsea Prison. These early formative years became a taboo topic for discussion with Charles Dickens but found expression in each of his literary works.
At twenty-four years old Dickens soared to fame both in Britain and internationally with his Pickwick Papers, published in 1836.  Throughout his career it was said that his creativity was rivaled only by Shakespeare.  People from all levels of society could relate to his characters - especially the underprivileged and desperate. Installments of his novels were so eagerly awaited that devoted readers in New York would crowd the docks awaiting ships arriving from England to get their hands on the next release.
Only two works of historical fiction were written by Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge and the more well-known A Tale Of Two Cities
Published in 1859, A Tale Of Two Cities is a 45 chapter novel that was first published in 31 weekly installments in the Dickens literary periodical, All The Year Round beginning April 30, 1859 and completing on November 26, 1859.
Intent on being historically accurate and placing a strong emphasis on realistic characters and authenticity in real-life detail of the French Revolution, Dickens relied heavily on his friend, Thomas Carlyle’s History Of The French Revolution as a major resource for his meticulous preparation for the novel. Unlike his other works it gives A Tale Of Two Cities a slightly unfamiliar reliance on tightly constructed faithfulness to detail of time and historical fact instead of his usual careful character development and deep humor. Characters strongly represent ideals in a more one-dimensional than in other Dickensian novels.
Set primarily in the teeming cities of London and Paris, A Tale Of Two Cities is a novel of opposites: death and resurrection, water and air, darkness and light. Dickens represents them as well balanced - equally matched in character, place and detail.
Much in this important work reflects Dickens own interest in social change and the plight of the urban poor and systematically down-trodden. Readers are reminded of the evils of hunger, injustice and brutality which were being suffered by the defenseless masses at the hands of governments and the privileged nobility - whether in England or in France.
But for all of the social agenda and determinately clinging to of historical detail, readers can also experience the nobility and loyalty of the human heart.  Love and sacrifice, tenderness and determination surface in the memorable characters who center this work.

A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is the second read 
in our current study of British Victorian Authors
You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over an 
Autumn Book Breakfast 
to take place on Saturday, October 4th 2014 at 10am!

Friday, June 13, 2014

CRANFORD by Elizabeth Gaskell

First published in 1851 as a serial novel in Household Words, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens, Cranford is an engaging experience in long ago place and time and the lives of simple small town people.  Elizabeth Gaskell took a town that she knew very well – Knutsford in Cheshire – and crafted the fictional town of Cranford where she recounts episodes from the lives of three primary characters relating to their neighbors and daily events. 

While there may not be an intricate plot nor twists and turns of suspense and deep drama, we nevertheless are granted a well-crafted glimpse into another time and another way of life.

Elizabeth Stevenson was born in September of 1810, the daughter of a Scottish Unitarian minister and the youngest of eight children. After her father resigned his orders, her life took a more insecure turn as his employment endeavors re-formed and Elizabeth’s mother died, leading him to send Elizabeth to live as a dependent with an aunt and grandparents in the small town of Knutsford, Cheshire.

Elizabeth was sent for a typical “young ladies” education in the arts, classics and decorum and encouraged by her aunts and by her father to read, study and to develop in her writing. At 22 years old, she married a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, in Knutsford and they went to settle in Manchester where he served as the minister Cross Street Unitarian Chapel.  

The tragic loss of children, places lived; neighbors and friends experienced… all became fuel for Elizabeth’s imagination as the years passed.  She began with a diary, wrote poems with her husband under the title -  Sketches Among The Poor - which were published in a magazine and there followed other small written works which developed her style.

It was after the Gaskells traveled to the continent that influences produced new ideas and her first work of fiction was published, Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras under the name “Cotton Mather Mills”.  
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her major literary works in the second half of the century from a villa at 84 Plymouth Grove in Manchester, England.  Her social circle grew to include such writers as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin and the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

Her last work, Wives And Daughters, was published as an incomplete work in early 1865, a year after Gaskell died of a heart attack.

The Jane Austen Tea Society will begin our second study of British Victorian Authors with this charming Elizabeth Gaskell work and discuss over a Summer Book Breakfast to take place on Saturday the 12th of July 2014 at 10am.

There is plenty of time – start reading!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Spring Read - Persuasion by Jane Austen

From Sir Walter Elliot’s copy of the Baronetage –

"Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791."

In this respected, landowning group is Anne Elliot.  And Anne is a woman with a past. 

Not an immoral or profligate past, but one in which she shared a great love with a young man of bright promise.  But this overlooked middle daughter of a vain and shallow father failed to be faithful to her own heart.  Instead she listened to her trusted confidant and the family’s close advisor, Lady Russell, her late mother’s best friend.  To Lady Russell, wealth and rank were essential for a good match.  The young man’s social status was considered unacceptable and his fortune nonexistent. And so Anne and her young man parted.

Now at 27 years old Anne lives a quiet life at her selfish family’s beck and call… but in the quiet of her mind… she remembers….

Published 1818, Persuasion was the last completed novel by Jane Austen. It was released about six months after her death, bound together in the same volume with another novel, Northanger Abbey, also centered in Bath. Since Jane became ill during the writing of this work, it did not receive some of the polishing and fine tuning that Mansfield Park and Emma had received, and readers sometimes find it less developed than her earlier works. It really had no designated title although Jane Austen referred to it as The Elliots.  The title of Persuasion was most likely given to the book by Jane’s brother, Henry before publication.

Even though they were bound together in publication, there are marked differences between Persuasion and Northanger Abbey… and for that matter, all of the other Jane Austen works.  For one, the heroine, Anne Elliot is - at 27 years old and according to her time period – considered to be past her prime and a “confirmed spinster”, unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse or the Dashwood sisters.  And the hero of her story has no landed estates, no history of wealth or privilege behind him…. just a will to succeed in his life and chosen career.

Jane Austen included much of her own life experience in Persuasion. She knew fashionable Bath well – both the good and the bad of it - and richly captured the intense social atmosphere, the superficiality of values and the not too subtle pressure to measure up.  Having two brothers who reached the rank of admirals in the navy, she also understood the world of Royal Navy and what it offered young men of the day in the way of social and economical advancement.  The ability for a young man to advance himself in society and enter the sphere of gentility was a new thing in Jane Austen’s world. For once a self-made man could change his future.

But it seems that the real heart of Miss Austen is found in the concern that she reveals for the plight of young women of her time who were pressured to accept uncomplimentary connections based on social level or wealth or to refuse those based only on love and respect where social status did not measure up.  The helplessness of young women without wise champions was dear to her heart and shines through her particular treatment of Anne Elliot.
"Elizabeth had succeeded at sixteen to all that was possible of her mother's rights and consequence; and being very handsome, and very like himself, her influence had always been great, and they had gone on together most happily. His other two children were of very inferior value. Mary had acquired a little artificial importance by becoming Mrs. Charles Musgrove; but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way — she was only Anne.”

- Jane Austen,
Persuasion Chapter 1

 The Jane Austen Tea Society has happily returned to a study of our beloved Regency author’s works in the order in which they were published. Our sixth and last selection will be Persuasion with a Spring Book Discussion to take place on Saturday the 26th of April 2014 at 10am.

There is plenty of time – start reading!