The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee

I must confess that, while I love the idea of early gothic novels, and while I have collected some intriguing titles, they are something I very rarely pick up to read.

I love the idea, but I need a little push to make me read. The Gothic Literature Classics Circuit Tour was just the push I needed.

I pulled out a lovely Valancourt Books edition of The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee.

A novel that was a huge success in 1798. An author described as ‘the mother of the gothic novel’ by Ann Radcliffe. And yet a book that was out of print for nearly two centuries.

Of course I was curious.

The story begins with Sir Edward Arden. A proud man, but a man with a good heart who would always do his duty. And so, when he was called to do his duty at the battle of Culloden, he set out to make provision for this two children: a son and a daughter.

It was with great reluctance that he took them to court, and left them in the care of his sister, Lady Lettingham. He knew that his sister would do her best for the children, but he also knew that she had been corrupted by the dubious values of the court.

Sure enough his children grew up to be beautiful, charming, and dissolute.

But both made good marriages, and to the son was born a daughter and to the daughter was born a son.

And so two of the three principals – the beautiful and virtuous Emily Arden, and the handsome and dashing Edward of Lennox – were on the stage.

All four parents hoped that the two would make a match, but of course it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Not in a gothic novel! Not after a mere ten pages! The story had moved swiftly and it wasn’t going to stop for anything!

Emily Arden was an heiress, expected to inherit a fortune from her grandmother. But her grandmother had a ward, Emily Fitzallen, and she was plotting to capture both the fortune and the marquis.

The third principal was on the stage!

From now on I shall refer to Good Emily and Evil Emily. That is how their creator portrays them, Emily Arden fair and simpering and Emily Fitzallen dark and glowering, and it does make things rather easier to follow.

When her grandmother dies Good Emily inherits her fortune and Evil Emily swears that she will have her revenge. And her Marquis.

All manner of events unfold.

The action moves from Ireland, to Scotland, to France, to Italy …

Almost everything you might think of happening in a gothic novel does happen.

Secret marriage! Bigamy! Dark castles! Imprisonment! Duels! Blackmail! Death!

It’s ridiculously improbable and desperately exciting!

But it was also hard work.

The pace was break-neck, and there was so little characterisation, so few descriptions, nothing but plot, plot, plot.

And the less that subtle moral overtones left little doubt as to how things would work out in the end,

The prose style was lovely, the drama was fantastic, but I felt the same way I did when somebody tells me an involved story about friends of theirs that I really don’t know.

I wanted to understand. I wanted to become involved. I couldn’t.

But I can understand The Two Emilys success, and I can see that it may well have influenced later writers.

And it makes me appreciate the way a latter generation of writers took the gothic novel forward all the more,

A Classics Circuit Tour: Dickens versus Austen

 Jane Austen versus Charles Dickens?

Not a fair fight!

The two have very different attributes and most definitely would fight in different divisions, indeed in very disciplines.

I learned to love Jane Austen at a very young age, and with the passing of the years I have come to appreciate her writing even more.

It took me longer to learn to love Charles Dickens, but in time that love came. When I started treating his books as serials to be read over an extended period something finally clicked.

I have much unread Dickens but no unread Austen, and so it was Dickens I chose to read for the Classic Circuit.

And I chose The Pickwick Papers.

Why?

“Gardening, walks, rows on the river, and flower hunts employed the fine days, and for rainy ones, they had house diversions, some old, some new, all more or less original. One of these was the ‘P.C.’, for as secret societies were the fashion, it was thought proper to have one, and as all of the girls admired Dickens, they called themselves the Pickwick Club. With a few interruptions, they had kept this up for a year, and met every Saturday evening in the big garret, on which occasions the ceremonies were as follows: Three chairs were arranged in a row before a table on which was a lamp, also four white badges, with a big ‘P.C.’ in different colors on each, and the weekly newspaper called, The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something, while Jo, who reveled in pens and ink, was the editor. At seven o’clock, the four members ascended to the clubroom, tied their badges round their heads, and took their seats with great solemnity. Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle. Pickwick, the president, read the paper, which was filled with original tales, poetry, local news, funny advertisements, and hints, in which they good-naturedly reminded each other of their faults and short comings.”

(from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

It’s been quietly calling me ever since I first read those words.

But I must confess that I have read very little of The Pickwick Papers.

The time just hasn’t been right, and I have been trying to fit too many things into not quite enough time.

But the little I have read has already given me an inkling of just how it so inspired the March girls.

I’ll progress through The Pickwick Papers slowly, when the time is right, and I am quite sure that I will enjoy the journey.

But that may not be for a while. Now that I have picked up Little Women to pull up that quote I am very, very tempted to reread the whole book…

The Classics Circuit: Reading Trollope

When it was announced, a little while ago, that Anthony Trollope would be touring the Classics Circuit the timing seemed perfect.

I was thirteen when I read my first Victorian novel – Far From The Madding Crowd – and I was smitten. It would be the first of many – Bronte, Eliot, Collins, Braddon – so many authors, so many books to fall in love with.

Dickens I struggled with, but a couple of years back he finally clicked.

And this year, I decided, was the year I would finally make a start on the works of Anthony Trollope. I even bought a copy of The Warden, planning to read it during the winter months.

And then that tour was announced.

I put The Warden to one side, thinking that it was a book that many would choose, and picked up a lesser know Trollope that I had spotted in the library. Cousin Henry.

It wasn’t too long, and the concept seemed interesting: Henry Jones, a London clerk is the apparent heir to his wealthy uncle’s estate. But Henry knows that his uncle made a new will before his death, leaving his estate to Henry’s cousin Isabel.  Henry conceals the will and inherits the estate, but his conscience troubles him …

I started to read. The prose was a little plain for my tastes, but very readable. I struggled though with the characters. I wasn’t engaged.

Cousin Henry started to feel like homework. The book sat on the table for a few days, glaring at me. I glared back, and on Monday I took Cousin Henry back to the library.

Maybe it was the wrong moment. I’m busy at work and at home, and right now more straightforward books are calling me. It wasn’t the time for the subtle details of this particular work.

Maybe it was the wrong book. I suspect that there’s a reason why Cousin Henry is a lesser known work.

I suspect that I may still come to love Trollope. I just need another time and another book.

Advice would be welcome!

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley

Death by chocolate!

Yes, really – let me explain!

Notorious womaniser Sir Eustace Pennefather was staying at his London club when he received a complimentary box of liqueur chocolates in the post. Sir Eustace was unimpressed.

Graham Bendix, another member of the club, needed a box of chocolates. He had lost a bet with his wife and the stake had been a box of chocolates.

And so Bendix took the chocolates home. He and his wife both tried them; he didn’t care for them, but his wife did. And a few hours later Joan Bendix was dead and her husband, seriously ill in hospital.

You see – death by chocolate!

The police were called in and they discovered that the chocolates had been laced with poison; that they had been posted in a box near The Strand the previous evening; that they came with a letter typed on the chocolatier’s notepaper.

But who was the poisoner? Who was the intended victim? They were baffled!

And so they took a most unusual approach. They called in the Crime Circle: a group of six amateur detectives. The members agreed that a week would be allowed for each to investigate and then present their results to the society. 

And so this is a very different Golden Age mystery. As fine a puzzle as you could want!

Six voices, all different, but all had both intelligence and wit.

Each of the sextet picks up on a different detail, takes a different tack, and provides a watertight case. Trouble is, each of the six points to a different murderer!

I couldn’t fault anybody’s logic, and I have to say that the way the book is structured to work as a whole is incredibly clever.

It was a wonderful roller-coaster ride as cases were built and then demolished.

Six people expounding theories could have been dull, but it wasn’t at all. There was plenty more going on, and the outcome was in doubt until the very last page. I had to read the ending twice, and the second time it made perfect sense.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is, if you will excuse the pun, a confection. It has nothing of importance to say, but it is oh so entertaining.

And it is that rare thing, a crime novel I could happily read many times.

*****

I must thank The Classics Circuit for hosting The Golden Age of Detective Fiction Tour.

It was the perfect excuse to buy the lovely Felony & Mayhem edition of The Poisoned Chocolates Case that I had wanted for so long. In fact, I was so enthused that  I accidentally ordered two copies. So, if you would like the spare give me the name of your favourite book from the golden age of detective fiction is and tell me what makes it special. I’ll pick a winner after 8pm on Sunday.

One Thousand and One Ghosts by Alexandre Dumas

I was thrilled when I learned that Alexandre Dumas would be touring The Classics Circuit this spring.

You see, I have been intending to pick up his books for ages, and yet I never have. I fully expected to love them, but they are so big, the commitment seemed so huge.

But at the end of last year I decided that it was time. That in 2010 I would read The Count of Monte Christo. I wasn’t brave enough to commit to that book for this tour, but I looked for a shorter book. A book that would act as a warm-up, getting me used to the style and enthusing me before I picked up the big book.

I knew that the Hesperus Press had a little book that would fit the bill. One Thousand and One Ghosts is just one hundred and sixty-four pages long in their edition!

It dates from 1831, a time when the revolution and the guillotine were still in living memory.

It is, I think, a book with a lot to say about that period, but by knowledge of French history is rather sketchy and so it’s difficult for me to say how effective that is.

An unnamed narrator – later revealed to be Dumas himself – is visiting an old friend in the country. He leaves the company to explore his surroungs, and in time he arrives in the local village.

And that’s where the real story begins. He sees a man, clearly disturbed and drenched with blood. Stunned, he watches as the man approaches the village mayor, and declares that he has murdered his wife.

Dumas is caught up in the story as a police witness.

The man is plainly terrified and determined that he must be imprisoned. And equally determined that he will not, as the law requires, accompany the police to the scene of the crime as the law requires.

Why?

After much pressure the man declares that that after beheading his wife with a sword while she knelt in the cellar to get wine from the barrel, he picked  up his wife’s  head and she bit him on the hand and wouldn’t let go! And then when he did put the head down it did let go – to say: “You wretch! I was innocent!”

Extraordinary!

The mayor, the only person who believes the man’s story, invites Dumas to his home. The talk, quite naturally, turns to the remarkable events of the day, and members of the company tell stories of their own experiences of the strange and supernatural. Wonderful, diverse stories, and the revolution and the guillotine are significant in each one.

Dumas leaves, but the stories stay with him.

One Thousand and One Ghosts is a strange little book.

There are lots of loose ends. What happened to the house party? What happened in the murder case? What happenened when all the stories were told? I have no idea. But it didn’t matter – I was swept along by the wonderful drama and storytelling.

And that drama and storytelling carried me through as the book evolved from a record of a visit to the country, to a crime story, to a gothic tale, to a portmanteau novel of the supernatural …

Yes, the pages kept turning and I loved the journey. But there was one thing missing. Characters. The pages were full of people, they spoke, they acted, they reacted, but I could find nothing of their hearts and minds. Difficult of course, in what is effectively a series of short stories and a framing story, to fit everything in.

Is that a fatal flaw in Dumas’s writing I wonder? I do hope not, because there was so much to enjoy in this little book: great storytelling, high drama, fine prose, a real flavour of the period…

Time to visit some other tour stops and find out!

Translated by Andrew Brown

No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

I’m delighted to be welcoming The Classics Circuit once more.

And I’m particularly pleased to welcome such a popular and readable author – Georgette Heyer.

I’ve read, and enjoyed, a few of her Regency romances over the years, but I’d never tried her crime fiction. I thought that I was bound to be disappointed. That she would suffer in comparison with her illustrious contemporaries – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh – all authors I love. But a quote on one of the covers caught my eye and made me pick out a few books to take home.

I picked up No Wind of Blame first, and I loved it.

Now back to that quote. It was from Dorothy L Sayers.

“Miss Heyer’s characters and dialogue are an abiding delight to me…I have seldom met people to whom I have taken so violent a fancy from the word ‘Go”.”

Now I’ve read the book I have to agree with her. So, let me introduce you to those characters.

First there’s Ermyntrude Carter. Ermyntrude was on the stage as a young woman and inherited the a country estate and a fortune from her first,  husband. She’s little more loud, a little more brash than the norm, but she is a warm and hospitable lady. Her second husband, Wally Carter, sadly was not a good catch. He wastes his wife’s money on wine, women and song,  his business dealings seem dubious to see the least, and he is not well-regarded by local society. Poor Ermyntrude! But she has her daughter’s support.Vicky, shares her mother’s love of theatrics, casting herself as a variety of different characters as he drifts through life. She’s lovely and infuriating in equal measures. And then there’s Mary, Wally’s quiet and sensible ward, who is saddened by his behaviour and supportive of his wife and step-daughter.

That’s the household, and it’s a highly entertaining one, but there are more people to meet. There’s Prince Varasashvili, an exiled Russian prince and admirer of Ermyntrude who is coming to stay. Of course Ermyntrude is having a house party to show off her unusual guest. The neighbours are intrigued. The Derings, on the neighbouring estate, wouldn’t usually accept such an invitation, but curiosity gets the better of them.

Just a few more introductions before we get to the house party and the mystery. Wally’s cousin, Gilbert White, lives with his son and daughter in the lodge, and seems to have some sort of hold over Wally. Bob Steel is a local farmer, as down to earth as they come, and he holds Ermyntrude in the highest regard, And an uninvited guest, accusing Wally of impropriety with his sister.

It’s quite a cast. A few stereotypes maybe, but they are so engaging, their exchanges are so delightful, and so you really can’t help loving them, and turning the pages.

The house party is a riot – and then somebody shoots Wally as he walks across the estate.

Of course there are plenty of suspects, red herrings galore, twists and turns galore, and just a touch of fun and romance along the way before things are tied up nicely in just the right conclusion.

The style is quite different from those contemporaries of Georgette Heyer. It’s slower, much more driven by the characters, their interactions, and their dialogue. And the detective, Inspector Hemingway is both wise and witty, but he’s low-key and plays second fiddle to the house party of suspects.

Those differences stopped me making the comparisons I feared, but now I have finished reading I realise that, even if I had, this book would have stood up well. It’s a cleverly constructed mystery and a fine entertainment. And I’m very glad that I didn’t just bring home the one!

Sanctuary by Edith Wharton

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I’m delighted to welcome back The Classics Circuit.

Delighted too that Edith Wharton is the subject of this tour. She was one of the first American greats I learned to love. Her novels, set in New York Society at the beginning of the 20th century introduced me to an extraordinary world, and I was won over by her writing style and her wonderful use of dramatic irony.

And the opening line of Sanctuary stunned me.

“It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy; the sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be within the awakening clutch of life.”

It’s a sad view of the world. And maybe a reminder of just how much the world has changed in the last hundred years or so.

Kate Orme is happy though. She is in love, and all her hopes and dreams are built around one person: her fiancé, Denis Peyton. But there are things she doesn’t know. Things that her elders believe should not be discussed in front of the young.

But Kate finds out. That Denis has done something terribly wrong to protect his family’s position in society. Kate begs him to do the moral thing, to put things right, but he will not. The engagement is broken.

Then she learns that Denis’s family understand and support his actions. And that similar things have happened in her own family.

Kate searches her soul and decides that, although she no longer loves him, she must marry Denis and try to remove the character taint which his yet to be conceived son risks inheriting.

It’s an extraordinary decision. Hard to understand today, but entirely natural given Kate’s moral instinctive moral code- where did that come from I wonder –  and the strictures of the society she lived in.

Had Sanctuary ended then it would have been a striking short story, leaving behind much to ponder. But it went on.

The story is picked up several years later. Kate is a young widow, with a son. She does her best for her son, but the time comes when he is faced with a moral dilemma. What what will he do? Well the clue’s back in that opening line.

It’s much too neat and the second half of the story is rushed and not nearly as accomplished as the first half.

Maybe Sanctuary should have been developed into a novel. With a broader sweep, more depth and more room for character development the results could have been interesting.

As a novella, sadly, it doesn’t quite work.