Friday, May 17, 2013

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My parents bought a VCR when I was in 7th grade.  My mom taped shows from PBS to use in class; I became a serious movie fan, not only watching movies but reading reviews and thinking critically about cinematography, costumes, and the technical aspects of filmmaking.  The first movie I remember wanting to see for reasons other than the plot or the star was Tess, but it was rated R and I was 12.  By the time I was old enough to see it, the movie had fallen into the good-but-not-classic category that doesn't get shown very often, so I still haven't seen it.  It also took me 30 years and Ravelry's Classic Literature group to get around to reading the book.

Hardy heroines do not have an easy life, and Tess Durbeyfield suffers more than any character I've met in quite a while.  When her father is too hung over to drive the family's beehives to market, Tess goes in his place.  She falls asleep, so she doesn't see the oncoming mail carriage which runs her off the road and kills the family's donkey.  Her parents then convince her to ingratiate herself with noble alleged cousins, and after being hired to look after the noble "relatives'" poultry, she's seduced or raped by Alec d'Urbeville, returns home, and gives birth to a son who dies before she can give him a name.  Eventually, she becomes a milkmaid and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister's son who apprenticed himself to the dairy farm so that he could learn the trade before emigrating.  On her wedding night, she tells Angel her history, thinking that he'll understand because he's just admitted to a sexual encounter of his own.  Instead he rejects her, leaving her essentially alone while he explores the possibility of farming in Brazil.  Tess finds work on a turnip farm and once again encounters Alec, now a fire-and-brimstone preacher who recognizes her and repeatedly tries to seduce her, while simultaneously blaming her for his loss of faith.  She resists, but after her father dies and her family is homeless and trying to sleep in a churchyard, he "rescues" her.  Of course, this is when Angel returns from Brazil, frail after a long illness but willing to forgive his wife.  He finds her in a resort town, living as Angel's mistress.  She tells him to leave, but runs after him - because she's murdered Alec.  They wander across the countryside, consummating their marriage in an abandoned manor house, and the authorities catch up with them as she sleeps on an alter at Stonehenge.

It's depressing and frustrating (particularly when you consider that Hardy was criticized for being too sympathetic towards Tess), but beautifully written.  There's a bit of a cognitive disconnect between Tess's hard life and the vivid descriptions of her beauty and the picturesque countryside.  I don't usually like Victorian novels - they're too florid and moralistic.  Hardy found the right balance in his prose and by keeping the ending depressing, avoided the moralistic uplift I too often encounter in the novels of that era.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sad Cypress

Back when I started buying Agatha Christie novels, I wonder if I tended to buy those I wanted to read immediately new and "filled in the gaps" at The Book Swap.  I've read a few of the bought used volumes multiple times, but when I pick up a never-read Christie, it's almost always one I bought used. My copy of Sad Cypress was twice-used - not only is there a stamp from The Book Swap, but also one from used book store in Muncie.  The book itself is a bit of a time capsule.  Not only is there a somewhat lurid cover (with a syringe, a tea cup, and blood stained finger sandwiches next to a medical bag with a knife and a rose poking out), but there are cigarette ads between pages 112 and 113 (and evidence of torn-out ads between pages 136 and 137).  Clearly, this book was printed to be displayed on a drugstore rack, back in the days before big box stores and when places like Clover (which was kind of like Target, only smaller and local to the Philadelphia area) had tiny book sections with an odd array which may or may not include best sellers.

Sad Cypress doesn't feel like a typical Christie, and I was surprised when I saw that it was written during her peak years.  It's a "murder in retrospect" but not quite, and a Poirot novel in which the detective doesn't appear until late in the book.  Christie starts the book during the accused's murder trial.    Elinor Carlistle pleads not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival for the affection of her cousin-by-marriage whom their recently deceased wealthy Aunt Laura Welman had always assumed she'd marry.  Mary was the daughter of the aunt's steward, not quite a lady but educated above her class thanks to Mrs. Welman.  When Mrs. Welman dies intestate, her estate goes to Elinor, who breaks her engagement to Roddy Welman and gives L2,000 to Mary who intends to take a massage course.  Then Mary dies after eating sandwiches prepared by Elinor, so the combination of flimsy motive and strong opportunity put Mary on trial.   The local doctor, who'd been in love with Elinor, hires Hercule Poirot to exonerate her - whether she's innocent or not.  Well, since this is a Christie novel, of course she's innocent, and the real murderer is someone whom I'd never suspect.  Christie plays a bit with the structure, melding a straightforward courtroom drama with a cozy village murder mystery, and I enjoyed it.  I'm sorry I didn't read it 28 or 30 years ago, when I first bought my twice-used copy.

Vile Bodies

My parents were pretty laid back about my education, except when I got my summer reading list for 11th grade.  We ended up not discussing it (because it had apparently been chosen by Sr. Maureen Christi - the department head - over the objections of my 11th grade teacher), but the third book on the list was Vile Bodies.  I'd never seen my parents so thrilled by anything I'd done in school.  Every time I picked it up, they rhapsodized about Evelyn Waugh and referenced his other novels.  I went through a Waugh phase myself in the early 90s, so I understand, and lobbied for Vile Bodies whenever Ravelry's Classic Literature group voted for our next read-a-long, particularly after reading Bright Young People.

It's been more than 20 years since I've read Vile Bodies, and while I wasn't disappointed, it wasn't quite as interesting as I thought it would be.  More a series of vignettes than an actual  novel, it follows Adam Fenwick-Symes through a series of financial windfalls and disasters (and corresponding engagements and breakups with Nina Blount).  They're actually a bit bland, but their story provides a framework on which to hang the stories of American evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape (who's actually a madam) and her "angels" (who perform for wealthy and willing gentlemen), Nina's cinema-obsessed and apparently senile father, disreputable hotel owner Lottie Crump, tragic party-girl Agatha Runcible, and various caricatures of the nobility, the press, and the Smart Set.  Extremely amusing, but ultimately lightweight, it's a one-sitting book to be enjoyed but perhaps not analyzed.