Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Felix Holt, by George Eliot

Anyone who takes a look at my bookshelves will know how much I love the Victorian novel. The nineteenth century was a period of huge social change; with the expansion of manufacturing towns and introduction of the railway, Britain’s population exploded and ’new money’ became a force to be reckoned with. It provides a backdrop for some of the most iconic English language writers: Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and a personal favourite, George Eliot. Born Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, the daughter of a farmer, she was lucky to receive an excellent education, largely because she was considered such an unattractive child she would never marry well. Her early life was respectable enough, taking over as her father’s house keeper at the age of 16 after her mother’s death; she remained with him until his death when she was thirty. At this stage her life takes a more unconventional turn; Evans moved to London, became a literary editor and fell in love with a married man. Although George Lewes was estranged from his wife, he was unable to divorce her, so Evans and he decided to live together openly as a couple. When she began to publish as an author Marian Evans adopted the male name George Eliot not just to avoid stereotyping as a female novelist, but also to avoid the scandal associated with her home life.

Many of Eliot’s novels are in fact historical novels, set during the years of her childhood, and Felix Holt is no exception. Set in 1832 this was an important year for British history, as it was the year the first Reform Bill was passed. This event forms a backdrop for much of the novel’s action. Before I had read George Eliot I had never heard of said bill, but it changed the electoral landscape of Britain dramatically. Way back in 1430 laws were passed establishing that male owners of land worth more than forty shillings were able to vote in county elections. Amazingly this rule did not change for four hundred years, until the passing of the Reform Bill, which increased the eligible voters by 50%. The Reform Bill also created new seats of parliament in the industrial towns such as Manchester. It is interesting stuff, but Eliot writing in 1866 assumes a level of familiarity with this history that I think most modern readers will struggle with. But that, in my opinion, is what Wikipedia was made for.

The political landscape of this novel may be dense, but her depiction of English country life and its people is as accessible as ever. The novel begins with a coach ride through southern rural England into the industrial midlands, depicting the shift from the agrarian lifestyle in tune with the earth to the smoky cities with workers up all night. The story itself begins at Transome Court, where a coach is expected. Eliot paints a picture of the whole estate in anticipation, but includes details that lead us to understand this is an estate in decline. We read a whole page before we are introduced to Mrs Transome, and two more before we learn it is her son, Harold Transome whom she awaits. Mrs Transome is a sad creature; she puts me in mind of Miss Havisham without the craziness, only the heartbreak. Eliot describes her beautifully with ‘She was far beyond fifty; and since her early gladness in this best-loved boy, the harvest of her life had been scanty.’. Harold has been overseas for fifteen years and has now returned to run the estate ruined by his now deceased elder brother. The Transomes represent the old families of England, clinging on to respectability and class, even though scandal is knocking at their door.

Into this we introduce Esther Lyon, adopted daughter of the local Dissenting minister. Esther is of humble origin, but has developed taste for the high life working as a governess in fashionable families. It would be easy for her to be a flighty Victorian female, but in the hands of Eliot, Esther is a rounded human being, aware of her faults, and capable of deep love and compassion. Esther’s father is friends with Felix Holt, a young craftsman of strong political opinion and high ideals. Holt is the least successful character in this novel; unusually for Eliot he never comes across as a person, only an idea, and unfortunately, a plot device.

Holt and Harold Transome are drawn together by the destabilising effects of the county elections. But it is in their love of Esther that they are truly rivals. Temptation lies in Esther’s way when she is invited to spend time at the Transome estate. This allows Elliot to explore a new relationship, that between Esther and Mrs Transome. The care that develops between the two is lightly depicted and believable. Mrs Transome is lonely and yearns for the affection Esther can give her; she haunts the manor like a living ghost. Esther on the other hand, in her youth and vitality, embodies a possible future for England, and in conjunction with Felix Holt, a new politically vocal middle class.

Eliot always writes convincing female characters and here she has succeeded again. Unlike many contemporary writers, Eliot can be unkind to her characters, allowing them to make bad marriages, so there is genuine tension as to whether Esther will end up like Mrs Transome. Some of the political machinations are convoluted but Eliot brings the rapid change Britain was experiencing to life within the scale of one village. While I enjoyed this book I would have to say it is probably of most interest to those who have already enjoyed George Eliot’s work. While it is a shorter novel than some, the plot meanders more. In short, it isn’t her best work. But, at the risk of sounding like a snob I think ‘not as good as Middlemarch’ is a criticism that can be made of every other novel ever written.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is an academic, and author, who really loves sentences. Not words on their own, though they can sound beautiful, but words ordered precisely so they create a meaningful sentence. He loves them so much he has written enough sentences about sentences to write a book, which I will now write a few sentences about in my most meta review yet.

How To Write A Sentence is both a tribute to skilful writing and a guide to what it is that writers are doing. The chapters are each about a different style of sentence, and how different authors have used them. He discusses how sentences can tell you what they are about by building themselves in a logical order, or by withholding crucial information make you wait until the end. He writes about first sentences, last sentences, and sentences from anywhere in the middle. He does this by using writing from many familiar writers: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Martin Luther King for a few examples. His analysis of sentences is definitely interesting, although I would be wary of calling this a definitive approach.

What Fish does very well in this book is his explanation of structure over content. He uses some well known examples of famous sentences that are meaningless, yet structured as though they could make sense. One of these is Noam Chomsky’s famous line ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’. As Fish points out these words reordered would sound just like a list of words, but in this particular order we perceive there could be a sentence, and by replacing the words with ones grammatically the same, we can write a real sentence e.g. bright green parrots squawk furiously. Again though, reordered this would be a random group of words; without form content cannot emerge.

The book is full of sentences from other authors, some long, some short, but all beautiful in their own way, from John Updike’s description of a famous home run in baseball history ‘it was in the books while it was still in the sky’, to Agatha Christie’s wonderful, economic opening line ‘In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper’. The gems peppered throughout this book make it an enjoyable read. However, as much as Fish focuses on structure over meaning, both of the aforementioned sentences are beautiful largely in the ideas and information they impart. Sentence craft may be the backbone of writing, but one needs the flesh as well. Nevertheless, Fish’s approach to both writing and reading is interesting, while it may not convert non-readers to the joy of sentences, it may make the rest of us appreciate them just that wee bit more.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Sookie Stackhouse Series, by Charlaine Harris

You know how it’s all very well to go out to fine dining restaurants, but often what you would rather do is collapse on the couch with macaroni cheese? Or that documentaries are all very interesting, but most nights the closest you want to get is watching Mythbusters? As stacked with classical novels as my bookshelves may be, sometimes I like to sit in the sun, pour a coffee and devour a book in one (or possibly two) sittings. Lately a popular choice for these moods has been the Sookie Stackhouse series, known widely to most people through its television incarnation for HBO as True Blood.

Vampire fiction is one of the big sellers in modern mass market literature, but that is nothing new. Some of the biggest names in classical literature have published vampire tales: Goethe, Byron, and of course Bram Stoker. Vampires have had a healthy screen presence as well: Nosferatu, Christopher Lee in Dracula, and what would I have watched on TV as a teenager if not Buffy? It isn’t hard to see the appeal. Vampires are frightening and dangerous, but possess an element of glamour that is missing from other undead beings: it is hard to imagine a sexy zombie. Many books pick and choose their vampire mythology, do they possess an ability to transform into bats, can they stand the smell of garlic, or the sight of a crucifix, for example. This lends vampires a versatility, meaning they crop up in everything from comedy to pure horror.

Lately the media has been saturated with the Stephanie Meyer Twilight series. I’ll admit here, in print, just this once, I’ve read those. I think they were pretty bad, and the fourth book, Breaking Dawn - that was just plain weird. Charlaine Harris’s series began slightly earlier but didn’t become a big hit, as far as I am aware, until later. In many ways they are each others antithesis. Where Twilight shies away from the dark elements of a vampire’s nature, and appears to believe the only thing worse than being a serial killing vampire is sex before marriage, Harris’s is a much more adult read, soaked with blood, sex and murder. The premise of the series is that vampires have ‘come out’ to the public, after the manufacturing of synthetic blood; they present public faces as night dwellers who no longer rely on humans to survive. However the vampires in this series have a believable duality: as likeable as many of them are, they are also sexually predatory mass killers, who are essentially dead during daylight hours.

The books are set in the bible belt state of Louisiana, so Harris is able to explore some interesting ideas in the conflict of supernatural beings and religious fundamentalism. The titular character Sookie is not just human, but a telepath, something that allows her to empathise with the suspicion vampires and other supernatural beings, such as the shape shifters, are treated with. However Sookie has been raised with Christian values, and it is her conflict with her desire to lead a ‘good’ life and her involvement in the dark dealings of the vampire world, that give these novels an element of pathos. Some of the actions of the vampires, but also of the religious right, are truly horrific. Now in the eleventh book Sookie’s life has evolved into something she isn’t sure she likes, as she has become increasingly inured to violence.

While her books aren’t literary greats, or even terribly deep, Harris writes likeable characters with a lot of wit, which is often quite dark: in the most recent novel, Dead Reckoning, after a particularly bloody fight, a dazed Sookie sums up one minor vampire character with ‘noisy eater’. Some of the earlier books have a few editorial errors, and as the series continues some elements are beginning to feel a bit repetitive. However, overall, I find them to be a successful and entertaining addition to the vampire tradition.