Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Yellow Face

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one I don’t remember reading about 20 years ago, though I must have because I did read all the stories. It’s interesting that I don’t recall it because of the stories I have read so far, I probably enjoyed it the most. A man named Grant Munro shows up to obtain Sherlock Holmes’s services to solve a mystery concerning his wife. Holmes makes a series of impressive deductions about the man’s background and money situation based on the man’s pipe. Munro relates that new neighbors appear to have moved into the cottage across the street from where he lives in Norbury, and he has seen a ghastly face looking out the window. Upon searching the house, he discovers a mysterious portrait of his wife. Further, his wife sneaks out in the middle of the night, and Munro deduces she is visiting the house. Holmes concludes that the occupant of the house must be none other than Mrs. Munro’s first husband, and he must be blackmailing Mrs. Munro. However, once Holmes travels to Norbury at Grant Munro’s request to help Mr. Munro uncover the truth, Holmes discovers he was wrong—the woman is not hiding a first husband at all. The remainder of the review is a tiny bit spoilery.

I have to say, this story surprised me for several reasons. First, it’s refreshing to see Holmes make an incorrect deduction. His deduction makes perfect sense, but he, like many others in the Victorian era, couldn’t have imagined the truth. In addition to the revelation of Holmes’s failure, the ending is a surprise given the times in which the story was written. I would imagine quite a few readers found it shocking, and I know the readers in America would have found it so. I’m not sure if it matters or not, but Mrs. Munro’s first marriage would not have been legal in America in the time at which the story is set (or at least not legal in Georgia, where she lived). Mrs. Munro would not have had an easy time being married to an African-American man at that time. It was not accepted, and Mrs. Munro’s fear regarding the exposure of the truth about her first marriage is quite realistic, though perhaps Mr. Munro’s reaction is less so—it’s the reaction we would want him to have, with our more modern sensibilities, and Watson definitely approves, but it is not the reaction most men in that era would have had.

I see a few references to “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in the BBC’s Sherlock. First, Mary Morstan’s secretiveness through the series as she hides her past as a hired assassin mirrors Mrs. Munro’s secretiveness about her past. Mary’s behavior is not that different from that of Mrs. Munro’s, and both women seem to expect their new marriages will crumble if their husbands find out about their pasts. There is also a yellow happy face painted on the wall in Sherlock’s apartment. In addition, when Mary is killed by Vivian Norbury, Lady Smallwood’s secretary, Sherlock echoes the request made at the end of this story:

“Watson,” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

In the series, Sherlock makes the request not of Watson (who wasn’t in any shape to listen to it), but of Mrs. Hudson:

Sherlock Holmes: If you ever think I’m becoming full of myself, overconfident or cocky, would you just say the word “Norbury” to me, would you?

Mrs. Hudson: Norbury?

Sherlock Holmes: Just that. I’d be very grateful.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the fifth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Red Circle.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one of the most famous in the Holmes canon, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” A mysterious woman in black arrives early in the morning to ask for Sherlock Holmes’s help. She is terrified because her twin sister died under mysterious circumstances a few years prior, and she now finds hints that history is about to repeat itself. Holmes agrees to take on her case. The woman’s stepfather shows up shortly after she leaves to threaten Holmes, who is not in the least perturbed, and Holmes and Watson travel to the estate where the young woman lives with her stepfather. After investigating the room where the woman sleeps and her stepfather’s room, Holmes believes he may know what is happening, but he and Watson keep a vigil in the woman’s room that night to be sure.

I actually remembered most of the details of this story, though I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, which I think is a testament to the story’s strength. If I have one quibble, it is once again we see a British prejudice about the tropics being a breeding ground for a passionate temper. It’s probably too much to expect a Victorian writer not to display the prejudices of his era, though, and it’s not as bad as A Study in Scarlet‘s portrayal of Mormons. Also, it seems that Doyle was making up fictional snake breeds, but that doesn’t surprise me much. He is a storyteller, and it’s not like he had Google at his disposal. The swamp adder doesn’t jump out as a particularly false note, but it is true that even herpetologists have been stumped as to which snake Doyle might mean. On the other hand, this is one the stories in which the reader has all the details needed to solve the crime and can deduce alongside Holmes, if the reader is paying attention. I do feel some Holmes stories are a bit of a cheat in that we don’t have the information Holmes does, but in this case, we can put the probable scenario together in our heads, for the most part, as Holmes himself solves the mystery, and it may be for that reason that this story is so popular. The BBC series Sherlock chose not to adapt this story, but it is alluded to in the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” as “The Speckled Blonde.”

Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the fourth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Yellow Face.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Musgrave Ritual

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Musgrave Ritual” in The Strand

“The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” is one of Sherlock Holmes’s earliest cases. Before Holmes met Watson, he was friends with Reginald Musgrave, whom he met in college. Musgrave seeks Holmes’s help after his butler and maid vanish mysteriously. Musgrave recounts that he happened upon his butler examining a map and an old family document called the Musgrave Ritual, which each generation of Musgraves recites upon accession of the family title and property. Musgrave doesn’t think it means anything, but Holmes is not so sure, and he deduces that it is a riddle that together with the map will lead Musgrave and Holmes to discover what happened to the butler and maid.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of “The Musgrave Ritual” was its description (possibly introduction) of some of Holmes’s quirks: his “untidy” nature, his habit of fixing unanswered correspondence to the mantel with a jack-knife, his abstracted fiddling with his violin, and his shooting his gun at the wall. As a story itself, it’s a nice little mystery, if not without its flaws—in order for the secret riddle to work, trees would need to remain the same height over hundreds of years, and the time of year (which would be important in calculations) isn’t accounted for, not to mention paces as means of measurement are fairly unreliable as people will have vastly different strides. I love it that Reginald Musgrave just happened to get a wild hair and measured the height of all the trees on the property using trigonometry. We all did that in our crazy schooldays, didn’t we? Still, it’s a fun mystery, and it winds up being a genuine treasure hunt, too, with a connection to the Royal Family. “The Musgrave Ritual” was originally published in The Strand in 1893 and was later collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Update 1/16/17: Season 4, episode 3 of Sherlock was just broadcast last night, and now that the debriefs with spoilers are online, I feel I can update this post to add some of the references to “The Musgrave Ritual” that I noticed in “The Final Problem.” First, Sherlock’s home was called Musgrave, and the rhyme Eurus gives as a clue to the whereabouts of Sherlock’s friend are not too different from the rhyme in “The Musgrave Ritual.” The home is not terribly different from the Musgraves’ home, and the ultimate solution leads Sherlock to discover a grisly death not too different from that of the butler in the short story. Please also check out my post updating “The Gloria Scott” review with Sherlock references to that story.

The episode “The Abominable Bride” in the new Sherlock series references “The Musgrave Ritual”—Sherlock mentions several cases in this story, one of which is a “full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife.” A tiny reference like that is proof that Gatiss and Moffat are true fans of the stories. I have to admit, I don’t wonder they wanted to play with the potential of the story. Who doesn’t want to know more about Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife? That particular episode of Sherlock was a Christmas special, and it’s unique in that it’s the only episode set in the Victorian era. It was a really fun episode. I loved the costumes. You can check out the trailer here:

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the second short story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is The Study in Scarlet, which I have already read, so look for more Sherlock Holmes next month.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the “Gloria Scott,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Illustration by Sidney Paget in The Strand

“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” takes place during Sherlock Holmes’s college days. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about a college friend of his and the curious events leading up to the death of his friend’s father. Holmes met his friend Victor Trevor when Trevor’s dog bit and injured Sherlock. Trevor visits Holmes while he is convalescing, and the two become friends. Trevor invites Holmes to his father’s house in Norfolk, and Holmes quickly surprises the elder Mr. Trevor with some deductions about the man’s past. A strange visitor arrives, and Victor Trevor is shocked by his father’s meek behavior around the stranger. A couple of months later, Trevor tells Holmes that his father has had a stroke and is at death’s door. The elder Mr. Trevor’s last words directed his son to hidden papers in his Japanese cabinet, and Holmes finds an encrypted message that he deciphers indicating the elder Mr. Trevor may have feared for his life. The papers in the Japanese cabinet reveal a secret identity and mysterious past Mr. Trevor has long kept quiet—at the center of the story is a long-lost ship called the Gloria Scott.

“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” takes place first chronologically in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but it was actually the 19th Holmes story published, first in The Strand magazine and later collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes tells Watson that it is his “first case,” and indeed Mr. Trevor, impressed with Sherlock’s deductive reasoning, suggests that he take it up as a career, at which point Sherlock Holmes realizes he might turn what he believes is a hobby into an occupation. It’s not, strictly speaking, a real case. Holmes does make some accurate deductions about Mr. Trevor’s past, and he does decode a message received by Mr. Trevor, but there is no real crime to be solved in the end, as Mr. Trevor’s papers turn out to be a confession of his entire past, and the looming threat that drove Mr. Trevor to have a stroke vanishes after Mr. Trevor’s death.

In the updated series Sherlock, Mary Morstan (then John Watson’s fiancée) decodes a text message by reading every third word, as Sherlock does with the message Mr. Trevor receives (season three, “The Empty Hearse”), but allusions to the Gloria Scott appeared in last night’s episode, “The Lying Detective,” too. Sherlock makes a series of deductions about one of his potential clients, and one is very similar to the deduction that Sherlock Holmes makes about Mr. Trevor’s tattoo in this story. A more tenuous connection may be the moment when that episode’s villain, Culverton Smith, says that three recording devices were found and removed from Sherlock’s effects in his hospital room, and Sherlock remarks that people always stop at three—so satisfying—before revealing he had a fourth device. That last reference might be a stretch. I’m not sure the number three on its own is a true reference to this story. The confession of Mr. Trevor might be considered similar to Culverton Smith’s confession, but I admit that’s a stretch, too, especially as Culverton Smith is much more evil than Mr. Trevor, and he also has a perverse need to confess that even prompts him to use memory-altering drugs on his friends just so he can confess his crimes to them in a way they won’t remember. A stronger connection might be to Mary Watson’s secret past as a hired assassin—her criminal past catches up with her in a way not too dissimilar from that of Mr. Trevor’s.

Update 1/16/17: Season 4, episode 3 of Sherlock was just broadcast last night, and now that the debriefs with spoilers are online, I feel I can update this post to add the reference to “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” that I noticed in “The Final Problem.” Sherlock’s sister murders Sherlock’s first friend, whom Sherlock initially thinks was a dog named Redbeard—he has blocked out memories of the friend due to the trauma of the event. His friend was a boy named Victor Trevor, and Sherlock had not been able emotionally to establish a friendship after Victor’s disappearance and death at the hands of his sister until he meets John Watson. He also refers to the missing Victor Trevor as “his first case,” as he does with “The Gloria Scott.” Wonderful that the writers of Sherlock have gone back to the first two chronological stories in this season, especially as many think it might be the last season of the show. I have also updated my review of “The Musgrave Ritual” to reflect references in last night’s Sherlock.

I had to do some digging online because I wondered if the mysterious Mr. Hudson was perhaps landlady Mrs. Hudson’s husband or some other relative, but it seems Doyle just used the name for two characters. As Sherlock Holmes stories go, the long confession as a means of resolution and the lack of a real case or mystery as a result made this one a bit of a dud for me. It was interesting to see Sherlock Holmes’s early deduction skills, but apart from that, it’s not very much fun when the mystery isn’t really solved by Sherlock. The multiple frames are not really confusing, but overcomplicate the story. Watson is relating the story to us. Sherlock is telling the story to Watson. And Sherlock is recalling Mr. Trevor’s story as he read it in his papers. The quotation marks get a little creative! Still, it’s not a bad story.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI have figured out the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge and am in the process of making up for lost time, as I read A Study in Scarlet first instead of this story. This week’s story is “The Musgrave Ritual,” so look for my thoughts on that story by the end of this week.

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Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge invites challenge participants to read all 60 Sherlock Holmes stories—four novels and 56 short stories—in the order in which they were published. The first Sherlock Holmes story published was the novel A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886 and published the following year in 1887. The novel introduces two of the most iconic characters in British literature—detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend and companion, Dr. John Watson.

In the event you are unfamiliar with the events of the novel, Dr. John Watson has returned from service in Afghanistan and looking for affordable lodgings when he happens upon an old friend who tells Watson that he knows someone else looking for lodgings, and if Watson doesn’t mind a few eccentricities, he might have himself a roommate. Watson consents to meet the gentlemen, who turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. The two agree to share lodgings at 221B Baker Street. Before Watson knows what is happening, he is involved in a case with Holmes. A body has been found in an abandoned house on Brixton Road, and the German word rache has been written over the body in blood—blood that does not belong to the victim. Watson follows Sherlock Holmes as he works with Scotland Yard inspectors Gregson and Lestrade. Sherlock Holmes unravels the mystery and determines the man, along with another victim found later in the story, was murdered in an act of revenge.

The first half of the novel involves Watson’s meeting with Holmes and Holmes’s subsequent involvement and deduction of the case, while the second half is a flashback taking place mostly in Utah, where the principles involved in the case—the two murdered men and their murderer—met and where the murderer developed the enmity that would drive him to chase the two men across two continents to kill them. In all honesty, the first half is charming, while the second half suffers (perhaps a bit comically) from Doyle’s lack of knowledge about America, Americans, the American West, and Mormons. It’s a fairly ridiculous story in some ways—rache, the German word for revenge, looks like a clue, but is really an afterthought of the killer’s (even though revenge was, in fact, his motive). I have to give the novel four stars for a great first half, but I can’t give it five after the mess of the second half.

Right after I finished reading the novel, I decided to watch the episode “A Study in Pink” of the BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson, mainly because as I read A Study in Scarlet, it struck me that of all the iterations of I have seen of Sherlock Holmes stories, the current BBC series seems to capture Sherlock’s personality better than most—perhaps all—other adaptations. There is a quirky eccentricity that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has that few other actors have managed to bring out in the same way. “A Study in Pink” pulls many elements from the plot of A Study in Scarlet, though thankfully not the second act set in Utah. It also does a masterful job of pulling the story forward to the 21st century while still adhering to many of the elements, including the identity of the murderer.

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeAs I work my way through the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, I plan to watch episodes of Sherlock that include elements of or allusions to the canon of 60 stories. I purchased a Kindle edition of the complete adventures, so I am not planning on counting the book as “completed” until I finish  the entire collection, though I will track my progress reading the stories on my Reading Challenges page. The second story, also a novel, is The Sign of the Four. I will review each novel and short story here on the blog as I finish them.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Addendum: It looks like I misunderstood the challenge chronology. The stories follow perhaps a different chronology from their publication date, which is something I vaguely recall from reading them many years ago. I am going to try to catch up with the short stories for weeks one and two and post reviews here. Meanwhile, I’m a little ahead on the first novel, so probably no harm done.

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Review: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, narrated by Tim Curry

I celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas morning while I baked by listening to Tim Curry narrate my all-time favorite Christmas book, A Christmas Carol. I suppose it’s a lot of people’s favorites. It has been a favorite story of mine, even before I ever read the book, since I was a child.

Each time I read the story, I’m struck again by Charles Dickens’s brilliance with characterization. We who want to write should all read Dickens. He’s a master class in himself. Is there a story that has a more lasting impact on our consciousness than A Christmas Carol? We can all name exactly what it is to be a Scrooge. One might argue the very Christmas we celebrate was just about invented by Dickens. So while it seems a bit unnecessary to review the actual book here, I will share my thoughts about Tim Curry’s reading.

I admit I wasn’t too sure I’d like Tim Curry reading this novella. I like Tim Curry. But when I think of him, I think of bad guys, like Pennywise the Clown. Actually, I suppose Scrooge is a bit of a bad guy, but given he’s redeemed in the end, I tend not to think of him that way. Audible had a $0.99 special on this book, however, so I decided to give it a chance.

Tim Curry’s reading is mostly pretty awesome, especially his characterization of Scrooge and even more especially his characterization of the folks at the end who are selling off Scrooge’s things in the vision Scrooge sees of the future. On the other hand, I found his characterization of the Cratchits lacking. They lacked the warmth I usually like to see in their interactions. I’m a ridiculous sucker for Tiny Tim. I cry every single time he dies in the future that Scrooge sees. I will say, however, that Curry’s rendition of the scene in which Bob Cratchit breaks down after seeing where Tim will be buried was outstanding.

Quite an enjoyable narration and a welcome addition to my audio book library. This book was meant to be read aloud. I have read that Dickens’s own performance of it was quite something to see.

I watched two different staged versions of this story this year (both excellent), listened to the audio, and am currently watching the film with George C. Scott. My favorite film version is the one with Patrick Stewart, but I wasn’t able to find it on this year. I don’t think the Christmas season would be complete for me without some version of this story. Louis Bayard wrote a sequel about Tim Cratchit called Mr. Timothy. If you are curious, a doctor thinks he’s figured out what was wrong with Tiny Tim.

Merry Christmas to all, and as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: Dubliners, James Joyce

One of the biggest gaps in my reading has been James Joyce. I tried to read Ulysses some years ago, but I didn’t get past the first chapter—not because of difficulty but because of interest. I picked up Dubliners mainly because I’m teaching AP Literature for the first time, and the short story that closes this collection, “The Dead,” is a perennial AP text.

I spent about two weeks studying that final short story and decided to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing. Dubliners is a collection of stories, or more accurately, a portrait of Dublin. It reminds me almost of a really large painting with several scenes. If you zero in on one scene, here is a story about what you are looking at. Perhaps this idea of mine is influenced by Roman Muradov’s cover design, which includes a pastiche of scenes from the stories. Here is a link to Muradov’s website, where you can see the artwork. I’m really in love with his design for the cover, which is why I bought this particular edition, but the unexpected (and truly valuable) bonus is that this edition has really excellent endnotes, and if you are new to Joyce, I can’t recommend this edition more highly. The notes explain everything from historical references to slang to geographical details. They really are superb.

In the collection, my favorite story by far is “The Dead.” There are so many layers to that story that I feel that I could read it over and over and find new things in it all the time. What a phenomenally gorgeous and perfect short story. Of the others, I also enjoyed “Clay,” “Counterparts” (which had a sad ending), and interestingly enough (because not much happens) “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” I loved the way Joyce captures the speech of his characters. He is particularly adept at dialogue, but the entire collection shines with brilliant writing. I’m trying not to be depressed by how young Joyce was when he wrote it.

I didn’t enjoy every story in the collection, but I can say the same for every short story collection I’ve ever read. The whole collection hangs together much better than other short story collections I’ve read. For the fact of inclusion of “The Dead” and the coherence of the collection alone, five full stars.

Joyce said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

At least as far as this collection goes, very true words.

Rating: ★★★★★

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A Double Review: Camus and Kamel

I somehow never got around to reading The Stranger until yesterday. I finished it today and immediately picked up Kamel Daoud’s companion novel The Meursault Investigation. If you, like me, waited to read The Stranger, the crux of the plot is that a disaffected French Algerian man buries his mother; he is unable to grieve, or indeed, to feel much of anything. He strikes up an affair with a woman he works with, becomes involved in an argument between his neighbor Raymond and Raymond’s mistress, whom Raymond believes is cheating on him. While Raymond and the narrator Meursault are out, they see the “brother” of Raymond’s mistress, and, believing the brother is spoiling for revenge over his sister’s treatment, they start a fight. Though the fight ends, Meursault heads back out to the beach and finds the mistress’s brother, known only as “the Arab” and kills him. The rest of the book details Meursault’s contemplations behind bars, including his trial, which turns into an absurdist farce when the prosecutor, jury, and judge are more upset by Meursault’s lack of grief over his mother’s death than the fact that he has killed an Arab.

It is upon this point that The Meursault Investigation turns. The narrator of The Meursault Investigation is Harun, the brother of the Arab Meursault killed—and he had a name: Musa. Harun is haunted by his brother’s death and by the murderer who wrote about it and neglected even to name his brother, stripping him of an identity, of personhood, of meaning. Both Harun and his mother piece together the details of Musa’s murder, but neither is able to find peace in the wake of his loss, and even revenge doesn’t bring Harun the solace he seeks.

I’m really glad I waited so long to read The Stranger so that I could read The Meursault Investigation right after. In the future, I imagine that these two books will be read together, companion pieces. The interesting thing that Daoud does with the story (which is something I think Camus misses) is make it about colonialism. Camus doesn’t name the Arab because it’s not important to his story. The murder is just what lands Meursault in prison. No one much cares about it. The problem with this attitude is that the Arab’s life did matter. Daoud gives the man a name and a family—identity, personhood, meaning. The Meursault Investigation explores the effects of colonialism on Algeria and makes Meursault, like so many of his countrymen, complicit in the “murder” of the country’s identity.

Of the two, I definitely enjoyed The Meursault Investigation more. I understand I’m supposed to find Meursault profound, but mainly I just found him very frightening and extremely difficult to relate to. Someone who is so unable to feel anything is truly in a horrible place. Harun, by contrast, not only tries to understand and make meaning of his brother’s death, but he even tries to understand his brother’s murderer as well as those readers who have found meaning in The Stranger. And unlike Meursault, he has been able to understand love and longing and a life truly given up for the sake another. I want to thank Carol Jago, English teacher extraordinaire and reading muse, for recommending this one.

The Stranger Rating: ★★★☆☆
The Meursault Investigation Rating: ★★★★☆

P. S. These last two books make 52 books for the year for me, which was the reading goal I set. WHOOP!

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Review: Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Despite being an English teacher for seventeen years (and English Education major), I have somehow not read Mrs. Dalloway until now. Frankly, I think I was daunted by how difficult I had heard it was. On the other hand, perhaps books come to us when we’re ready for them. Perhaps I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway until now because I didn’t need to. I’m not really even sure what made me suddenly pick it up a few days ago. True, I do plan to teach it in my AP class in the coming year (I have never taught AP before, and this book is often mentioned on the test and shows up as a recommended text for the course). But that is not the only reason. I have more books I need to read for that class, and I have more summer stretching before me to read. In fact, given I just returned from Ohio farm country, you might have thought I would choose something a bit more American to delve into (I’m doing A Thousand Acres in my AP course as well, and I could easily have found myself in the Cook family’s Iowan King Lear). I think I was just ready for this one.

If you’ve not read it and know nothing about it (which was NOT the case with me—I am English teacher/major enough to at least say I knew basically what it was about), Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a day in the life of the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway, who famously begins by deciding to get the flowers for her party herself. The book follows her thoughts as she embarks on this outing, and then flits from her thoughts to those of other characters, including Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia, a shell-shocked WWI veteran struggling with mental illness and his homesick Italian wife, whom he married on a whim at the end of the war; Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s former suitor, whom she declined to marry; Clarissa’s husband Richard, the model of British reserve; Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, who feels constrained by her femininity and wants to be a farmer or a doctor; Miss Kilman, a lower-class educated woman who tutors Elizabeth, and who (it is implied) Elizabeth is in love with; and several other characters. It does require some concentration to follow, but it works as a device because of the connections between the characters. Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party—she takes delight in throwing parties and bringing people together, though both her husband and Peter have difficulty understanding why parties are so important to her, and Peter disparages her as a perfect hostess. What is really at the forefront, however, is preoccupation with death. Clarissa Dalloway clearly feels afraid of the prospect of dying, and she worries about the choices she has made in her life, including marrying Richard. Her story is intertwined with Septimus Warren Smith’s, and at the end, her observation about Septimus’s death brings the two storylines together in a satisfying if someone ambiguous ending.

I don’t really know what to say about this book. It’s 90 years old, and given its prominence in literature, it’s been dissected ten ways to Sunday. I don’t really feel the need to dissect it (I will do that with my students!). The first thing I felt as I became immersed in the story is that I was in the presence of greatness. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this book. At the end, when I closed the book on the last page, I was in awe of Woolf’s mastery. She elevated the lives of people many of us would dismiss—namely, Clarissa and Septimus. It’s easy to view Clarissa from afar and see her as shallow, reserved, conservative—someone who squandered her life on silly parties and never felt deeply. But she feels things deeply. She is recovering from a vague illness (the sense that it was a mental illness becomes clear when we learn she was a patient of the evil Dr. Sir William Bradshaw, who announces Septimus’s death at Clarissa’s party). It’s also easy to dismiss Septimus as “crazy.” I found myself particularly drawn to his storyline because of the empathy which Woolf makes the reader feel. Septimus fought for English ideals in the war and came out damaged (he’s one of the first victims of shell shock in literature). The descriptions of the voices he hears and his hallucinations made me truly ache for him, but they were drawn so astutely that it is impossible to forget that Woolf herself suffered from mental illness and also succumbed to suicide.

I love books. I don’t often close books and think, I just finished a masterpiece. Often, I have to think about a book for a while and have a sense of it working on my psyche before I can tell it’s a masterpiece. I didn’t even have to finish this book completely before I already knew it was a masterpiece; I felt all the time I was reading it that Virginia Woolf was a genius. But once I finished it, all I could do is sit and think and be in awe of Virginia Woolf’s command of the English language (this book is really a gorgeous prose poem) and her understanding of the importance of all of our stories—all of us, every person, has a profound story, and there is beauty and mystery in the average day.

Rating: ★★★★★

I’m counting this as my Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I’ve already done a London book for the Reading England Challenge, but it’s a pity because this is a quintessentially London novel. I had thought I’d read it later in the year and count it for my Bloomsbury group novel in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge, but given I’m teaching it in the coming year, I didn’t feel good about waiting until November to read it. (Boy, I’ve gone off the rails with that challenge.)

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Review: The Annotated Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, ed. Janet Gezari

I have read Wuthering Heights in several formats now, from my first Barnes and Noble paperback, to an audio book, to this new annotated version edited by Janet Gezari. It’s interesting how one notices different things about books upon re-reading, and no matter how good a friend a book might be, a re-read introduces nuances never noticed before. So it is with this annotated edition of Wuthering Heights.

In the past, when people have asked me (rather aghast upon my pronouncement that this is my favorite book) why on earth I liked it so much, I have been at a loss. After all, aren’t the characters all horrible human beings, impossible to like and therefore sympathize with? I had no real answer for that observation. I shared it. I don’t think I do anymore, however.

I mentioned in my Sunday Post recently that I had noticed Nelly Dean emerging as a much more troublesome character—I might even say a villain—than I had previously thought. Because she tells most of the story, the people she does not like, Catherine and Heathcliff, suffer the most from her descriptions of their character. Heathcliff probably is a pretty horrible person, though the case can be fairly argued that he was made horrible by the way he was treated. We want to feel sorry for him, and then he does something cruel, so we can’t. I am not so blind as to argue he’s a poor, misunderstood innocent. I think people who think of Heathcliff as a great romantic hero either haven’t read the book or don’t understand his character very well. But to me, he’s interesting precisely because he’s horrible. Not interesting as in “I want him to be my book boyfriend.” Let’s get that straight. Yet, Catherine is the one person who sees who Heathcliff really is because, as she says, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”

Catherine is probably not as horrible as Nelly depicts her. Nelly doesn’t like her, and her daughter, Cathy, shares many of her mother’s faults but comes off better in Nelly’s description. I think I really understood in this reading how much Nelly prejudices the reader against Catherine. One of the annotations remarks that the Heights’ housekeeper, Zillah, describes young Cathy in much the same way as Nelly describes her mother. I had found young Cathy’s treatment of Hareton inexcusable in the past, but I felt I understood it better in this reading. After all, she considers him in league with Heathcliff, and he did help Heathcliff imprison her in Wuthering Heights. That she ever does, in fact, warm to him and come to love him is miraculous given the start they had, and it shows her capacity for love and forgiveness. Nelly certainly comes off as meddling and judgmental. And why is she spilling all the family dirt to a perfect stranger in the first place?

Another thing I noticed really for the first time in this reading was the bird motif. Birds appear in various forms throughout the narrative. Nelly introduces Heathcliff’s history by describing him as a “cuckoo,” and birds, nests, and feathers are woven through the remainder of the narrative. Birds can be petted caged creatures, like Isabella Linton, or wild creatures like Catherine and Heathcliff. I was thinking about the part in the story when Catherine describes Heathcliff allowing the lapwings to die when she is sorting the feathers in her torn pillow:

And here is a moor-cock’s; and this—I should know it among a thousand—it’s a lapwing’s. Bonny bird, wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds touched the swells, and it felt rain coming. This feather was picked up from the heath, the bird was not shot—we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons. Heathcliff set a trap over it, and the old ones dare not come. I made him promise he’d never shoot a lapwing after that, and he didn’t. (188)

Later in the novel, Heathcliff’s son Linton, Catherine’s daughter Cathy, and Hindley’s son Hareton become like the lapwings in Heathcliff’s trap. Linton is killed, but once Heathcliff notices Cathy and Hareton’s affection for one another, all the will to continue his revenge seems to vanish. He tells Nelly,

It’s a poor conclusion, is it not… An absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have not beaten me—now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives—I could do it; and none could hinder me—But where is the use? I don’t care for striking. I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I have been labouring the whole time, only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case—I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing. (416)

I believe Heathcliff has come to equate the children with the lapwings. He destroyed them for no reason, and remembering Catherine’s injunction, he stays his hand just as his perfect revenge is in his grasp. And he quite literally gives up on living and dies.

I also think I fully appreciated for the first time that young Cathy’s story is her mother’s story “in reverse,” as the “‘movement of the book’ is away from Earnshaw and back, like the movement of the house itself. And all the movement must be through Heathcliff” (65). I think of the scene in which Lockwood finds himself in Catherine and Heathcliff’s old room and sees her three names written: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff (a name she hoped to have), Catherine Linton. Her daughter begins Catherine Linton, becomes Catherine Heathcliff, and eventually Catherine Earnshaw. The book ends on a hopeful note that what was lost will be restored in this second generation.

Reading this annotated version opened many connections, especially to Romantic writers such as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, that I had not considered before in Brontë’s writing. Though Heathcliff is a famous Byronic hero, I didn’t know, for instance, that Thomas Moore’s Life of Byron may have been in Brontë’s mind when she wrote the scene in which Catherine says she cannot marry Heathcliff because it would degrade her, but that she can marry Linton and help Heathcliff to rise in the world. Byron apparently overhead or perhaps was told that Mary Chaworth, a woman whom he loved, said “Do you think I could care anything for that lame boy?” (140). I was also surprised to learn of a possible connection to Shelley’s Epipsychidion in the declaration that Catherine makes that she “is” Heathcliff: “I am not thine: I am a part of thee” (142). Natural references similar to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s observations occur throughout. It was a more fitting choice for the Romantic era in the Literary Movement Challenge than I even realized when I decided to read it.

It’s a gorgeous book with a great many illustrations and illuminating footnotes. It also includes Charlotte Brontë’s biographical notice and preface to the 1850 edition of the novel. I don’t think Charlotte fully understood what her sister had written, and I don’t agree with much of what she has said about the novel.

If you are a fan of this novel, you definitely want this beautiful edition for your library. If you haven’t read the novel, this edition will enrich your reading. If you don’t like the novel, but you want to figure it out anyway, you might find this edition will give you a lot to think about, and it might just change your mind. I have to say, I fell in love with it all over again on this reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I will count this selection as my Yorkshire novel for the Reading England Challenge. Taking place some 50 or so years before it was written, this one qualifies as historical fiction, and I am counting it as my Classic by a Woman Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge as well.

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