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Book 55: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868 & 1869)

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6ce3221ebf5ad145ab24b16470467022.jpgLocation: James Dahl Indian—our first book club curry, and probably our last there since they charge extortionately for poppadom dip.

Theme: Books that changed your life (double-header)

Chosen by: Clare

For most of the group, Little Women was either a childhood favourite or a set text in English lessons at school. Only two of us had never read the book before. So after the dip-pricing shock, the first thing mentioned was that most people had read an abridged version as children and were suddenly surprised by how long the book is.

Little Women is perhaps so famous it needs no introduction, but in short, it’s the tale of four sisters growing up in America, following their transition from girlhood to womanhood. Originally published in two volumes, the first volume “Little Women” was written in just a few months. After immediately garnering much critical and commercial success, the second volume “Good Wives” was written equally quickly when readers wanted to know more about the characters. It is now published as one single volume containing both books.

The stories of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—are now so well-known from popular references that without even reading the book, many people know that [spoiler alert] Beth dies. Although child death wasn’t uncommon at the time, it’s still a shock for many readers. What most people don’t know is that the book was largely autobiographical, with Alcott writing about her own sisters, one of whom died. In fact, her intention for writing the book was to make money for her struggling family.

Alcott was writing at a time when women in America were starting to find their feet, get jobs, and not just be stay-at-home wives. As such, the novel explores the theme of female independence to a degree—particularly in the gutsy tomboy Jo, who didn’t want to get married and sold her lustrous hair to pay for her father’s hospital treatment.

It’s no surprise that most of us liked and identified with Jo. However, the other characters were often type-driven and narrow in scope. Beth is sickly sweet, Amy is a bit of a brat, and Meg is vapid and vain, while their mother is a typical goodie. This may have been a result of Alcott writing quickly or trying to simplify the content for children or young readers. Perhaps because the novels were rushed, Amy’s marriage feels incongruous.

Whilst most of the book clubbers had enjoyed the book as children, they struggled with it as adults. Those reading it for the first time gave up. Only one book clubber retained their original love for it. The writing style is repetitive, the story is very twee, and tone often falls on the side of sentimental or moralising. Very much a novel of its time, the stories in each chapter often feel like thinly-veiled lessons in how to be a good person. In short, while appreciating its value to children and for its time, most of us didn’t enjoy the book as adults.

Score: 5

The double-header was Mansfield Park, but so few of us managed to read the book that it’s not actually worth writing a review. Poor show UCBC.

If you loved or loathed Little Women, feel free to score the book using the 5-star voting system above.

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Book 49: Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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Rebecca - Virago Modern Classics 1973 (Paperback)

Location: Sack of Potatoes, double-header.

Chosen by: Claire

With one of the most famous opening lines ever “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, Rebecca’s popularity has transcended almost 80 years. Since being published in 1938, it sold over 2 million copies between 1938 and 1965 and has never gone out of print. It. Despite often gracing the “100 books you must read” lists, half of the book club had amazingly never read it.

For those who haven’t either, Rebecca is best described as “a gothic romance”. Du Maurier herself described the novel as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower…Psychological and rather macabre.” Due to the book’s title, you might be mistaken for thinking that Rebecca is the protagonist, but in fact Rebecca is our unnamed protagonist’s new husband’s dead ex-wife. Got that? Rebecca is beautiful and mysterious, and our young protagonist feels horribly inferior to her predecessor.

Having met Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and married within a few weeks, the second Mrs. de Winter is surprised to find her new husband Maxim now cold and distant. What’s more, the infamous and malicious house keeper, Mrs. Danvers, adored Rebecca and makes the new Mrs. de Winter feel unwelcome at Manderley, her new home. As the novel progresses, the mystery surrounding Rebecca is unravelled.

Like countless others, Rebecca certainly had us hooked—from those who had never read it before and loved it to those on a re-read who described it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read”. It is incredibly well-written, descriptive, and compelling. In particular, our nameless protagonist’s feelings of inferiority and jealousy are relatable. In part inspired by the author’s own jealousy of her husband’s beautiful previous fiancé, and her memories of Cornwall and similarly-named Menabilly house, it is no surprise that the novel seems so believable.

Our only criticism of the novel relates not to du Maurier herself, but to the common edition that most of us read—the Virago Press edition. Firstly, the cover is a massive spoiler alert—thanks for that Virago! Secondly, the edition’s afterword by Sally Beauman (not to speak ill of the dead as she passed on this year, but…) is at best infuriating and at worst completely out of touch with du Maurier’s sentiments.

It’s baffling why Virago thought that including this afterword would enhance the book. While du Maurier—as the real-life jealous lover—clearly associates with the protagonist in feeling incomparable to the beauty who came before her, on the contrary, Beauman is clearly a fan of the first Mrs. de Winter. Beauman even went as far as writing a “sequel” of sorts named Rebecca’s Tale, where Rebecca’s story is relayed, though far from the spirit of du Maurier and the afterword almost feels like a sales pitch for her own novel.

So if you’ve not read the book yet, our advice is most certainly do—but not the Virago edition!

Score: A shockingly-brilliant 10/10!

Book 2: Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (1847)

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Discussion location: The Rope Walk,St Paul’s Square

Chosen by: Ameesha

Reason for choice: Having read the book before and seen several adaptations, very affected by the love story of Cathy and Heathcliff and the wish for them to be reunited to save each other from a life of misery and anger.

Slackers: Susan, Claire and Sue (tut tut)

Best quotes:

“He is more myself than I am” (Cathy)

“Be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” (Heathcliff)

Review:

Wuthering Heights was written by Kate Bush in 1979, or so begins our Chair, to several wailing renditions of “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home…” Within a few minutes it becomes apparent that a) half of the book club members didn’t manage to finish reading the book, and b) of those who did read it, it excites much passion, but not always in a good way.  Like the proverbial marmite, half of the group loved Wuthering Heights and half of the group detested it, so please forgive me if this review is a somewhat at odds with itself.

Published in 1847, it is unarguable that Wuthering Heights is not an easy read, not least due to the convoluted language, excessive detail, similar character names across the two eras and direct dialect (which is so difficult to comprehend that most readers skipped it entirely) synonymous of books of its era.  Moreover, the physical and mental violence depicted in the novel is uncomfortable for readers some 165 years after it was written, in a modern society where domestic abuse is simply not acceptable.

However, the subject of much of the debate was the characters themselves, who are largely unlikeable, with few redeeming features between them.  Indeed, the cast display a full spectrum of negative human characteristics, ranging from violence to ignorance.  Brontë displays this particularly through the conceit of physically dark and light characters; the fair haired characters being both physically and mentally weak, often unwell and easily subdued; and the brunette or darker skinned characters being physically violent and mentally overpowering.

Of the first generation of characters, there is the dim-witted Isabella Linton who marries Heathcliff despite being made fully aware of his fierce nature and that he will never love her; and her dull brother Edgar who ignores his ill wife, only to forgive her when it is too late to save her.  And of the second generation, Cathy is a petulant, spoilt brat, and Linton Heathcliff is whiny and pathetic, complaining constantly about his illnesses.

In particular, the novel’s main characters, Heathcliff and Cathy were subjects of contention; the arrogant Catherine tempting Heathcliff with deliberately provocative behaviour, without arguably ever having the intention to marry him; and Heathcliff, the personification of evil – violent, cruel, and excessive, with poor motives for mistreating Hareton and the second generation Cathy, and suggestions that he indirectly caused the deaths of Hindley and his own son, Linton.

Even the novel’s minor characters display negative character traits, including the servants; the sycophantic, meddling maid Ellen Dean, and the god-fearing, vitriolic Joseph.  Furthermore, to the novel’s narrator Lockwood, whose personality is so absent from the story that he becomes merely a receptacle through which the story is told, and promptly leaving after.

Arguably, the only character to display any redeeming features in the novel is Hareton Earnshaw, son of Hindley, who rises above his degrading childhood, abandoned by his father and mistreated by Heathcliff, to exceed expectations and become an educated, reasonable young man by the end of the novel. In essence, Hareton evolves into what Heathcliff fails to become, and in doing so he wins not only the heart of his Cathy, but importantly for that time period, her hand in marriage. Hareton sends an important message to the reader, that despite mistreated, it is possible to overcome wrongdoings and become the better man.

It has been suggested that Wuthering Heights would have been better without the second generation story, however without it; Wuthering Heights would only have been a story of revenge. The union of Hareton and Cathy enables Brontë to show the redeeming nature of love, as well as the destructive power of it. Furthermore, Cathy and Hareton demonstrate that it is love, not wealth which brings happiness.

Overall rating: 6/10

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights incites passion, be that romantic or disgust, but at its core lies a good story which lends itself well to film and television adaptations, especially as they enable the story to emerge from the effusive language and detail.

Plot synopsis

 

A rich man named Lockwood rents a country house in the Yorkshire Moors, named Thrushcross Grange. On a visit to his landlord, Heathcliff, who lives in a remote house in the moors namedWutheringHeights, Lockwood is attacked by Heathcliff’s dog. He subsequently spends the night at Heathcliff’s house, and after reading a book written in by a woman named Catherine, he wakes to find her ghost trying to get in his window. Alarmed by his experience, he is escorted back to Thrushcross Grange, where he asks the housekeeper Ellen Dean to tell him about Heathcliff and the residents ofWutheringHeights.

30 years previous, Mr Earnshaw ofWutheringHeightsreturns fromLiverpoolwith a homeless, supposedly gypsy, seven year old boy whom he names Heathcliff. Earnshaw’s own children develop opposing relationships with Heathcliff; fourteen year old Hindley growing to hate Heathcliff because of his father’s apparent preference for the boy, and Catherine, who is a year younger than Heathcliff, spending most of her time on the moors with him, becoming inseparable and growing to love him.

Hindley is sent away to college and returns three years later with his new wife Frances, following the death of his father. As the new master ofWutheringHeights, Hindley forces Heathcliff to become a servant. One day, Catherine and Heathcliff are caught spying on the residents of Thrushcross Grange, the spoilt children Edgar and Isabella Linton. Catherine is bitten by the owner’s dog and is taken inside to recover whilst Heathcliff is sent away. She returns toWutheringHeightsfive weeks later, with the clothes and behaviour of a lady.

Over the next few years, Catherine spends more time with Edgar and less with Heathcliff. Heathcliff and Edgar dislike each other and argue, and Heathcliff becomes more bitter towards Hindley for his mistreatment of him. Edgar proposes to Catherine, which Catherine later discusses with Ellen, stating that she loves Heathcliff but it would “degrade” her to marry him. Heathcliff, who has been eavesdropping, leaves at this point, and fails to hear Catherine declare that she will marry Edgar to raise Heathcliff’s position, and that she cannot live without Heathcliff or bear to be separated from him.

Three years later, Heathcliff has not returned, Catherine and Edgar are married and Hindley has descended into drunkenness following the birth of his son, Hareton and death ofFrances. Six months later, Heathcliff returns, having grown strong and rich. Upon his return, Heathcliff encourages Hindley to gamble until he loses his money and is forced to mortgageWutheringHeightsto Heathcliff. He begins to visit Catherine who is overjoyed to see him again, though Edgar is unhappy with Heathcliff’s visits and once again they fight, causing Catherine to lock herself away, where she falls ill.

Edgar’s younger sister, Isabella, falls in love with Heathcliff, and although Heathcliff dislikes her, he sees an opportunity to revenge Edgar and elopes with her. They marry and return several months later, though Edgar has disowned Isabella.

Heathcliff soon hears that Catherine has fallen ill and secretly visits her. They share a reunion, and several hours later, Catherine gives birth to a daughter, Cathy, and then dies. Heathcliff sneaks into Thrushcross Grange to see Catherine’s body and put a lock of his hair in her locket.

The day after Catherine’s funeral, following a night of violence, Isabella escapes Heathcliff and moves away, where she gives birth to Heathcliff’s son, Linton. Hindley dies, and Heathcliff becomes master oWutheringHeightsand guardian of Hareton.

Twelve years later, Cathy has not left the grounds of Thrushcross Grange, and as Isabella is dying, Edgar goes to adopt Linton. Whilst he is away, Cathy goes onto the moors, where she discoversWutheringHeightsand meets her cousin Hareton, who she finds rude. Edgar returns with the ill Edgar, where he meets Cathy, and is taken back toWutheringHeightsby Heathcliff.

Three years later, Cathy and Ellen return toWutheringHeights, where she sees Linton and Hareton again. Heathcliff plans for Linton to marry Cathy marry so he inherits Thrushcross Grange. Cathy and Linton write to each other in secret, until the following year, whilst Edgar is ill, Ellen and Cathy are held imprisoned atWutheringHeights, and Cathy is forced to marry Linton. After five days, Ellen is set free and Linton helps Cathy to escape as her father is unwell, and she returns to see her father, who dies shortly after.

As Heathcliff is now the master ofWutheringHeightsand Thrushcross Grange, Cathy is forced to live with Heathcliff and Hareton. Linton, who has always been unwell, soon dies and Cathy is unhappy atWutheringHeights. At this point, Lockwood arrives.

Lockwood returns home, and comes back to Thrushcross Grange eight months later, to find that Ellen is living atWutheringHeights, where he goes to hear the end of the story. She tells him that following an accident which restricted Hareton to staying indoors, him and Cathy had become friends and she was teaching him to read and write. Heathcliff had been behaving oddly, and had been seeing visions of Catherine. Having refused to eat for four days, he was found dead in his room, and was buried next to Catherine. Catherine and Hareton planned to marry on New Year’s Day, and Lockwood departs.

NEXT BOOK: Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom