Friday, July 29, 2016

When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Isn't it fun to discover a whole new author just waiting to thrill you? I had this experience the other day digging into my very first Mary Roberts Rinehart book. I'd heard of her before, but I'll be honest with you: my expectations weren't particularly high. Consequently, When a Man Marries, an outrageous vintage farce, was a very pleasant surprise.

Kit McNair may have refused to marry Jimmy Wilson back when he was an unattached bachelor, but she still considers him a close friend, and when she finds him in the dumps on the second anniversary of his wife's departure, she determines that what he needs to cheer him up is a dinner party. Things go quickly awry, however, when Jimmy's rich aunt arrives in town expecting to find him still married. Kit agrees to impersonate the missing Mrs Wilson, but an evening's deception quickly turns into an intricate imbroglio when a case of smallpox results in the whole dinner party being quarantined on the premises. Add police and reporters watching the house for escapees, Jimmy's ex-wife Bella lurking in the basement, a jewel theft to solve, the irascible Aunt Selina to hoodwink, and the love of Kit's life choosing to turn up at the exact moment she's impersonating someone else's wife, and When a Man Marries has all the ingredients for a classic screwball comedy.

This book was, quite frankly, a party. I say this with full cognizance of its shortcomings. This was not a deep book, or a very tightly-plotted one. There's a little harmless satire at the expense of the socialites who, quarantined after the servants have fled, find themselves almost completely incapable of surviving without them; but eventually I felt this theme was dropped and never really resolved. The jewel thefts, too, turn out to have a rather off-the-wall solution, and sometimes Kit doesn't even seem to be trying to keep up her impersonation of Bella. Suffice it to say that if you are the kind of person to whom the internal logic of a story world is immensely important, this book will probably drive you crackers.

That said, I don't think I've ever noticed a book's flaws less while reading it. Rinehart writes with a splendid comic sensibility, inventing ridiculous situations almost as handily as PG Wodehouse at the top of his form. Her style, and the narrator voice, was also a delight--witty and knowing and constantly teasing us with unspecified awfulnesses lurking in the future. From the moment I looked at the first page, I knew I was in for a treat.

If you're in the mood for a fluffy, silly comic read, then give this book a try. I'll certainly be trying another Rinehart next time I am!

Find When a Man Marries on Project Gutenberg, Librivox, The Book Depository, or Amazon.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Poem: The Mewlips by JRR Tolkien

I've been re-reading The Hobbit, preparatory to tackling The Lord of the Rings. And this is rather a special occasion for me. I have, of course, read both books more times than I can count. Eventually, I found that I had read them so much that I had begun to remember everything about them. So I decided to take ten years off.

I'm now whittling slowly through The Hobbit, enjoying it terrifically and recording my thoughts for posterity on Twitter - click this link to see them, or follow the hashtag #JRRTandMe. It's been huge fun, because having let the book "rest" for ten years means I've come back to it with a fresh perspective.



For example, the other night, while enjoying the famous "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, I thought I spotted some imaginative kinship between Gollum and the Mewlips from an obscure Tolkien poem collected in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil...

The Mewlips
by JRR Tolkien

The shadows where the Mewlips dwell
Are dark and wet as ink,
And slow and softly rings their bell,
As in the slime you sink.

You sink into the slime, who dare
To knock upon their door,
While down the grinning gargoyles stare
And noisome waters pour.

Beside the rotting river-strand
The drooping willows weep,
And gloomily the gorcrows stand
Croaking in their sleep.

Over the Merlock Mountains a long and weary way,
In a mouldy valley where the trees are grey,
By a dark pool's borders without wind or tide,
Moonless and sunless, the Mewlips hide.

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they've finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and the gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips--and the Mewlips feed.

Cheerful, isn't it?! I must say I've never liked it myself, but revisiting it, it does seem rather an early template for something like Gollum. What do you think?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Journey for a Princess by Margaret Leighton

Last month, I spent a few weeks in Tasmania, on assignment in a house full of little girls. As you might imagine, this involved proportionately large quantities of dolls, tutus, and books about princesses.

Real, historical princesses.

Like this classic (1960) young adult novel by Margaret Leighton. Journey for a Princess is the story of Elstrid (or Aelfthrith), youngest daughter of Alfred the Great, growing up under the shadow of her elder and more successful siblings at the Wessex court. But when a Viking noble on a diplomatic mission to Alfred's court asks for her hand in marriage, the king buys time by sending Elstrid on pilgrimage to Rome with her aunt--via Flanders, where the Countess Judith has some matrimonial plans of her own. As Elstrid's journey continues, she finds that as Alfred's daughter she has much more danger and duty to face than she ever imagined.

I didn't know anything about the historical Elstrid when I began reading this book, so about halfway through I realised I had no idea how the story was going to end! I enjoyed the suspense that added to the book, and I loved seeing Elstrid's ninth-century world, from Wessex to Flanders to Rome, through her eyes. I don't know what Margaret Leighton was like as a scholar, but she certainly showed a detailed familiarity with the people, places, and everyday life of Western Europe at the time, which makes the story very vivid and immersive.

On the other hand, I thought the first half of the book was a little slack. This pays off in the final quarter, which is a really fun (though probably not historically accurate) blend of romance and adventure as open rivalry breaks out for Elstrid's hand and the alliance with Wessex.

I'd also note a reservation about the worldview of the story, which is pretty pro-Rome--Elstrid and her aunt accompany the payment of the Peter's Pence tax from Wessex to Rome, which is seen as an unequivocally good and proper thing in the story, for example. No doubt that's a historically accurate attitude for the characters to have, but it wasn't one that was widespread at the time (the rest of Europe wasn't paying Peter's Pence at that point) and I thought this and other elements betrayed the author's pro-Roman perspective. Protestant readers will probably want to look out for that.

Otherwise, there was lots to love in this story. Like much young adult fiction, this is a story about a girl reaching adulthood, with the responsibilities and new experiences that come with growing up. Unlike a lot of YA, however, Journey for a Princess is about living up to real standards of maturity, rather than asserting a right to immaturity. Elstrid's journey requires her to take more and more responsibility for more and more areas of her life. As a princess in ninth-century Europe, she must learn that her foolish decisions may cost lives--and that the wise choice she doesn't want to make may carry its own happiness with it.

Journey for a Princess is not just a vivid look at a little-known period of European history; it's also an inspiring picture of faithful and feminine strength. It's good enough to be a rewarding read at any age, but I would particularly recommend it for girls between 8 and 15.

Sadly, Journey for a Princess is currently out of print, but it is available on the Open Library.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

By and large, I agree with Terry Pratchett's no-nonsense heroine Susan Sto Helit: I hate literature. I'd much prefer to read a good book. Right or wrong, that attitude usually keeps me from reading literary fiction, especially twentieth-century stuff.

Jorge Luis Borges's odd and marvellous short stories are a notable exception.

Labyrinths is a collection of the Argentinian author's most well-known stories, as well as some essays and brief parables, translated from the Spanish by a number of different people, but all bearing the same unmistakeable voice. Beyond that, it's difficult to describe them. All of them are dreamlike: Borges writes at a great distance, sounding muffled and detached even when he writes in the first person, and his stories are filled with an alien logic, with paradox, symbolism, and fantasy. Most of them show a wonderful speculative-fiction imagination at work; but where a modern author, having the same idea (a national lottery that determines the events of all men's lives; a city full of immortals; a mysterious land that exists only in one entry of one edition of an encyclopaedia?) would have written a swashbuckling series of science-fiction novels, Borges simply jots down a short story.

Or yet more infuriatingly, jots down his outline for the short story, discussing potential endings with the reader.

And this, of course, is a large part of the point. In The Lottery in Babylon, the narrator describes a world apparently ruled by chance, administered by a secret society; at the end of the story, he admits that one school of thought maintains that there is no secret society, only the abstract workings of chance. In The Circular Ruins, a man dreams another man into existence; at the end of the story he realises, in shock, that he himself is also the product of another's dream. In The Library of Babel, librarians wander the endless galleries of an infinite library, the volumes of which contain every permutation of letters and words and sentences that can possibly exist; it's certain that some of them contain the story of one's future life or the answer to the meaning of the cosmos, but since the books are infinite in number and most of them are either gibberish or false, there's no knowing which of them is true.

What is truth? Even if it exists, could we know it? What is real and what is not? Are we real? Is there meaning in life? Is anyone in control? Are you really you, or are you misleading me about your identity? Borges writes his stories as a series of dreamlike thought experiments, enriched with a startling imagination. I do not pretend to understand everything in them (he is clearly much better read and much cleverer than I am), but I do understand what all this philosophising is in aid of.

In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, for instance, Borges writes a mock-serious work of literary criticism concerning a (fictional) author who sets out to rewrite the Don Quixote - word-for-word with the original. The critic "Borges" writing the essay fulminates at length on the strange and subtle differences between the Cervantes book and the Menard book. The books may be identical, but in the context of their different authors and different times, they mean something quite different... It's a classic postmodern argument that says that "texts" can never be read on their own, but must be understood in the context of their author and their times.

Despite my skepticism on this matter, the essays in the second part of this collection do go a long way toward making some of Borges's intentions a little clearer! The essay A New Refutation of Time (the title is intentionally paradoxical) provides a helpful overview of the philosophy of idealism to which Borges apparently subscribed. According to Borges's explanation in the essay, there is no self or subject, just a neverending stream of perceptions and impressions: quoting Hume, "We are a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity." The material world is basically illusory; the real thing is our impressions of it. The short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius basically presents Borges's arguments in story form: it concerns the discovery of a country no one has ever heard of in an encyclopaedia entry, which gradually begins to come into existence the more folks learn about it and think about it.
"The greatest magician (Novalis has memorably written) would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case?" I conjecture that this is so. We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false."
This seems to be Borges's philosophical conclusion; in hindsight, it's easy to see this underlying all his stories, even the ones I'm still not sure I understand (what on earth is The Garden of Forking Paths about?). Of course, it's not a philosophy I subscribe to or recommend. But in all its logical madness, Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths provides an undeniably fascinating explanation of postmodernism and idealism.

Find Labyrinths on Amazon or The Book Depository

Friday, July 1, 2016

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

There was a time when I tried to like Daphne du Maurier's books. In my late teens I read The King's General, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth and a sense of moral outrage. Then I read Frenchman's Creek, with its delicious premise - pirate romance on the Cornish coast - and was once again repulsed; I could find no sympathy with the romance, since the main character was married to someone else. By that point I really should have known, but I went and read Rule Britannia anyway, since it seemed a fun alternate-universe romp about one clever woman leading a resistance against an invasion of Britain. And I actually don't remember anything about that book except hating it in a bored sort of way.

So, realising that Daphne du Maurier and I did not get on, I simply didn't read anymore. Not till this year, when a friend started raving about Rebecca. Oddly enough, I'd often heard of Rebecca as being du Maurier's magnumopus, and I'd occasionally toyed with the idea of reading it. A gothic romance (I love gothic romances) with a famous twist (I like a good plot twist), Rebecca seemed to have sunk into the cultural consciousness.

Maybe du Maurier had written one worthwhile book.

And after all, it was years since I'd touched her work. Maybe, now that I was older, I'd appreciate it more. So I decided I'd read Rebecca.

The first thing that surprised me about the book was how rich and evocative the writing was, and how rather unabashedly romantic and suspenseful it was in a mid-century way. Young, shy, and awkward, our first-person narrator meets the older and more sophisticated Maxim de Winter during a holiday on the Continent--and to everyone's surprise, is swept off her feet. Before she knows it, our heroine is Mrs de Winter.

The second Mrs de Winter.

Maxim takes his wife home to Manderly--the beautiful, overgrown estate on England's south coast where he once lived with his first wife, Rebecca. Though Rebecca is dead--lost in an accident at sea--the new Mrs de Winter feels overshadowed and oppressed by her memory. Servants, faithful to the previous mistress, who take every opportunity to maker her feel inferior. Rooms and schedules that Rebecca arranged. The neighbours and family who leave her in no doubt about Rebecca's beauty, charm, vivacity, and capability.

Can our shy and awkward heroine ever hope to fill Rebecca's shoes? Is Maxim too much in love with his first wife to make a place in his heart for his second?

Or does Manderly conceal a much darker secret than the second Mrs de Winter can guess?

In some ways this was a brilliant novel. The atmosphere of brooding suspense, the hot, almost jungle-like atmosphere of Manderly, the slowly building mystery, the aching romance, the shocking twists and turns in the second half of the plot--this novel, despite its lit-fic pretensions, does the gothic/romantic suspense thing tremendously well, straddling the transition from Charlotte Bronte to Mary Stewart in one unforgettable story.

Rebecca's literary pretensions were evident in the narrator's stream-of-consciousness style (which I thought worked very well to weave an atmosphere of suspense) and the rather slower, meanderingly-plotted, character-driven first half of the novel, as well as the ending, which (depending on how you look at it) might range from bittersweet to sombre to downright tragic. I thought all of these choices worked very well in the story; it was a little more than just another romantic potboiler with a neat happy ending.

In other words, I would have really enjoyed this novel. If it wasn't for one thing.

The shocking plot twist comes at about the three-quarter mark, when we learn the big secret that Manderly has been hiding. Like everything else in this book, it's a very well-done twist: you never expect it, but all the clues are definitely there. Sadly, though, this twist falls into the pitfall of originality: to be perfectly blunt, it's shocking because of its amorality, not because of its cleverness.

Reading the last quarter of Rebecca, I was once again reminded why Daphne du Maurier has always so repulsed me. Her amorality--perhaps a better term would be immorality--crops up in all the novels of hers I've read, and it's no surprise to see it cropping up in her own life as well. After a superficial look at her personal life, the reader would be pardoned for wondering if the three most prominent women in Rebecca--both Mrs de Winters and the ominous housekeeper Mrs Danvers--with their jealousy, obsession, and secrets--may have all been autobiographical to some degree.

So, in the end, I have to shelve Rebecca with all the other morally repugnant Daphne du Maurier books I've ever read. I know this won't be popular with some readers, especially those who loved the book. I want to be honest with you--I think it's brilliant, and I think a mature and tough Christian could read it for the good art with little ill effect. But it's foolish to believe that that a book this brilliant, this memorable and moving, will leave no impression on the reader.

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is an immersive, magnificently atmospheric apologia for moral relativism. But I don't recommend it. If it doesn't offend you deeply, you aren't ready to read it. And if it does, you won't enjoy it.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

I'm afraid I rather dropped off the radar for the last few weeks: Life became a little frantic, first helping with a friend's wedding and then spending a few weeks in Tasmania with some very dear friends. Along the way, I did manage to get the second draft of Never Send To Know/Death Be Not Proud written (hooray!), and I've been working on a few other exciting projects - like storyboarding and co-directing this short promotional video for an artists' festival in Tasmania.

Today I'm reviewing the perennially popular medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ. I decided I had to read this book after hearing George Grant's history lecture on the fourteenth century (from the brilliant Christendom lecture series).

Historical Background

Apparently, the 1300s were a pretty dark time. They kicked off with the loss of the Holy Land to the Turks in 1291 and the ruthless and cynical suppression of the Templars in 1304. They continued with the breakdown of scholastic philosophy, scandalous rifts opening within the Roman church with the removal of the papacy to Avignon, the Hundred Years' War, the end of the Medieval Warming Period which had seen unprecedented population growth and health (which just goes to show that global warming is a good thing), and just when everyone thought the world couldn't get any more terrifying or incomprehensible...the Black Death, in multiple bouts that wiped out a massive chunk of the world's population.

Many thought it was the end of the world. Religion, discredited both as an ideal and as a philosophy through the breakdown of scholasticism and through increasing schism and irreligion in the church herself, could do little to help. In the looming darkness, a few bright lights pricked out in the darkness - reformers like John Wycliffe, or precursors to more reformers, like Geert Groote.

Groote was born around 1340, just in time for the first wave of the Black Death, which swept away both his parents. Groote survived, and after making his mark at the world's finest university (Paris), launched upon a brilliant church career as a wealthy playboy bibliophile and diplomat, drawing stipends from three different churches he'd never preached at. From this lifestyle he was suddenly and dramatically converted in 1373. He immediately withdrew again to the town of his birth in the Netherlands, where his new devotion to the basics of Christian faith became the foundation for a whole new movement, the Devotio Moderna, or the Modern Devotion. This layman's movement stressed the primacy of the Scriptures in every area of life; the ordinary means of grace (the Word and Sacraments) as against byzantine religious practices; the gradual sanctification of the Christian through the imitation of Christ; and discipling others into a devout life.

In 1374, the Black Death returned and killed three-quarters of the population in Groote's area. Apparently, it was out of his care for the orphans left by the plague that Groote's first schools emerged - schools that welcomed girls as well as boys. The church authorities did not take kindly to Groote's efforts, anymore than they smiled upon Wycliffe or the Gottesfreundes or Augustinians who had conceived it as their mission to preach to the common people. They forbade him to preach and put his schools under the ban. Thus affairs stood in 1384, when the Black Death struck again. This time, it took Geert Groote with it.

But Groote's work continued. Schools and monasteries based on the model he'd pioneered to help plague orphans sprang up all over Europe: their name was the Brethren of the Common Life. Over the next century and a half, Brethren of the Common Life schools educated and empowered an extraordinary number of their world's greatest men: Nicholas of Cusa, the physician Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus; popes and cardinals, but others too. Names with which we should all be familiar: Martin Bucer, Philip Melancthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther all attended Brethren of Common Life schools, and at least one of their communities went over bodily to the Reformation once it got really underway.

So why is all this important to today's review? The answer is that Thomas a Kempis, the author of the Imitation of Christ, was one of Groote's disciples, and there's a pretty good historical case that this little book may be--in whole or part--a collection of Geert Groote's sayings and meditations. Even if that isn't the case, The Imitation of Christ was the primary written expression of the whole Brethren of Common Life movement.

In a century when Death on his pale horse was a recurring artistic motif, in a century when the foundations of belief were being destroyed, in a century so terrible than many believed the end was near, the movement that birthed and was formed by The Imitation of Christ shone as a light of real faith and real devotion. That was why I had to read this book.

Culture Shock

The Imitation of Christ is a very slim book, but it's divided into four Books and 114 chapters, which I found so pithy and thought-provoking that I was happy to read it at the rate of just one chapter per day. "Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ." "The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy." "Do not keep company with young people and strangers." "It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well." One of the first sensations I experienced upon dipping into this very practical and blunt handbook on the Christian life was culture shock. This is an extremely medieval book.

In many ways, this is a good thing, because it forced me to take a second look at many things I take for granted. Like learning. We may take it as read that a scholarly movement that birthed giants like Cusa, Erasmus, or Melancthon was not an anti-intellectual movement, but a Kempis warns us repeatedly against loving knowledge for the sake of knowledge, encouraging us rather to seek humbly for truth.

Or like independence and equality. The medievals were not egalitarians, and one wonders what the average modern egalitarian would think of passages like this one:
It is a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not to be one's own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command. Many live in obedience more from necessity than from love. Such become discontented and dejected on the slightest pretext; they will never gain peace of mind unless they subject themselves whole-heartedly for the love of God.
Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many.
Everyone, it is true, wishes to do as he pleases and is attracted to those who agree with him. But if God be among us, we must at times give up our opinions for the blessings of peace.
Furthermore, who is so wise that he can have full knowledge of everything? Do not trust too much in your own opinions, but be willing to listen to those of others. If, though your own be good, you accept another's opinion for love of God, you will gain much more merit; for I have often heard that it is safer to listen to advice and take it than to give it. It may happen, too, that while one's own opinion may be good, refusal to agree with others when reason and occasion demand it, is a sign of pride and obstinacy.
I loved this passage so much I had to run out and buy copies of the book at once. You would never read something like this in a modern devotional; but it is such a pithy and powerful statement of some Scriptural principles that no one would ever pay attention to today. We put such a high price on independence, on equality, on leadership, and on individuality that we ignore the principles that encourage us to be under authority as well as in authority, that urge us to submit to one another in love, that warn us of the high price paid by those who would teach. To ignore these things is to risk the sin of pride. And to ride roughshod over the created order given in Scripture--servants (read: employees) submitting to masters (read: bosses), parishioners submitting to elders, citizens submitting to kings, children submitting to fathers and mothers, wives submitting to husbands--is to despise the Creator himself.

As a Kempis points out so clearly, submitting to someone doesn't mean you or your opinions are not as good as him. In many cases it may even make you the better person.

Some reservations

As I said, this was a very medieval book and a lot of the time, I loved that about it. However, a lot of the time, I also had reservations. Sometimes the Brethren of the Common Life are described as a pietist movement, and there's a good bit of that in this book, mixed in with some typical medieval attitudes regarding asceticism and a denial of the physical world. Some of this is rather Roman Catholic in tone--especially bits of the final section, on communion. But some of it is well and truly alive and well in the contemporary Protestant church.

The overwhelming emphasis of The Imitation of Christ is on the soul's personal and intangible relationship with Christ. This was, in many ways, intensely nourishing to me. Christ is--or should be--our all-in-all, and it was very sweet to spend so much time meditating on this fact. However, there was a somewhat dualistic tone to much of the book, and the advocacy of asceticism was disappointing. I found myself very thankful that I'd read Joe Rigney's marvellous book The Things of Earth before reading this one, because it acted as a much-needed corrective. In The Things of Earth, Rigney takes a very un-pietistic approach to the Christian's relationship with the physical world, explaining that they are good gifts which may in fact help us to love God better. In The Imitation of Christ, the overwhelming message is that the things of earth distract us from the love of God. And certainly, as Rigney points out, there are times when we are asked to give up created goods. Indeed, giving up a created good for the love of God can be a comfort to the believer; it can sometimes give assurance of salvation--or it can make it clear to us that we have allowed a created good to distract us from the love of God.

I found The Imitation of Christ unbalanced in this area. There was occasionally an acknowledgement of the fact that created things are given to us for our good and God's glory. But the overwhelming slant of the emphasis was on renunciation of all these things.

Conclusion

I came away from The Imitation of Christ understanding why it ranks as one of the greatest Christian bestsellers of all time. In places it is magnificent; in places it is ...well, not. I strongly recommend fortifying yourself with The Things of Earth before tackling The Imitation of Christ; but despite the book's shortcomings, it has my respect. It was written, and it made its mark, during a time of great spiritual thirst; and despite its asceticism, despite its understandably Romanist slant, I can see how it, and the Brethren of Common Life, came to foster the great Reformation. In this book, the layman is told that he can know Christ for himself. In this book, the common-born man is told he can approach the High King of Heaven without fear. Perhaps, in the midst of the upheaval and schism of the late middle ages, this was the most dangerous possible idea.

Find The Imitation of Christ on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Don't forget to snag The Things of Earth while you're at it! Find it on Amazon or The Book Depository, or read my review on Goodreads

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

Today I have the pleasure of reviewing a really terrific (and terrifically long) book. The Last Chronicle of Barset is 852 pages in my edition, all of it dedicated to a series of interweaving plots roughly centred around one character, a clergyman named Josiah Crawley, who has been accused of stealing a cheque for twenty pounds. Before I move on to the body of this review, I just need to say this: I've now read all six books in the Chronicles of Barset, and this one stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest--a grand finale well worth the name, a powerful character study, a splendid and engrossing story, a book bursting with amazing Christian wisdom and encouragement.

This was definitely a five-star read for me - a rating I award to only about 6% of the dozens of books I read each year. The Last Chronicle of Barset is quite simply, splendid.

Warning: While I'll be trying to keep them to a minimum, there will be a few spoilers for some of the previous books in the series in this review, especially The Small House at Allington. Also, if you are already convinced to read the book, you might like to stop here and go and do so, because while I don't give away the ending, I do discuss the plot in some detail.

Loving the Unlovable

There was so much to like about this novel. As always, Trollope is funny--one of the most consistently funny authors you'll ever read, and while he isn't as overtly outrageous in Last Chronicle as he was in Barchester Towers, I spent the whole book grinning in delight, cackling with glee, or even reading bits aloud in funny voices for the mere pleasure of hearing them. But Trollope's humour stems from one of the things I've always loved about him. Trollope's whole genius as an author lies in getting you to see people with all their quirks and faults and even sins--and yet coming to love them anyway. Not in such a manner as to excuse their failings, but despite them: reading any Anthony Trollope book is an exercise in Christian charity, in unconditional love of the unlovable. He gives you repulsive people and then makes you care for them, genially depicting them with all their quirks and idiosyncracies. The result is hilarious. (Mr Crawley walking along, hand outstretched to crush the bishop!) Jane Austen, of course, mined a similar vein of humour, but she was considerably more acid and ruthless than Trollope is: Both Mr Crawley and the bishop he intends to crush are so sympathetically drawn that despite their glaring personal faults, we can't help both laughing at and loving them.

This ability to get us to care for sometimes quite offputting characters is also the reason why The Last Chronicle of Barset is so profoundly moving. Because this is the grand finale to the series, most of the prominent characters from all the earlier books--Mr Harding and Eleanor, the Grantlys and the Proudies, Mr Arabin, Dr Thorne, Mark Robarts, Lady Lufton, Mr Crawley, and even Lily Dale and John Eames--are back in full force, drawn into the great clerical tempest at the novel's heart. As they make their final bows, they are ushered off, some to happy and some to unhappy endings; in fact, some of them to quite shocking endings. And while there is a great deal of power in seeing characters we love coming to unhappy endings (short version: boohoo), Trollope gets the most mileage from the unhappy ending of one particular character whom I never, ever expected to feel sorry for. This character was nails on a blackboard--someone it was heaps of fun to thoroughly despise--and yet, in this book, Trollope tore this apparently unassailable character to shreds, until I wanted to howl in sympathy. I've never felt so bad about the bad end of such an annoying character.

This said, I thought not everything in the story worked well. A subplot surrounding an artist friend of John Eames had so little relation to the rest of the plot that it probably should have been removed; it would have made a good standalone novella. That didn't annoy me at all, though, compared to the downright tragic ending of another plot, which was so disappointing (after 852 pages' worth of thinking it might finally come right after all) that I could almost have beaten the author over the head with his own manuscript. Ack! I do thoroughly understand why Trollope chose to end the subplot that way, of course. It's very true to the characters, and it prevents the otherwise happy and satisfying ending from being too implausibly neat. But I don't think I've felt so disappointed since the ending of Rupert of Hentzau.

Pride

By far the most compelling and well-drawn character in this book, populated as it is by so many compelling and well-drawn characters, is that of Mr Crawley, the impoverished curate accused of stealing a paltry sum of money. We met Mr Crawley first in Framley Parsonage, where he emerged as an odd, prickly, proud character of undeniable and yet almost repulsive rectitude. At the time I read that book, I found Mr Crawley rather a challenging character to come to grips with, given that he seemed to be both one of the most sincere and one of the most flawed of the Barsetshire populace. I also didn't quite know what to think of how the heroine of that novel seemed to collude with Mrs Crawley behind her husband's back to arrange things in ways that he would certainly disapprove of. However, since I realised The Last Chronicle would be all about Mr Crawley and his family, I postponed a final judgement till after I'd read it.

Now that I have, I feel I have a much better appreciation of where Trollope was taking this character. Mr Crawley's particular failing is pride, a pride that shows itself in excessive humility. Trollope laughs at Mr Crawley as much as he laughs at all his other characters, but it can't be denied that he also takes on a rather titanic character in this novel: a brilliant scholar and genuinely loving father, pastor, and husband, Mr Crawley, it's hinted, sees himself as one of the debased giants of legend: Polyphemus, the Cyclopes blinded by Odysseus; Belisarius, the great Byzantine general, who ended his life a beggar; Samson; Milton. And yet he clings persistently to his poverty, too proud to take assistance or even to hire a lawyer to defend him against the accusation of theft, and proud in other ways too: "It was not sufficient for him to remember that he knew Hebrew, but he must remember also that the dean [his friend Mr Arabin] did not."

As Walter Allen points out in the Introduction to my edition of the book, this same theme of pride, though in many different forms, crops up in most of the other subplots. There is the pride of our old friend Archdeacon Grantly, who is shocked that his son wants to marry a girl as penniless and unimportant as Grace Crawley, the more so as his other children have married into the nobility. There is the healthier kind of pride, the self-respect and the sense of honour that determines the dashing Major Grantly to pursue Grace despite his father's opposition and the criminal accusation hanging over her father; there is the corresponding pride felt by Grace, who wishes not to socially injure the Major in any way. Meanwhile John Eames's pride entangles him in a flirtation with the conniving Madalina Demolines, even while he renews his suit to Lily Dale, who also has a strong sense of what she owes herself, and will not easily relinquish it. Both Bishop Proudie and Mrs Proudie suffer terrible blows to their own pride, and it is left to Mr Harding, the aging hero of the very first book about Barset, to give a contrasting picture of godly humility.

Trollope therefore uses this theme of pride as a motif to tie together all the diverse strands of subplot, less interested in drawing out a specific moral than he is simply in faithfully depicting what happens to his characters because of their pride: the narrow escapes, the tragedies, the triumphs. Side-by-side with this theme is another, one much more overt: the theme of authority in both church and family.

Authority in the Family

While this theme of authority gets its overarching expression in Mr Crawley's struggles with church authorities--which I'll deal with in a moment--it plays out in the story largely in the context of family life: in parent-child relationships, but especially in husband-wife relationships. Major Grantly wants to marry Grace Crawley, and he's willing to defy his parents in order to do so. Mrs van Siever wants to force her daughter to marry a business partner against her will. John Eames is at his wits' end to figure out why Lily Dale should continue to refuse him when all her friends and family unanimously wish her to marry him. Mrs Crawley must sometimes go behind her husband's back in order to save her family from starvation. In the battle of will between Archdeacon Grantly and his son, Mrs Grantly finds herself in the unenviable position of sympathising with her husband while she attempts to prevent him cutting off their son without a shilling. And Mrs Proudie is, as usual, determined to rule the diocese despite the fact that it was her husband who was appointed bishop and not herself.

Again, the theme of authority ties all these subplots together, even in the otherwise somewhat unrelated Conway Dalrymple subplot.

Let me take a moment to say that I loved this theme. As I recently explained, for deep-rooted philsophical and theological reasons, I'm not a feminist. These days, standing up in support of traditional Christian patriarchy will get you shot full of holes in no time, even within the Church, and it's become trendy to talk about misogyny as something that's institutionalised in the Christian patriarchal church and family. I believe that's a false picture, partly because of books like this one: not being a feminist emphatically doesn't mean thinking a woman occupies a place in the food chain roughly between doormats and dog-fleas.

And I loved, loved, loved the balance and beauty of the picture of familial authority given in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

We see this balance shown in the Major Grantly plotline between the father and his son. Major Grantly insists that as a grown man, a father, and a widower, he has the authority to pursue Grace Crawley despite his parents' misgivings. Archdeacon Grantly, on the other hand, thinks that since he is providing the Major with an income, he has the right to stop it if his son insists on marrying against his advice. As I read their wranglings, I could tell that Trollope sympathised more (as I did) with the Major; but I thought to myself that the Major showed very little regard for the fifth commandment in standing on his rights. I'm not going to tell you how this tension resolves, except that it was terrific, and I was thrilled.

We get just the same sane and scriptural balance when it comes to the relationships between the men and women in the plot. There is the Proudie marriage. Mrs Proudie, as always, is the novel's premier example of a woman who terrorises the men around her and makes herself a nuisance by interfering with church affairs that are really none of her business. And yet, Trollope finds something good to say even about Mrs Proudie: that she has real strength and a real desire to do good.

On the other hand, we have the Dobbs Broughton marriage. Mrs Dobbs Broughton is a bored socialite married to a financier who eventually runs into business trouble. Mrs Dobbs Broughton realises that business must be going badly for him, but as Trollope explains, she considers that she has no right to ask him questions about it because the financial interest she brought into their marriage was so very small: "She had no knowledge that marriage of itself had given her the right to such interference." As a wife, Mrs Dobbs Broughton automatically has the right to know about her husband's affairs, to give advice or even to step in, as Trollope suggests.

By contrast to both these marriages, Trollope gives us, as a picture of traditional Puritan-style companionate marriage, the Crawley marriage; and even, to a lesser extent, that of the Grantlys (at one point, the wise and diplomatic Mrs Grantly takes just offence to a "very uncivil reference to her sex" made by her husband). Mrs Crawley is undoubtedly a clever woman, entirely lacking in her husband's fault of pride. I mentioned that in Framley Parsonage I felt uncomfortable about what Mrs Crawley is shown to do underhandedly, behind her husband's back, to prevent her family from starving; but with the deeper characterisation in Last Chronicle, my opinion of her changed: she became the example of a wise woman married to a foolish man, an Abigail (though Mr Crawley is by no means a Nabal) engaging in a little judicious management and interposition, while unshaken in her loyalty to and respect for her husband.

Mrs Crawley is a wonderful character, but so is Mr Crawley, and contempt for women is by no means one of that prickly clergyman's faults. He objects strenuously to Mrs Proudie's inteference in church affairs, but by not to the right and capacity of a wise woman to give advice when advice is sought: "If there be aught clear to me in ecclesiastical matters, it is this, - that no authority can be delegated to a female," he tells Mr Arabin in a letter. He goes on to explain that because of the criminal case against him, the bishop has instituted a commission to inquire into his fitness to be a clergyman:
In doing this, I cannot say that the bishop has been ill-advised, even though the advice may have come from that evil-tongued lady, his wife. And I hold that a woman may be called on for advice, with most salutary effect, in affairs as to which any show of female authority would be equally false and pernicious. With me it has ever been so, and I have had a counsellor by me as wise as she has been devoted.
Church authority, in other words, can never be wielded by a woman. But a woman has authority as an individual and also as a wife, and is therefore welcome to exert private or familial influence, even in church matters. Later on, Mr Crawley even goes further in his somewhat prolix praise of feminine authority:
"I have, methinks, observed a proneness in the world to ridicule that dependence on a woman which every married man should acknowledge in regard to the wife of his bosom, if he can trust her as well as love her. When I hear jocose proverbs spoken as to men, such as that in this house the gray mare is the better horse, or that in that house the wife wears that garment which is supposed to denote virile command, knowing that the joke is easy, and that meekness in a man is more truly noble than a habit of stern authority, I do not allow them to go far with me in influencing my judgement."
Characteristically, Trollope at once lampoons this gracious utterance by telling us that Mr Crawley "never permitted the slightest interference with his own word in his own family." But the words have been spoken, and spoken sincerely: if a Christian husband shows the love and dependence he ought to show, some wit is going to suggest that his wife wears the pants.

As in every other area of life, there are two extremes we can fall into, and in this case people seem only too ready to fall into one extreme or the other: that of total autonomy and domination by men, or that of total autonomy and anarchy of women. But in the Christian ideal, the battle is not between men and women, the battle is between God and God's church on one hand, and the world, the flesh and the devil on the other. In Trollope's novels, there is no war between the sexes, anymore than there should be war in an army between officers and men. In Trollope's novels, as in Scripture, marriage is not about asserting the authority structure (as important as the authority structure is); it's about working together, it's about having the strength of two, the wisdom of two, and the resources of two rather than of one. We talk a lot about the dangers of being "unequally yoked", but overlook the fact that this means the ideal is an equal yoking, even within the hierarchy of marriage.

And here I must say something very important. Up till now, I'd felt that Trollope goes rather easy on his heroines. They are almost a little too good to be true, and while everyone else in the story usually gets humbled, they usually come out with all their dignity intact. As a woman, I'm keenly aware of the failings of my sex, and I don't find such unflawed heroines particularly compelling: Lizzie Bennet or Emma Woodhouse seem more real to me than Lucy Robarts or Mary Thorne.

However, in reading The Last Chronicle of Barset and thinking about some discussions I've had lately, I've come to realise why we need books like these, books which depict admirable women wielding authority in admirable ways. Partly for the benefit of women, it's true, but even more for the benefit of young men who might need to be taught to respect women. That's the beautiful thing about Anthony Trollope: just as clearly as he is no twenty-first-century feminist, he clearly also has a very deep respect and love for women. And if Trollope sees his heroines with eyes that overlook a multitude of sins, that's a great perspective for young men to practice and learn.

Authority in the Church

The theme of authority also crops up, perhaps most definitively, in Mr Crawley's struggle with his church authorities. Having been accused of theft, and facing trial, Mr Crawley is directed by Bishop Proudie (or more to the point, by Mrs Proudie) to relinquish his position as the curate of Hogglestock. Believing himself to be innocent, Mr Crawley refuses to do so, the more so since the bishop has no legal power to remove him unilaterally from his living. In the process, Mr Crawley delivers himself of a number of ringing declarations of limited government and the duty of interposition:
"In all questions of obedience, he who is required to obey must examine the extent of the authority exercised by him who demands obedience."
Since the bishop has no authority to evict him, Mr Crawley defies the bishop. But Trollope makes sure we know that this is not rebellion. Rather, it's the bishop (or, more to the point, Mrs Proudie) who is in rebellion against the law because she is seeking to exert an authority that is not lawful for a bishop to wield (much less the bishop's wife). The right and duty of interposition--of lesser authorities acting to keep higher authorities in check--is the fenceline between tyranny and right authority, between abuse and justice.

To Conclude

Trollope understands interposition as few people today do: that everyone has authority, that authority has hierarchy and limits, and that it's everyone's responsibility to see that their own and others' authority is kept within just bounds. These days, years of overweening state government has catechised us to expect church and family, like state authorities, to be their own best judge of the propriety of their own actions. But in The Last Chronicle, Trollope gives us example after example defining the limits of just authority. John Eames, in pursuit of Lily, expects her to let herself be ruled by his own and her friends' wishes; but Lily's mother as well as Lily herself understands that this is a decision which ultimately only Lily has the authority to make. Mrs Crawley has every right to advise her husband in church matters and does; Mrs Proudie has every right to do so, but tries to dominate instead, only to meet the righteous opposition of the diocese; Mrs Dobbs Broughton ignores this right, and probably harms her marriage in consequence.

I know this is a monster review, but this book was so good. It's not often that a novel is this entertaining, yet at the same time, this edifying. In a world that sometimes seems to have gone completely mad, where authority is so often misused, where so few people understand their own right and duty either to defy tyranny or to advise authority, and where the sexes each see the other as the enemy, Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset is a breath of fresh air, a moment of calm and sanity and hope. Read this book.* Recommend it to your friends. It is that important.

Find The Last Chronicle of Barset on Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.


* But read the other 5 novels first, of course. What? They're all wonderful, and I wouldn't want to spoil the experience for you! They are The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.

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