The Good People by Hannah Kent

Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.

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The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.

Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.

Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.

Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.

He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.

As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.

I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.

Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.

The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.

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Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…

 

Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.

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One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

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The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

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I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

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And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.

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So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?

 

 

Truth and Identity in ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’

How do we know what is true, and what is not? How do we know that people really are who they say they are? Are you ever only one person? These were questions I asked myself while reading Lady Audley’s Secret recently. The novel starts off simply enough with a few chapters to set things up: the governness Miss Lucy Graham has recently married the much older Sir Michael Audley and become the eponymous heroine of the title. She is young and very beautiful –  in fact throughout the book it is reiterated several times that she derives most of her power, and identity, from her beauty. We also meet Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert Audley, who is a layabout but somehow also a barrister; Sir Michael’s daughter Alicia, who hates Lady Audley and is in love with Robert; and George Talboys, who is just about to land in England after having made his fortune finding gold in Australia. George has been gone for three years and left his wife and child behind, leaving them only a note to explain where he was going. His first task in England is to find his wife, Helen. It does not prove as simple as that.

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From this point it all gets a bit complicated. Already we are wondering about Lady Audley and where she has come from, and why she has married Sir Michael, who though clearly a lovely person, is much older than her. It takes a long time for the reader to really get to grips with Lady Audley’s character. She is described as being very young and babyish, with childish mannerisms and a certain innocence about her; and yet when we see her alone with her maid, Phoebe, she seems much older and self-assured, and not afraid to ask for what she wants. Sir Michael has lavished her with a beautiful set of rooms filled with expensive trinkets, and you can’t help but think it is suspicious that she is all too willing to accept such riches from her new husband. Robert is beguiled by his new aunt and unwillingly attracted to her. Her charm and beauty, as well as her charisma, starts to form the idea of her as a siren, a seducer. And of course the title sets you off right away – what is she hiding?

Robert happens to be very good friends with George, and when he returns from Australia Robert brings him to Audley Court; but before he can meet Sir Michael and the new Lady Audley, George disappears. The rest of the novel centres around Robert’s search for him, and the various layers and forms of truth that he discovers along the way. It is shown, very deftly, that most of the characters in the novel simply accept the truth that is shown to them at face value. Once Robert has the motivation of finding his friend, he is unafraid to pull back the curtain and question what he previously thought to be true. It is fascinating to read about how much trouble Robert has to go to learn anything about George’s disappearance; in an age before modern technology, he travels up and down the country, questioning people about George. Without telephones or computers, finding out each piece of information is at least twice as hard as it would be now. I marvelled at the number of times Robert could so easily have missed something or someone. He has to dig and dig to get to anything other than surface truths, and you can see why they are so often accepted as fact by the other characters. The nature of truth itself is examined as Robert breaks through the layers.

Lady Audley’s is the identity we are chiefly concerned with; but Robert’s is also rather important. He is a barrister but has never worked a day in his life – he just sits around smoking and reading French novels. His family do not think of him as very intelligent, and it is stated more than once that he doesn’t seem to care about anything very much, and doesn’t put much value on love and human relationships. And yet once George goes missing, he is fraught with concern for his friend, and will do anything to find him. He becomes an amatuer detective, and the mystery consumes his life. He doubts himself for the first time, and wonders what he is capable of, while challenging what is presented to him as the truth. He has created a version of himself, and this is worn away by his search for George. Similarly Lady Audley’s identity and self are challenged as the events of the novel start to affect her. The facade of ‘Lady Audley’ is slowly broken down, and we start to see the woman underneath. Has she really become who we think she is, or does her old self remain?

This novel is also full of gender and class issues, which are wonderfully explored in the essay at the back of the Penguin English Library edition: ‘Gender and Role Playing’ by Elizabeth Tilley. I would really recommend reading it, but only after you’ve read the novel as it goes into the key plot points. It’s best to go into this novel without knowing anything about what happens, as eash layer of truth brings a new revelation, and shows you a new side to the characters. I very much admire Mary Elizabeth Braddon for writing such a complex and multi-faceted novel. Lady Audley must be one of the best literary creations of the 19th century, and I am very glad I took the time to find out who she really is. Will you?

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First published as a serial in the magazine Robin Goodfellow, and then the Sixpenny Magazine, before being published as a novel by William Tinsley in 1862. I read the 2012 Penguin English Library edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles.

‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman

Any reader of Victorian literature, or any student of the history of the period, will be aware of the concept of the fallen woman. If not, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It’s a depressingly detailed page. For an era in which society began to move away from the government of Christianity (thank you Darwin and your fellow evolutionists!), the 19th century was one that made a national phenomenon out of the concept of a woman fallen from God’s Grace.

Grace Marks, the protagonist of Alias Grace, was a real person. In 1843 she was convicted of murdering her employer, Mr Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. This brought her to the public attention, and eventually, to that of Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace is a fictional account of Grace’s life, the murders, and her time in prison afterwards. Her supposed accomplice is James McDermott, who also worked for Mr Kinnear. He was hanged, but she was spared that sentence at the last moment, and sent to prison. She became a momentary celebrity, with the trial being covered widely in the media.

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The frame of the novel consists of meetings, in prison, between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan. He is interested in criminal behaviour and mental health, and aspires to open his own modern asylum with progressive treatments. He meets with Grace and asks her about the murders; during her trial she stated that she could not remember most of what happened, and Dr Jordan spends a lot of his time trying to get her to remember. Even though large sections of the book are narrated by Grace, we are never quite sure exactly how much she does or does not remember. Grace is an unreliable narrator, but so is Margaret Atwood.

One of the things Dr Jordan wants Grace to speak about is the relationship between her and McDermott. In the papers at the time of the trial it is claimed that she is his ‘paramour’, implying they are lovers. This incriminates Grace further by implying she colluded with McDermott entirely, and that they had the same aims. Grace’s version is that they were not lovers, that she did not like him, and that he killed both Kinnear and Nancy. She was there at the time, and tried to convince him not to do it; that was all. During the trial the media, as well as the members of the court, are frankly obsessed by the question of whether or not Grace and McDermott were lovers, and so is Dr Jordan. This is partly to establish their relationship, and how this played a part in the murders; but it also because of the desire for scandal and sensationalism. If it was proved that Grace has slept with McDermott, she would be even more guilty. Even if proved innocent she would still be guilty of premarital sex, and would still be judged by society.

Her apparent lack of memory makes her something of an enigma during the trial, and indeed she is still very enigmatic with Dr Jordan – even in her first person narrative. People want to understand her, to understand the mind of a person who has committed a crime, and they are obsessed with her virtue. She must either be innocent and therefore ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as a woman should be; or she should be guilty and therefore prove the weakness and inherent sin of woman, and be ‘fallen’. Society condemns her to be one or the other, and in my opinion she is somewhere in between, like most people. As with our modern treatment of female murderers, Grace is demonised so much partly because she is a woman, and we find it harder to believe that women can be as evil as men. As soon as they show any sign of wrongdoing, in any way, we are very quick to demonise them. Look at the media portrayals of female murderers, such as Aileen Wournos or Myra Hindley, or even those of non-criminals that are perceived as doing something wrong, such as Teresa May or Katie Hopkins. These women may do things we don’t like (or that are monstrous in case of the two former), but they are always treated differently to men who do similar things. How could a woman kill another person, or a child? How could a woman be tough or vitriolic?

The duality of ‘pure vs fallen’ still exists today, even without the explicitly religious context. In the eyes of the public, and of Dr Jordan, Grace must be one or the other, and there is little room for complexity in her character. The Victorian ignorance of the human psyche is frustrating, but the demonisation of women is infuriating. Mental illness is also demonised to some extent, and as the novel goes on it seems that this may affect Grace too. I’m not going to write about what happens at the end of the novel for those who haven’t read it, but the duality is very clear there as well. Grace must be either an angel or a demon, and nothing in between. Women must be either the angel in the house, or the demon in the asylum.

For anyone to be equal, they should be allowed to show their complexity and humanity rather than conform to a stereotype. Grace is trapped within hers, and it affects her whole life. If she had been a man she would either have been hanged with McDermott, or sent to prison forever and forgotten about. Dr Jordan is so fascinated with her partly because of the ambiguity over her guilt, and also because she is a woman in her particular situation. We are never quite sure whether she is guilty or not, and in some ways that was the right choice on the part of Atwood; how can we ever know the reality of another person, or what really happened? How can we ever know if a person is good or evil – or indeed if it’s possible to just be one or the other?

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Alias Grace was first published in Canada and the UK in 1996 by McLelland & Stewart, and Bloomsbury Publishing. I read the 2001 Virago paperback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles here.

Re-reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Last year I wrote about wanting to re-read some books that I either loved, or had sort of forgotten but was sure I liked. Jane Eyre wasn’t on that list, but for some reason I recently felt compelled to re-read it. It might be because I wanted to finally get around to reading my copy of The Madwoman in the Attic, which of course made me think of Jane Eyre, and made me miss reading 19th century books – and so I got my copy out of the bookshelf one evening, and started reading.

My 2006 Pocket Penguin Classics edition
My 2006 Pocket Penguin Classics edition

I knew I remembered the overall story and the ‘important bits’, as well as the most upsetting, but as I read I realised there was as lot I had forgotten, like the details of Jane’s experience in the red-room and why that episode is often now used as an example of the limits or confines of women’s lives in the 19th century, along with things like The Yellow Wallpaper; and I was glad to have re-read this section and to have really felt like I now understood it. It sets in motion Jane’s determination not to give in to the will of others, and to live her life as she chooses.

The section at Lowood was almost as heartbreaking as the first time I read it, and I was still moved by Helen’s death in Jane’s arms (oh god). Which is pretty amazing considering I knew what was going to happen, which was of course the case with the whole book (mostly – as I say I had forgotten some details). Reading the book a second time meant that I knew exactly who was making that strange laugh on the third floor, who it was that set Rochester’s bed on fire; and why Rochester is so damn grumpy and moody all the time. I also knew that he was falling in love with Jane and never really intended to marry Miss Ingram; but this didn’t ruin the scene in which he finally tells her this. It was just as brilliant and exciting – which is testament to the skill and power of Charlotte Bronte’s writing, and the story itself. It is almost as good as the moment Darcy finally tells Lizzie how ardently he admires and loves her.

Jane’s discovery of Bertha, and her visit to the upstairs room in which she lived, was still intense and dramatic, but it lost some of its shock-factor in re-reading. It felt more sad than anything else, as I have had the time to consider Bertha’s fate, and also to read Wide Sargasso Sea (which you MUST read if you’ve read Jane Eyre). I pitied Bertha more than I feared her. I also wondered why Rochester decided to bring her to England in the first place if she was so ill. Surely she should have stayed in Jamaica with her brother? This bothered me throughout the book, so if anyone has the answer please let me know! (Aside from the fact that she and Rochester are married.)

I had forgotten a lot of the section when Jane is living with St John and his sisters, and runs the school, and discovers they are cousins and also that she is now rich; and this was probably because this is the lest exciting part of the book, despite the fact that quite a lot actually happens. Up to the point where Jane leaves Thornfield in the middle of the night, the book is full of drama and the style is very engaging and enjoyable. Once she has left Thornfield it all gets a bit ‘woe is me’, and while I still admire Jane’s resolve and bravery, the story does slow down somewhat and – especially on a second reading – you just want it all to hurry up. I’d also forgotten what a git St John is. The conversation in which she rejects him is just brilliant.

As for the ending – ah, the ending. It was as weird and brilliant as I remembered. As with the ending of Rebecca, it is bittersweet. Both books end with the couple, finally together and free of the past, moving on to their new future; but having to get over the trauma of the past as they do so. It is happy, but it is not lovers riding off into the sunset; this is not a fairy tale. This is Jane and Rochester confronting the bad in order to capture the good. It is a satisfying ending, but the story still stays with you after the book is closed.

One of the things I love about Jane Eyre is that none of the characters are perfect – they are all deeply flawed people that must make the best of things, whether they are responsible for them or not. While the whole thing is very dramatic and sometimes a bit far-fetched (the Rivers siblings just HAPPEN to be Jane’s cousins), it still feels down-to-earth and is filled with Charlotte Bronte’s clear understanding of the frailty of human nature. It was a joy to re-read and I think I will now either re-read some more of my favourtie 19th century books, or seek out some I haven’t read (I’m also dying to re-watch the film adaptation with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender). At the moment my list includes: Agnes Grey, Lady Audley’s Secret, Emma, Wuthering Heights (I’ve only read about half of it), and something gothic by Elizabeth Gaskell but I’m not sure what. I would love to hear some recommendations! But for now, I shall be working my way throught The Madwoman in the Attic, which I may blog about as I read, as it is so long! Has anyone else read it?

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Click here to buy Jane Eyre from Foyles.

The Elusive Ada Lovelace

I read a biography of Byron when I was about 17 or 18, having been introduced to him by a teacher. I fell in love with his life story, the drama and romance, the scandal, and of course the poetry. I automatically took his side in the break with his wife Annabella (which happened as a consequence of all his, um, dalliances, one of which was with his half-sister). Cold and repressed, I resented her attitude to his liberal lifestyle. The tragedy was of course the fact that after he left England in 1816 he never saw their daughter, Ada, ever again. She was a year old when he left.

Ada was then molded by her mother Annabella, who was intent on erasing any ‘Byronic’ elements from her daughter. All I knew of the adult Ada was that she was interested in mathematics (inherited from her mother) and worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine. Given my past love for Byron, I naturally wanted to know more about her, and pounced on this book when I saw it in Waterstones.

2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)
2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

I had high hopes for this book, and some of them were fulfilled – I learned a lot about Ada’s life, her personality and attitudes, and more of the details of her work with Babbage. But – this book is ultimately unsuccessful. The long-winded title is the first of many small errors that add up to an unsatisfying experience. For starters the first third of the book is all about Byron and Annabella; while the context of their relationship and history is relevant, Benjamin Wooley chooses to tell the whole story from start to finish, with far too much detail. This may be my opinion because I already knew the story and didn’t learn anything new, but I think to have an interest in this book in the first place you would probably already have some knowledge of Ada’s parents. Either way I think there is too much detail and context at this point, and you begin to wonder when Ada will enter the story.

When she does arrive she is still playing second fiddle in the narrative to her mother Annabella – which is exactly what happened to her in real life. Annabella, the pragmatist, was terrified of her husband’s scandalous and wild behaviour manifesting itself in her daughter; and so she forced upon Ada a rigid life of maths and science, with little time for imagination and creativity. Imagination itself was seen as something dangerous and risky, capable of taking one to untold depths of depravity.

To me, Annabella was an overbearing, insecure, and rather selfish mother that was terrified of letting her daughter just be herself. In the end Ada seems to have been a perfectly normal person with a good balance of intellect and creativity. Unfortunately Wooley takes up pages and pages telling us of the various ways in which Annabella tried to control her daughter’s mind and behaviour, rather than letting us see Ada herself. For most of the book she seems to be a secondary character.

Even when she is an adult, we hear about Ada only in relation to other interesting people of the time that she met or corresponded with. Her initial fame comes from her father and her colleague Babbage – and the way in which Wooley tells her story only compounds the idea that she is only relevant or important because of her associations with other people.

Possibly the most famous portrait of Ada, from 1836. (image: wikipedia.com)
Possibly the most famous portrait of Ada, from 1836. (image: wikipedia.com)

To me, Ada seems remarkable in herself. There is a limited amount of her own writing and work left, and perhaps this is why Wooley chooses to go to so many other sources and people for news of her – but I found this tedious and speculative. I wanted to know the real Ada, and I felt like this book only touched the surface. I wanted more analysis of her personality, and her famous and undoubtedly impressive work with Babbage (just google it and look at the complexity!). I wanted more of her. And this book was more about her time, and the ways in which she was continually pulled between her parents’ personalities, a theme which got tired pretty quickly.

This is one of those books that could have been so great, but just fell down at the simplest hurdles. It was first published in 2000, and if a new biography of Ada is ever released I’d certainly consider it, in order to fill in the gaps left by this one. Ada remains elusive.

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First published by Pan in 2000. The edition I read was a 2015 reprint by Pan.

On Happiness in Madame Bovary

OWC paperback cover, 2008.
OWC paperback edition, 2008. Image: goodreads.com

Happiness is something that we all search for, something we need to stay sane and want to live. Sometimes it comes to us by chance, and sometimes we actively pursue it, striving for it. Equally it can completely disintegrate or indeed never seem to completely find us, and we roam the Earth looking for some whole version of it.

The latter I think applies to the melodramatic character of Emma Bovary. Flaubert begins with Charles, and Emma is introduced to us as the young farm girl he makes eyes at over the kitchen table. To him she is an image of youth and innocence, of freedom and happiness; to her, he is an eligible doctor, someone kind who could take her away from her contented but simple existence. This is where it all goes wrong.

Charles and Emma Bovary are both quite lonely people, searching for the warmth they need to feel fulfilled and loved. But while Charles is (mostly) happy to be content, it is not enough for Emma. She married with hopes of money, adventure, love, and a new life, which is all very well except she chose the wrong person. Charles is nice, but he is too nice. He does not excite or engage Emma; instead she sees him as weak and quiet, boring and asexual (though they do of course consummate their marriage and produce the unlucky Berthe). Boredom becomes resentment, and resentment becomes hatred.

Charles is held back by his own failings and in no way nurtured or encouraged by Emma, who could give him confidence; but he does not nurture her either, but rather keeps a polite, though loving, distance. In fact, once they stop sleeping together he loves her entirely from afar. He could of course step forward and ask her why they have become so distant, and try to rekindle their early happiness – but this would require assertiveness, which Charles does not have. His emotional paralysis keeps him from happiness.

Emma meanwhile… oh Emma. She is a slightly ridiculous figure, constantly yearning for something she desperately wants, though she doesn’t quite know what that is, or how to get it. She moans and moans that she is unhappy but never comes to any conclusion about what she wants, other than the warmth of another body against her. Emma is painfully naive and deluded, clinging to Rodolphe’s advances and falling for all his bravado and sweet words. The reader knows that he sets out intentionally to seduce her heartlessly, and while it is awful to see Emma fall for it, it is not actually all that sad, because we knew she would fall for it and we are not surprised. She thinks, ah yes, a man who is not like Charles, he will hold me and love me and make me happy. As Emma does not know what she really wants, she does not really know what happiness is. To me it seems the picture of it she may have in her head is some hazy vision like a dream, an idealised fantasy she concocted as a child and one that she cannot quite make a reality.

While Emma is bold and brave to have affairs (especially in the 1800s), she is weak-hearted, and does not act to create happiness for herself. In a way she is as lacking in assertiveness as Charles. She expects both Rodolphe and Leon to sweep her off her feet and make her entirely blissful and happy. Why leave it all up to them?

This is also relevant when it comes to her and Charles’ finances. Emma runs up huge bills ordering clothes and travelling things in order to conduct her affairs, as well as her failed elopement with Rodolphe, and she more or less bankrupts them. But she does not try to earn money, she does not tell Charles how much they are in debt. Instead she puts everything off and does not confront it. Her self-inflicted suffering and death are the only way she can think to deal with things – in essence she not only resigns herself to but flings herself into unhappiness. For someone so unhappy with such a desperate wish to escape to happiness, she never comes up with a method of doing so and seem to propagate unhappiness. Her young daughter Berthe could be a great source of joy, but instead Emma ignores her, farming her out to a wet nurse and then a nanny, seeing her only briefly, unmoved by the infant’s desire for her mother. I found this aspect of Emma to be particularly heartless and selfish – for that is what she is, selfish. Fixated on an ideal but unreachable image of her own happiness, she has no thought for that of others and how it could be possible for her, Charles and Berthe to all be happy together. Instead she and Charles ignore each other and their feelings, and their potential happy family is thrown away.

After Emma’s death Charles has little money, and poor Berthe has to live with relatives after he dies, and go to work in a mill. While she does not live in poverty she has nothing compared to her mother and the sad isolation of her childhood seems to continue. Though I like to think that she has a happy life as an adult, making friends at the mill and meeting a nice man whom she loves, and who loves her just as much.