Review Fridays: Shelley: The Pursuit

The details:

Title: Shelley: The Pursuit
Author: Richard Holmes
Genre: Biography
Pages: 830
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I knew very little about Percy Bysshe Shelley prior to reading Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit, besides the fact that he was married to the author of Frankenstein and was friends with Byron. The going was slow in the first parts of biography, as Shelley is sent down from Oxford and treats his first wife rather poorly. But, the more I read, I found myself surprised by my own empathy for Shelley and my respect for his moments of genius. This is all owing to Holmes’s skill as a biographer. He presents Shelley as a flawed yet brilliant man who took part in political causes and espoused egalitarian ideals, even as his personal life was something of a mess.

Shelley was born into a very privileged position, the elder son of Sir Timothy Shelley. If he had only followed tradition, finished his degree at Oxford, and lived according to the rules of 19th Century English society, he would have had a very comfortable life. However, Shelley was born with a rebellious nature and had no qualms about announcing his atheism and radical social and political opinions. He even eloped with his mentor William Godwin’s daughter, Mary, and stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont, while still married to his first wife, Harriet.

Shelley eventually became an exile from his home country and saw his poetry first ignored by the public and then not even released by his publisher. Holmes does a good job of explaining the historical context of Shelley’s work. Since Shelley was not in England, his publisher would have been prosecuted for any content deemed unsuitable (and some of it was likely to have been judged so). The publisher was not willing to take that risk. Instead, letters went unanswered, and some of Shelley’s most brilliant work remained unpublished at his death. Reviews of his published work included negative commentary on his personal life. He struggled with his own feelings of inadequacy, perceiving himself to be in the shadow of Byron’s fame, and did not write much while in the company of the more renowned poet.

Holmes offers a balanced narrative of Shelley’s life. Shelley’s personal life was often in turmoil. He was at times hopelessly immature and spendthrift, accumulated debts he could never repay, and often treated the women in his life in an unsympathetic way. But Shelley also created works and voiced opinions that would impact future generations. The Masque of Anarchy, a poem Shelley wrote after the Peterloo Massacre, contained theories of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. It was particularly influential to later political thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. Holmes’s respect of Shelley’s genius is very clear, but it never got in the way of his portrayal of Shelley as a mixture of good and bad, a person with flaws and talent.

Shelley was also an avid sailor, and, unfortunately for him, could not swim. Holmes foreshadows Shelley’s eventual fate. He died at the age of 29 without the level of fame he deserved. The ending to this biography was perfect, and it contained a brief note about the fates of the rest of Shelley’s circle. This was one of the best biographies I have ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in literary history or the Romantic poets.

Review Fridays: The Brontës Went to Woolworths

The details:

Title: The Brontës Went to Woolworths
Author: Rachel Ferguson
Genre: Fiction, published in 1931
Pages: 208
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths begins with a wink to bookworms, and to call it charming would be a criminal understatement. When Deirdre Carne and her family are asked if they like reading, Deirdre tells us:

“…how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.”

Deirdre also says that she hates books about sisters, but that is just what this book is. The Carne family consists of a widow and her three daughters: Katrine, the eldest; Sheil, the youngest; and Deirdre, the middle daughter and our narrator for most of the book. Sometimes the story slips into a third-person narrative; this becomes significant as the story progresses.

The Carne family is lost somewhere between reality and imagination. After Mrs. Carne was chosen as an alternate for a trial, they pretend to know the judge, lovingly called Toddy, who, Sheil says, “yawns like tiny jam tarts”. Toddy is always there for them, even if not actually physically present, and helps them to get through difficult times. Other imaginary companions include a Pierrot named Saffy and a snobbish doll called Ironface. Their dog, Crellie, was a hero in the Boer War or the Pope depending on the mood of the family. Their governess, Miss Martin, is exasperated by their inability be absolutely present in reality.

During a trip to Keighley, which is quite close to the Brontë sisters’ home of Haworth, the family experiences the intrusion of ghosts into their existence. This frightens Sheil, who has difficulty coming to terms with the lines between reality, imagination, and death. Further complicating matters is Deirdre’s real-life meeting with Toddy’s wife, Mildred. Mildred takes an instant liking to Deirdre and her family, and so reality begins to mesh with imagination as the real Toddy becomes their friend.

This is the sort of book that I personally love, but I could understand that others might hate it. The Carnes are sometimes snobs. Their attitude towards their governesses seems off, but I felt like that was the point, since the Brontës play such a large role in the book. Miss Martin apparently went to Newnham College, Cambridge, before her family lost their money, and she is so caught in an outdated belief in the way things ought to be that she becomes a governess. Since she doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching, this felt like old-fashioned thinking in the extreme, given that Katrine tries for a life on the stage and Deirdre is a writer. Would fiery Jane Eyre have been a governess if she had had other options?

In varying ways, the characters cling to the past and tradition in a rapidly changing world. Although she is well-educated, Miss Martin is still a governess during a time when it seems an increasingly irrelevant profession. As a real-life comparison, Dorothy L. Sayers, who went to Oxford, worked in an advertising agency during the 1920s. Miss Martin lacks the imagination to find a different life for herself, eventually following the man she loves (who possibly does not return her love) and choosing the life he has chosen. Even the Carnes, while modern in some ways, are terribly snobbish about marriage, rejecting Katrine’s suitor as being of the wrong social class.

As readers, we might wish to be accepted into the Carne circle and not excluded like the steady stream of governesses. However, with the change in point-of-view, from the intimate first-person to the distant third-person, we, too, are kept away from being part of the fun. We are reminded that we are only spectators. We are here to watch the story unfold, nothing more.

Despite the distance created by the ending, the landscape of the family’s imagination instantly took me in and held me. Lines like this became a favorite of mine:

“I often think that perhaps there is only a limited amount of memory going about the world, and that when it wants to live again, it steals its nest, like a cuckoo.”

At just about 200 pages, this is a slim book that somehow manages, in its few pages, to create so much character depth that I am constantly amazed at it with each re-read. The characters seem to pop off of the page with their quirky view of the world. The Carnes are not perfect, but it is their dreamy inventiveness that brings me back to this novel again and again.