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.

Review Fridays: Eligible

The details:

Title: Eligible
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Pages: 512
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Despite the press surrounding Eligible, it might be best to forget that it is supposed to be an update of Pride and Prejudice. Curtis Sittenfeld is a good writer, but she is no Jane Austen. It is unfortunate that the connection between the novels forces the reader to compare them. Where Austen’s novel is light, bright, and sparkling, Eligible is too long and has a heroine who thinks she is more witty and clever than she actually is. The modern-day Darcy comments on this latter point, that Liz Bennet thinks she’s funnier than she is, and that is a problem.

In Eligible, Liz Bennet is a journalist. The charm of Pride and Prejudice is that the heroine is confident and smart, but she is young enough that she still has a lot to learn about herself. Instead, we have a heroine in her late thirties who accepts that, although she is dating a married man, it is excusable because his marriage is supposedly over. He and his wife are staying together for the sake of his wife’s mother who would disinherit them if they divorced. Liz is completely taken in by this excuse. Jane Austen’s clever and intelligent heroine would never have fallen for something so preposterous.

Jane is a yoga instructor, living off of her family’s money, and is trying to have a baby through anonymous donation. I wasn’t completely convinced that ever-optimistic and kind Jane would have given up hope of finding someone she loved or a career that could pay the bills. Bingley is a doctor and reality TV star on a show called Eligible that is like The Bachelor. Yes, Bingley is a big pushover in the original, and perhaps he could be talked into reality TV (surely Darcy would convince him not to do it?), but, by the end, even Jane is talked into it, which seems wrong.

Jasper, our Wickham, is a journalist just like Liz, but it is never quite clear what Liz sees in him. He is not charming enough. It was difficult, as a reader, to care about him at all, and part of what made Wickham so dastardly in the original was that he was initially likable and believable. Instead, in Sittenfeld’s version, the reader can only wait impatiently until Liz realizes she is just wasting her time with him.

Liz’s relationship with Darcy is just as unsatisfying. Liz and Darcy, a doctor who works long hours, start a physical relationship purely because they hate each other. I have seen some other reviewers cheer on this development, but to me it screams very awkward plot device. The scene that mirrors Darcy’s first proposal feels hollow. I do not understand what Darcy sees in Liz, besides physical attraction. Why she eventually falls for Darcy is more obvious, but it does not make sense for Liz to hate him as much as she does. Darcy’s moment where he redeems himself in helping Lydia feels unnecessary and strange, and Lydia certainly is not grateful for it.

Even Jane and Liz do not seem as close. Couldn’t Liz have talked Jane out of doing a ridiculous reality TV wedding? And I won’t even get into the drama involving the rest of the Bennets who occupy a run-down mansion in Cincinnati.

Added to all of the faults is the fact that this book is twice as long, page-wise, as my paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice. The writing isn’t bad, so it’s a shame that the plot is so convoluted and tries so hard to follow the original. I hope that the last two novels of the Austen Project will keep with the spirit of Jane Austen’s novels rather than trying to tediously update each and every single plot point.

Three tips for taking risks in your career

I am experimenting with a series about the intersection of literature and career advice. I have read a lot of novels, and I have read a lot of career advice. The two surprisingly have a lot in common. Today is Edward Ferrars and what he can teach us about taking risks in our careers. 

Edward Ferrars from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility might not seem like the most obvious choice for a risk taker. He is a quiet, mousy sort of character, unobtrusive, someone you probably would never notice at a big party. In fact, he wouldn’t be at the party at all. This doesn’t bode well for him. After all, how can someone who doesn’t put himself forward achieve success?

Out of all of Jane Austen’s characters, Edward has the most to lose. He is from a wealthy family. His mother and sister have picked out a wife for him, have a vision of a clever career path, and would like to see him jaunting about town in elegant modes of transportation. His family wants him to be fashionable. If he chooses to go against their wishes, chances are very good that his mother will disinherit him.

But all Edward wants is a quiet country life as a clergyman. The safe route would be to do exactly as his family wants, to marry well, and to inherit the family fortune. Instead, his honor matters more to him than security. He is willing to risk everything for his happiness.

The way he takes risks, and how he rebounds from them, can tell us a lot about taking risks in our careers while still maintaining a safety net.

1. Stay patient.

At first, it looks as if Edward isn’t on his way to success. He has engaged himself to a woman he doesn’t love, and he intends to marry her anyway because this is 19th century England. Many of us view our careers this way. We don’t really love them, but they offer security and, anyway, we committed to them. Most of us are inclined to stay the course.

Sometimes, the first careers that we choose when we are young and lack life experience will not make us happy. Know that you will make mistakes, but no situation is irrevocable. It is important to stay patient and meet new people and try new things until you find the career that seems right.

2. Pursue the things that make you happy.

Edward’s first scheme for happiness is a total disaster. He goes against his family’s wishes, but he ends up engaging himself to a woman who would never make him happy. He is completely seduced by the glittery, cunning option, only to realize too late that she lacks substance.

Despite his youthful mistake, Edward makes his scheme for happiness in another area. He will be a clergyman, and he will find at least one point of happiness in a quiet life. But it turns out the woman he was engaged to was just after his money. In your career, don’t chase money. Trust that pursuing the things that make you happy will attract the people you want to have in your life–and drive away those you’d rather avoid.

3. Build a network.

Edward can afford to take risks. He doesn’t need to worry about where money will come from because he has friends who care about him and his future. Colonel Brandon, an acquaintance through the Dashwoods, hears about his predicament and wants to help. He gives Edward a living on his estate, saving him from destitution. It is far less likely that you will fail if you have a network to fall back on if your risk taking doesn’t pan out.

If the idea of networking fills you with existential dread, just remember that no one likes networking. Think of it instead as making friends with people who happen to have the same career as you. And if that doesn’t help, don’t think of it as trying to exploit other people to get their help. What can you contribute to the careers of other people? Chances are if you help them, they will be willing to help you later in your career, too.

Five steps to get your career back on track

I have been thinking lately about the intersection of literature and career advice. For instance, Jane Austen was wise before her time, and a lot of her characters’ choices mirror those of job hunters in the modern world.

Most career advice will tell you that pursuing your passion is stupid. The top priority, apparently, should be to make money and to forget about happiness. There will be time for hobbies in your free time, they say. Focus on making money. In literary terms, be more like Charlotte Lucas and less like Elizabeth Bennet.

Even though Jane Austen wrote about courtship, she actually has a lot to say about careers. I am going to give you five steps for getting your career back on track inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

1. Make a list of any values you would never go against.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet turns down not one but two very lucrative offers. In modern terms, it is like she was offered jobs but decided that they didn’t quite fit in with her principles. Charlotte Lucas accepts the first man who shows any interest in her. This is practical. She is doing the thing that most of us do in our career searches.

Elizabeth is the heroine because, despite her mother yelling at her for making such stupid decisions, she is not really making stupid decisions. She is willing to hold out for perfection and so gets her happy ending. Most of us get scared before reaching this point because we value security over perfection. And that is OK as long as we are honest about it and stop making ourselves unhappy because our jobs aren’t perfect.

2. Gain self-knowledge.

Charlotte is comfortable, but she’s also likely extremely bored. She has chosen to hole herself off in the countryside with her pompous husband and his overbearing, snooty patroness. But she values security over everything else. She knows this about herself, and she is able to make the decision to marry Mr. Collins without being miserable about it.

On the other hand, Elizabeth would never make that decision. She is self-aware enough to know that she cannot sacrifice her happiness to guarantee financial security for herself, her mother, and her sisters. She is willing to risk that either she or one of her sisters will make a suitable match to give them a place to live when their father dies. Although they take different paths, both Charlotte and Elizabeth possess enough self-knowledge to pursue what will make them content. You can’t know which path is right for you unless you have that self-knowledge.

3. Take inventory of your skills.

Lady Catherine, one of the main antagonists of the novel, believes that she could be proficient at anything if only she would devote time to it. So would her daughter, if her health allowed it. What she is saying is that she doesn’t think it is worth her time to become that good at anything because she is already rich and doesn’t value learning for learning’s sake.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that point of view. Becoming very, very good at something takes a lot of time and effort. Really exceptional athletes, for example, spend most of their free time on training and practice to the exclusion of everything else. Most of us will never achieve that kind of persistence. We try once and fail and binge watch TV. Even Elizabeth Bennet isn’t the best pianist. You have to be able to honestly answer whether you are willing to put in the time and energy that a new path requires.

4. Know when to try something new.

Mary, the middle Bennet sister, devotes a lot of time to gaining accomplishments. She does so to the exclusion of spending more time with her sisters, going for walks to the village, and building relationships. Yet, we know that she is wasting her time. At the Netherfield Ball, she embarrasses herself and her family by putting herself forward to play complicated piano pieces, and she is not good at it.

You don’t have to be a natural at the thing you want to do, but if you are devoting a lot of time and energy to it and not improving, maybe you should try something else. It might be that you will never be good at calculus or weren’t meant to be an engineer. Maybe you are like a fish who is trying to climb a tree. It is futile, and you would be better off finding a place where you can swim instead.

5. Decide when to take risks.

For most people, the answer to this step will be never. You will likely be best off in your current job, boring but stable, but maybe try tweaking small aspects. Find a shorter commute or a better boss. In other words, most of us will value security, and we can find that in our boring career path.

If, after taking inventory of your life and skills, you decide that you do want to take risks, I have three tips for you in the next post. Those tips come from Edward Ferrars, Jane Austen’s ultimate risk taker (yes, really).

Review Fridays: Gwendolen by Diana Souhami

The details:

Title: Gwendolen: A Novel
Author: Diana Souhami
Genre: Historical fiction
Pages: 336
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I must first confess that I never finished reading Daniel Deronda. My interest waned somewhere near the middle, and I didn’t manage to convince myself it was worthwhile to pick up again. The hero was far too good and far less interesting than Gwendolen Harleth, and I wished that George Eliot had spent more time on the character who should have been the heroine. Luckily, Diana Souhami has filled the gap in the narrative with Gwendolen: A Novel. She tells the story from Gwendolen’s point-of-view, making her into a woman precariously occupying Victorian society.

This is a very introspective book. It is told in the first person as if it were a letter to “you,” Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen begins the novel having just learned that her family is impoverished. Her options are limited by Victorian England’s narrow view of what sort of work women can and cannot do. She latches onto Daniel and the necklace he rescues for her from a pawnbroker as a sort of moral talisman. She thinks that he has the answers to what will make her life more fulfilling and turns to him for advice.

Souhami cleverly adds in another character: George Eliot, a woman who tries to create identity out of a variety of names. George Eliot is also Mary Anne Evans to some friends, Mrs. Lewes to most, and Polly to Mr. Lewes. Gwendolen is confused by this last one, but Polly is a common nickname for Mary. Eliot herself journeyed from a shy, awkward young woman into a novelist who flouted Victorian conventions. Mrs. Lewes questions Gwendolen thoroughly at various points. Gwendolen is disconcerted by the amount of knowledge the novelist has about her, but she continues on her own path regardless of all of the turmoil and tragedy of her past.

This is a book about a young woman struggling to build her own identity. Gwendolen initially cowers under the weight of her fear. As time goes on, she tries to regain a sense of self out of the pain of her past. She attempts to figure out what an ideal life looks like by meeting new people and taking note of their way of life. The ending was very satisfying, and, even if not immediately, I will be giving Daniel Deronda another chance in order to read more about Gwendolen Harleth.

Review Fridays: Lolly Willowes

The details:

Title: Lolly Willowes
Author: Sylvia Townsend Warner
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 222
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Sometimes, when I am unfamiliar with an author or a book when it is considered to be a “classic,” I look at reviews before reading. Perhaps it would be better to go in without any idea at all about the novel, but I personally prefer to have some idea of the author’s biography and the tone of the book. The first one I found for Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner called it a “sweet, little book.” After actually reading, I wonder how much that description would make the author convulse in her grave in absolute misery of having her creation called sweet and little. Lolly Willowes is many confusing and wonderful things, but sweet it is not.

After her father’s death, Laura Willowes has been transferred along with the furniture to her brother’s house. As a an unmarried woman of a certain age, she is expected to help her brother’s wife with household duties and to help care for the children. The children dub her Lolly, and she is thenceforth called only that name by her family. I suppose this has the makings of being a sweet, little book, but the magical part of it is that Warner completely crushes expectations. Lolly comes to realize that something is not quite right in her life. Like many women who came before her and that would come after, Lolly was doing what was expected of her, but she did not find herself to be particularly fulfilled in that knowledge.

The first part of the book is all over the place. It is filled with exposition and refuses to tell the story in a straight line of time. Past and present, back and forth, the narrative seems to run in circles. In a way, it contributes to the feeling that this book is one big protest against the role of unmarried women in society. It defies traditional story telling methods, instead favoring an approach more like entering one’s consciousness. Ideas come and go in disorganized circles. When Laura finally rebels, going against the wishes of her family, doing what she wants even when they tell her it is not sensible, the writing style begins feeling calmer. The book seems more put-together by the second part.

Warner introduces witchcraft as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Laura is not as concerned about sorcery in regards to men; they seem to have less need of her attention. There is no moment of disbelief, no doubt in the existence of magic. The book embraces the supernatural in an empowering way. Of course Laura should have possession of greater-than-earthly powers. It is only right that she should. She is living in a world where she does not need help and does not need to help others. It is a solitary, but happy, existence.

This novel was written a few years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but it deals with a lot of the same issues. It seems that, in the world of Laura Willowes, the only way for an unmarried woman of a certain age to forge a life of her own is to sell her soul to the devil in order to gain it. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but that is the only option Laura has. Warner poses questions about women’s existences, questions that do not have easy answers, but she attempts in this book to find a point to start talking about the issue. To be honest, I did not enjoy this book much from a literary perspective, but it is interesting from a feminist point-of-view.

Review Fridays: Madame de Pompadour

The details:

Title: Madame de Pompadour
Author: Nancy Mitford
Genre: Biography
Pages: 296
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Nancy Mitford is perhaps better known today as one of the infamous Mitford sisters and for her works of fiction. However, she was also an enchanting biographer. I would not recommend her biography of Madame de Pompadour for someone strictly interested in a stuffy history full of dates and data. The tone is intelligent and chatty, one of a friend who loves to gossip and knows her topic well. Mitford is witty, and one might come away from the book with the feeling that she shares a spirit in common with the topic of this particular biography.

Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of King Louis XV of France. In her youth, a fortune teller predicted that she would one day reign over the heart of a king. Her family, fond of nicknames, called her Reinette, or Little Queen. Mitford describes Louis XV as shy and reserved, regal and handsome, fun-loving yet very fond of his family, with a dull wife incapable of holding his attention. Reinette filled the void of a smart, funny companion, one who remained essential to the King even after their physical relationship fizzled out.

The only thing I knew about the Marquise de Pompadour prior to reading this is that she played a prominent role in an episode of the new incarnation of Doctor Who. During that episode, Reinette is haunted by clockwork creatures. She is also visited by the Doctor via a revolving fireplace. During a crucial moment, Reinette remains strong when everyone else is collapsing around her. And it is no accident that she was written that way. The real Madame de Pompadour, although not always respected during her time, was an amusing, intelligent, accomplished woman.

She was responsible for a professional-quality theatrical company, which entertained the King and his court. She knew some of the leading intellectuals of her day. Although she is blamed for some bad foreign policy, Mitford explains how various factors actually contributed to the failures. Mitford balances the good and the bad, portraying Madame de Pompadour as a powerful woman, one who loved her daughter and the King.

The bittersweet ending is perfect, with the last lines describing Reinette’s final journey from Versailles. Mitford writes about Madame de Pompadour in an informal, chatty way that makes her personality come alive for modern readers.


Downton Abbey recap, Season 6, Episode 9 (Finale)

Well, this is it. The very last episode, but there have been rumors of a possible movie, so who knows when or if we’ll see these characters again. In the finale, all of the loose ends are tied up, perhaps a bit too neatly.

Anyway, we begin with a bunch of outside scenes. The upstairs folks have decided to take advantage of the good weather and are having meals and drinks outside. Edith has taken the opportunity to make changes in her life. She is going to put Marigold into a school in London and devote the majority of her time to living there. Well, honestly, this could have happened much earlier in the season, but fine, if that is what she is doing, good for her. It really is the best place for her. She stops by Violet’s house to have a chat with Miss Cassandra Jones herself, AKA Granny’s butler Spratt, with the good news that they are thinking of giving him a full page column. Always wanting to cause trouble, Denker listens at the door.

The rest of the family continues to discuss Edith and Bertie. They mostly equate happiness for Edith with rank and marriage, but couldn’t Edith be happy living alone in London with her work at the newspaper and Marigold? Robert and Mary go to visit Violet, who remarks that she was beginning to forget what they looked like. Are we supposed to forget that Violet didn’t want to see them because of what happened during the hospital fight? That she actually fled the country to avoid them? Cora couldn’t come because she is busy with hospital work, and Violet seems to no longer really care about it. She has been ill, but believe me when I say that that is a big red herring. She says something that gets Mary’s imagination working, apparently, with good deeds for Edith.

Edith drives down to London with Henry. Henry is blandly nice, and he and Edith seem chummy, so I suppose that’s progress in Mary’s relationship with Edith. Henry has decided that he no longer wants to competitively race cars. Edith says that that will make Mary happy, which it will, but it leaves Henry with very little to do. He is trying to figure out the next phase of his life just as Edith has found hers. It is strange because Edith and Henry seem to have more chemistry than I have seen between Mary and Henry. Henry was not perfect for Mary (I would have preferred Charles Blake), but time was running out, and, if nothing else, the writer seems intent on giving each and every person a romantic match (except for Thomas).

Aunt Rosamund has invited Edith to dine at the Ritz. Edith feels that this is an unusual sort of treat, and I’m surprised that she didn’t work out why at the Ritz before she got to the table. There, Rosamund abandons her to a dinner with Bertie! Well, well, well, look who has come crawling back. As I said during the last recap, I understood Bertie’s reasons, but he was wrong. What he should have done was tell Edith he needed some time to think about it and would catch up with her when he got back to London, but instead he decided that the truth about Marigold disqualified Edith to be a marchioness. Added to that, Edith has finally got things together. She has a plan for the future. She will live in London with Marigold. She will be more involved with the paper. Instead, Bertie is offering her a chance to hole herself up in the country with his dour mother.

Edith questions the need for secrecy, and Bertie says that he suspected she wouldn’t come if she knew he would be there. This is true. So, he had issues with her dishonesty last episode, and is trying to woo her back using dishonest methods? He mentions that Mary called and set the whole thing up, but says that he would have called Edith anyway, so I am not sure what Mary’s role is in this? Is it just to give her something nice to do when it wasn’t really necessary? Edith is obviously not ready to talk about this yet, especially not in a public place, but she doesn’t get up and leave. Bertie, in tears, tells her that he made a mistake and misses her. You can just see Edith’s heart melting here, but I maintain that, in the long run, Edith would be better off getting up from the table and continuing with her own life plans.

Personally, I felt that they needed more time. Everything in this episode felt a bit rushed. I am trying to imagine the sort of life they will lead together, and I would have cheered this relationship on last episode, but I feel like Bertie revealed something about himself in his reaction to Edith’s secret last episode. He asks her to marry him. We don’t see a definite response, but we find out that Edith called home to Downton Abbey that night to give her father the good news. They want to move forward as soon as possible, so Cora and Robert are going to Brancaster Castle to meet Bertie’s mother and attend a dinner where the engagement will officially be announced.

A whole series of red flags against Bertie pop up when he says that he doesn’t want to tell his mother the truth about Marigold. The fact that he thinks dishonesty is the best way to deal with his mother is very confusing to me after he spent so much time on his moral high horse when breaking up with Edith. Edith agrees to this secrecy at first. Then, during their first meeting, his mother goes on and on about how Bertie will have to be the moral example for the entire area now that he is marquess. Long story short, this woman is awful. She claims that she will mostly leave Bertie and Edith alone after they are married, but I doubt that. As Robert remarks after she retires for bed, “Golly!” Edith decides that she has to tell his mother, and so she does. She reacts just about as well as could be expected, and Bertie is strong in the face of her opposition.

During the dinner, Bertie is about to announce the engagement when his mother interrupts. Robert whispers to her that if she ruins this and doesn’t announce it herself, she will lose Bertie forever. And so she announces it and does a complete volte-face by saying later that Edith showed great bravery. The wedding is planned for the Christmas-New Years week, so the episode fast forwards to that moment. It seems for a moment that someone might object (Bertie’s mother? Michael Gregson?), but all goes well. Edith and Bertie depart for their honeymoon.

This recap has gotten out of hand, so here are some other quick plot points:

  • Baby Bates (a boy) is born in Mary’s room during Edith’s wedding reception.
  • Thomas leaves for a new job. He resolves to be kinder and to make friends there, but he finds it very lonely as there aren’t many people downstairs at the new house. On a related note, Carson develops a shake in his hands, which impacts his ability to work. They discuss hiring a new butler, and I have no idea why no one thinks of Thomas during the discussion? Anyway, Thomas visits during Edith’s wedding and takes over for Carson serving drinks. They decide that Thomas will serve out his notice at his old job and then return as the new butler. Carson will act as a sort of emeritus butler and consultant during large events.
  • Molesley also leaves for a new job! One of the teachers at the school leaves, giving Molesley a chance to move into his cottage and take over responsibilities for his students. He comes back to Downton to help during big occasions, such as Edith’s wedding.
  • Henry and Tom become car salesmen! Mary is actually happy for them, and also she is pregnant, but she doesn’t want to steal the limelight from Edith, so she tells no one else.
  • Denker tells Violet that Spratt writes for Edith’s paper. Violet, who refuses to act in a predictable way, is merely amused and tells Spratt that she will have to ask for his advice about fashion and such.
  • Rose and her husband come back to visit, but without their baby daughter. She helps to convince Robert not to be jealous of the time Cora spends on the work at the hospital, and to instead be proud of it. I really missed Rose this season; the show needed more optimism.
  • A list of characters randomly paired off:
    • Daisy and Andy. When she at first resists his advances, he ponders whether she likes men (the only possible explanation, apparently? It couldn’t possibly be that she doesn’t like him that way). Then, when he stops trying, he gets his own Darcy-wet-shirt scene, bringing Daisy around. Everyone tells her that she could do worse, and I don’t think that’s a very good reason to enter a relationship with someone.
    • Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason
    • Baxter and Molesley
    • Tom and the editor at Edith’s newspaper (whose name I still don’t know)
    • Isobel and Lord Merton (who was dying, until it was determined that he was not)
    • Denker and Spratt** (**not really, but it certainly felt it was going that way with all of the shipping going on in this finale)

Review Fridays: These Shallow Graves

The details:

Title: These Shallow Graves
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction/mystery
Pages: 496
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Jennifer Donnelly is a marvelous writer. As someone familiar with her other work, such as award-winning A Northern Light, I looked forward to reading These Shallow Graves very much. I’m happy to say that, despite some cliche minor plot points, it did not disappoint at all. The late nineteenth century New York setting is atmospheric and thrilling. The amount of research Donnelly did while writing is very clear as the setting becomes like another living, breathing character.

Josephine Montfort, a teenager from a wealthy family, longs to be a journalist like her idol, Nellie Bly. She is pulled into a mystery when she overhears a newspaper reporter named Eddie say that her father’s so-called accidental death was a murder. Jo is a girl who questions things and feels compelled to have answers at any cost. She is also, unfortunately, expected to marry well and live the life of a proper lady. That means no going out unchaperoned, no visits to unseemly locales, and no wandering the streets at night. However, in her quest for the truth, Jo secretly does all of those things and loves the freedom. She feels the pull of duty and the pull of desire, and she has a difficult time deciding between the two. She and Eddie follow every lead as they chase the killer, despite threats made against them.

The idea of freedom, particularly for women, plays a large role in the book. Donnelly examines the double-standard between men and women during the historical period. Women who want something untraditional–their own hard-won careers–have to sacrifice something in the process. Jo is torn between doing what her family expects of her and following her own heart. She has a talent for writing, but the scope of her topics would be very limited if she made a good match. Not only that, but she finds herself falling for handsome, brave, intelligent Eddie. The romance between Jo and Eddie is very sweet, and it was impossible not to root for them.

The secondary characters are just as delightful as Jo and Eddie. Oscar is a before-his-time crime scene investigator who uses scientific knowledge to intuit how people were killed. His crush, Sarah Stein, is a medical student who is just as enthralled by the decomposition of human corpses as he is. Fay is a tough, tragic pickpocket who is bought and sold like a commodity. She, too, dreams of freedom. Jo’s high-society beau, Bram, gets enough depth by the end that the reader might wish he had more to do within the pages.

The plot sometimes is marred by cliches, including one of my least favorite: one character is seen with someone of the opposite sex, leading to the conclusion that they have another sweetheart, but it turns out the other person was just a cousin/sibling/relative of some sort. Those moments seemed like very obvious steering of the plot and characters. Yet, Donnelly rewards the reader with a bittersweet ending that felt appropriate when weighed against the rest of the novel. The ending implies that this could be a stand-alone book, but I found myself wishing that it were part of a series. Even at nearly 500 pages, the thrills and twists and turns were so constant that it was a very quick read. After finishing the book, it was hard to let Jo and Eddie and the world they inhabit go, which for me is a sign of good writing and characterization. If you are a fan of young adult literature, historical novels, or murder mysteries with lively heroines, do give this a try.

Downton Abbey recap, Season 6, Episode 8

Well, finally. I have only been waiting since season 1, episode 1 for Mary to get the verbal smackdown she deserves. Here we have it, even if the ending is not entirely satisfying.

Bertie’s relative the marquess has died in Tangiers, and so he is going to see what can he can do to tie up loose ends there. Edith invites him to Downton Abbey on the way to Tangiers. It turns out that Bertie was not just the agent of his relative’s estate; he was the heir. Bertie will be a marquess! His wife would be a marchioness! Mary simply cannot believe it. She thinks that he must be lying. Everyone else laughs hysterically because, if Edith marries Bertie, then she will outrank Mary. Sourface Mary is, of course, extremely miffed by this. Added to it all, Henry shows up unannounced, and her family politely invites him to stay. Mary feels that she ought to have been consulted first, but it was only common politeness to allow him to stay for one day.

Things do not go well for Henry. He wants to know why, when Mary obviously loves him, she will not agree to marry him. She interprets his argument as him saying that she is a gold-digger. She says that she wants him to leave, and so he does, not waiting to see her the next day.

Edith has still not told Bertie the truth about Marigold. Of course I kept yelling at the TV for her to tell him, but it is entirely consistent with her character that she hesitates. She didn’t even tell her parents about Marigold; her father found out by accident and had to confront her about it. I think Edith is so used to the idea that no one will love her for who she is that she feels compelled to hide it. Everyone of course feels that Edith should tell Bertie about Marigold. Mary walks in on her parents and Aunt Rosamund having a conversation about it, and they deflect when she enters, still believing that Mary has no idea.

Bertie makes no qualms about the reason for his visit. He is merely there to get Edith to promise to be his wife. He secures the promise at night in the hallway. Edith is still hesitant. She does not tell him about Marigold, but apparently he has convinced her to marry him.

The next morning, Bertie wants to announce the engagement at the breakfast table. He waits for Mary for some reason that is beyond my and Edith’s comprehension.Tom offers his congratulations. And Mary? Well, she is being Mary. Instead of being happy for her sister, she tells Bertie how brave he is. Tom tries to get her to stop, but Mary goes on and tells him that not everyone would be willing to marry Edith with her past. Bertie asks what she means, and Edith tearfully tells him that Marigold is her daughter. Silent for a few beats, Bertie excuses himself from the table and begins packing to leave.

Outside, he and Edith say goodbye. Bertie says that it is not just about Marigold being Edith’s daughter, which I think is true, but it is at least partially about that. Bertie made it clear that his mother is harsh, a traditionalist, and he is very close to her. By extension, Bertie cares at least a little about the potential scandal of marrying a woman who had a child outside of marriage. He goes on to say that he could not marry someone he can’t trust completely and who doesn’t trust him. Sigh. I understand the reasoning, but I think he is wrong. Edith says how sorry she is, and he leaves.

Finally, after six seasons, Mary gets put in her place. Tom confronts her first. He tells her that when she’s unhappy, no one else can be happy. Like all bullies, she is a coward. She is a coward about Henry, and a coward who won’t let her own sister be happy. Mary tries to save face and says that she thought Bertie knew, which is a complete and horrible lie since we saw her walk in on the conversation between her parents and aunt saying that Edith should tell him. Tom completely and utterly takes her down a few notches. It was truly wonderful to see.

And so Mary is shamed by Tom into apologizing to Edith. She finds Edith packing to go to London. I don’t know what Mary is hoping to accomplish here. I certainly don’t think she is sorry, not at all. Edith is in no mood to humor Mary. Edith gives her the most epic, deserved verbal smackdown. After six seasons of watching Mary prance around like she is a princess and Edith is some lowly creature, it was very satisfying to see Edith finally grow a backbone and give Mary a what for.

Robert and Cora are both upset by what Mary did, and they wonder how she found out. Robert comments that Mary is smart. Is she? She certainly didn’t find out using her vast mental powers. She found out by eavesdropping. She would never have put it all together if she had not heard her mother and Violet talking about it.

In London, Edith meets with her editor (whose name I still cannot remember, but she is a lovely character). The new advice columnist, Miss Cassandra Jones, is coming. She wants a raise, and the column is very popular. Edith wonders if, since Miss Cassandra Jones likes the secrecy, she will send someone in her place to impersonate her. The editor and Edith agree that, if they think the person is the real Miss Jones, they’ll say bananas. It turns out that their visitor is Spratt, granny Violet’s butler! The editor and Edith both say bananas and burst out laughing.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Mrs. Patmore’s bed and breakfast has been labeled a house of ill-repute. It turns out her first two guests were adulterers, and the husband of the adulterer is suing his wife. Mrs. Patmore could be called on to testify if the case goes to trial. Understandably, Mrs. Patmore is very upset as booking after booking is cancelled. Everyone else in the house finds it hilarious, which is it, if you know Mrs. Patmore. The idea of her running a house of ill-repute is very funny. However, what is not so funny is the idea of her investment in a bed and breakfast being worthless. This is her retirement income we’re talking about. The upstairs folks are very amused, yet sympathetic, and decide to show solidarity by having tea at Mrs. Patmore’s. She is grateful for their support, and it seems that their visit helps her to escape scandal.

Mr. Molesley starts teaching, and the children are just as uncooperative as you might expect. He begins to doubt that he should be a teacher at all. Baxter suggests that he tell them all about his past instead of hiding it as something shameful. When he tells the children that he is in service in addition to teaching, a number of them say that their parents are as well. Molesley tells them that he wants to give them the head start that he never had. Education could open doors for them. At that, they give him their full attention. I adore Molesley, and I am glad that he is getting the sort of good ending that he deserves. Now just to get him and Baxter together.

Baxter sees Thomas behaving strangely. He has been depressed for a while, and a comment he made to Molesley makes Baxter feel dread for what he might do to himself. She grabs Andy and rushes up to the bathroom. When they knock on the door and don’t receive a response, Andy breaks down the door. Thomas has cut his wrists. Luckily, Baxter found him before he was too far gone. They rush to get the doctor, and Thomas will recover. When the news reaches the upstairs folks, Mary asks her father if he now feels bad for trying to get rid of Thomas to save money. Robert is rightfully appalled by this comment. Mary is just being awful this episode, which is par for the course for her.

In a nice moment, Mary brings George up to visit Thomas. George gives him an orange and says that he hopes Thomas gets better soon. Thomas observes that he seems to ruin his relationships with everyone and brings about his own unhappiness. Mary can, of course, relate to this very much. Before she leaves, Mary offers him wishes that he will be happy, and he says that, if it were not an impertinence, he would return the sentiment.

Tom, for reasons I do not understand, has called back Violet from her vacation. Apparently, he thinks that Mary needs to be talked to and comforted or something. Really, doesn’t Edith need it more? Anyway, Mary tearfully tells her grandmother that she can’t be an automobile widow twice over. She just can’t do it again. Violet comforts her and tells her that, while rank and money matter, love matters more. She loves Henry, and she should be with him. Mary is surprised to hear Violet tell her this, and she realizes that her grandmother is right.

Mary whistles, and Henry comes running. I was hoping that Mary would be disappointed and that he wouldn’t come back. Then, in London, Bertie would realize he was wrong and go back to Edith. However, that is not to be. Instead, Henry shows up and wants to hear Mary say she loves him. She does so in her own cold fashion. He then reveals that he optimistically got a special license to be married, with the wedding on Saturday. It is hard for me to feel happy for Mary here. She gets her happy ending when she was so awful the entire episode and really the entire series.

Anyway, the wedding day arrives. Edith shows up! No one was sure she would, and even Edith was not sure before she got on the train. She and Mary have a private word. It is clear that Edith does not forgive her, but she knows that someday Mary will be the only one who remembers Sybil and Matthew and Carson and all of their family, and so she has decided to be the better person in favor of holding onto that bond. Mary asks if Matthew would hate her for getting married again, but Edith kindly assures her that Matthew would want her to be happy. I think he would want Edith to be happy too, because that is the sort of person Matthew was. If he was disappointed in anything, he probably would be massively disappointed in the way Mary has continued to treat Edith.

Mary and Henry are married. Tom is the best man and observes that he was the best man at both of Mary’s weddings. Mary apparently has no maid of honor, which is not a surprise at all. Edith watches the children and seems resolved to carry on despite what happened with Bertie. We have one more episode for this to resolve itself for the better.