Review Fridays: The Living Mountain

The details:

Title: The Living Mountain
Author: Nan Shepherd
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 190
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I have to confess, before beginning my review, that I am not at all outdoorsy. I much prefer a quiet evening inside with a book, but Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain made me to want to venture forth into the Cairngorms to experience what she did. This is a meditation on hill walking, a book about the connection between humans and nature, and the ways in which one can come to know more about oneself by walking into a mountain. I have read other books about nature, but never one as beautifully written, that inspired such a sense of self-transcendence and connection to the author. The journey into the mountain offers glimpses into the nature of being.

“Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”

Hill walking, for Shepherd, was not just about conquering the mountain, although she did enjoy the dizzy feeling that came from altitude and the view. Instead, it was about the journey, both into the mountain and into oneself. She wrote about the introspection that one can experience by fully giving oneself over to one’s surroundings. She listened to the sounds of the running water and the animals, but there were also moments of complete silence that could only be found in those rare moments alone on the mountain.

The chapter about the human population of the Cairngorms helped me to better understand the characters of her novels. Sometimes, the conditions were harsh and the children longed to get out, but they always kept with them what they had learned from living so close to the mountains. She keenly watched the animals around her, the birds soaring overhead and the hares that turned pure white in the winter, sometimes too early, showing up stark white against the gray backdrop. While sleeping in the mountains, she would sometimes awake to find that the animals had crept close to her in her stillness.

It is not just plants, animals, and people who make up the living mountain. Shepherd wrote about the ways that the nonliving elements, the dirt and the water and the granite, combine to create the conditions necessary for life. The mountain itself is living and changing and changes us when we open ourselves to experience it. It is not as important that a person has climbed a mountain, to put a flag at the top and say that the task is finished, as it is to take the time to observe.

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Nan Shepherd also wrote a volume of poetry called In the Cairngorms, which I have unfortunately been unable to find, but her background as a poet is very evident. The soul of a natural poet is on full display in The Living Mountain. There is such a lyrical beauty in this work that I know I will read it again, hopefully the next time after experiencing the wonders of the Cairngorms firsthand.

Review Fridays: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The details:

Title: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Author: Ann Radcliffe
Genre: Gothic
Pages: 736
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I first learned of The Mysteries of Udolpho when I read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a Gothic satire that describes the horrors of the black veil and Regency-era teenagers obsessed with this book. Catherine Morland was so taken by it that she began imagining all sorts of horrible happenings around her, only to realize that the world was not so bleak and villainous. I avoided reading it myself for such a long time mostly because of how ridiculous Jane Austen made it seem, but I think, upon finishing it and thinking about Austen’s gentle satire, that she enjoyed it too. Even Austen’s hero, Henry Tilney, had good things to say about it.

Ann Radcliffe had a big following among Romantic poets. John Keats called her “Mother Radcliffe”, and, with the gratuitous descriptions of scenery, it did not take long to realize why. If, like me, you enjoy that sort of thing, you are in for a treat, but it can be off-putting to a modern reader. The introduction to my edition was extremely helpful in approaching the book. It advised taking the long descriptions as a sort of meditation and to view the commas (so many commas!) as pacing as if the words were read aloud.

Emily St. Aubert begins the story living a secluded but very happy life with her parents in the French countryside during the 16th century. Radcliffe places an emphasis on country values versus city values. The St. Auberts do not care for riches or status, and instead value a simple life amid beautiful scenery, filled with quiet moments with loved ones. After her mother’s death, Emily travels to a warmer climate with her father for the sake of his health. During their journey, they meet the Chevalier Valancourt, of whom, Monsieur St. Aubert thinks approvingly, “This young man has never been at Paris.” The three travel together for some time, sharing an appreciation of nature and talking of books and common interests.

This cannot last, however. When Monsieur St. Aubert dies, he leaves Emily to the care of his sister, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron does not have any patience for the newly-orphaned Emily, does not sympathize with her sensibility, and wants Emily to marry purely to better her aunt’s social standing. Emily is reunited with Valancourt, then cruelly separated from him when Madame Cheron marries Signor Montoni. She and Emily go with Montoni to Italy and eventually to his home, the Castle Udolpho. Once Emily and her aunt reach Udolpho, the plot begins to pick up. I could finally understand why Henry Tilney stole the book and would not wait for his sister Eleanor to continue reading aloud with her.

This book is filled with secrets, from the infamous black veil to the letters Emily’s father asks her to burn. Our heroine sometimes reacts with strength to the challenges she faces, but she also tends to faint a lot and then forget the horrid thing she saw. The frustrated reader then has to wait hundreds of pages to find out what is behind the black veil, though whatever it was is so awful that Emily will not go near the room again. The plot meanders at times and could use a good editor, but when it is gripping, it is truly so, and I found myself losing track of time during particularly exciting passages.

Reading it will enhance my appreciation during my next re-read of Northanger Abbey, but I hesitate to recommend it. If you have an interest in Gothic or Romantic literature, it may be for you. However, it requires a great time commitment and patience to make it through what may be, to some readers, tedious descriptions of scenery and frustration with the long intervals between introducing and revealing the secrets of Udolpho.

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.

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.