The Dead Husband Project ~ #JNGReads

“Rare to see people so raw, so exposed, reality stripped bare like that.”

I really don’t have much to say about The Dead Husband Project…because it is brilliant and anything I say about it will pale in comparison to what it actually is.

I picked up Canadian author Sarah Meehan Sirk’s collection of short stories on an absolute whim. I hadn’t heard of it, or her, before seeing the book in Chapters one day and being taken by the gorgeous cover, dark black sprayed with beautiful flowers of rich reds and blues. I wasn’t intending to buy a second book on this day, but I turned to my fiancé and said, I have to have that book – look how beautiful it is! Little did I know that the words inside were even more beautiful.

Short stories are not easy to write…believe me, I’ve tried. There is something so difficult and daunting about writing a short story, about trying to create a vast story that will fully engross a reader in a very limited amount of pages. Each word in each sentence of a short story is so very important because there aren’t that many of them available to tell a particular tale, and the short story writer must have a grasp of language akin to that of a poet – words and images must be chosen with the utmost care and never wasted. There are extremely few writers, in my opinion, who have mastered the short story genre, who have been able to make me feel things in the span of 40 pages that most 400 page novels have not, and these are the writers that I have always revered and looked up to, that I have tried to emulate in my own writing. Munro. Gallant. And now, Sirk.

Sarah Meehan Sirk is a genius. Her writing absolutely blew me away. When I’ve reviewed short story collections in the past, I’ve given ratings to individual stories, but I can’t do that in this case. Suffice it to say that there are not enough stars on Goodreads or on the planet to rate The Dead Husband Project. It is, for me, at the caliber of Munro’s Runaway (quite possibly the greatest short story collection ever published), and considering that it is Sirk’s first publication, I am incredibly eager to see what she will produce next. I would be really hard-pressed to pick a favourite story from The Dead Husband Project because literally every single one touched me and left me awe-struck. Sirk’s subjects are at once creepy and realistic, her protagonists flawed in character but flawlessly characterized. There are stories that are so inexplicably bizarre that you can’t help but ruminate on them for hours after finishing them, and there are those that are so sad and heart wrenching that you want to forget them as soon as you flip the last page. There is such vivid and pure human emotion in these stories that it is both painful to read them and impossible not to. Sirk knows something that few others do about human nature: she knows how to inhabit it, how to get into the minds of the most varied and peculiar personages, and she is clearly comfortable exploring sentiments that most humans try to ignore or deny.

If I had to pick stories that stood out from this collection (not favourites mind you because, as I said, I loved them all), well I wouldn’t want to because they are all so heavy hitting, but I could. “Barbados” haunted me for miles after I exited the subway, where I read it. It left me breathless and anxious and scared. It made me feel like my past could and would come back to snatch me up and suffocate me, as it does for so many of Sirk’s main characters. It made me afraid of former versions of myself and of the probably foolhardy decisions they had made. “In the Dark” left me raw and vulnerable. It painted such a true and realistic portrait of anxiety that it made me introspective. It forced me to examine my own anxieties and fears, and view them from an outside perspective, one that was a little less understanding and a bit more cynical. It made me see what other people, those who aren’t quite as compassionate and don’t live inside my head, might see when they look at me. “The Date”…that story I find very difficult to talk about. It left me feeling physically ill and petrified. My severe childhood fear of robots notwithstanding, this story opened my eyes to the dangers of technology, to the tumultuous and traumatic future we might all be headed towards. It made me look at love differently, it made me consider new forms of love that might spring up in decades to come, and the new forms of acceptance they will require and necessitate.

Reading The Dead Husband Project left me irrevocably changed. I am a different human for having read it, not necessarily better but in no way worse. The best description would be to say that it damaged me, it scraped me down to the core, it turned me inside out and made my heart race with exhilaration and nerves and excitement. It was one of the most all-encompassing, disturbing and visceral reading experiences I have had in recent years, and it has left me with much to contemplate.

The Dead Husband Project is not for the faint of heart because it will shock and overwhelm you. But, oh, is it ever worth it because it is one of the most riveting and powerful pieces of literature I have ever encountered. An absolute must read!

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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What’s The Buzz? The Most Underrated Books (…in my opinion!)

Recently, I was on Goodreads, about to add a fellow reader with similar bookish interests to mine as a friend when I was bombarded by his Friend Request Question. I think these questions are a lot of fun (I set one for my profile too) because it gives you a chance to immediately get to know the person you’re becoming friends with, and gain some insight into their reading habits and preferences. I also enjoy answering these questions because they get me thinking about my own love of books and different genres that I’ve encountered.

This particular Goodreads user’s question was very challenging, though! It asked:

What underrated book would you recommend?

For the life of me, I could not think of an underrated book to recommend, which struck me as really peculiar! I don’t think my reading preferences are all that cliché or common, and while I definitely enjoy checking out buzzworthy books, I also like to pick up novels that are more obscure and not as mainstream. Nothing came to mind when I was faced with this question, however, and so I decided to dig into my Favourites Shelf to garner some ideas…and in so doing, I discovered a bunch of underrated or unappreciated (in my opinion!) novels that I thought I should be listing and recommending here on my blog as well. I was reminded of a bunch of stories I read that I haven’t seen many other people picking up, and it struck me as a darn shame! So, with that said, here is my list of a few underrated or less popular books that I ADORED and recommend to anyone who’s looking for something new and unexpectedly awesome to read…

Poignant and Timely Non-Fiction

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, to be perfectly honest, but one book that totally blew me away was Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This could have a lot to do with the fact that my fiancé was born in Iran, but I think it has more to do with Nafisi’s very unique approach to non-fiction: she describes her struggles, and those of many women living in Iran, through the lens of various literary works she secretly read during her time living in the Middle East. It was absolutely fascinating to rediscover novels I had read and enjoyed through the eyes of a woman living in a much less liberal and open-minded society, and I learned a great deal about Persian culture and the troubled Iranian government through the guise of literature.

Acclaimed Theatre

There is no play out there that has touched me as much as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Yes, I know this play is extremely popular and critically acclaimed, but I would say that it is underrated because I just don’t know of many readers who rush to pick up theatre. I have never been more moved by a story than I was by Angels in America though, and it touches on such a variety of topics like religion and sexuality and politics, that there is truly something in it for everyone! There are so many great lessons to be learned from this text and I am convinced that anyone who picks it up and delves into it becomes a better person for it!

Perfectly Paced Short Stories

There’s no doubt that Alice Munro is the ultimate short story writer, and she is undoubtedly my favourite. However, I am equally a fan of fellow Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant, and her collections Montreal Stories and Varieties of Exile are forever favourites of mine. Gallant’s style is very similar to Munro’s in that she focuses on the ordinary and mundane, but highlights the extraordinary and interesting about it. She takes the most everyday activities and characters, such as a woman commuting to work on the subway, and infuses them with a special quality that immediately connects the reader to them. Plus, her use of language is gorgeous and very similar to Munro’s, so if you are a fan of Alice Munro, I guarantee you will love Gallant’s short fiction as well.

Poetry from the Distant Past

Poetry is probably the literary genre I have the least amount of experience with, and most of my reading of poetry has been for literature courses rather than for pleasure. Having said that, I have encountered some truly EPIC poems in my day (I’m think of a certain Paradise Lost, as an example) and one of my favourite, lesser appreciated long poems is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the quintessential medieval tale, with references to King Arthur and his valiant Knights of the Round Table, and although I had to study it for a class, I absolutely fell in love with the tale and with the adventure and, of course, with chivalrous Sir Gawain. This is definitely a fun one and it is so easy to get swept up into the tale!

Tear-Inducing Children’s Lit.

Why not throw a picture book on this list? Love You Forever by Robert Munsch is a story I grew up having read to me and is probably the first book I ever encountered in my life. It is touching and moving and lovely, and I swear, everyone needs to read it to their kids. It’s a classic, in my opinion!

Hard-Hitting Young Adult Lit.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, EVERYONE should read Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. It treats the same subject matter as Thirteen Reasons Why, but, to me, is a far superior novel. It is deep and engrossing, and the main character Sam Kingston is easily relatable but also hopelessly flawed. I can’t say enough good things about this novel, and the film adaptation (starring Zoey Deutch) is equally good! If you only pick up one book from this list, make it this one!

Heartbreaking Romance

If I say too much about The First Last Kiss by Ali Harris, I will cry. It is a tearjerker in every sense of the word, but it is also a uniquely structured and stylized romance. The way it is written makes it truly stand out (by focusing on telling the stories of different first kisses between the two main characters), and I have it on my list of favourite novels of all time…considering that I’m a big rom-com reader, this should tell you something, since it clearly stands out!

Midnight Mystery

Although The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is technically a Victorian novel, it is the ultimate mystery that I think rivals stories told my Agatha Christie and more contemporary mystery writers. It is a story that instantly draws the reader in, with its family politics, deceptions and unreliable narrators, and there are so many different narratives that it never gets boring. The reader is swept up in a mystery that is genuinely difficult to solve, what with all the competing theories swirling around between the many characters, and it is a truly fun and suspenseful ride. I adore this novel and I’ve read it several times…knowing the end result doesn’t even phase me because the ride is the best part!

Haunting Historical Fiction

I’m going to label The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson a historical fiction novel, although it also contains fantastical elements and is a contemporary novel, so really it fits into three categories. Whatever genre it is, it is without doubt one of the best novels I have EVER read, and this is all down to the remarkable narrator. He’s so flawed, complex and complicated, at once detestable and so loveable, and I was so moved by this novel that it has left a permanent mark on my heart. It’s an emotional and troubling story, but it is so worth the read because it will truly blow you away! HIGHLY recommend this one!

Crazy Classic

Jude the Obscure is one messed up novel…but what else do you expect from an author like Thomas Hardy? I have a lot of favourite Victorian novels, and there are other novels by Hardy that I prefer, but Jude the Obscure is totally underrated in that barely anyone reads it, as far as I know. Readers are more inclined to pick up Tess of the D’Ubervilles (and with good reason, of course), but they forget about Jude entirely even though it seems to be Hardy’s darkest novel. Honestly, I can’t even explain some of the crazy stuff that happens in this book, but it is just so dark and gothic and really worth picking up if you’re into classics.

And finally…

Oh Canada!

Being the extremely proud Canadian I am, I had to include an underrated Canadian novel on this list, and I chose The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables, and I have huge respect for that story, but in my opinion, The Blue Castle is just better. It is more adult and sophisticated, and it also features this indomitable and fierce female character, Valancy Stirling (what a great name, eh?), who I instantly fell in love with! She actually became a role model for me and I admit that I think about her often when I’m in social or professional situations that require me to have a bit more backbone than usual. I don’t think many readers know about this novel and that is a serious shame because it is at once hilarious and profound and entertaining. And, talk about girl power, because Valancy knows how to hold her own, no matter who she is up against…I LOVE IT!

Let me know in the comments below if you plan to pick up one of these underrated novels…or if you already have, let me know what you thought and if you too would recommend it!

xox

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Love Object – #JNGReads

The Love Object is a collection of short stories by Irish writer Edna O’Brien that I picked up on a total whim when I was in Indigo a few weeks ago. I haven’t tackled a short story collection in a very long time, but I have always been incredibly fond of the medium. Alice Munro (I think we can all agree this woman can do no wrong – makes me proud to be Canadian!) and Mavis Gallant are literary geniuses in my opinion, and when I dabbled in creative writing classes myself in university, I always chose to write short stories rather than delving into any longer pieces (or shorter ones – I’m definitely not a poet!).

The trouble, for me, with reading a short story collection is that there will always be standout stories that are memorable and will go down as favourites, but there will also inevitably be those stories that are very difficult, and sometimes even painful, to get through. Having read a fair number of novels recently, I had to get myself into the flow and necessary mindset for reading short stories again, and I found it very tedious to finish the stories I wasn’t particularly fond of in The Love Object. I just felt that they lagged and lasted a lot longer than I wanted them to. At the same time, there were stories I devoured and never wanted to end, and those were the moments when I wished I wasn’t reading a short story collection and that I could live with those characters for a little while longer. For these reasons, I find it very hard to give a rating to a collection of short stories, because of course there are stories I really didn’t enjoy and would give a very low rating to, while there are those that I absolutely adored and will want to tell all my fellow readers about for weeks to come. To try and combat this issue of giving such a general rating to a large collection of stories of very different styles and genres, I’m going to pinpoint a few of O’Brien’s stories that I LOVED and a few that I really did not understand at all; the combination of my feelings towards all of these stories will justify my overall rating.

Stories I Didn’t Like At All

❥❥ (out of 5)

(I should note that O’Brien is, without doubt, a masterful storyteller, so even the stories I didn’t personally like are still worthy of a reasonable rating. O’Brien has a way of describing and focusing on elements of life that the average person wouldn’t even notice, and it is quite fascinating, even if I didn’t always enjoy the subject matter.)

1) Shovel Kings ~ Just plain boring! I feel like I had come to expect more from O’Brien by the time I got to this story.

2) Brother ~ So very confusing and hard to follow!

3) Inner Cowboy ~ Similar to Shovel Kings, and not in a good way.

These three stories were, for me, quite boring and I was just happy to be done with them.

Stories with Unexpected Subject Matter

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

1) Plunder ~ Extremely emotional and unlike anything else in the collection; tough subject matter that O’Brien treats with grace and sympathy.

2) Black Flower ~ I was genuinely surprised by this one and the relationship it describes. I was also very curious about the main characters and almost felt that the story was too short because their feelings and actions didn’t seem justified or properly explained.

Stories I LOVED!!!

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

In order from the story I loved the least to the one I loved the most…

6) A Rose in the Heart of New York ~ Very sentimental and moving! I nearly cried while reading this one because it was such a complex and emotional take on a mother-daughter relationship. (Honourable mention to My Two Mothers, which seemed to be the same story, just retold.)

5) Paradise

4) The Love Object

~ These two stories seemed somewhat interchangeable and very similar in feel and tone, and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

3) Madame Cassandra ~ A very well-written internal monologue. It was so vividly portrayed that I could almost see an actress performing it on stage.

2) Manhattan Medley ~ I got into the heart and soul of this narrator, and it took my breath away!

1) Long Distance ~ I loved loved LOVED this short story!!! It was a complete game changer for me, early on in my reading of the collection, mainly because it was so reminiscent of a Munro or Gallant story. It had beautiful pacing and imagery and was so very haunting. Although the characters were nameless, we as readers get so close to them, almost inside them, even in such a short story. This is a masterfully written text and is gorgeous in its simplicity ~ a snapshot of love in a moment in time. Long Distance is a story with subject matter that I myself have tried to write about many times, but I will never be able to come close to creating a story as genius as the one O’Brien tells!

O’Brien’s writing style is abstract, in the sense that the reader has to put together the threads she drops to try and paint a complete picture of her characters and settings. Each story has a tragic and heart wrenching quality, and I can see why so many other authors, such as Munro and Philip Roth who are both quoted as praising the collection, are so impressed by her. My one real annoyance is that I never quite understood any of O’Brien’s titles and didn’t feel like they ever really fit with the story they represented – but titles are a tricky thing, and I’m sure she had her reasons for selecting them, so I won’t hold that against her or my favourite stories.

Overall rating: ❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Strong Jane – The Lessons Charlotte Taught Me – #JNGReads

“The mouse roars and we pump our fist with her.”

– Tracy Chevalier’s foreword to Reader, I Married Him

Reader, I Married Him short stories

I’m knee deep in the last work I’ve decided to read to commemorate Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, and since today is May 1st and the month of April (Charlotte Brontë Month) has come to an end, I figured today was a good day to wind up my talk of Charlotte’s impressive literary career…for the present, that is.

I started reading the collection of short stories entitled Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier, this past week. A detailed post with small reviews of each particular short story in the collection is coming soon (watch this space!), but I wanted to take the opportunity today to discuss Chevalier’s foreword to the stories and address some points she makes that really resonated with me. If you can’t tell from the title, this set of short stories is inspired by Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, specifically by the first sentence of its last chapter.

“Reader, I married him.” – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

That has to be one of the most perfect lines in all of literary history, particularly because of its simplicity and its bold and honest declaration. Chevalier and her fellow female writers take this significant line and manipulate it, play with it, pay homage to it, in a set of stories that are as unique as they are interesting. I’m eager to share my specific thoughts on each story with you, but for now, I want to focus on what Chevalier has to say about this line, in her role as editor of the collection, and what this statement from such a feisty, strong and defiant narrator means for all women.

Quite a while ago, when I engaged in my millionth reading of Jane Eyre, I wrote a post outlining exactly what Jane’s story taught me (you can read the post here). I cited lines from the novel and described why they spoke to me, why they stuck with me, and how they shaped me into the woman I am today. Jane Eyre gave me, and continues to give me, the confidence to be a woman with force and passion, a woman who is ruled by her emotions but who uses them to strongly and assertively take on the world. Jane may be plain and little and quiet, but her personality and character are overwhelming and otherworldly. She is a force of nature.

These are facts that Chevalier rightly identifies in her foreword. She discusses how revolutionary Jane is as a character, how she gives womankind a model of fortitude and determination that was unheard of in the 19th century. I agree with Chevalier wholeheartedly on these points. But what Chevalier also notes, that I hadn’t ever considered (strange, I know, since I feel like I know Jane Eyre inside and out), is that Jane’s simple statement in the last chapter is a final, direct and explicit representation of her agency.

~ Reader, I married him. ~ It’s a beautiful line because it is romantic – it calls to mind images of love rekindled, obstacles defied, happily ever after. But according to Chevalier, it is also constructed in such a way as to give Jane all of the power and, more significantly, all of the choice. By placing herself as the subject of the sentence and her beloved Mr. Rochester as the object, Jane is asserting that she chose to marry Rochester; she was the one who decided that she wished to be married to him, that domestic life was something she wanted. Jane married Rochester, and, unlike how it must’ve been for so many women of her time, she did so on her own terms.

There’s no point arguing – Rochester always wanted to marry Jane. From the moment he fell of his horse Mesrour and encountered her, he was bewitched, enchanted, mesmerized. And although he had some convoluted methods for gaining her affection, he was willing to defy customs, propriety and law to make her his wife. But Jane has morals, she has a conscience – and more than that, she craves freedom. She will not allow any conditions or circumstances to hinder or limit her, and so she must consent to marry Rochester on her own terms and in her own time, when the situation is amended to suit her best.

“‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.’”

– Jane Eyre

And, this is what Chevalier rightfully sees in Jane and argues that her defiant statement that she married Rochester articulates. At the end of the novel, in the final chapter that sums up what her life has shaped up to be, Jane has achieved that ever important power to choose. She is a 19th century heroine who will not consent to a marriage that doesn’t suit her, who will not engage in employment that doesn’t please her, who will not live in circumstances that aren’t comfortable for her. More than anything, she is a woman who makes her own decisions, who gets married when and how she wishes to the person she loves. For young women, or for women of any age, it is important, as Chevalier suggests, to remember this valuable lesson: that we, just like Jane, are always in control of our own destinies.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

The Green Dwarf – A Study of Young Charlotte, Part IV

The Green Dwarf

The End.

I have now finished reading every work by Charlotte Brontë that I can get my hands on. Her novels have been my old companions for years, her poetry took me no time to delve into at all, and now I have come to the end of my study of her juvenilia, the short stories and novellas she wrote in her teenage years. I’ve recently written detailed reviews of The Secret, The Spell and The Foundling, and today I’ll be documenting my thoughts on The Green Dwarf, written down as I was in the process of reading.

I have to say, I had higher hopes for The Green Dwarf, probably because it’s green. I really hoped that it would be my favourite of the four juvenile works I own, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. I found that there were too many loose threads, too many moments of seemingly random narration that I couldn’t make sense of. The plot jumps around a lot, and although everything is pretty clearly connected at the end, the process of reading isn’t all that smooth because of the various stories that don’t seem totally related initially.

But, let’s not forget that this is a novella by Charlotte Brontë, and so I loved it even if it wasn’t my absolute favourite. The style is so totally Charlotte that I enjoyed the cadence of the sentences, and I appreciate that Charlotte puts such intricate detail into each of her characters. The novella tries to accomplish a lot, and it delivers a few surprises in the end, so overall, I did enjoy it. I just preferred her other novellas and stories to this one.

Here are my notes, written while reading The Green Dwarf:

  • Charles Wellesley is this story’s narrator too (along with The Spell) = he has been sick and this explains why he has not written in awhile = mirrors CB’s life because she was away at Roe Head School.
  • a random and slow start = what does Charles’ day have to do with the story the synopsis describes?
  • reference to feud between Charles and Captain Tree (narrator of The Foundling) = CB writes as two enemies, depending on her mood I suppose.
  • Marquis of Douro (Arthur, Charles’ brother = also Zamorna) is featured! = antipathy between the two brothers.
  • “Of course, Bud, according to the universal fashion of storytellers, refused at first…” = Wellesley is planning to tell story told to him by Bud, not “in the original form of words…but strictly preserving the sense and facts.” = some artistic license to the narrator.
  • conversation between Bud and Gifford is so random! I have no idea what it has to do with the story in the synopsis!
  • Lady Emily Charlesworth has enormous potential and mental faculties BUT, as a woman, she is doomed to be married and focus on pretty, feminine accomplishments. “…that’s the way of all women. They think of nothing but being married, while learning is as dust in the balance.”
  • anecdote about Napoleon is VERY random and out of place! So far, the structure and trajectory of this story confuses me immensely!
  • Lady Emily = “Her form was exquisitely elegant, though not above the middle size…” = another small but beautiful woman.
  • episode of boy selling his soul to the devil is very random (if that’s even what’s happening) and seems unnecessary = lots of moments in the story do not “fit” together!
  • Lady Emily’s lineage is confusing and inconsistent = is Lord Charlesworth her only relative or is Bravey her uncle, as CB indicates in the passage about the African Olympic Games?!
  • S’death visiting Colonel Percy = another random, loose thread to the story.
  • “Rogue – Percy, I mean…” = another narrator reveals a character’s true identity = is Colonel Percy none other than Alexander Rogue (Marquis of Douro/Zamorna’s enemy from The Foundling)?
  • detailing of history of Ashantee tribes and prince Quashie is evidence of Charlotte’s admirable commitment to creating vast backgrounds for each of her characters – and keeping them all straight! However, this divergence from the main plot seems very random and it is hard to tell where in chronology it belongs!
  • “It may now be as well to connect the broken thread of my rambling narrative before I proceed further.”
  • details of Duke of Wellington’s war with Ashantees seem so out of place in this “love story” = they could form a different work altogether!
  • the threads tie up rather conveniently and too quickly…BUT then CB has some surprises in store! [SPOILERS!] = Colonel Percy is in fact Zamorna’s enemy Alexander Rogue! = and Andrew (main character’s servant, the green dwarf) is Captain Tree (Charles Wellesley’s enemy and the narrator of The Foundling).

To sum up my thoughts on the story, I have to say that the surprises at the end were worth the journey. It’s a small text, amounting to just over 100 pages, and so it is definitely a fun and light ride that reveals much of Charlotte’s experimentation and growth as a writer.

My final comment on Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia will be to rank the stories in order of my preference…

4) The Green Dwarf

3) The Foundling

2) The Secret

1) The Spell

I would definitely recommend any and all of these texts to true fans of Miss Brontë! It is fascinating to get into the mind of the young Charlotte, and it develops an intimacy between the reader and this formidable Victorian author that is valuable beyond words.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Critical Charlotte – #JNGReads

“I am sensible that my tale is totally devoid of interest…” – The Foundling, Charlotte Brontë

A lot has been happening on my blog recently, and I hope you’ve all been keeping up!

This past Thursday marked the 200th birthday of Miss Charlotte Brontë! I posted a commemoratory entry on that day (you can read it here), and I also continued, just yesterday, my study of another piece of Charlotte’s juvenilia, the novella The Foundling. Even though Miss Brontë’s significant birthday has come and gone, though, I have no plans to stop studying her works, and I still have a few more posts I’d like to write before the month of April (CB Month, as far as I’m concerned) is over.

To continue my discussion of the third work in her juvenilia that I delved into, I’d like to discuss one particular quote from The Foundling more closely. The quote above is presented by the narrator of The Foundling, Captain Tree. I’ve learned from reading Charlotte’s juvenilia that one of her interests in her younger years was to try out different narrative voices; she writes from a myriad of different perspectives in her juvenilia (for example, as aristocratic ladies, doctors, children and adults), and it seems that her objective is to test her limits and push herself artistically to develop voices outside her own personal identity. Although the narrators are not always totally distinct, mainly because they do not always have an active role in the story and are instead relating events that they have seen or merely heard about, it is commendable that Charlotte feels the need to exercise her gift and challenge herself as a writer and creator.

What is more interesting, however, is the fact that Charlotte, through her various narrators, seems not to think very highly of her own work. Although it might seem like statements such as the one quoted above are calculated and designed to encourage the reader to pity the narrator and find value in his/her tale, Charlotte makes similar statements multiple times throughout her various juvenile works, and so it appears that she is truly self-conscious about her ability to tell a story. This isn’t altogether hard to believe – Charlotte was in her teenage years when she penned these tales, and she intended for them only to be read by her brother and sisters, so it’s fair to assume that she wouldn’t think very much of them or believe them to be intriguing masterpieces. On the contrary, she probably thought them trivial, fun and inconsequential – hence her desire to make her narrators apologize every now and then and admit that their stories aren’t that fantastic.

I spoke in a recent post about how it feels somewhat treasonous to read Charlotte’s juvenilia, specifically because she did not intend (as I said above) for any member of the general public to read them. These works were conceived well before Charlotte became Currer Bell, and she never was given the chance to revise or edit them with a larger readership in mind. That fact made me feel uneasy when reading descriptions of romance and love and relationships between men and women that the young Charlotte envisioned, but I am made even more uncomfortable when I encounter statements like the one above that suggest that Charlotte was herself uncomfortable with these works. She didn’t feel that they were worthy of any time, and so she probably also did not believe them to be an adequate representation of her skills or talents. Isn’t it then wrong for these sorts of works to be published without the author’s express consent?

As I stated in my post about my discomfort while reading, it’s hard to accept the argument that these works should not have been published because fans of the Brontës are so eager to get at them somehow, to find a way to penetrate the minds of these literary geniuses. It’s unfathomable to pass up the opportunity to understand a young Charlotte, to get to know the young woman before she was famous and a calculated artist. Having said that, it’s still important to remember that these works were less cultivated and practiced – and so, for anyone who feels the need to be unjustly critical of Charlotte’s juvenile pursuits, I would encourage them to think about what Captain Tree says and remember that these works were never really meant to compare to Charlotte’s greatest masterpiece.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

The Foundling – A Study of Young Charlotte, Part III

The Foundling

I’m on to my third study of the literary works of the young Charlotte Brontë, and it’s a testament to how intriguing and unique her tales are that I have been able to get through them so quickly. In less than three weeks’ time, I’ve been able to plow through The Secret, The Spell and now The Foundling – that might seem like a typical feat for an avid reader, but considering that I do work full-time, it’s hard to find time to sit down and read unless I’m truly motivated. If I don’t like the book I’m reading, it’s really unfortunate because I will struggle to convince myself to pick it up during my lunch break or on the bus ride home. But, with Charlotte’s works, there has been no hesitation; all I want is to know what will happen next, and because each of her stories contains layers of mystery and confusion, I’m eager to get to the conclusion and sort everything out.

The Foundling was no different from The Secret and The Spell in that regard: I needed to figure out what was happening, I needed to untangle the various threads Charlotte set up, and I needed to do it quickly, apparently. It took me two days to finish this novella, and if I add up the amount of time I spent actually reading in those two days, it probably amounted to about four hours in total. Not too shabby! This novella is shorter than both The Secret and The Spell, but the pace is quite a bit slower, so it shouldn’t be taken for granted that I got through it so fast – I was genuinely interested in what would happen to the characters (even if they weren’t my absolute favourite of Charlotte’s cast) and I was expecting a surprise or shock at every turn.

Here are my thoughts on The Foundling, written chronologically as I read:

  • as with Jane Eyre, CB’s narrator (Captain Tree) claims to be documenting a true story (“plain relation of facts”); again, the narrator is critical of his own work = “I am sensible that my tale is totally devoid of interest…”
  • here we finally learn that Verdopolis is a new English colony, founded in Africa.
  • First Impressions: Edward Sydney (22 years old) lacks the fire, depth and personality of Zamorna as a hero.
  • Douro (aka Arthur Wellesley, aka Zamorna) is featured here as well, although his circumstances are different = but is his personality?
  • “He was almost tempted to think himself in the hands of magicians or genii, who, he had heard, yet retained influence over the inhabitants of Africa.” = magic and fantasy is a fixture of CB’s imaginary kingdom. “‘Surely…the stories of enchantment are not all false…’”
  • Finic(k) is also featured (from The Spell) (Douro’s servant).
  • details about Douro’s talents and birth are provided; because he is only 19 years old, we are given more insight into his early days.
  • Douro’s wife’s name is Julia…who on Earth is she?!
  • note states that Lady Zenobia Ellrington is Alexander Rogue’s wife = Alexander Rogue is Douro’s enemy and so I wonder if Zenobia loves Douro in this tale as she does in the others?
  • Charles Wellesley (narrator of The Spell) is abhorred, ugly and disliked. “‘that strange ape-like animal.’”
  • CORRECTION: Julia Wellesley is Douro’s cousin; auburn-haired girl is his wife = Marian Hume (of The Secret)?
  • Douro dances with Zenobia = the plot thickens! Okay, so she loves him and did before marrying Rogue = so why did she marry his enemy?
  • Zamorna = “He then took leave with…one of his smiles.” = his charm and intoxicating nature are widely recognized and are something he is famous for.
  • this story is full of poems = CB is exercising and testing her ability in different styles = the poems are very simply constructed, with basic rhyme scheme, and all treat the theme of love = not very risky!
  • at the end, when Rogue’s murder plot against Douro is revealed, things become VERY mystical and fantastical = a secret philosophers’ society in Verdopolis is revealed, and more layers are added to the nation’s history (and mystery).
  • BUT, Rogue is a villain precisely because he has no respect for this society and for the order and hierarchy established in Verdopolis = CB clings to hierarchies (which she will later challenge in Jane Eyre).
  • mystery man (40 years old) who will reveal Sydney’s identity resembles Douro = is it his father, the Duke of Wellington? Zamorna is constantly doubled. “‘Because your accent and manner of speaking are so exactly similar to his that I thought no two persons could own the same mode of utterance.’”

(Sidenote: This text would also have benefited from a List of Characters, like The Spell.)

  • narrator is ill-equipped to articulate some strong emotions of certain characters. “I will not attempt to describe his subsequent anguish. It was far too deep and intense for my feeble pen to venture upon.”
  • moment of Divine Intervention on the part of the Four Genii (Tali, Brani, Emi and Anni).
  • Sydney’s mother = “‘She had that rich dark cast of loveliness, that air of graceful majesty which chiefly belongs to natives of a sunnier clime than that of Britain.” = CB favours foreign, exotic beauty!
  • allusion to Arabian Nights and borrowing of its characters = CB adores exotic stories as well.

Overall, I have to say that The Foundling has been my least favourite of Charlotte’s juvenilia so far. The story seemed less coherent and memorable. There were too many plots and narratives mixed together (Sydney’s origin story, Sydney’s love for Julia, Douro versus Rogue and Montmorency, Douro’s strange relationship with Zenobia). None of these separate threads seem 100% properly fleshed out or treated, and I feel that each element could’ve been taken up in an individual story. However, I do have one more piece of Charlotte’s juvenilia left to tackle (The Green Dwarf), so it is possible that The Foundling will rise in standing after my reading of this last novella. Nevertheless, it feels like a privilege to see inside the young Charlotte’s mind, and so the themes and perspectives presented in The Foundling are valuable to establishing a complete picture of Charlotte’s character and preoccupations.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Pre-Currer – #JNGReads

The Spell is the writer before the writing.” – Nicola Barker in her foreword to Charlotte Brontë’s novella The Spell

If you’ve been keeping up here on the blog, you’ll know that I’m on a roll with my study of Charlotte Brontë’s works and texts inspired by her. I’ve recently reviewed the collection of poetry she published with her sisters Emily and Anne, the new biography of her life by Claire Harman, as well as the first in a collection of stories she wrote in her teenage years, The Secret. I’m not slowing down anytime soon though, and with Charlotte’s 200th birthday less than a week away (WOOO!), I’m still eager to get through the rest of her juvenilia and a very special set of short stories inspired by her most famous novel Jane Eyre before the month of April is through.

With that in mind, I finished a second work in Charlotte’s juvenilia, The Spell, a few days ago, and while I’ve already posted a detailed review of my impressions of the novella (you can read it here), I wanted to delve a bit more closely into the foreword that precedes the text. This foreword was written by Nicola Barker, and I was deeply interested in some of the comments Barker makes about the young Charlotte Brontë and about the act of reading works written by an author before she was famous.

The first quote from Barker’s foreword that was of interest to me is the one cited above. Barker talks a lot about the fact that Charlotte’s early texts were never intended to be published and were conceived long before Charlotte had any realistic plan for becoming a proper writer.

“This is Charlotte Brontë utterly without restraint.”

– Barker’s foreword to The Spell

For this reason, The Spell (and The Secret as well) is unlike any of Charlotte’s published, cultivated classics. What I think Barker means by saying that Charlotte is unrestrained in this text is that the work is less calculated. Charlotte is not writing for general approval, societal esteem or literary success – she is instead writing for her siblings, but more than anything for herself. As someone who has done extensive creative writing since I was in high school, I know for a fact that there is a significant difference between stories a writer creates for themselves and those that a writer intends to share with a broader audience. The stories that a writer assumes no one else will ever see have the liberty to be more experimental, less studied and perfected, more risky and random and fanciful. That is what The Spell is like: it’s a text full of impossible circumstances, muddled narratives, fantastical leaps through time and space, abrupt changes in narrative voice… The list of unusual traits of this small text goes on and on. It is Charlotte Brontë before she ever became Currer Bell, before she ever imagined the story of a plain and obscure governess with a remarkable sense of passion.

But, despite how nonsensical The Spell sometimes is, it is also wonderfully intriguing. Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to follow the threads of a story written for an audience (Charlotte’s brother and sisters) that would know the characters and setting intimately, but, as is expressed in my detailed review of the novella, the story is still fascinating and the fact that it is frustrating only inspires the reader to delve in and unravel its mysteries.

However, having said that, there is something that feels almost treasonous about reading The Spell and Charlotte’s other juvenilia. I truly felt, several times throughout the text, that Charlotte had not intended for me to see it, and it seemed like a kind of betrayal to be reading something so private and personal. Although the story itself doesn’t reveal anything shocking or inappropriate about Charlotte’s character, you can distinctly tell that she is a teenager, that she is growing and learning and feeling a whole bunch of different things. Her depiction of Zamorna is perhaps most notable – I mentioned in my previous review that he is similar to Mr. Rochester in so many ways, and I think that says a lot about Charlotte’s perceptions of men and her ideal male figure. Zamorna and Rochester are Byronic and mysterious and secretive, but oh so intoxicating and overwhelming. But, whereas to read about Rochester seems appropriate because he was carefully crafted by Charlotte as a male character to reveal to and attract the interest of the masses, reading about Zamorna instead feels a little awkward and uncomfortable, as if we are secretly rifling through Charlotte’s diary and gathering information about her crush. Charlotte never had the chance to revisit this text, to choose what the public would and would not see, and so, as someone utterly loyal to her, it seems wrong to “go behind her back” and look at things I’m not supposed to.

It’s impossible to stop once you get started though. A true fan of Charlotte, or any of the Brontës, will know how significant it is to be able to get into the mind of a young Brontë. Living 200 years after Charlotte was born, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what her life must’ve been like, and these texts from her younger years offer a snapshot of how Charlotte spent most of her days. So whether it is a betrayal or not, I believe that the opportunity to read a young Charlotte’s works is too important to pass up.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

The Spell – A Study of Young Charlotte, Part II

The Spell

On to the second part of my study of the young Charlotte Brontë – I’m really on a roll with this, aren’t I? 😉

This past week, I managed to finish another work in the collection of Charlotte’s juvenilia. This text, entitled The Spell, is different from The Secret in that it is a short novella, and so only one complete story is portrayed. While I do usually prefer longer stories because of their depth and complexity, as well as the potential for character and plot development, there were times throughout The Spell when I wished I could enter a different world just for a moment. I felt that I was slower getting through The Spell because it was a longer tale and I had to make sure that I was paying attention and following the threads as closely as possible. However, in The Spell, Charlotte varies her narrative voices periodically and writes as a young boy, a learned doctor and a female aristocrat, so there is a lot of variety in the way the story is told. Whether this makes it more confusing or not is hard to say, but at the end of the story, I was very pleased with it and I thoroughly enjoyed trying to solve the mystery that was presented to me.

Here are my immediate impressions, documented while reading Charlotte Brontë’s The Spell. Keep in mind that these notes are not meant to present spoilers at all; rather they reflect my train of thought/theories and my “detective work” as I attempted to get to the bottom of the mystery at hand!

The Foreword (by Nicola Barker)

“and so you should find it as a friend and treat it just as indulgently and just as fondly.”

“This is Charlotte Brontë utterly without restraint.”

The Spell is the writer before the writing.”

(*many of these quotes will be analyzed in my second blog post of this weekend, coming soon…)

The Tale Itself…

  • same BELOVED characters of The Secret, but again, in different forms and circumstances (ex. Arthur Augustus Adrian Wellesley = Duke Zamorna; Marian Hume = Florence Marian Wellesley).  Lily Hart is even featured!
  • CB must’ve painstakingly kept track of the history, lineage and connections of each of her creations.

The Preface

  • book is not explicit, but the reader must use it to piece together aspects of Zamorna’s identity/personality = Is he insane or not?
  • quite like Rochester in that he broods, walks in the wilderness alone, contains and hides his emotions. “‘He is far too faithful to love her the less for any slight failure in that beauty which he once thought matchless.’” = Zamorna seems like an exacting and grave husband.
  • child’s funeral = it is rather difficult to keep track of each personage = CB had a vast knowledge of her characters and their relationships.
  • “‘You must be aware of the elf’s disposition!’” = supernatural = narrator has some sort of power.
  • impossible to tell how old the narrator is = he is treated like a child, BUT speaks and narrates as an adult = clearly not fleshed out by CB yet.
  • letter from Duchess of Zamorna (Duke’s second wife = married for 6 months) to her grandmother = so randomly placed (a tad jarring)! When in chronology is this exactly? Zamorna seems more Byronic (“so cold, so strange, so silent”) than ever! The Duchess idolizes Zamorna as a writer (celebrity) and a man.
  • Did Marian (Zamorna’s first wife) know of Zamorna’s lust/love for Mary (second wife)?
  • A mystery = the reader is a detective with clues = compelled to solve this situation.
  • Mary = “it has been my constant study, the business of my life, to watch the unfolding of his strange character.”
  • How many children does Zamorna have? The plot thickens!
  • Mina Laury’s speech to Mary is SO powerful, but Mary holds her own and is powerful right back = STRONG WOMEN!

ZAMORNA

            (1) Marian Hume (deceased)

                        (male child) Marquis Almeida (deceased)

(2) Mina Laury (nurse) (affair)

(3) Mary Percy (current Duchess Zamorna)

(4) Emily Inez (of Castle Orsonay)

(male child) Ernest Fitz-Arthur

(female child) Emily

                        Therefore, the Duke has 4 women in his life…maybe…?!?!

  • Zamorna is truly intoxicating = he is cruel and secretive and disloyal, but something about him draws the reader in!
  • perspective of Dr. Alford (scientific) = a third narrator = CB testing different voices and diction = but voices are not distinct enough yet to say that CB has mastered her craft = 2 male narrators (doctor and Duke’s young brother Charles) have almost the same voice.
  • Zamorna speaks just like Rochester = CB is learning how to write Byronic men.
  • Is Mina magical/a witch and did she heal Zamorna?
  • OR Are there two Zamornas??? He is at home sick and with the Earl of Northangerland at the same time. Is Zamorna a twin???
  • at times, it is impossible to tell who the narrator is, so I just assume it is Charles.
  • Zamorna to Mary = “‘Why did he, I – I mean…’” “‘But I’ll be even with him!’”
  • Mary is onto something = “‘Arthur…I begin to think that you have a double existence.’” “‘There cannot be two Zamornas on this earth; it would not hold them!’”
  • narrator (or perhaps, the writer?) is critical of the story = “Reader, pass to the next chapter, if you are not asleep.”
  • scene where Zamorna reveals Emily Inez as his “wife” is reminiscent of Rochester revealing Bertha to the priest and Jane = recycled scenes.
  • Zamorna’s speeches are over the top and full of many allusions and literary references = a bit heavy-handed at times.

Okay, I cannot go any further with my notes or, as a famous detective once said, the game is up! It’s up to you now to solve the mystery and discover Zamorna’s true secret…pick up a copy of this compelling, intriguing and fascinating novella and fall under Zamorna’s spell for yourself!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Beautiful Charlotte – #JNGReads

Further to my post from yesterday, I’ve decided to continue my reading of Charlotte Brontë’s works (and fiction inspired by her literary catalogue) for the month of April, to commemorate her 200th birthday this April 21st, 2016. I began my study of the young Charlotte with her collection of short stories entitled The Secret (you can read my review of the collection here), and today I wanted to expand on the way in which this particular work furthered my understanding of Charlotte as a woman, the real Charlotte who lived behind the famous pen.

If you read my #JNGReads post last weekend (if not, you can do so here), you’ll know that I recently finished reading the new biography of Miss Brontë, Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. This biography was brilliant and breathtaking, and I was specifically touched (as I discuss in my previous post) by its investigation of Charlotte’s insecurities. Harman uses quotes from Charlotte’s contemporaries to illustrate just how self-conscious Charlotte often was and just how preoccupied and concerned she was about being beautiful and physically pleasant. I found it fascinating that such a confident writer could ever have periods of doubt, but it was also reassuring, for a modern reader bombarded by perfect, filtered photos on Instagram every day, to realize that someone so talented worried about how others perceived her just as much as any of us do today.

Harman’s articulation of Charlotte’s anxieties made the ever impressive Miss Brontë into a more realistic and relatable figure for me. And, as I began my first encounter with Charlotte’s juvenilia and opened the pages of The Secret, I expected to encounter a bit of this insecurity and self-consciousness in the writings of a young woman trying to hone her craft. Although Charlotte’s concerns about her own appearance are not too obvious or heavy-handed, her descriptions of her female characters are extremely telling and provide an insight into her own definition of ideal female beauty.

“a few touches brought her soft, naturally curling glossy tresses into becoming order.” – “The Secret”, Charlotte Brontë

“True, Lily was handsome enough to attract the attention of any man …”

“… She was about 18 years old, rather above than under the middle size, elegantly formed, with graceful limbs and small fairy like face and hands.” – “Lily Hart”, Charlotte Brontë

The first quote, taken from the titular short story of the collection, is from a description of one of Charlotte’s main female creations, Marian Hume. Marian, who marries the Marquis of Douro in this particular tale, is effortlessly beautiful, as is quite evident from the fact that she hardly has to make herself up at all or do anything in particular to get her hair to look flawless. Evidently, the young Charlotte Brontë prized natural beauty, physical perfection that requires little work or aid, that isn’t enhanced by any means other than those that are inherent or God-given. Marian’s hair curls “naturally”, it is “soft” and “glossy”, and this is a trait that Marian has possessed since birth. Charlotte obviously believes that some women are born with more attractive features, and this is the sort of physical appearance she longs for and idolizes.

Lily Hart, of the short story of the same name, is also gifted with natural good looks. At only 18 years old, she is already “handsome enough” to receive the affections and capture the interests of many men, and, like Marian, she doesn’t seem to have to try very hard to attract people. What is interesting about the more detailed description of Lily, though, is that Charlotte seems to attribute traits to her character that she is known to have possessed. Charlotte Brontë herself was very “small” and has been described as being just “above…the middle size”. However, whereas Charlotte was uncomfortable with and self-conscious about her diminutive stature in real-life, in her fiction, she represents a small figure as “graceful”, “elegant” and beautiful. It seems as though Lily’s littleness is her most endearing quality, and rather than being associated with a lack of development (as many people speculated of Charlotte), Lily’s petite frame is described as “fairy like”, or ethereal and otherworldly. Lily is attractive precisely because her small features set her apart from the rest.

Is Charlotte Brontë, then, trying to make herself beautiful in her fiction? I believe so. We all have those moments where we feel compelled to boost ourselves up, to make ourselves feel better about our physical appearances. We want to believe that we are worthy of affection and interest, and so we make ourselves more confident by creating outfits that resemble the ones we’ve seen in fashion magazines, or by styling our hair and makeup in the way we’ve seen famous bloggers do it on Instagram. In some cases, if we are creatively inclined, we may create stories and characters that are like us but that live much more fantastical and exciting lives. And, I believe that is just what Charlotte Brontë did in her early fiction: she created a life for herself (or for characters that closely resemble her) that was much more full of love and romance than her actual existence. Although her later works about self-proclaimed “plain” women like Jane Eyre suggest that Charlotte eventually wished to create more realistic characters and narratives, it seems that the young Charlotte wanted nothing more than to feel, even if it was simply through a page, what it was like to be “beautiful”.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart