Fiction: “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe

mysteries of udolphoA few months ago, my friend Erica read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I had read it a few years ago, and it was getting time to make my selection for Spring Classic Literature Month. Well, I was perusing the shelves of the Yarmouth Library after returning Babayaga, and came across The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. This book was actually mentioned by the characters in Northanger Abbey numerous times, as it is the favorite novel of the lead character Catherine. And Northanger Abbey was in the back of my mind, and this book was free and I’d never read it before, so … hey! Synergy!

Please feel free to add this title to the list of Bad Decisions Alaina’s Made In Life.

Look, I’ve read a lot of classic literature in my day, but oh man – this was like, 700 pages of nothingThe Mysteries of Udolpho is supposed to be the first Gothic novel, and I kept waiting for some suspense? But after reading Red Dragon or, fuck it, Dracula, this book was a snooze fest.

As evidence, please look at the fact that it took me ten weeks to read this. TEN FUCKING WEEKS.

So the plot, as she is horribly, horribly overwritten: Emily St. Aubert lives with her father in the South of France (I think). After her mother dies, she and her father take a tour of the rest of the south of France as part of their bereavement tour or whatever. On the trip, they meet a chevalier (traveling knight) named Vaillancourt. Emily and Vaillancourt fall in love on, like, page 109, and then Emily’s father dies and Emily gets sent to live with her Aunt, Madame Chernon. Madame Chernon disapproves of Vaillancourt, so she forbids them to be together. Then she relents because she finds out Vaillancourt has wealthy connections. Meanwhile, Madame Chernon is wooed by Count Montoni, who appears to be some suave Italian motherfucker. Well, Madame Chernon agrees to marry Count Montoni, does so by stealing the wedding plans of Emily and Vaillancourt, then forbids Emily from continuing her relationship with Vaillancourt. Count Montoni then removes his new wife and Emily to his palace in Venice, where we come to learn that Montoni? is actually a dick.

He’s a leader of the dreaded Italian Bandits, which would make a great name for a rock band. But really, he’s a thief and a murderer. He attempts to sell Emily’s hand in marriage to a Count Morano, but when that deal goes belly-up, he takes the entire “family” up to his palace in the region known as Udolpho.

The Udolpho palace is full of secrets – it’s like Gretchen Weiners’ hair. Emily and her chambermaid, Annette, get into all sorts of adventures. And when I say “adventures,” I mean “forty pages of Annette rambling and Emily saying she doesn’t want to hear it but then says okay sure, I’ll listen, and then they walk through the halls of the castle and see weird shit which will all be explained as not paranormal whatsoever in about five hundred pages.”

While they are imprisoned in Udolpho, Madame Chernon passes away – oh, shit, spoiler alert, I guess – and then Montoni pressures Emily into giving up the land she inherited from her aunt. But Emily refuses, because she’s moral or whatever. Anyway, one night she thinks she hears the voice of her beloved Vaillancourt, but it turns out that it’s another dude from her region of France, who has been imprisoned by Montoni. Not too much later from that, Emily, her maid Annettte, this other dude, and Annette’s boyfriend Ludovico escape from Udolpho and end up at the mansion of a friend named … George, I guess. (I’m wrong, but it’s an easy name to make up and the book’s been back at the library for a month now and I’m not going to look it up.) George had apparently run into Vaillancourt in Paris, and Emily’s boyfriend had managed to turn into a bit of a gambler, so George tells her to cut him loose because he’s a bad egg. When Vaillancourt returns to plead his case, she refuses him.

But after another hundred pages of back and forth, Emily realizes that Vaillancourt was only gambling to make money to help pay off her debts to her servants and other shit, so his morality is restored and they end up married or whatever.

See?  It took me not even 1000 words to give the major points of the plot. Why was this book nearly 700 pages long?

Well, it would have been shorter if Mrs. Radcliffe knew how to use the comma properly.

No, for reals. And while I recognize that this was written nearly three hundred years ago and common grammatical structure has evolved, THERE ARE ENTIRELY TOO MANY COMMAS IN THIS BOOK.

I decided to turn it into a game after I read this sentence:

The immense pine-forests, which, at that period, overhung these mountains, and between which the road wound, excluded all view but of the cliffs aspiring above, except, that, now and then, an opening through the dark woods allowed the eye a momentary glimpse of the country below. [p. 224]

I MEAN. So, as I continued to read – because I don’t give up on books, not anymore – I decided to see if I could find the sentence in the novel that had the most commas.

BEHOLD:

Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines, rising in majestic amphitheatre, not black with pines, as she had been accustomed to see them, but their loftiest summits crowned with antient forests of chesnut, oak, and oriental plane, now animated with the rich tints of autumn, and which swept downward to the valley uninterruptedly, except where some bold rocky promontory looked out from among the foliage, and caught the passing gleam. [p. 413]

That is one entire sentence, folks. It has 14 – FOURTEEN – commas in that one sentence. That’s … entirely too many commas.

Let’s see, what else can I talk about – oh, how about how Annette the Maid is so annoying, even the saintly main character Emily hates her? Okay, maybe “hates” is a strong word, but she does delight in poking fun at Annette who is too stupid to realize it.

“Down this passage, ma’amselle ; this leads to a back stair-case. O! if I see any thing, I shall be frightened out of my wits!”

“That will scarcely be possible,” said Emily … [p. 232]

“But the story went round, and many strange reports were spread, so very strange, ma’amselle, that I shall not tell them.”

“That is stranger still, Annette,” said Emily … [p. 238]

Another thing I love about reading old books? What was probably very tame and normal back then sounds really dirty now.

Madame La Comtesse had often deep play at her house, which she affected to restrain, but secretly encouraged … [294]

“I have myself seen the Chevalier engaged in deep play with men, whom I almost shuddered to look upon.” [507]

“Deep play” is defined in the notes as “gambling,” which is such a buzzkill.

Oh, and Ms. Radcliffe attempts to break the novel up by inserting poetry. And if one of those poems have a verse that sounds dirty, well, Alaina’s going to take note of it:

Neptune for this oft binds me fast
To rocks below, with coral chain,
Till all the tempest’s over-past,
And drowning seamen cry in vain. [181]

Overall, the entire book suffers from histrionics which were probably considered the height of literature three hundred years ago, but today reads horribly. I can step back and appreciate it for what it was during its time, but am I ever going to read this again? Hell no.

Grade for The Mysteries of Udolpho: 1 star

(the star is for the That’s What She Said moments the book provided; that’s it.)

Fiction: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

house of mirthSo after I finished Nickel and Dimed, it was October. And looking back – because that’s the type of idiot I am – I realized that October was typically a month where I would dig out a classic work of literature, for one reason or another (see: Brave New World, which killed two birds with one Banned Book stone; and The Mayor of Casterbridge). I decided – rather capriciously, to be honest – to create another Theme Month. And so, from here and in perpetuity, let October be henceforth known as: The Fall Classic.

(Which is also, apparently, the other name of the World Series. But whatever, right?)

I had purchased The House of Mirth years ago, after watching the Gillian Anderson-starring film adaptation. It has been so long since I’ve watched that movie that I could no longer remember the plot, and since none of the rest of the classics I own inspired me, I decided to read this one. Also, if you don’t like Gillian Anderson, I don’t think we can be friends.

The House of Mirth, first and foremost, is a tragedy. The introduction lets us know up front that this tale will not have a happy ending. Our story takes place after the turn of the last century in New York City’s society, and our tragic heroine is Lily Bart, the orphan of parents who lost their money through reckless spending. When her parents pass away, Lily is sent to live with her maiden aunt in the hope of finding a suitable husband.

For in that day and age, the only acceptable future for a woman of Lily’s pedigree lay in achieving a good, solid marriage. But while Lily wants – nay, requires – the financial stability a marriage would bring, she desires her own independence more.

When we first meet Lily, she is dashing across Grand Central Station to meet up with her longtime friend, Lawrence Seldon. She does have another train to catch that evening, a train that will take her to the country home of her other dear friend, Judy Trenor. But during the layover, she’d love to have Seldon get her up to speed on his Americana collection, in the hopes of using that knowledge to get Mr. Percy Gryce, an incredibly wealthy nerd and another guest of Mrs. Trenor, to propose marriage to her.

This is one example of Lily’s smarts: she knows exactly which avenue to take in order to get men to notice her and her flirting skills are unparalleled. She can easily maneuver among the elite caste of New York society to which she aspires to belong. Sadly, her downfall is her inability to compromise her convictions. Because just when her future with Mr. Gryce is all but secured – all she needs to do is accompany him to church and he will propose to her – she oversleeps. So she decides to wait for him to return to the Trenor house via the country lane, and when she runs into Selden, she decides to take a walk with him rather than wait for Mr. Gryce.

Why doesn’t she marry Seldon, you ask? Well for one, he’s never proposed to her. Secondly, while she does care for him, and he for her, she is well aware of her fiscal shortcomings and doesn’t want to burden him with them. Furthermore, Seldon has stated that when he does marry, he wants it to be for love.

So after this walk with Seldon, she completely loses her chance with Mr. Gryce. Lily borrows the gig and goes to pick up Judy’s husband, Gus, at the train station. During the ride home, Lily alludes to her money troubles, and Gus offers to invest her funds in Wall Street for her. She readily agrees, and in almost no time at all, Gus hands her a check for $9,000.

But then Gus starts cornering Lily at gatherings, and trying to get her alone. Rumors start flying, and Lily tries her best to avoid him. But when she receives a note from Judy, telling her to visit after 10 one night, and when Lily arrives she learns that Gus sent the note and Judy’s not even in town, Gus makes it explicitly clear that he gave her $9,000, that he never invested her money, and now he expects repayment in the form of an affair. Lily stalks out, and her exit is seen by Selden, who puts two and two together and doesn’t go see Lily the next day as he had originally requested.

Lily’s other main foe in her story is Mrs. Bertha Dorset. Mrs. Dorset had had an affair with Lawrence until he broke it off or she got bored. One day, a servant found letters from Mrs. Dorset, sent to Selden, and she sells the letters to Lily. Lily holds on to those letters, partly hoping to use them in order to get a leg up on Mrs. Dorset, but also holds on to them so they don’t get out, as Selden is also involved.

When Selden doesn’t show up, Lily is greeted by another acquaintance, Mr. Rosedale. Mr. Rosedale aspires to great social heights, and having Lily Bart on his arm would be an amazing get for him. He would get his social acceptance – Mrs. Wharton clearly identifies Mr. Rosedale as Jewish nearly any chance she gets, and therefore makes it clear that only WASPs typically succeeded in New York society – and Lily would get her financial stability. Lily hesitates, because he’s Jewish and she doesn’t love him, and in the middle of her hesitancy the Dorsets invite Lily to accompany them on a European tour.

And why does Mrs, Dorset invite Lily, of all people, to Europe? Why to distract her husband while she runs around with another young dude. Lily is completely oblivious to Mrs. Dorset’s goings-on, and is a true friend to Mr. Dorset. Until Mr. Dorset tells Lily that he knows everything, that Bertha’s shtupping whatever the dude’s name was, and he plans on getting a divorce. Lily manages to run into Selden in Monte Carlo and she tells him what she knows, and his heart melts once more and urges her to get out of town immediately. But Lily decides to wait until the morning, but that is one night too late; that very night, Bertha announces to everyone, including Lily, that Lily is not returning to the yacht. And just like that, any social cache Lily had is gone.

Lily returns to New York as her aunt passes away, and the hopes of receiving her legacy are dashed when the will is read and all of her aunt’s inheritance save ten thousand dollars goes to her cousin. Lily is removed from her home, and goes to be a secretary for a new-money up-and-comer. But when the woman’s morals clash with Lily’s own, she leaves her employ and goes to work as a milliner’s apprentice.

That’s Lily’s tragedy – her morals are in complete contradiction to Society’s. At any time, she could have blackmailed Bertha into supporting her through the use of her letters. She could have explained the Gus Trenor situation to Selden – that she thought he had invested her money, not given her a loan with sex as his repayment plan. She could have married Rosedale when he asked her instead of running away to Europe. But in not compromising her morals to Society’s needs, she doomed her own ability to live.

Huh. Apparently, the title comes from a line from the Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc. 7-4). (I said “huh” back there because I’m not a Bible reader.) But the significance of the title now makes a whole lotta sense. Poor Lily Bart is truly a fool, as she struggles to maintain a foothold in Society – the true House of Mirth. And her foolishness and inability to truly become one of the horrible, cold women within that House is her downfall.

Grade for The House of Mirth: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

great-gatsby-traditional-edition

I can’t believe I have two reviews I haven’t written yet. I finished two books in May, and haven’t even put … er, figurative pen to figurative paper about them. What is wrong with me? (Don’t answer that.)

Let’s begin with May’s theme (arbitrarily decided upon with no outside input, sarcastic thanks to all of you who answered my survey) (but no seriously, legitimate thanks to the three of you that did respond, that really meant a lot), Classic Literature. And since I’m fond of hopping on bandwagons (give me a stair-car and I can rule the world!), I figured I’d just go ahead and kill a lot of birds with a minimal amount of stones (maybe mistresses with cars?) and read The Great Gatsby.

Holy shit, I have got to stop using parenthetical phrases. That above paragraph is disgusting. My junior-year English teacher would be rolling over in her grave if she was dead.

Okay, show of hands: do I really need to talk about the plot of Gatsby?  I mean, everyone’s read it at least once, right?  Or seen the movie?  No?  *sigh* Okay, give me a second while I throw up a big SPOILER ALERT.

Look, you guys know I don’t do this often — I’m a ruiner.  It’s practically my job.  So if you are saving the ~handwave~ big mystery about Gatsby for the 2 p.m. matinee at your local thee-a-ter, skip the next paragraph, okay?  Okay.

We all know that the story is told by Nick Carroway, second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, married to the abusive adulterer Tom Buchanan, and Nick lives next-door to Gatsby, who is in love with Daisy and has been since he knew her before the war.  He loves her so much that he completely recreated himself from a poor boy to a rich man, all in an attempt to win her back.  And it works — until she drives over her husband’s mistress with Gatsby’s car, and then the mistress’s husband kills Gatsby while he’s lazing in his pool.  In the end, Tom and Daisy don’t change whatsoever, Nick goes back home to the Midwest, and high schoolers are made to read this book until the end of time.

Hey, welcome back, culture-illiterates!  (Sorry, I don’t know why I’m being so mean right now.  All of a sudden, I’m super-sarcastic.  Apologies.  Apologies, all around.)

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about some of the other stuff.  Now, I should mention that if you’re looking for a tie-in to the movie, look somewhere else; I haven’t seen it yet.  If you’re lucky, it might show up on Movies Alaina’s Never Seen in a couple of years.  I have seen The Hangover Part III, and if you want to talk about the allusions it made to Shawshank Redemption, HAVE AT IT, and also, SHUT UP.  So instead, I’m going to talk about what I took away from Gatsby this time, compared to the last time I read it, which was in high school, which was a <i>long</i> time ago.

All I can remember about Gatsby was this writing exercise we had to do: take the first seven paragraphs of Chapter 3 (where Nick Carroway describes the first Gatsby Party he attends) and using the same stylistic choices, create your own scene.  I remember describing an amusement park, and I’ll bet that if I look deep enough into the detritus of my life office, I may still have a copy of the paper somewhere (grade: A).  I also remember discussing the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and how that signified hope, and that still resonates.

There have been some criticisms of the book from friends and strangers alike who complain that none of the characters in Gatsby have any redeeming qualities.  That is true.  Gatsby was a shiftless layabout who only became an enterprising individual after he fell in love with Daisy and recognized that the only way to be with Daisy was to be rich, because Daisy is flighty and conceited and vain and awful.  And Gatsby’s way of making money was to (theoretically, it’s never actually proven) be a bootlegger during Prohibition.  Tom Buchanan marries Daisy but doesn’t love her, abuses her, and cheats on her.  Daisy doesn’t love Tom but stays with him because women didn’t divorce men in those days, and also, because she’s grown complacent in her life: he has money, she’s taken care of financially, she doesn’t need to worry.  Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s sometimes lover, is accused of cheating at pro golf but doesn’t get kicked out, and pretty much is there to provide backstory.

The only person we can somewhat identify with is Nick, because he’s our eyes and ears: he’s our narrator.  We are viewing this story through his eyes, and while we may have questions (was Gatsby a bootlegger?  Did Tom really hit Daisy, or did she come by those bruises naturally?  Did Daisy ever tell Tom that Gatsby wasn’t driving?), Nick doesn’t ask the questions and the answers aren’t offered to him, so we can only speculate.  But Nick is still a reliable narrator, and we can trust his views and perceptions, because we really have no other alternative.

Plus, he says things like this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that.  In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.  [1]

Essentially, Nick suffers from the same problem with which I am also afflicted: we both have faces where people can tell us anything. No, seriously. Do you know why my hair is so long? It’s full of secrets. Because everyone tells me everything. So look, unless we are true friends — and True Friendship means I’ve held your hair back while you pray to the porcelain god, or I’ve trailed a boyfriend for you to make sure he is going to football practice, or you’ve yelled up at my window at 8 a.m. to make sure I’m awake, or I’ve promised to share the profits from our joint book venture, The Illustrated Guide to Universally Known Hand Gestures — I don’t want to know details of your sex life, or what you think about your boyfriend that I’ve never met, or — and y’know? Even if I do know you that well, I still don’t want to know that stuff. What happens in the marital bedroom stays in the marital bed, guys, and I’m glad that you’re open with that type of stuff, but I’m just too apathetic to whatever.

The above rant is brought to you by: Store Set. Store Set. That time when everyone gets loopy and feels they need to keep the conversation going.

ANYWAY. So we know from Paragraph 3 that Nick is a reliable narrator. So we can believe him when he feels that Tom is an asshole wearing a Person Suit. We can trust him when we get the impression that he’s unamused with Daisy’s antics. We can trust that the lavishness that surrounds Gatsby is true, and also that Gatsby did it all to impress Daisy.

Because it’s no coincidence that he built his mansion directly across the bay from her. It might be coincidence that Nick happened to rent the house next to Gatsby and that Daisy is his second cousin, thereby providing the ‘in’ that Gatsby would want.

So what are we going to do about all of these unlikeable characters? Some criticism I’ve read about Gatsby tries to say that because the characters are despicable, we shouldn’t rate the book as classic literature. Well, I hate Holden Caulfield, but I recognize that The Catcher in the Rye is another book that deals with heavy themes and deals with them well — until Mark David Chapman really latched on to it. I mean, Catcher is about adolescence, the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, and also — and maybe I’m reaching here, because that’s another book I haven’t read since high school — how people present themselves to different people. The duality of man, par exemple. (Sorry, I’ve been watching Mad Men. How can a show where nothing overly dramatic happens be so damn dramatic?)

Conversely, there are a lot of despicable characters that do get redeemed. I think the difference here is that Gatsby dies before he can change. And that’s another tenet of great literature that, actually, Gatsby seems to eschew: characters start the novel at one place, emotionally, physically, spiritually. And no matter what you read, whether it’s a romance, a classic novel, or a sci-fi title, at least one of those characters have to experience change. Gatsby doesn’t; he dies. Daisy and Tom certainly don’t change. The case could be made that Nick attempted to change by moving to New York and dealing with all of these nouveau riche idiots, and then reverted back to himself by moving back home. Nick’s journey – and he’s the narrator, after all – could be retroactive. In this, Fitzgerald turned the idea of the novel as a journey on its head. Rarely do characters start out one place and move backwards.

Finally, through all of this discussion of reduction and moving backwards and unlikeable characters, the feeling that I left Gatsby with is, remarkably, one of hope. Gatsby — arguably for all the wrong reasons — pulled himself up from poverty by enlisting in the army for World War I, and turned opportunities into advantages. He ended up very wealthy through his own efforts. Unlike Tom and Daisy, whose wealth was inherited and unearned. Gatsby wants to do right by Daisy; unfortunately, Daisy is too childish and stupid (there; I said it) to want to give up her comfortable bland life to be with Gatsby, because the truth that Gatsby can’t accept is that Daisy doesn’t love him anymore. Daisy doesn’t love anyone. But Gatsby loves passionately; that can be seen through his endeavors. He was just too blinded by a dream to recognize the reality.

And doesn’t that happen to all of us? We have all fallen into passionate crushes or love affairs, and it’s not until reality sinks in — whether it’s that you finally spend the night with him and you realize he snores worse than Snorey McSnoreson (and folks, that’s a deal-breaker right there), or you realize that you like him more than he likes you — whatever it is, the dream implodes, you’re back to harsh reality; the autumn of breakups, if you will.

Gatsby, for all of his deviousness and unlikeability, is still a multi-faceted character. And my final “final” thought is to remind everyone that “Great” doesn’t refer to his personality. “Oh, Gatsby; he’s so great.” No. That’s not what the Great Gatsby means. The definition that Fitzgerald was intending was the following: Unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.

And I think that that’s something we can all agree on.

Grade for The Great Gatsby: 4 stars

Fiction: “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

Dudes, I tried. I seem to have vague memories of reading the abridged version back when I was a kid, and wanted to revisit that when I began reading this, oh, over a month ago, but … I do not remember Little Women being so preachy.

Maybe I shouldn’t have read the introduction, where it is revealed that Ms. Alcott wrote the book specifically as a moralizing tome for young, impressionable ladies. I’m not impressionable anymore (thank God), so it just wore on me.

Where was the sweet romance between Jo and Laurie that people keep talking about? Why is everyone so nice to each other? Even Amy apologizes to Jo after her temper tantrum.

I got to where Jo cut off her hair so Marmee could go to Washington. I can’t read anymore. It wears on me, heavily, and I don’t have the energy to force myself to read a book I’m not enjoying just because it’s ‘classic American literature.’

So. I quit. Next up: Christopher Moore’s Fool, a retelling of King Lear from the Fool’s point of view.

Grade for Little Women: No stars ( + Chuck Bass Disapproves, because, really? Chuck Bass is the antithesis of Little Women)