Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ – Thomas Hardy

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Rating: ★★★★

I have tried to read Hardy before and failed, but despite my 15 year old self not being enthralled by Tess of the D’Urbevilles, I have heard many great things about him and thought I would give him another chance. I was thoroughly pleased with this novel and thought it was fun, fast-paced and exciting. I would definitely recommend this book to friends.

350px-TroybathshebaThe story begins with Gabriel Oak, a shepherd with his own flock of sheep. He falls in love with Bathsheba Everdene who is staying nearby with her aunt, but she rejects his proposal because she says she is not good enough for him as she has nothing, and he could not tame her. They part ways, but a reversal of each of their fortunes finds them together again; Bathsheba with her own farm this time and he without. Gabriel works for Bathsheba for years, still in love with her from afar and they become friends. He stays loyal to her throughout all the dramatic events that Bathsheba experiences, and you will spend the book waiting to see if their romance will come to anything.

81Gxt8L1v1LWhat I really liked about this book was that, unlike many other classic novels, any unlike some of Hardy’s work that I have tried to read before, Far From The Madding Crowd was easy to read and events happened quickly. The chapters, for example, were not long, and they all held my attention. Nevertheless, it did not stop the writing being beautiful. The descriptions were poetic and such that they could, in a few lines, tell you what other books spend pages trying to describe. Take, for example, the following descriptions, which stopped me in my tracks.

  • – “Any observer who had seen him now would hardly have believed him to be a man who had laughed, and sung, and poured love-trifles into a woman’s ear.”
  • “She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”
Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy

I also loved the characters of Bathsheba and Gabriel. Bathsheba’s character is an oddity in other novels from the time, and also many from today. She is, unlike many other female characters, fiercely independent to begin with, and actually loses it. I would have liked to get a stronger sense of her regaining her fieriness at the end of the novel, but she did seem to be well and truly tamed. I am sure that Hardy did not mean it to be that way, because she was written in a very flattering manner for a self-supporting woman of the 19th century, but it did seem like it. Gabriel was also a great character although, for such a principal character, very little was said about it. He always seems to be on the side-lines of the story, but I guess the little emphasis placed on him mirrors his role. He is loyal to Bathsheba, but watches her from the outskirts of her life and waits for any sign that she may want him back. Perhaps more stories for Gabriel or more action from him would have taken away from the fantastic love story which drives the novel.

Overall, I am definitely glad that I decided to read Far From The Madding Crowd and will definitely try to read more of Hardy – perhaps I will finally finish Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Now I am ready to sit and watch the new movie when it is released on May 1st.

Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ – D.H. Laurence

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First published in 1928, the scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the United Kingdom for over 30 years. In 1960, Penguin, who used the defence that it was of literary merit, published it. This resulted in the famous obscenity trial against Penguin Books where the since-mocked questions were asked; “Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” In 1961, after Penguin was found not guilty, the second edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was dedicated to the twelve jurors who allowed the book to be openly published. And so, like this, DH Laurence’s story of a passionate affair across societal boundaries and of a woman discovering her sensuality and the value of living life on her own term’s gained a reputation which still lasts today.

D.H. Laurence
D.H. Laurence

The day of its first publication in 1960, it sold 200,000 copies and I am almost certain that with a new BBC adaptation to be released in 2015 starring Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden and James Norton, the book will be making waves across a brand new audience and generation. After all, banned books always engender curiosity. Although I had been intending to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover for a while, wanting to see for myself what all the fuss had been about, it was the news of the new adaptation that gave me the final push to read it. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not the story of a love affair that takes place in a vacuum. This is very clearly a 20th century drama which concerns itself with the changes happening in society around the characters, changes such as the collapse of British industry, ‘liberated’ women and recovering soldiers. The world around Constance Chatterley has been destroyed and is in the process of building itself up again. When she married her husband in 1917, she did not think of sex as an important part of life, instead preferring an intellectual connection and so when her husband is paralysed in the war, this doesn’t much affect their relationship. It isn’t until later that she begins to feel that something is missing. Her role of carer is slowly taken from her as a woman is hired to be a nurse for Clifford, and eventually this woman also takes away Constance’s role of companion, and she finds herself enjoying her new freedom. Constance takes her new freedom step-by-step, first enjoying walks in the forests until eventually, she begins an affair with Oliver Mellors, the groundskeeper. book coverThe characters themselves are mostly not particularly exciting. Constance is, for the majority of the novel, difficult to understand. Even though the story is told from her perspective, it is unclear to the reader whether she loves Mellors, whether she is using him for sexual gratification or just because she has nothing better to do. Similarly, with Mellors, it is unclear for much of the book whether he truly loves Constance or is simply lustful. It isn’t for a while that these questions are clarified, and even when I am sure that the two do love each other, I still doubted it. How long would it last? This final question is left unanswered, and I now appreciate the significance behind it. We, the reader, are much like the people around Constance and Mellors who, when they declare their relationship, doubt the sincerity of their relationship. Even further, my dismissal of the depth of their relationship also highlighted something else to me; that claiming that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is only a book about a scandalous affair greatly diminishes it. In fact, the affair itself wasn’t even the most interesting part of the book. On the other hand, what interested me the most was Constance’s embracing of her liberty and her growth into a woman who decides to live her life on her own terms. It is this that I believe set Lady Chatterley’s Lover out from the other books of its time. This was a time of writers philosophising, questioning life and death and the world around them. This was the time of the Lost Generation writers and experimentation in literature, breaking down the rules and boundaries. Although Lady Chatterley literally is breaking the rules, having an affair, getting pregnant and even worse, with someone in a different class who is also married, she is also acting against the intellectual movement of the time. Her husband literally cannot enjoy his physical body, but neither can he appreciate this enjoyment in other people or the physical world around him without breaking it down to ideas and words. It is this world which Constance rejects and is “born” again as a woman.

Lady Chatterley's Lover made waves when it was openly published in 1960
Lady Chatterley’s Lover made waves when it was openly published in 1960

I don’t think I would class Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an enjoyable read, but it was definitely interesting and I don’t regret reading it. Although the plot was dull and the relationship between Constance and Mellors felt unclear and a little flat, this allows Constance’s development as a character to really shine. Constance rebels against society in the opposite way to characters in other books from the same period; Constance embraces sexual and physical love, and emotions came after. She rejected the world of intellectualism and philosophising and instead falls in love with Mellors’ world, one of nature, transparency and staying true to oneself.

Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – Gaston Leroux

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I love the 2004 movie production of musical The Phantom of the Opera. The songs are amazing and the story fascinating, so I decided to read the book that inspired it. It is originally a French novel written by Gaston Leroux and published in 1909, and I found it to succeed in areas which many classic novels fail – to be genuinely tense. Admittedly, there were parts which I found boring and wanted to skip, but I did enjoy reading it.

For those who do not know, The Phantom of the Opera is set, you guessed it, in the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century and follows a series of strange events. At the centre of the story are three characters. Christine Daae has just made her debut at the lead singer at the Opera to great praise from the audience, and Raoul, who is among the audience, is in love with her. They were childhood friends, and now he wants nothing but to be with Christine. However, Christine is plagued by a mysterious voice who guides her called the Angel of Music, who turns out not to be an angel but a real man, the same man who has been nicknamed ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ by the other inhabitants of the opera. Why has he been named in this way? His appearance is ghastly, with those who glimpse him comparing him to death itself, and the way that the Phantom, whose real name is Erik, travels around the opera through hidden tunnels and doorways, means that he has become a sort of myth. In fact, Erik lives in the cellars of the Opera, and is himself in love with, or obsessed with, Christine. The story comes to its climax when Erik kidnaps Christine, threatens the lives of everyone in the opera, and Raoul must undertake to save her.

Gaston_Leroux_-_Le_Fantôme_de_l'OpéraThe main thing that I liked about this story was the character of Erik. There is a marvellous line in the story that “he had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.” He was much more interesting than the rather dull and predictably sickly-sweet couple that was Christine and Raoul, and Erik was the only character who I truly pitied. Through Leroux’s writing, the pain and betrayal that Erik felt when Christine turned against him, disgusted by his looks was clear. In fact, most of the book I spent wondering what Erik would do next and when he would pop up for the next time.

In fact, Christine and Raoul were at times nauseating. It was truly disappointing, considering the depth of Erik’s character and the pity that we felt for him, that these two characters were not given the same emotional exploration. Yes, we were given a lot of their backstory, but this was more of an information dump style of storytelling. Frankly, I did not like Christine at all and felt that the presentation of her as nothing more but a pious girl who needed saving and whose only solution to her problems was to elope and marry was bland and her character reminded me a little of Cossette – much less interesting than her central role in the story would suggest. I was also disappointed that Raoul and Christine were not more heroic at the final stages of the story. It was the mysterious Persian who saved the day and it was clear that Raoul would have achieved nothing without his help.

AVT_Gaston-Leroux_7086On the other hand, this could all have just been a clever way for Leroux to show us how pathetic Raoul was in comparison to the intelligent and passionate Erik, who the world has turned into a monster, and the fickleness of Christine, who decides pretty easily to abandon her dear Angel of Music for Raoul. Also, it was clear through all of the characters that Leroux wanted to explore the dangers of obsessive love. I wasn’t particularly convinced by any of the love stories, neither Christine and Erik’s nor Christine and Raoul’s, but it was clear that neither of them were free of faults.

On another note, I found the book easy to read, although the structure and changes in narrative style were rather off-putting and could venture into the realm of dullness. In particular, I hated the final few chapters that were told from the diary entries of the Persian. I understand that Leroux was trying to root it in historical events and give us a reminder of real time and place, but it was just boring, especially when the diary entries began to turn into retellings of the characters’ biographies. I would have much preferred for Leroux to have kept to his usual writing style, and it would have made the final few chapters as tense and exciting as the first.

Overall, The Phantom of the Opera was not a great book, but it was entertaining. Unlike many books which have mystery at their core, it felt like the book got more boring as it went on, but I loved the character of the Phantom and what I took to be a commentary on superficial and obsessive love.

Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ – John Buchan

The poster for the book's 1935 Hitchcock adaptation
The poster for the book’s 1935 Hitchcock adaptation

A few years ago, I watched the 2005 adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps starring Rupert Penry-Jones, and I thought it was a fun mix between period drama and James Bond. So, I thought I would read the novel behind it, by John Buchan, which was published in 1915. However, unfortunately I did not enjoy it as much as the film that I saw, and thought it paled in comparison to my expectations.

ThirtyNineStepsThe story of The Thirty-Nine Steps concerns Richard Hannay in May 1914. He is approached by a stranger called Scudder, who says that he is in great danger and in need of help. Hannay lets the man stay with him and listens to his story. He tells him of a conspiracy plot which will shake Europe and start a war, by assassinating the Greek Prime Minister, Karolides. However, one day Hannay returns home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his apartment, and flees, fearing that he will be blamed. His plan is to hide until the plot that Scudder predicted takes place, and then return with Scudder’s notes to prove his innocence. He gets on a train to Scotland, but finds himself a hunted man, both by the police for Scudder’s death and by Scudder’s enemies, in case he knows what Scudder knew. So, we follow Hannay as he tries to avoid capture and tries to prevent war.

What I found most boring about this novel was the lack of interesting characters. Not that Hannay was boring, because he was not, but he seemed to be brilliant at everything. Luckily for him, Richard Hannay has been a mining engineer, soldier and intelligence officer and speaks German, all of which proves very helpful as he evades capture. He manages to decode Scudder’s notes, discover where the German agents are hiding when all the best intelligence officers in England cannot, figure out what part of the coast it will take place even when a man who supposedly knows it better than anybody cannot, and just happened to learn spying techniques from a friend who was once a spy. Hannay was an early twentieth century James Bond, which is fine, but I would have much preferred some sort of side-kick character, a partner, which is what he has in the movie adaptations, in the form of a female love interest.

Writer John Buchan
Writer John Buchan

I admit, I spent most of the book waiting for the female character that I saw in the film, and know is also present in earlier adaptations, only to be disappointed. I was not waiting for it purely because I like romantic sub-plots, but because I don’t enjoy reading about character who know everything and don’t need anybody else! Relationships and partners in crime are much more fun to read about, and considering the time that the book was set and written in, such a character being female would have been fantastic. In fact, the only female characters in the whole novel were Scottish housewives who gave Hannay a room to stay in and some food, and barely spoke, if they spoke at all. So, apart from Richard Hannay being a superhero of his time, all of the other significant characters were male and largely useless in comparison to Hannay and his set of super-spy skills.

Nevertheless, the book’s writing style was not bad, and I actually enjoyed the way that Buchan wrote, which makes the characters even more of a shame. The sentences were easy to read and flowed well, and were sometimes quite funny. I particularly enjoyed a passage where Richard Hannay comments on how he escaped to evade a murder he had not committed, and in the passage of doing so committed crimes he would have never expected to. It is disappointing though, to think that just slightly better crafted characters this book could have been so much more, and genuinely enjoyable.

Overall, I was unfortunately disappointed with The Thirty-Nine Steps. Although the film that I watched probably set me up for failure considering how much I enjoyed aspects of it that weren’t in the book, but I think that the lack of interesting characters would have rendered me just as bored even if I had entered into it with no preconceptions.

Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front, written by German veteran and author Erich Maria Remarque, and published in 1929, has been described as the definitive novel of the First World War. It follows Paul, a nineteen-year-old German soldier fighting in France and is a haunting novel. Not only was it a gripping read, but the novel was also beautifully written. I would recommend this book to anybody, as an exploration not only of war, but of youth, friendship and survival.

All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front-Novel-e1311707538832Paul, along with the other boys from his class at school, was encouraged by their schoolteacher to join the war effort and become heroes. Throughout the course of the novel, Paul describes the battles that they fight, the losses their group experiences, the new soldiers that he meets and forms friendships with and other events that befall him during his time on the Western Front.

Unlike other war novels, the battles and events are not given a historical context. We do not know what years the events and battles are taking place in, we rarely know where the soldiers are stationed, and in between chapters and events, it is not clear how much, if any, time has passed between them. I liked this aspect to the book, as there was a real focus on Paul and his psychological journey through the war rather than his physical one. Very few times are we walked through Paul’s actions on the battlefield, and are more likely to be given an insight into his thoughts. However, when we did see him in battle, it was gripping and tense. The whole way through the novel, despite the chronology and time being ambiguous, I felt tense and really gripped by the story. The way that the story is told, in such a freely-flowing manner, means that you never know what will happen; whether a battle will end quickly with no significant events or whether tragedy will strike. Some battles lasted whole chapters and some were over within a few paragraphs.

erich-maria-remarque-1898-1970-german-everettAnother aspect of the novel that I liked was that all of the characters were written in such a realistic way. The dialogue was completely believable and I could really imagine a group of young men having the conversations. One of the things that struck me the most when reading the novel was the fleeting nature of Paul’s relationships with the other soldiers – they enjoy a great comradeship, but at the same time, when one falls in battle or is sent away, he is quickly put out of mind. However, even if their friendships are not ‘normal’, the characters still felt well-developed. They all have their own characteristics, whether it be Kat who has a gift for finding needed objects, whether it be food or clothing, or Albert who questions the War, every character brings something new to the story, even if they are only present for a short while. I also felt like every scene between the characters touched on an important, or at least moving, issue, whether it is the scene where the soldiers risk their lives in a barrage of shooting to make themselves a luxurious dinner, or discuss what their plans are for after the war.

Overall, I would agree with the statement that All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best war novels. Of the novels that I have read about the First World War, this has definitely moved me more than most and it is a book that I can imagine going back to and reading again in the future.