Two great classics: Great Expectations and The House of Mirth

It seems that I’ve missed a whole month!  Where did January go?  I’ve not posted since the end of December – have you missed me?  Probably not…

My neglect has been bugging me, but honestly, I’ve not had the time to act on that niggle in the back of my mind.  I started a new job the week before Christmas, and new hours and a new location have meant that I haven’t been able to use my usual blogging time – i.e. on the train! – to write.  And I’ve not felt like putting my laptop on at home.  I look at a screen all day, and my evenings and weekends have become very precious to me.  The idea of using them to look at a computer for any longer, even to write, fills me with lethargy.

However, on Friday my first magazine at my new job went to print, and after a hectic few weeks I feel a bit more myself again!  I felt like a new start, and so thought a blogging update was in order.  I’m still following Savidge Reads and AJ Reads’ Classically Challenged, and reading along with them, but the reviews have been getting behind.  I was already behind on my reviews before I started my new job, and now my “to review” shelf is filling me with despair!  But I want my blog to be fun, not a chore (another reason why I haven’t forced myself to blog while I haven’t felt like it), so I thought that I could combine a little update with two short reviews in one.  Hopefully you won’t feel too short-changed!

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Let’s start with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I read around Christmas-time.  The dramatic opening, with Pip, our narrator, encountering a convict in the marshes near his home, held my attention immediately when I first read it as an undergraduate, and it didn’t fail to do so again on a second reading.  I don’t think I really need to go into too much detail about the full plot as there are so many elements to it and it’s been well covered in plenty of other places (try here and here if you’d like more plot details) but I’d like to pick out a few of my favourite bits.

The genius of Pip’s character is that he is weak, embarrassed by his humble origins and disloyal to the people who care for him most, yet Dickens still manages to make him likeable.  He has his heart in the right place, but unfortunately he often obeys his worst instincts rather than his guilty conscience.  Although we are party to his innermost thoughts, he’s not really the strongest character – he is simply the thing which links all the other characters and around whom all the novel’s action occurs.

The legend of Miss Havisham is known even by those who have not read the book, and she really stands out.  She is an eccentric spinster, jilted on her wedding day and now years later, whether from grief, hate, spite, denial, or a mixture of reasons, she replays her wedding preparations each and every day, wearing the same dress, keeping to the same few rooms of her house, and casting her eyes over the same withered wedding feast, never cleared away.  Her adopted daughter Estella has been brought up in this bizarre setting, with the one warped goal to be to wreak Miss Havisham’s revenge on all men.

There are many twists and turns to this novel, all tied together by Pip and the numerous strong characters which shine out around him.  I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the ending.  Great Expectations is definitely my favourite Dickens – if you’ve never read anything by him, but would like to, this has to be the one to start with.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Next up is The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, which was January’s Classically Challenged read.  Again, I don’t really want to go into too much detail with the plot, even though this is not as well-known as Great Expectations, but you can read a longer review here.  I’ll just touch on the main aspects which drew me in.

The book is set in the late 1800s in New York.  Lily Bart is a beautiful society lady who is much-loved by those around her.  However, she a problem: she has no money of her own.  She has an allowance from her aunt, but this only gets her so far, and she is gradually building up gambling debts from playing too much bridge.  The only respectable solution is for her to marry someone rich, who will allow her to live the life she craves.  Unfortunately, while she has had plenty of suitors in her time, for one reason or another these opportunities have all fallen through, and she is now approaching her 30s: time is running out, and her success is waning.

Like Pip in Great Expectations, Lily is flawed and not always the most sympathetic of characters (her obsession with status and money can try a reader’s patience at times), but she can still be endearing and occasionally you are treated to a depth of personality which clearly goes far beyond that of her so-called friends.  This is the factor which draws her to Lawrence Seldon, and him to her.  Seldon is a lawyer who is on the borders of Lily’s society and who can observe her and her crowd from a different perspective.  There is no expectation from either of them that they will marry, as Seldon cannot give Lily the status she dreams of, so they become good friends instead and can talk frankly and honestly to each other.  Despite, or, more to the point, because of this, there is both a tension and an attraction between the two; the scenes where they meet are electric.

There is so much more to this book than I can say in a short review.  It was like an American version of Jane Austen’s novels: the details of a narrow social setting expertly observed and combined with a great storyline.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be seeking out more of Wharton’s novels.  I’m just surprised her books don’t have the same classic status as other writers of her era, although perhaps she is more well-known to American students than British ones?

So there you have it.  Although they’re not as long as my usual reviews, I hope these tasters were enough to make you want to go and read these fantastic books!  Next on my reading list is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles.  I was lucky enough to win a copy from Savidge Reads (thanks Simon!) which dropped through my letterbox yesterday.  I’m very excited about reading this as I love Hardy.  I’ve never actually read Tess but I listened to it as an audiobook years ago, and I can’t wait to finally read a physical papery copy!  Although when I’ll get a review to you is another story…


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thewordsarechasingme
    Feb 21, 2013 @ 21:51:29

    Have you read Mister Pip by :Lloyd Jones and Jack Maggs by Peter Carey ? Both novels are interesting reinterpretations of Great Expectations. They are interesting from a Postcolonial, and Postmodern perspective, (My Blog has sadly been neglected to, the work for this Masters is piling up and not slowing down.)


    • TheBrontëSister
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 17:43:02

      No I’ve not read them actually, but I’ve heard of Mister Pip. I’m never sure about reinterpretations – it’s interesting to explore another side to a beloved (or misunderstood) character, yet I often find that a different writer won’t quite meet the expectations you have formed from the first writer. Reinterpretations seem to work best when they’re totally taken out of the expected context – like Wide Sargasso Sea, which I loved (although even then, still not as much as Jane Eyre).

      I wish I had more time to update my blog, but on the bright side, I’m flying through so many books at the moment rather than writing about them!


      • Beth Bloomfield-Carnill
        Feb 24, 2013 @ 19:14:56

        I love Wide Sargasso Sea, it really adds another dimension to Jane Eyre, and ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’ .
        Mister Pip is a really interesting reworking, as it retells Great Expectations in a slightly left of center way … I won’t say much more as I don’t want to spoil it incase you do read it. Jack Maggs is great, as are all Peter Carey novels. It brings alive Dicken’s London, and parallels the original in a really nice way.

  2. interestingliterature
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 23:37:08

    Super! You should read Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s article on why Great Expectations is his favourite Dickens, too – I can’t remember which paper it was in now, but it should be online somewhere.


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