Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reading binge

I used to read books like a house afire, especially after I emerged from graduate school and was catching up on all the non-thesis related stuff that I hadn't been able to get to while I was focused on getting my degree -- not that I didn't like what I was working on; I just couldn't decide to take a break and read Grapes of Wrath in the middle of it. It also helped that my first job out of school was as at a bookstore, which is like putting a sugar-fiend in a candy shop.

Then, when I moved on to other employment, I actually slowed down a bit, sometimes for months without even wanting to read anything but newspapers and magazines -- a bit jaded. For the last few months, I've really got back to my roots, which was always 19th century British fiction. And luckily, I've left one extremely prolific author completely untouched, unlike my beloved Austen and Eliot (I have the lone Eliot novel remaining -- Felix Holt -- which will probably fall this winter.)

Right after I began with Trollope's Can You Forgiver Her, I went on to the next door-stopper, Phineas Finn. I was just as hooked with this one. The title character is a young man on the rise. Finn is a poor Irishman, studying law, bored with it, but making fascinating friends in London by way of his good looks, charming manners, and intelligence. His new friends are not only aristocratic, they are politicians and cabinet ministers, who plant the ambition for Finn to also run for Parliament -- a lofty goal for an unknown with no money; in fact, he is still supported by his father -- a modest physician practicing in a country village in Ireland. Finn's plan to run for a seat in the House is met with little enthusiasm, since it means throwing away his law studies (and a more promising professional income in the long run) for the vagaries of serving in an unpaid political post. But so begins the unlikely success of Phineas, who finds himself in the political inner circle of England during the momentous debates around the passage of the Reform Bill of 1867, which sought to extend the ballot to a greater number of men.

Trollope fictionalizes all the real players, but other than changing names, he pretty much hews close to the historical record. And of course, it's not all politics -- there's lots of interpersonal intrigues, romances, doomed marriages, triangles, and even a duel. Also popping up are characters from the first Palliser novel, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife Glencora and, very much on the periphery of this story, is CYFH protagonist Alice Vavasor and John Grey. All in all, more good, old-fashioned entertainment, told with Trollope's customary attention to detail. layered characters, and sparkling wit.

But that's not all!

Just like the infomercials, there's more. I went back to the well on another favorite of mine -- the Brontes. I've read most of the novels except for Charlotte's The Professor and Anne's Agnes Grey, and also Juliet Barker's fabulous family biography. I thought I would try a novelistic version of the Bronte clan, but by an author who I trusted not to make a bodice-heaving botch of it -- Denise Giardina. I loved Giardina's novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Saint's and Villains, which I read back in my bookstore days; plus, she's kind of a home girl, born and raised in the coalfields of West Virginia. She takes as her thorny subject, the least penetrable Bronte in Emily's Ghost, a lovely, moody, smart take on Emily's life and early demise.

Giardina takes what little is known of Emily -- and that mostly from Charlotte's more extensive biographical resources -- and creates a believable version of the semi-mystical creature who has come down to us through the lens of her few poems and that strange, violent, completely original novel, Wuthering Heights. Giardina's Emily is fiercely independent, willful, radical in her politics, loyal to a few, but indifferent to most, and indeed, almost mystically allied with her windswept moors, the voices of the dead, and the animals with whom she feels such strong kinship. She imagines a doomed romance between Emily and the curate William Weightman and creates a very vivid world in which this, perhaps unlikely, relationship could grow. Set against the abject poverty of the people in Haworth Village, the Chartist riots, and the degrading conditions of the now-industrialized mill workers, the concerns of the novel rise above the merely romantic.

I don't want to give much away about how Giardina brings all of it together, but anyone interested in the Brontes should read this novel. The rest of the family is well-represented with Branwell coming off a little better than you might expect, and Charlotte, not very well at all. It's an intriguing portrait and genuinely heartbreaking at the end. The most tantalizing scene for me is the one in which the sister's are sharing their first novels by reading them aloud to one another. Emily's characters and story shocked and dismayed her sisters (which seems probable). Their criticism -- Anne's gentle and Charlotte's much less so -- draws Emily to declare angrily, "But I am Heathcliff -- I am!" It's enough to send me back to read Wuthering Heights again with that in mind. When I think about it from that perspective, it's an idea that makes sense and may even open up the novel to me in ways that I totally didn't appreciate the first time around.