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Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Jude Fawley, the stonemason excluded not by his wits but by poverty from the world of Christminster privilege, finds fulfilment in his relationship with Sue Bridehead. Both have left earlier marriages. Ironically, when tragedy tests their union it is Sue, the modern emancipated woman, who proves unequal to the challenge. Hardy’s fearless exploration of sexual and social relationships and his prophetic critique of marriage scandalised the late Victorian establishment and marked the end of his career as a novelist.”

REVIEW:  Hardy’s final novel, and possibly his most scandalous, tells the story of Jude Fawley (a young boy at the start of the novel), whose dream is to study in the nearby college town of Christminster and enter into the church just as his old schoolteacher and idol, Master Phillotson, has gone away to do. The novel follows Jude as he grows and sees his attempts to improve himself by learning Latin and Greek and seeking out new ways to learn, readying himself for the journey to Christminster that he believes will make his fortune. Jude’s plans are put on hold, however, when he is seduced by the beautiful but cunning Arabella, who traps him into marriage with a false pregnancy and proceeds from then on to make a misery of her young husband’s life. The couple agree to live separate lives, allowing Arabella to move to Australia with her family and Jude to follow his dreams of living and studying in Christminster. Christminster, however, is not all Jude dreamed it to be, and his lack of money prevents him from gaining entry into one of the prestigious colleges there. He is, however, reunited with his old friend Phillotson, and also meets his cousin, the free-spirited Sue Bridehead who, despite a nervous disposition, prefers works of theology over religion and is openly defiant towards authority. Jude and Sue soon develop feelings for each other, and these feelings both scandalise society and shape the tragic events that take place throughout the rest of the novel. When Sue marries Phillotson, only to leave him months later in order to live openly with Jude, the couple are shunned from town to town and find it difficult to find work, leading them into deep poverty. This only increases when Arabella returns, married again to another man, and brings with her a child of Jude’s whom she leaves in his care. The tale gets sorrier from here on in, with the children’s suffering providing the most shocking part of the story and proving greatly upsetting to the reader. The twists this story takes are such that I cannot reveal any more of the plot, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel despite finding it one of the more upsetting Hardy novels that I have read, mainly due to events concerning the children of Jude and Sue. My only problem with the novel was that I could not bring myself to like the character of Sue and found her extremely irritating despite her pretensions to cleverness and wit, and therefore during parts of the novel where she claimed to be suffering I found it difficult to feel anything other than dislike for her. Overall, however, the characters of Jude and Phillotson were particularly interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel.

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “One of Charles Dickens’ most beloved novels, ‘Great Expectations’ follows the orphan Pip as he leaves behind a childhood of misery and poverty after an anonymous benefactor offers him the chance of a life as a gentleman. From young Pip’s first encounter with the convict Magwitch in the gloom of a graveyard to the splendidly morbid set pieces in Miss Havisham’s mansion to the magnificently realised boat chase down the Thames, the novel is filled with the transcendent excitement that Dickens could so abundantly provide. Written in 1860 at the height of his maturity, it also reveals the novelist’s bittersweet understanding of the extent to which our deepest moral dilemmas are born of our own obsessions and illusions”

REVIEW: When I was in primary school, I remember having an extremely ambitious and enthusiastic English teacher who decided that we, at the age of ten, should be introduced to the great works of English literature. He did not begin with an easy novel, of course – he chose Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’. And, much to my surprise, I loved this novel from the very start. Whenever I read it I can still hear my teacher’s voice setting the scene of the gloomy and frightening graveyard, an image which instantly made an impression on my young mind; an impression that has stayed with me ever since. I have re-read the novel many times since then, and each time the magic of that first reading is recaptured for me. The story of Pip, a young boy whose innocence and kindness is forever corrupted after his association with the disturbed, jilted bride Miss Havisham and her young and beautiful ward, the casually cruel Estella, is one that continues to resonate across the ages. It deals most importantly with themes of guilt and innocence, with the idea of the corrupting influence of money, with the growing divide between rich and poor that was starkly present during the Victorian era. As with all of Dickens’ novels, the suffering of the characters is something that is so well-written that the reader almost begins to feel such suffering themselves. The character of Miss Havisham terrified me upon my first reading of the novel, and nowadays I concede with the view that she is one of the most complex, challenging and ambiguous characters in literary history – which, oddly, makes her one of my favourites. This novel is one that shaped my view of books by introducing me to the world of Victorian classics, and changed my outlook on literature for good. It is my favorite of all of Dickens’ works and I would highly recommend it.

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A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings by Charles Dickens

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RATING: 4/5

REVIEW: Seeing as there were so many snippets of Dickens’ wonderful festive writings in this book (which was, as you may have guessed, a much-appreciated Christmas present), I decided that for the purposes of this review I’d just focus on the one that many of us know and love: ‘A Christmas Carol’. This is, of course, the tale of the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose cold heart and cruel nature are amended through the visitations of four ghosts to him on Christmas Eve – that of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. As well as being a highly moral tale, this story is highly entertaining and I enjoyed going back to it after years of just watching the countless film adaptations every year! Dickens’ writing truly evokes the spirit of Christmas, in both good and bad circumstances, and this is a story to truly warm the heart and promote goodwill to all men! Go back to it this Christmas, or venture towards it for the first time if you like, and be truly amazed by how festive it makes you feel. 

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The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Helen Codrington is unhappily married. Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull hasn’t seen her once-dear friend for years. After bumping into Helen on the streets of Victorian London, Fido finds herself reluctantly helping her to carry out an affair with a young army officer. The women’s friendship quickly unravels amid courtroom accusations of adultery, counter-accusations of cruelty and attempted rape, and the appearance of a mysterious ‘sealed letter’ that could destroy more than one life…”

REVIEW: This book, based on a real-life scandal that took place in England in 1864, was a little difficult to get into (my Nan found the same thing, when I lent it to her); but, once it did get going, I found myself thoroughly gripped by the story. The fact that it was based on real life events made the peculiar friendship between Helen and Fido all the more interesting, especially as it was easy to sense that there had once been much more than just friendship between these two women. Links to the feminist movement were frequent and excellently written – having just had a series of lectures on the Victorian feminist movement, I can bear witness to their accuracy! Attitudes towards women – and, indeed, towards lesbianism – were extremely well-portrayed, and I felt particularly sorry for Fido by the end of the novel. Despite the fact that I found it difficult to like her at first, I felt some sympathy towards Fido in that her love for Helen was not only unrequited, it was incomprehensible to the rest of society. Although a little slow-moving and hard-going at times, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any feminists like myself who are interested in the origins of this great movement.