Goodnight Moon

When I first started this monthly blog, I made a resolution to myself to keep it up for twelve posts. Twenty-four posts later, I’m feeling pretty darn good about achieving that goal. Unfortunately, between work and family and friends, life is getting increasingly hectic, and finding time to read and summarize one classic per month is strangely harder than it sounds. I would rather not leave you hanging, but I must admit that a nice, round two-dozen summaries may be a good place for an ending. I won’t say goodbye, just in case a snarky mood strikes me in the future and I come crawling back to this blog. For the time being, however, I will say goodnight.

In honor of this finale/hiatus, I’d like to do something a little different. For the reading pleasure of my fellow English Lit nerds, I present to you a summary wrapped up in a brief (albeit ridiculous) overanalysis of Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s picture book, Goodnight Moon, as inspired by this discussion of the death metaphor, this Marxist interpretation, and an analysis of its lunar accuracy, among others.

While the obvious interpretation of this picture book is that it presents a soothing bedtime ritual meant to instill a sense of peace and sleepiness into its juvenile reader, one can also extract a darker meaning – an interpretation in which the peace is permanent and the slumber is eternal.   We begin our tale with a little rabbit child, lying in bed in a great green room. This green room, far too large for an average child’s bedroom, may be a metaphorical representation of the earth.   Little is known about the protagonist. While the rabbit wears blue-striped pajamas, often coded as masculine, the brush by the bedside bears the name “Bunny,” which is often a feminine nickname. The blankets on the bed are both green and pink, providing no hints as to its gender. This androgynous Bunny thus becomes our Everyman, an avatar for every child. As the book progresses, however, Bunny also becomes our victim and our ferryman, guiding us through the ritual of dying.

This descent into death is accompanied by the scenery and objects in the room: the clock on the bedside table progresses from 7:00 to 8:10, the fire dwindles down, and the room grows steadily darker. In the room are various objects that also lend a hand in creating this metaphor, including a red balloon, a number of pictures on the walls, and an old woman. In our death metaphor, the red balloon floating above the child’s head may represent the child’s soul escaping, as balloons are often filled with the life-giving breath. The pictures on the walls convey scenes from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. In the first, a cow jumps over a moon at night. Unlike the full moon outside Bunny’s window, this moon is a waning crescent; at the end of its cycle, it is about to wither, die, and be reborn again. Although the three bears in the next picture are doing nothing, they have the same picture on their wall of the cow jumping over the moon. In many cultures, both the cow and the moon are feminine entities, and this repetition perhaps gives a clue as to the identities of the bears. Are these bears, in fact, the Three Fates, debating whether to begin the creation of a new life thread? Or are they already spinning, measuring, and cutting threads, invisible to the mortal eye? Regardless of the answer, visible threads soon appear in Bunny’s room on an empty rocking chair. On the very next page, this chair is suddenly occupied by a quiet old lady rabbit.  This sequence of events suggests that she may very well be an embodiment of the third Fate, Atropos, who has found the end of the child’s allotted time on earth and prepares to cut the string, despite the fact that the form she is knitting has only begun to take shape. Does she whisper “hush” to soothe the little rabbit’s fears about the inevitable fate yet to come, or as a gesture to end Bunny’s life?

Bunny, perhaps now aware of its impending mortality, begins to bid farewell to its worldly possessions. It bids goodnight to the room and, by extension, the earth, along with the moon, that feminine entity which dictates the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. It says farewell to the light and the balloon – vision and breath –and to the picture of bears and chairs, which may be a representative of a child’s fears and comforts. Bunny says farewell to the kittens, who may be the old woman’s familiars, or perhaps a representation of one’s playful childhood. It says goodnight to clothing and clocks, an allusion to life’s responsibilities and time itself. It bids farewell to the little house, representing one’s home and domicile on earth, and the little mouse, whose movement around the room reflects a progression through life and through geography. Bunny next addresses the comb and brush, along with all other aspects of earthly cares and rituals. It bids farewell to nobody, which may perhaps be a cynical commentary on the reliance of deities within religion, and to mush, a representative of the mortal coil and the state to which it returns. Finally, the child says goodnight to death itself, personified in the old woman who still has a finger to her lips. The spirit of our departed soul is then free to bid farewell to the stars and air as it ascends to the celestial heavens.

On the final page, Death has gone, taking her yarn with her. Her familiars have taken her place on the chair. The fire in the room – and by extension, in the world – continues to burn, but the lamp is off and though the lights remain on in the little house, there is a feeling of emptiness about it. The mush in the bowl has dwindled, eaten by the mouse, just as our own mortal coils dwindle and decay after we have vacated them. Bunny’s eyes droop, but remain open, as no one has come to close them. There is a final goodnight to “noises everywhere,” which may be a direct reference to Hamlet’s dying words, wherein “the rest is silence.” Time of death: 8:10 PM. The final page of this tale is blank, as our Author does not divulge where Bunny’s journey shall lead after The End.

On that note, dear readers, I, too, will leave you with a bit of Silence to contemplate your own End. It has been my honor to provide a bit of snark in your life, and I hope I have entertained you, however briefly.

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Little Women

I figured this month I’d curl up by the metaphorical fire (because I can’t afford a real one) with another holiday classic, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This story traumatized me as a child, so I figured I would see what it’s like a few decades later – I can tell you now, it did not get much better.

We begin our story with the four March sisters –Meg (AKA Margaret, age 16, pretty, vain), Jo (AKA Josephine, age 15, lanky, boyish), Beth (AKA Elizabeth, age 13, pleasant, bland as overcooked oatmeal), and Amy (age 12, pretty, self-important, proper) who are all complaining like normal kids about how awful it is to be poor because it means they won’t get any Christmas presents. Well, three of them are. Beth is one of those insufferable sanctimonious types who thinks they should be content with having a warm home and loving parents (even if their dad is off in the army and their mother canceled Christmas on account of poverty). Fortunately, the girls each have a hard-earned dollar from their child labor practices, and they decide to buy themselves presents – until someone (probably Beth) realizes that their mother is also poor and then they squabble over who is going to buy her a pair of new shoes. (As “the man” of the family, Jo argues that it’s her duty. Four guesses as to who my favorite sister is.) They agree to each get her something different. Their mother comes home with a letter from their father, who writes how proud he is of his “Little Women.” No pressure, young teenage girls. This letter, of course, causes them all to burst into tears of guilt for being so selfish (except for Beth, who is a perfect angel and has no such burden of shame).

On Christmas morning, they each wake to find a book under their pillows, but nothing exciting in their stockings. Before they can give Mother her presents, she tells them of a poor German woman, Mrs. Hummel, with six starving kids a block away and suggests they donate their fancy Christmas breakfast and eat bread instead. This fine example of giving generously without expectation of reward is somewhat ruined that evening when they get a surprise feast for dinner from old Mr. Lawrence, the next-door neighbor who was apparently impressed by the breakfast donation.

Later (I say “later” because these chapters tend to suddenly skip forward a few days or months without necessarily giving a solid time frame), Meg informs Jo that they are invited to a New Year’s Eve dance.  While Meg frets in a girlish fashion over what to wear, Jo rolls her eyes because they really only have one nice dress each. Jo’s, of course, are full of stains and scorch marks. (The scorch marks should have been Meg’s first clue not to let Jo iron her hair, but oh well. I’m sure you can cover the burning smell with something.) While at the party, Jo looks for a hiding spot and runs into “the Laurence boy,” who had the same idea. He goes by the name of Laurie, because his real name is Theodore and people tend to call him Dora.  In a short time, these next-door neighbors manage to strike up a friendship in the way that only people with androgynous nicknames can. Just as they decide to attempt dancing in the hall, Meg sprains her ankle. Jo tries to bring her coffee, but manages to spill it all over herself in the meantime, and Laurie comes to her rescue, bringing coffee and snacks to Meg and taking them home in his grandfather’s carriage.  Wait, exactly how far apart are their houses?

The holidays end, and they all go back to work. Jo later sees Laurie again, who has been shut up in bed for a week with a cold. She brings him presents from her sisters (some food and a comfort kitten). He ends up confessing that he can hear them shouting at each other from his house and watches them from his window. Not at all creepy. She goes home to tell her family all about the Laurences, and they decide a visit should be paid en masse to the old rich man and his musical Italian grandson. Apparently they’ve never visited before, which seems a bit odd for the olden days. Beth is so timid that it takes her forever to work up the courage to ask to play on the piano. When she finally does, she makes the old man a pair of slippers as thanks, and he gives her a small piano in return.  It seems like a rather dramatic escalation in gift-giving practices until she marches over to his house and gives him a kiss in return for the piano. Her sisters declare that the world is coming to an end. If Beth were anyone more interesting, one might fear for her maidenly virtue.

Meanwhile, lime-sucking is all the rage at school, so Amy hoards limes in her desk until her teacher has her throw them out the window and slaps her hands with a ruler. I will never understand kids these days. Later, Amy gets upset because Jo and Meg are going to see a play without her. She swears her vengeance and when the girls get home, Jo can’t find the book in which she has written and rewritten her stories over the course of several years. It turns out Amy’s revenge consisted of throwing it in the fire (which emotionally scarred me as a child, resulting in a pervasive fear of having my writings burnt to cinders by vindictive siblings and other nefarious people).

Jo is understandably sulky and refuses to forgive Amy even after she apologizes. (She doesn’t cry, though, because that would be unmanly.) She goes skating with Laurie the next day to avoid her sister, but Amy tags along anyway in hopes of catching her in a forgiving mood. Amy, of course, falls through the ice, because the March sisters are nothing if not dramatic. Through Laurie’s quick thinking, they rescue her before she gets too sick and frostbitten. At home, Amy manages to pull through and lives to annoy another day, while Jo is remorseful about her own temper (I’m not sure why she’s apologizing – Amy’s the one who caused all the damage in the first place). Her mother talks about her own hotheaded temperament, and Jo is amazed to discover that parents have personalities too.

Later, Meg gets to go to Vanity Fair and learns that everyone expects her to have designs on Laurie. They are surprised that she still thinks of him as a little boy. They are also surprised that she only has one nice dress, so one of her rich friends takes it upon herself to turn Meg into Cinderella. Meg tries her hand at flirting and is startled to see Laurie looking at her a little disapprovingly. He informs her that he is only here to report back to Jo about how Meg looks. Turns out he’s not a fan of “fuss and feathers” and doesn’t like that she doesn’t look like herself. He’s still willing to dance with her, though, and she manages not to break anything this time. Instead, Meg drinks too much and goes home to confess her (fairly tame) night of debauchery.

Days pass and the girls spend their time writing newspapers and conducting experiments to see whether “all play and no work” is a feasible life option. They determine that it isn’t, but that’s because they’re amateurs. Unfortunately Pip the Canary gets the bad end of that deal because he starves to death with no one feeding him. Jo learns that she can’t cook and manages to make a completely inedible dinner, which is an accomplishment in itself.

Laurie invites the girls camping with his British friends and they play games that seem to get a bit philosophical for their age levels. A few days later, Laurie sees the girls carrying their hobbies into the woods to work on, and since he’s a busybody, he tags along. They all end up discussing their life goals – Laurie wants to be a famous musician in Germany, Jo wants to be a famous author, Amy wants to be a famous artist, Meg just wants to be rich and famous, and Beth wants to take care of her parents.  They swear to meet up in ten years to see how far along they’ve come.

Laurie catches Jo sneaking out one day with her manuscripts in her pocket.  It turns out she’s left some stories with the newspaper to publish. In exchange for that tidbit, he tells her that someone has stolen one of Meg’s gloves. Jo is a bit grossed out at the thought of someone courting Meg, and when Meg teases her about all of her running around, Jo confesses she just wants to be a girl as long as she can. A few days later, her story appears in the newspaper, so it appears she’s in the lead with her goal-getting.

In the dreary month of November, Mrs. March gets a telegraph informing her that her husband is ill and that she should come at once.   Everything is a flurry getting Mrs. March prepared for her journey, but Jo manages to sneak out and return with $25 for the “Making Father Comfortable” fund. It turns out she has cut her hair, and everyone is scandalized, remonstrating her with such dramatic phrases as “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” Time passes, they write letters, and wait.  Eventually they start to hear good news about their father.

Later, Beth visits Mrs. Hummel and her sick babies, despite having a headache of her own. While she’s there, one baby up and dies on her, and if that weren’t traumatizing enough, the doctor declares that all the kids have scarlet fever. Beth goes home and takes some belladonna for her own symptoms, and feels better. Problem solved. Except, no, things don’t work like that. Beth gets worse, and the housemaid sends Amy to Aunt March’s house just to be safe, while Jo stays to nurse Beth. Amy, of course, throws a fit until Laurie shows up and promises to take her out every day, while Aunt March’s pessimism lightens the mood with potential death and despair. They decide not to telegraph or write to their mother about Beth’s illness, even when the girl can no longer remember anyone’s names.

At the bidding of the doctor, Jo finally sends the telegram when Beth is at death’s door, and then has a breakdown of her own. Laurie tries to cheer her up with some wine, and confesses that he already sent a telegram yesterday. She flings some hugs and kisses at him when he offers to get Mother at the station, but she doesn’t pick up on his hint that more kisses in the future would be greatly appreciated. As they wait for their mother’s arrival, Beth’s fever breaks and they rejoice.

Meanwhile, Amy writes a will just in case she dies. Looks like Aunt March is having a great influence on her. Mother reunites with her family and Jo tells her mother that Mr. John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, has Meg’s other glove because he fancies her. Jo rather dislikes this idea and wishes she could keep Meg safe in the family by marrying her herself. Sorry, Jo, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal. Mother assures her that no one is allowed to get married before they’re twenty years old.

Meg, it turns out, has gotten letters from Brooke declaring his love. Well, from someone who’s forged his writing, at any rate – Brooke doesn’t know a thing about them, and has recently been stationed with Mr. March in Washington. Laurie turns out to be the culprit, and he is more or less sorry. Jo pays him a visit, despite the warning that he’s been arguing with his grandfather. He encourages her to run away with him to Washington DC to visit Brooke and Mr. March, but Jo realizes she’s a girl and that is likely to be frowned upon. Jo instead convinces Laurie’s grandpa to write a letter of apology for yelling at him so that no one has to run away.

By the next Christmas, the invalids are nearly well and Mr. March returns home on the arm of Brooke. They all share a Christmas dinner with the Laurences and Jo glares daggers at Brooke the whole evening. Mr. March doesn’t notice this, and is pleased at all the growing up that his children have done. While out of his hearing, however, Jo still teases Meg about her beau and Meg warns her that she’ll have to deal with things like romance soon enough.

The next time Brooke comes around, however, Meg informs him that she’s too young to think of marriage and when he asks if she’ll try and learn to like him, she declines. I guess if you have to work and learn to like someone, it’s probably not going to happen. He leaves broken-hearted, but fortunately, Meg runs into Aunt March, who has misunderstood the whole encounter and refuses to leave her a penny if she marries Brooke. This, of course, makes him all the more appealing to Meg’s teenage rebel heart. Meg finds herself playing devil’s advocate and defending a decision to marry him. Brooke has apparently not actually left, but has instead overheard the conversation. After Aunt March leaves, he asks about it and finally gets the “yes” he was after. I will never understand kids these days.

Jo is devastated by this turn of events, and immediately goes to alert her parents with the phrase “John Brooke is acting dreadfully, and Meg likes it!” Her parents, of course, rush out of the room to put a stop to such impropriety but alas, they end up liking it too. Jo is unable to find anyone to share her misery because everyone else is happy for Meg. Even Laurie comes bearing flowers for “Mrs. John Brooke,” taking credit for bringing them together. Laurie tries to comfort Jo by offering to be her friend in Meg’s place and take her abroad for more adventures.

Act II (yes, we are only halfway through this 520 page “children’s” book with tiny font and no illustrations) begins with wedding preparations. Three years have passed – Meg trains to be a housewife, Jo continues to send her stories to the newspaper, Amy humors Aunt March, and Beth remains a delicate flower at home. John Brooke gets wounded at war, and Laurie goes to college long enough to please his grandfather and become a frat boy. He brings his friends home for visits, and Jo seems to fit right in with them. As Meg and Brooke plan their future home, Laurie bestows upon them a vast number of infomercial contraptions.  Everyone needs a friend like Laurie.

Jo warns Laurie to be decent at the wedding and not look at her because he’ll make her laugh. He remarks she’ll be crying too much to see him. She remarks that she never cries unless greatly afflicted (like that time she cut her hair) or to keep her sisters company in their tears, and then goes on to mock his fashion sense. She promises him she’ll never be married because there should be at least one old maid in every family. He points out that she doesn’t give anyone a chance – just gets all prickly and changes the subject.  Which she does as soon as he’s done talking.

Aunt March is scandalized at the wedding to see Meg running around greeting people, because Meg is only supposed to do the traditional model runway walk, followed by an impression of a showcase display. Instead, the wedding is as simple and homely as Meg desires (and Jo manages not to cry because Laurie is making faces at her). There is food and dancing after, and Meg promises to visit every day. Because of course that’s a realistic promise.

Time passes and Amy suffers for her art, mainly by catching colds from painting in damp grass and by spending money on picnics for art classmates who never show up. Jo, meanwhile, gets into a writing flurry once a month. She attends a writing lecture, but gets inspired to start a story right then and misses most of it. She sends it off and receives a $100 check for her work. She decides to send Beth and her mother to the seaside for a few months with the money, and goes about earning her next paycheck. When she gets a novel back with the suggestion to cut out a third of it before publication, she is left with a quandary. She decides to go through with it after Beth’s ominous “I should so like to see it printed soon” and gets $300 from it all. She is baffled by criticism because it’s all contradictory, and learns the valid life lesson that you can’t please everyone, especially trolls on the internet.

Meg, meanwhile, discovers that being a housewife isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She experiments with cooking (giving her cast-off rejects to the poor Hummel family) and spends a whole day messing with jelly that refuses to jell, which is, of course, the day her husband brings a friend home. They have their first quarrel as a married couple. She is later tempted by $50 silk for a dress despite her low finances, buys it anyway, and feels guilty about it afterwards. She confesses to her husband that she is tired of being poor, and later sells the silk to her friend to buy a coat for her husband. He’s so happy about it that they end up with twins the next summer. Laurie is somehow given the responsibility of giving them nicknames, so Daisy and Demi are welcomed into the world.

Later, Amy makes the mistake of dragging Jo with her to make formal calls at various mansions (which, to be honest, sounds excessively pointless and tedious, though Jo at least enjoys herself making fun of people). They pay a visit to Aunt March and Aunt Carol. Jo is her usual self, while Amy responds to their questions politely. Mother later informs them that the aunts want Amy to go with them abroad alone, because Jo is far too immature. (Readers of Pride and Prejudice everywhere clutch their chests in horror at the thought of the little flirt going off to Europe without her sisters.) Once abroad, Amy writes them letters from her hotels, detailing her carriage rides, her visits with Laurie’s old British friends, and the flowers she gets from various boys (including Fred, whom she is determined to marry for his riches. However, Fred’s brother gets ill and he has to go home, escaping Amy’s clutches for another day.)

Meanwhile, Beth is depressed. Mother enlists Jo to discover the cause, and after some spying, Jo somehow concludes that Beth is in love with Laurie. She watches them closely but eventually realizes that Laurie probably has affections for Jo rather than Beth. Jo thinks this is pretty awkward and decides to do the reasonable thing and move to New York to become a governess. Mother is pleased to hear that Jo doesn’t like Laurie back because apparently the two of them are too much alike. As she departs, Jo tells Beth to take care of Laurie while she’s gone. Laurie, for his part, leaves her with the ominous message that “It won’t do a bit of good, Jo. My eye is on you; so mind what you do, or I’ll come and bring you home.”

In New York, Jo enjoys the company of Professor Bhaer, a poor absentminded German tasked with the trouble of trying to teach the children. He tries to teach Jo some German as well, with some limited success. She returns to writing for the newspaper story columns, but since her editors want thrilling tales without morals, she starts to feel a little used and dirty. She is invited to mingle with the literary society, but is disillusioned when she learns that her heroes are actually flawed human beings, so she sits in a corner and chats with Bhaer instead. He becomes her new hero and she starts to feel embarrassed about her sensational stories so she jumps to the other end of the spectrum and write a sermon instead. Then she tries children’s stories. Then she gives up entirely. When it is time for her to return home to the Marches, she invites Bhaer to Laurie’s graduation, but he’s not especially impressed with the idea of competing with attractive young college graduates. He declines and bids her farewell.

When she sees Laurie again, Jo is a little bit terrified that he’s going to flirt with her. He doesn’t, and she’s relieved. Then she doesn’t take his arm the way she used to, and is concerned when he doesn’t complain. She shouts wildly into their awkward silences until she can no longer distract him from his confession. He tells her how he’s loved her the whole time, blah blah blah. She tells him she ran off to New York in hopes of dissuading him, and that even though he’s changed his life for her, she just can’t love him the way he wants. She tries to reason with him, tries to friendzone him, tries to explain that she doesn’t want to get married, and is possibly not heterosexual determined that they aren’t right for each other and so they shouldn’t do rash things like getting married. Like a properly dramatic Ivy League frat boy, Laurie gets into his boat and rows away (where did that even come from…). Jo goes to explain the whole upsetting course of events to Laurie’s grandfather. Mr. Laurence, in turn, takes Laurie to London with him so he’ll stop bothering Jo.

Jo turns her attention to her family and takes Beth to the sea because she appears to be wasting away (and she knows it). Beth confesses she never thought she would live long, and thus has never imagined growing up and living separately from her parents or developing a personality. Meanwhile in Nice, Amy runs into Laurie. It’s Christmas again, and she’s invited him to a party. He tries flirting with her a bit, but his heart isn’t in it.  However, Amy now realizes that Laurie is pretty hot. They dance together all night, because hooking up with your rejected love’s sister is apparently also a tale as old as time.

Meanwhile, Meg becomes a full-time mother and her husband starts to feel neglected and very much like he is living in a nursery instead of a house. He goes to visit the neighbors to get out of the way and have some peace and quiet, which leads his wife to assume that she is old and ugly because her husband has gone to visit the cute neighbor girl.  Then she buries herself deeper into motherhood. This vicious cycle continues until Mrs. March finds Meg in tears and tells her to suck it up and pay attention to her husband. So Meg tries to have a quiet dinner with John, but they are predictably prevented by toddlers. Meg coddles little Demi, while John insists on being firm and eventually gets him to bed. Meg has the sudden revelation that men can help with childrearing, too. When John comes back, Meg asks him about the exciting world of politics. John appreciates her sad attempt to find common interests, so he asks about her bonnet-making instead. They slowly start to become family again, with divided labors and (most importantly) a new nanny.

Meanwhile, Amy and Laurie spend time together, mainly for the sense of familiarity if nothing else. They go driving, and Amy starts to get annoyed at Laurie’s apathy towards life. She declares that she despises him for being selfish and lazy. Laurie laments that Jo doesn’t love him, and Amy thinks he’s being a baby about it and should make her love him. (Um, I don’t recommend trying that.) He takes her tongue-lashing to heart, however, and goes back to his neglected grandfather.

Back at home, Beth is still dying. Everyone has put all the best things in the house in her room like a cheerful death shrine. It’s beautiful for the first few months, but when she persists in living, everyone starts to find it a little morbid and tiring. Jo stays with her every waking hour, and writes depressing poetry to her. She dies in the spring, peacefully and easily, upsetting the hearts of young readers for years to come (though for some of us, it will still never be as tragic as that book burning).

Laurie, meanwhile, is taking Amy’s words to heart and goes to Vienna to learn to make music that properly reflects his inner torment, thus immortalizing Jo for eternity. Unfortunately, Jo isn’t very easy to immortalize. Time passes, and he realizes it isn’t as hard to forget his love for Jo as he thought it might be. He writes a letter to Jo, who is, at the time, writing poetry to her dying sister.  She implores him to love someone else (and also not to tell Amy that her sister is dying, because those are the kinds of secrets we keep in this family). Laurie decides to put Jo’s mementos into a drawer and go to mass like he’s going to a funeral. He starts writing to Amy instead and thinks she might be a suitable replacement. Amy, meanwhile, is meeting up with Fred again, but declines his proposal, remembering how Laurie thought it was stupid to marry for money (which is easy to say when one is rich or has the means of becoming so). However, when Amy finally gets the letter informing her of her sister’s demise, she is all too glad to see Laurie again. They each silently decide the other is for them, and set about with the wooing. It ends up successful, this time, and Laurie proposes whilst rowing in a boat on the lake. (My childhood self is outraged by this sudden turn of events, as we all know that Jo is a much better character.)

Jo, meanwhile, is in mourning for her sister and for her life purpose. She spends more time with Meg (the only sister she has access to at this point) and when she hears of the engagement, admits that she is lonely and might have said yes to Laurie if he’d asked again. She thinks this again on her 25th birthday and resigns herself to literary spinsterhood. Laurie appears out of nowhere like the ghost of awkward timing and announces he’s gotten married to Amy in Paris. Jo is more or less happy to be his sister, but she’s a little sad they can no longer be children again. He invites her to live with them to mind their future children (which wouldn’t be weird at all).  She takes a few minutes to excuse herself from the impromptu family gathering to weep for her loneliness.

Suddenly, Mr. Bhaer shows up at the door out of nowhere. He’s quickly ushered into the party and everyone seems to get along brilliantly. He apparently has business in town, but nobody believes that for a minute. Oddly, Laurie wishes the man were younger and richer for Jo’s sake. Jo and Bhaer meet several times and when he is done with business in town, she despairs that he’s moving so far away. He takes this as a good sign and proposes. She accepts. (My childhood self is outraged.  My adult self pouts.)

Fast forward to a few years after they are married, and they decide to start up a school. They inherit Aunt March’s estate and get a few rich and poor boys for their school before having a couple of their own named Rob and Teddy.  (Are you kidding me – you named your child Teddy Bhaer?! Whose idea was that? Was it Laurie’s? Was it?!) When all the families gather and the cousins play, the sisters (and their husbands) think back on their dreams of being famous and decide that having kids is much more rewarding than anything else, because they are, after all, proper little women.

The end.

Not gonna lie – this ending still annoys me. I am very likely projecting here, but it seems much more in-character for Jo to be a literary spinster with lots of family and friends and nieces and nephews, instead of having a husband and kids suddenly shoehorned in at the last minute. Then again, I suppose a Victorian novel intended to instill morality into little girls could not possibly end any differently: “Hear that, girls? Either you get married and have babies or you die.” They would never understand kids these days.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  This month’s novel is Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.  It has nothing to do with Thanksgiving because it’s British, but it’s a fun read anyway.

We start with a lovely daydream where our narrator envisions she is a ghost haunting an estate called Manderly, which no longer exists. We don’t really care about this yet, but it’ll make more sense by the time we get to the end. She wakes up and continues to reminisce about the past, remembering the first time she met the owner of Manderly, Mr. Maximilian de Winter:  she is employed as a companion for the outspoken and snobbish (and American) Mrs. Van Hopper, and the three of them have an awkward tea session while vacationing in Monte Carlo. When Mrs. Van Hopper comes down with the flu or the vapors or some similar plot device, our narrator is forced to dine alone and somehow ends up spilling a vase on herself. She becomes instantly relatable. Mr. de Winter invites her to his own table, and has her explain that she is paid to be a companion because her family is all dead.  The two discuss how lovely and unusual her name is, but unfortunately we readers just have to use our imaginations because they’re never going to tell us what it is.

By the end of their long discussion, Mr. de Winter informs her she should quit her job because she’s too young and soft (of course, she also withholds her age from us, too – probably so we don’t fret about legality issues). Since she has some vacation time thanks to her mistress’ illness, our narrator decides to get in this strange man’s car and accompany him to the beach. They laugh the whole drive down, but when they get to the sea, Mr. de Winter gets out, broods for a few minutes and declares that the place hasn’t changed. He drives them home, lends her a book of poetry and kicks her out of his car. She looks at the book of poetry and finds the inscription inside that reads “Max—From Rebecca.” Thus begins the mystery.

Instead of calling him out on his unsubtle regifting practices, our narrator spends more time with him.  She lies to Mrs. Van Hopper and says she is learning tennis instead of cavorting with strangers every day. It takes our narrator a few days to wonder why this man is driving her places, and he is pretty vague about the answer, except to say that she helps him forget whatever happened to his wife a year ago. He nearly throws her out of the car for asking but instead just makes her cry and kisses her hand. He hugs her close and tells her to call him Maxim. A few mixed signals here.

Our narrator is distraught when Mrs. Van Hopper is suddenly ready to go home to New York. She visits Maxim in his room while he’s shaving to tell him the news. (Oh, the scandal.) At breakfast, he asks her if she’d rather go to New York with Van Hopper or to his home at Manderly with him. When she still seems confused and asks if he wants to hire her as his secretary or something, he replies “No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” What a romantic. She remains confused by this sudden escalation of events and he turns the question back on her again. She starts crying again because she loves him, and he assumes it’s settled. He assures her that her duties to him will be just like her duties to Mrs. Van Hopper, though she mustn’t let him run out of his favorite brand of toothpaste. We’re still not entirely sure if he’s joking.

Our narrator doesn’t answer, though – she has already started imagining her idyllic life as Mrs. de Winter. Maxim decides they should probably explain things to Mrs. Van Hopper, who has been wondering where her companion has been this whole time. While Maxim does this, our narrator is still imagining everyone declaring how romantic the whole thing has been. And because everything is so romantic, she decides to cut Rebecca’s inscription out of the book of poetry, tear it into little bits and throw it in the fireplace.

Mrs. Van Hopper is (rightfully) upset about the subterfuge of “tennis” that our narrator has been up to, and doesn’t seem impressed by the fact that Maxim is only 42. She’s pretty sure it’s going to be a big mistake, and thinks he’s only married her because Manderly is so big and empty.

Skip to the point after the wedding and the honeymoon (because they’re minor details) when they arrive at Manderly. Our narrator is understandably nervous, as her arrival means that the entire staff has gathered out of curiosity to watch her come in. She is introduced to everyone and Mrs. Danvers stands out in particular as a creepy skeletal old housekeeper who will surely be no trouble whatsoever.

Our narrator then has the thrilling afternoon of drinking tea in complete silence while Maxim reads his mail. Oh, marital bliss. In her boredom, she starts to imagine their lives in old age with obnoxious children. She is later taken to her new quarters, which have been renovated, while Danvers informs her that she’s been here since the first Mrs. de Winter came as a bride. Our narrator offers to be friends, if only to kill the awkward silence, and assures her that she can keep doing her job like she’s always done.

Maxim comes in, delighted at how the redecorating has turned out, and asks what his wife thinks of Danvers. She replies “a little bit stiff” which is kind of an understatement, as “a walking corpse” might be nearer the truth. Maxim doesn’t see anything odd about her (which amuses me to no end). As they lounge by the fire after dinner, our narrator is struck by the morbid thought that she is sitting in Rebecca’s chair with Rebecca’s cushions.

The next morning, Maxim is quite busy, but says his sister will pay a visit to entertain his new wife. Our narrator laments that she’s not wasting away the day by the sea with her new husband, arm in arm, but is quickly jolted out of her daydreams by the servants, coming to clean up breakfast. She goes up to her room, but maids are busy in there, too, and she feels awkward trying to find out where she belongs at this time of day (and if that isn’t one of the most realistic portrayals of adjustment to a different lifestyle, I don’t know what is).

She ends up in the “morning room” where she finds a neatly organized collection of letters, menus, and a record of guests who have visited. Like taking over the desk of a previous coworker who met with a tragic accident, our narrator feels a bit weird. Suddenly, the telephone rings and Danvers asks for Mrs. de Winter. Our narrator informs her that Mrs. de Winter’s been dead for a year.  An awkward pause later, she realizes that she is Mrs. de Winter and that Danvers probably thinks she is an idiot. Danvers has probably already figured this out and she carries on, asking about the menu and informing her of how to send out all her letters. After hanging up, our heroine stares at the “letters-unanswered” folder, which is fortunately empty because she probably wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. (Too bad they don’t teach a class in household management for new brides.) Out of extreme boredom, she starts to write a letter to Mrs. Van Hopper, because she can’t think of anyone else to write to.

She hears a car pull up, and thinks about appropriate hiding places so she doesn’t have to meet Maxim’s sister without him. She runs through corridors and somehow stumbles into the west wing, with furniture covered by dust sheets and the sound of the sea. Danvers finds her, and it’s hard to tell if she’s angry or just mildly annoyed. It’s Rebecca’s wing, after all.  Danvers offers to show the west wing any time our narrator would like, just tell her when, with an emphasis on the “tell me.”

Danvers takes her back to meet Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, her husband, and a friend. After a few awkward conversations, Beatrice mentions that Danvers adored Rebecca (which is probably why she’s always glaring daggers at the new Mrs. de Winter).  Beatrice is surprised because the new Mrs. de Winter not a bit like Rebecca.

Time passes, and our narrator grows even more intimidated by the memory of Rebecca, hardly daring to speak her name or ask about the mysterious furnished cottage down by the docks. She does finally get Frank the estate manager to talk, and we learn a little about Rebecca drowning in the bay and washing up on the beach months later. Our narrator remains terrified of Danvers, and barely has the guts to make menu changes, let alone confess to breaking one of the creepy yet valuable little cupids decorating the mansion. She has difficulty adjusting to her life as a trophy wife, and complains about it to her husband, who doesn’t see a problem unless it’s that he’s not much of a companion for her. She assures him that he’s like a father, brother, and son to her, all of which are pretty creepy things to call your husband.

When Maxim goes out of town, our narrator goes down to the beach. She chats with Ben, the slightly unhinged local who, like everyone else, remarks that she isn’t like “the other one.” Unlike the rest, however, he describes Rebecca as a snake who threatened to put him in an asylum if he told anyone she’d been at the dock. Our narrator assumes he’s just talking crazy and makes her way home. She sees a strange man at the window and overhears Danvers telling the mysterious man how to sneak out without being seen.

He runs into our narrator anyway and offers her a cigar. Since the game is up, Danvers introduces him as Mr. Favell, and it becomes very apparent that he is not welcome as a guest. He makes the new Mrs. de Winter uncomfortable, and finds it funny when she offers him tea out of politeness. He declines and has her walk him to his car, where he asks her not to mention his visit . It’s more than a little suspicious, and our heroine is smart enough to realize that he chose the perfect time when everyone was scheduled to be out of the house for his visit.

Our narrator wanders into Rebecca’s room and fondles her clothes. Danvers catches her and offers to show her everything in the creepiest way possible. She insists that she touch Rebecca’s nightdress again (never been washed since she last slept in it!) and that she feel how soft her slippers were and how Rebecca used to insist that Maxim brush her hair for 20 minutes a day and how the rocks battered her body to bits when she washed up on the shore. Danvers asks her if she also feels the presence of Rebecca drifting through the house, watching them.   It is entirely possible that this lady is quite obsessed and a bit unhinged.

Our narrator feels ill for quite awhile after these revelations. She finds out from Beatrice that Jack Favell was apparently Rebecca’s cousin and someone Beatrice doesn’t much want to discuss. Beatrice instead takes her to see Maxim’s senile blind grandma, who can’t remember one conversation to the next, but wants to see Rebecca anyway and throws an awkward little tantrum when our narrator turns out not to be her.

Eventually, the de Winters give in to societal pressure to throw a fancy dress party, though neither of them are particularly interested. Maxim refuses to dress up, but suggests that his wife go as Alice in Wonderland. (Exactly how old is she?!) Our narrator frets over a costume, determined to make it a surprise for everyone. Danvers suggests using one of the portraits in the gallery as inspiration, particularly the girl in white. While this should send off warning bells automatically, our narrator takes her suggestion anyway.

As preparations get underway, the de Winters commiserate over tea and look forward to a time when they don’t have to throw parties. In spite of this, our narrator finds herself quite excited about her costume by the time the party rolls around. She has the staff announce her entrance, but when she appears at the top of the stairs, the crowd goes quiet and pale, and Maxim sends her back to change into something else. She runs off, nearly careening into Danvers (wearing the unsubtle expression of an exultant Disney villain on her face) before tripping over and ruining her dress on her way back to her room.

It turns out that the costume was the exact same one that Rebecca had worn at her last party.  Our narrator changes and sulks for awhile before making her way down to mingle with her dull guests. Maxim is not there when she wakes up the next morning, and she concludes that her marriage is a failure because they are all haunted by Rebecca.

No one has seen Maxim, so our narrator visits Danvers, who’s been crying like an actual person and not a Disney villain. It turns into a confrontational showdown as Danvers confesses that she hates the new Mrs. de Winter for trying to take Rebecca’s place, hates Maxim for replacing her, and especially hates the fact that everyone calls the new bride “Mrs. de Winter.” (Come on, though – it’s not the new Mrs. de Winter’s fault that no one thought to give her a first name.) Danvers reminisces about a Rebecca who cared for nothing and nobody but herself and apparently didn’t mind cheating on her husband – a real role model. Danvers then encourages our narrator to jump out the window to end it all. (Wait, what?  Why?)

Suddenly they hear rockets exploding and completely forget about the whole suicide-encouragement thing as they realize that a ship has been stranded in the bay and they should probably help. Well, Danvers goes to prepare a meal for potential victims and our narrator just goes to watch. As she’s eating lunch, the captain of the ship comes in and tells her that while they were digging the ship out, they found Rebecca’s sunken boat and a body in its cabin.

After the captain leaves, our narrator finally confronts her husband, who laments that they’ve lost their chance of happiness and that Rebecca has won. She’s a bit puzzled by this sentence, until Maxim explains that the body in Rebecca’s crypt is some Jane Doe, while Rebecca’s actual body is in the cabin of her boat. He happens to know this because he’s the one who shot her in the sea cottage, put her on the boat, and sank it.


While our narrator is completely stunned by this turn of events, Maxim tells her he loves her and they make out. It turns out he hated Rebecca all along because she was evil and clever. When he had discovered her cheating on him five days after their wedding, she offered to run the house so well that they’d be famous for miles around as long as she could do whatever she wanted. She kept that promise, except her private affairs tended to become a little more public than Maxim liked. He followed Rebecca to the cottage by the sea one evening, where she confessed that she was pregnant, gloated for awhile, and then he shot her. He dragged her to the boat, down into the cabin, and sailed it out to sea where he punctured a hole in the bottom. He sailed home in a dinghy and went to bed. When a different body washed up later, he identified it as his wife.

Now that she knows her husband doesn’t love Rebecca, our heroine is full of ideas and intelligence, and tells him he must act as though the body identification was a mistake. With her new-found spine, she also decides that Danvers’ menu of party leftovers is not appealing today and sends for a hot meal. She doesn’t answer Danvers’ questions and starts ordering the servants around like she’s some mistress of the house or something to the point where even her husband is amazed at her change.

The news of finding the body hits the papers, of course, and even when our narrator hides the local ones, the story shows up in London news as well. She suspects that Frank knows the truth, but doesn’t want it known that he knows, and so they all dance around each other at meals.

Maxim later attends the inquest into the boat discovery. Our narrator waits in the car for most of it, but slips inside at the moment that it’s the shipmaker’s turn to give evidence about how he’s noticed that the pipes were opened and there were holes drilled into the bottom. Our narrator chooses this point to swoon a bit and so we don’t get to hear the rest of the proceedings.

When she wakes up, she frets awhile and imagines Maxim’s hanging and the newspaper headlines. He gets home eventually and we find out Rebecca’s case was ruled a suicide. Maxim goes to the church with a few others to bury the correct Rebecca in the correct tomb, and our heroine encounters Favell. Favell, it appears, has kept Rebecca’s last note to him, asking him to meet her urgently, which makes him suspect that her death was not a suicide, but likely a murder by her husband. Well, he’s not wrong. He is willing to keep the note to himself for a small fee of two or three thousand per year for life. Maxim doesn’t give in to the blackmail and instead calls the magistrate. When the man gets there, Favell tells him everything he knows, and starts to cackle. This, of course, makes the magistrate think he’s drunk. Maxim calmly explains how Favell tried to blackmail him, and the judge believes him.

Favell offers to provide a witness, and Frank goes off to get Ben, the resident simpleton.   Of course, his plan backfires when Ben says he doesn’t recognize Favell. This gets Favell upset enough to bring in another witness, Danvers. The poor magistrate at this point is probably wondering why they didn’t do this earlier in the courtroom and why he’s not getting paid for working overtime.

Favell asks Danvers if Rebecca was in love with him. She says no, Rebecca was just playing games with every man she slept with. The magistrate asks if she happened to know why Rebecca might have killed herself and fortunately, Danvers keeps Rebecca’s diary in her shrine to Mrs. de Winter the First. They have another clue now, with “Baker” written in Rebecca’s appointment book. This suddenly turns into a detective novel as they track Baker down to a doctor’s office, and they decide to pay him a visit the next morning. By this time, Danvers has begun to suspect Maxim, and Frank has realized it. Everyone is side-eyeing each other, which is my favorite kind of mystery novel trope.

While everyone tries to settle for the evening, Beatrice calls, quite upset about the whole suicide verdict. She’s pretty sure they can get it changed to death by tramps or communists or something if they just call in the right judge, and our narrator tries to persuade her from drawing more attention to the case. What a helpful sister.

In the morning, the de Winters and the poor magistrate pack for London and finally find Doctor Baker. He doesn’t recall a Rebecca de Winter, but there was a Danvers at the appointed time, and she matched the description of Rebecca. Her illness, it appears, was a cancerous malformation of the uterus which would have been painful and eventually fatal. Fortunately, this matches up quite well to the suicide excuse, but not very well to her telling Maxim she was pregnant. In any event, it completely destroys Favell’s case and Maxim drives everyone else to a hotel for dinner to celebrate.

Maxim tells his wife that he’s pretty sure Rebecca lied so that he would shoot her. So…suicide by proxy? Maxim calls Frank to let him know the results, and finds out that Danvers has cleared out of the house. This freaks him out, while our naive little narrator is just glad they won’t have to see her again. In fact, she’s determined to turn over a new leaf and start managing the servants and having babies and all sorts of things that proper ladies do.  Maybe she’ll even come up with some people to write letters to.

Maxim just wants to get home as quickly as possible. As he drives through the night, our narrator drifts off in the car and dreams of her dog chasing butterflies and writing invitations and such. She dreams of Rebecca’s hair changing into snakes like Medusa (and one could certainly write a literary essay on that mythological connection) and wakes up shouting that they should go to Switzerland.  As one does. It’s two in the morning and she thinks the light breaking over the hills in the west looks like the beginning of a beautiful sunrise.

Except that it’s two in the morning.

And the sun doesn’t rise in the west.

And Manderly is on fire.

And that’s how this delightful little novel ends.  Guess they won’t have to worry about throwing any more boring parties after all.

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It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means: Tis the season to crack open Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!

Like Bram Stoker and his Dracula, Shelley decides that the most thrilling of narrative perspectives in which to relate the terrifying and immediate details of her horror story is… a series of letters, written by a man named Walton to his sister Margaret whilst on a cold and snowy scientific expedition to the North Pole. Oh boy. These letters start out fairly standard until Walton’s ship gets stuck in the ice and his men see a giant sort of man stalking around outside. The next day, they see a different man, half-dead on a dogsled with only one dog left. They try to rescue the man, but he refuses help until he knows where they’re going first. A sensible sort of fellow. Victor (the name of our weary traveler) soon grows attached to Walton because he senses a kindred scientific spirit, and he decides to explain to Walton how he is related to the tall man they saw before and why Walton should stop pursuing science. (Why do our narrators always attract the weirdos?)

He starts, of course, at the beginning with his father’s marriage. Oh man, this is going to be a long story. His father had become best friends with a poor old man who eventually died and left an orphaned daughter, Caroline, in his care.  He ships her off to a relative and marries her two years later. Soon enough they have a son, Victor.  It turns out Caroline is fond of collecting babies.  While wandering the countryside, she adopts a blond-haired blue-eyed baby girl from a pack of dark haired peasants. It’s not really kidnapping – the baby is actually the daughter of a dead Milanese nobleman and a dead German woman, so surely none of the peasants will mind. Victor’s dad comes home, a little surprised to see a new addition to the family, but they keep her anyway and call her Elizabeth Lavenza. Caroline gives Victor his new baby sister as a present. Victor, of course, takes this literally, and from now on claims Elizabeth as his. Eventually their parents have another son, who will not get a name for many pages, and the family settles down in Geneva.

Victor is a studious child and soon becomes obsessed over discovering the meaning of life, the universe and everything.  Meanwhile, his best friend Clerval is trying to figure out the nature of morality. You know how little boys are. Elizabeth, for her part, is sympathetic and loving and good and boring the way most leading ladies of this time are. One day on a family outing, Victor finds a book on Agrippa and his father calls it trash. Like every other 13-year-old, he automatically decides it’s worth reading (mainly because his father didn’t clarify that it was actually outdated garbage, rather than a naughty thing that boys shouldn’t be looking at). This, of course, leads Victor to a whole mess of archaic books and, like any modern day scholar picking up a book on phrenology, he decides that since someone wrote it down, it must be true. He goes on to teach himself all there is to know about the occult until one day a lightning bolt hits a tree. He realizes he’s never going to understand everything about the universe so he takes up math instead. Just before he goes away to school, Elizabeth catches scarlet fever but somehow manages to survive. To maintain the cosmic balance, their mother catches it and dies instead. Before she does, though, she tells Victor and Elizabeth that it’s her dying wish that they get married. On that slightly incestuous note, Victor goes off to school.

Victor’s natural philosophy teacher, Krempe, informs him that his precious occult philosophers are a waste of time. Victor feels insulted and goes to another professor, Waldman, who has the charm and enthusiasm of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson combined and makes science seem like the raddest thing ever. Victor Frankenstein is hooked and decides, naturally, his mission in life is to solve all the mysteries of the universe, starting with the question of where life comes from. To study life he decides to study death, and spends his days watching things die and decay. He must have been a really popular guy at school.

One day, he makes a breakthrough in discovering how to create life after “days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue.” Mothers and pregnant people everywhere yawn. He doesn’t share his life-creating method with us – no, that would be far too interesting. Instead, he just skips over that bit and goes on to finding something to animate. Of course, Victor doesn’t aim low: his first project is going to be building another human being. He figures that even if it doesn’t work out so great the first time, it’ll at least improve the shot for the next go-around. He works on his project for a few years, neglecting little things like family and social contact, until he turns into a slightly paranoid crazy man.

One rainy November night, a full-grown son is born unto him, with the loveliest dull yellow eyes any proud dad has ever seen. Well, not this dad. While the rest of his bundle of joy is perfect, Victor is freaked out by the eyes and flees the room. (Honestly, I think you could probably change the eyes. He’s not necessarily attached to them yet). He has a couple of nightmares, and wakes up to find his creation watching him sleep. Didn’t anyone ever tell this guy not to leave a newborn alone in the room? Victor runs away again, becoming yet another depressing deadbeat dad statistic.

Victor runs to town, and straight into his friend Clerval, whose troubles are a good deal more mundane. It takes Clerval awhile to realize Victor has his crazy science face on and tries to get him to rest. Instead, Victor has an immediate breakdown in health and probably sanity and Clerval becomes his nurse.

He gets a letter from his sister/fiancée, who prattles on about an old servant, Justine, who has tragically lost her entire family and returned to working at their place. Elizabeth mentions Ernest, the sixteen-year-old brother that Victor never talks about, and also mentions little William, who is – wait, he’s also the brother that Victor never talks about. Since when did Victor have two brothers?! After writing a reply, he introduces Clerval to his professors, despite the fact that Victor now hates science. Instead, he and Clerval both start learning Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit and end up writing passionate stories and speaking poetry at each other.

They would probably go on with this sappy nonsense ad nauseum, except Victor’s father writes to tell him that his little brother William is dead. He says that Ernest was unable to find William after a game of Hide-and-Seek, making William the ultimate champion and Ernest a loser who is probably far too old for that game. They later found the little boy strangled to death, and Elizabeth declared that she was the kid’s murderer.

She fainted (of course) and they had to rouse her again so she could explain that she just said that to make it sound like an unexpected and exciting plot twist – it turns out she didn’t really kill him, she just lent him a valuable picture of his mother which must have been stolen by the actual murderer. How disappointing. Victor’s father urges Victor to come home and console the family. Victor heads for Geneva, and Clerval follows him there, lamenting over poor dead William and his poor living family. Victor ditches him as soon as possible.

Victor gets home in the middle of the storm and sees his “daemon” in a flash of lightning. Of course, he assumes it must have somehow found the way to his house (presumably it looked him up in the phone book?) to strangle his little brother (because surely no human would want to hurt the little cherub). He meets up with his family back at the house and they inform him that the murderer is that new maid, Justine Moritz, who happened to have the missing picture in her pocket. Fortunately her trial is today, so we can witness it firsthand (well, thirdhand, as Victor is telling this to Walton, who is putting it in a letter to his sister). Justine almost has an alibi, but can’t account for the portrait, and even though the entire family dramatically proclaims her innocence, she confesses to the murder and goes off to her death the next morning.

Everyone mopes around for awhile until Frankenstein can no longer stand it.  He does the logical thing and hires a mule for a journey up a rugged path, through castle ruins, and into a glacial valley in the Alps. He gets so inspired by the scenery that he calls out to wandering spirits, only to have his daemon leap over icy crevices toward him. Frankenstein calls the poor guy lots of awful names, to which the horrific daemon replies calmly: “I expected this reception.”

This is one of the most hilariously unexpected opening lines I have ever read in literature and I’m now 100% Team Creature. The creature makes some pretty good points about his creator shirking his duty as a dad, and then calmly offers his conditions for peace and happiness. Frankenstein throws a fit, calls him some more names, and tries to shoo him off.  The creature just wants to tell him a story, so they set up a campfire and roast s’mores.  The creature relates the tale of how he discovered food, drink, and fire, and eventually terrified some villagers in his hunt for more. He stalked a girl, Agatha, her brother, Felix, and their dad, watching them through the window and collecting wood for them so they didn’t have to work. From listening at the window, he learned to talk and write as the cottagers gave lessons to Safie, an Arabian woman who turns out to be Felix’s girlfriend. The creature listened to history lessons along with Safie from a very politically incorrect book before they all moved on to manuals about human life and the reproduction cycles. Why they felt this was critical to Safie’s education, I’m not sure.

The creature eventually found a trunk and some books – notably Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter, which I guess is better than stumbling on Agrippa. He spent several months working up the courage to introduce himself to his cottagers, waiting until the blind old man was alone and politely knocking on the door. The old man invited him in, and they had a nice little chat about the creature’s stalking habits and desire to befriend them. Of course, as soon as the young people got home, there was much fainting and violence, and the creature fled howling into the woods and declaring everlasting war on the human race and his creator. As one does.

He soon forgot his vow, saving a little girl from drowning and getting a bullet in return. He wandered coincidentally to the Frankenstein house (It’s a small world after all), where he tried to educate an innocent little boy by grabbing him and squeezing him when he struggled. The little boy (William, in fact) started calling him names in true Frankensteinian fashion.  The monster is delighted that his first victim was related to his creator, since he’s been hoping to cause him some grief. He saw the picture of the boy’s mother and found her quite lovely. Then he remembered that he was supposed to be evil and planted it on a random sleeping girl while whispering sweet nothings into her ear, ultimately condemning her to death.

As he finishes up his story to Frankenstein, the creature states his one demand: he wants a girlfriend. When Frankenstein refuses, the creature re-swears his hatred and revenge. Frankenstein finally gives in to his pleading, so long as the creature promises to go to America with his female. (America’s a big place – I’m sure they won’t mind). The creature thanks him and runs off with only the mildly alarming threat that he’ll keep an eye on his progress.

Frankenstein thus starts work on a female, dragging it out as long as possible. He spends a lot of time rowing on the lake until his dad shows up and encourages him to marry his sister. Like, right away. He manages to put this off by running away to England, leaving his family at the mercy of the creature. He picks up Clerval along the way, who is as cheerful as a puppy with its head out the window of a moving car. Alas, even Clerval barely dents Frankenstein’s ennui with his antics as they tour what seems to be the entire United Kingdom.

When he finally splits from his friend, Frankenstein takes up a little hut in Scotland and builds a new laboratory. He realizes that the female he is creating might actually have opinions of her own and won’t want to hang out with the creature she was made for. She might ditch him for someone hotter or worse – they might end up loving each other and make lots of little baby creatures. (As a surgeon, I don’t think you realize how easy it is to fix that, Frankenstein.) He sees the creature watching, snaps, and destroys the female creature right in front of him. The creature, of course, shows up at his bedside that night and talks about revenge some more. Then he lets Frankenstein know he’ll be with him on his wedding night and runs off. Nothing to worry about, I’m sure.

He puts the body parts of his half-made she-creature into a basket, thinking he probably shouldn’t leave them lying around for peasants to find (a smart move) and tosses them into the sea. He falls asleep on his boat and somehow ends up in Ireland, which is full of hostile people. They’re only hostile because they found a hot guy on the beach all strangled. Frankenstein realizes this MO sounds familiar, but it’s too late – the body turns out to be his good buddy Clerval. Frankenstein goes into a feverish fit and mad ravings for several months after that. He is eventually cleared of suspicion on the murder of his best friend, but doesn’t look forward to the ride home, even after his sister/fiancée writes him a letter reminding him of her love, which mostly just reminds him of the monster’s threat to be there on his wedding night. Frankenstein assumes that the monster is going to kill him then, despite the fact that he’s had so many chances already. (If he were paying attention at all, Frankenstein would realize the monster enjoys watching him suffer, and he might connect that with the fact that the last cruel thing he did was rip up the monster’s girlfriend, and possibly put two and two together, but… nah.)

Frankenstein marries Elizabeth and they set sail on their honeymoon. That night, Frankenstein keeps an eye out for the creature with a pistol in his shirt and a paranoid gleam in his eye. To protect his wife, he sends her off to bed alone. It’s all very romantic.

Of course, then he hears the scream. He finds her dead body on the bed and a grinning monster at the window. He returns home as soon as possible to make sure his father isn’t killed (because he’s done such a great job at that already). To his great luck, his dad is still alive! Not for long, though, because telling him what happened to Elizabeth makes him wither away and die in Frankenstein’s arms a few days later. Great job, genius. Nothing is mentioned about his remaining brother, who is probably happy to be forgotten this time around.

Frankenstein decides to tell the magistrate everything so they can find the killer, but the magistrate doesn’t really believe him, stating in a very diplomatic way that it sounds like this creature is awfully powerful. (And implying that Frankenstein sounds awfully crazy.) To prove his sanity, Frankenstein shuffles into a graveyard talking to himself before he takes to wandering the world, playing hide and seek with the creature. The creature, for his part, enjoys leaving little encouraging signs on trees that say things like “My reign is not yet over” and “Dress warm! We’re going to see Santa!” (the last one is paraphrased.) Frankenstein accumulates some dogs, and like every other inexperienced sledder, manages to lose them pretty quickly.

This is basically where our narrator came in. Frankenstein asks Walton to kill the creature immediately if he happens to see him, just so he won’t be swayed by its eloquently reasoned arguments. He also wants to see Walton’s notes on their conversations, and starts editing them like a nosy busybody. He becomes melodramatic about dying, about his potential genius and drastic downfall, and about the loss of the best friends in the world.

Before Frankenstein gets around to dying, however, a bunch of sailors burst into his room and demand that Walton take them home. Frankenstein calls them all cowards for not benefiting mankind with the knowledge they were going to discover. Despite the grand speech, Walton agrees to turn around and go home to England without completing his life’s mission. Frankenstein is stubborn, however, and tries to get out of bed so he can stay on the ice or die. Probably the latter.

Frankenstein tells Walton not to aim high in life, and then dies. Worst motivational speaker ever. Later, Walton comes into the room to find the creature standing over Frankenstein’s coffin (wait, where’d they find a coffin on the ship in the middle of the frozen ocean?). The creature laments over his final victim, and Walton chides him for being a naughty boy. The creature expresses his great remorse at killing people, and decides to go burn himself alive at the North Pole. I’m sure Santa will appreciate that.

Thus ends the dramatic tale of Frankenstein and his enormous ugly bitter baby. I’m not sure about you, but if I were Walton’s sister, I would ask him to write a shorter letter next time. Let’s keep it under a hundred pages, shall we?

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This month is all about switching things up with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It’s a bit of an odd one, with a lot of internal contemplation and not as much action as one might like.  Still, things get unexpectedly weird about halfway through, and I rather love that.

As our story begins, Orlando, our protagonist, is definitely male. He is definitely male because he’s practicing his swordplay on the severed head of an African (as one does when one is a creepy aristocratic child at the end of the 16th century). He is described as a fair young man, with eyes like drenched violets (whatever that means) and a great love for death and poetry writing.  Preferably together.

After he gets tired of cutting the head down and tying it back up again, he goes to visit Queen Elizabeth, taking a shortcut and stumbling across a poet (he has romanticized poets to the point where they hold the keys to all of life’s mysteries).  He later falls asleep and doesn’t get to talk to the queen at all, but she thinks he’s adorable.

Two years later he meets her again, and she decides he’d make a great treasurer and steward, despite his lack of job qualifications.  She becomes his sugar momma and gives him land and titles and all sorts of lovely things, but gets upset when she sees him kissing a girl.  He doesn’t learn, of course, and gets caught with various other girls despite ending up engaged to one of them.

Of course, none of these is the right girl until he meets a woman skating.  It takes him a moment because he thinks she’s a boy at first, but he quickly catches on and starts coming up with such romantic nicknames as  “a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow.” Swoon. It turns out this particular girl is Princess Marousha Stanislovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch. Naturally she is nicknamed Sasha. Presumably she is Russian, but the two prefer to gossip about the other nobles at the dinner table using French. Sasha can’t really stand the aristocracy, so Orlando takes her off sightseeing in London, but of course gets mad at any interest she shows in other men, despite being a womanizer himself.  When they go to see Shakespeare (because this is the 1600s so of course they do) he gets morbid over Othello’s plight and can’t stop thinking about death and destruction. Still, he tries to convince Sasha to sneak over to St. Paul’s for a midnight rendezvous, but she never comes. He runs to the dock, but the Russian ship has vanished, presumably taking his princess away forever.

Six months later, on a lovely summer day after he’s been kicked out the court and all manner of disasters have occurred, Orlando goes into a coma for a week before becoming a hermit and hanging out in his family tomb. He chats with his favorite poet Nick Greene, feeling guilty about his own luxury in the man’s presence, and never gets the courage to discuss his own poetry. He decides at age 30 that he has done everything there is to do in life, found it all worthless, and he is done with men.  Whether he means “men” in the general sense of mankind or the more specific sense of males, I’m not quite sure.

He spends years and decades and hours pondering over the truths behind life and art and human experiences and love, and doesn’t come to much in the way of conclusions.  This is pretty much his MO. He later meets Archduchess Harriet Griselda and somehow falls in love. Of course when he starts to act on it and she becomes a little bit lusty, he runs in the other direction.  How dare she ruin his romantic notions of romance with some kind of sexuality!

He instead becomes an ambassador in Constantinople, because why not.  Later, the Turks rise up against the Sultan, but Orlando misses most of the fighting because he’s fallen into another week-long coma.  People run through his house, but no one kills him because they figure he’s already dead. While people are going through his scattered papers, they also find a marriage certificate for Orlando and Rosina Pepita, a dancer.  This is entirely random but necessary for later plot points.

Suddenly the novel gets a little bit trippy as it turns into a Greek drama. Orlando is visited by the Lady of Purity, the Lady of Chastity, the Lady of Modesty, and the Lady of Truth. They all descend on Orlando to claim him as their own, but Truth wins out.  By the end of it, the trumpets blare and he stands up and discovers that he’s become a woman.  (If you can shed some light on the metaphors going on here, please do.)

Orlando is strangely okay with this turn of events. She gets up, grabs her guns and her dogs, and goes horseback riding. She spends her time hanging out with a band of nomads but eventually they decide to kill her because she prefers sunsets to goat herds.  Harsh. She leaves before they manage it, and decides to make her way back into English society. On board the ship home, however, she makes a horrific discovery about British expectations for women – wearing skirts, being chaste, acting feminine, and all those other awful things.  She immediately sinks into a depression, wishing she could go back to Turkey where everyone wears basically the same outfit regardless of gender. She decides it would be better for women to be poor and ignorant if it means being closer to the human spirit of contemplation, solitude, and love (Orlando seems to be missing the point of humanity if she thinks solitude is a major component).

As Orlando starts to cozy up to the captain, she realizes she still prefers women. This is a bit of an inconvenience in her current time period. She finally gets home, only to discover that her estate is tied up in law due to the fact that she’s a) dead, b) a woman, and c) married to a woman with three sons who all want the estate.  Darn that marriage certificate!  Well, it explains the wife, but where did the sons come from?  How much time has passed?  Were they triplets, perhaps? So many questions without answers.

Orlando takes up  residence and becomes a writer while the law sorts out her property situation.  Once, she is pursued by Archduchess Harriet Griselda, who comes inside, takes off her coat, and turns into a man.  Evidently she’s actually  Archduke Harry, who had seen Orlando’s manly portrait back in the day, fell in love, and dressed up as a woman to pursue him. Orlando thinks that if this is love, love is pretty ridiculous. (I am inclined to agree on this note.) Harry comes back every day to visit Orlando and they try to amuse themselves by making a game out of betting on which flies will land on which bottles. Orlando cheats at this game, and when Harry cries about it, she drops a toad down his shirt. Are these people five years old?  Time is obviously wonky here, so we may never know.

After this, she decides she wants “life and a lover” and so takes her carriage to London again. Our narrator digresses into a long yet relevant discussion of how it is often only the clothes that determine the gender of the wearer. No one, in fact, is able to determine whether Orlando is more man or more woman at this point – not even herself.

The dress gives it away, of course, and everyone points and stares at Orlando in the London streets as she forgets that women aren’t allowed to walk in public by themselves. Archduke Harry (who is apparently still stalking her) appears out of nowhere to offer her his hand. He’s forgiven her for the toad thing, and has had one set in emeralds for her. (How… romantic?) She declines it.

Orlando continues to participate in high society each evening (which seems a lot like an upper-class form of clubbing) and suddenly she’s passing the year 1712. She continues to chat with witty people who say nothing of importance.  Ah, how little things have changed. She meets authors and poets like Mr. Pope, Mr. Addison, and Mr. Swift, but she is far superior to them as she glides into the nineteenth century.

During this century, she remarks how the cold seeps into everything, how men and women grow ever more distant, and how they find other words to conceal the vivacious nature of love, life, and death. (Nonsnarky interjection – I have to applaud Woolf here on her beautiful synopsis of the Victorian age.) Orlando, of course, prefers to write about the unchanging nature of the ages. Which she is allowed to do, I guess, because she’s some kind of philosophical vampire who never grows old.

Suddenly she notices her servant has a ring. Everywhere she goes, people have wedding rings. It’s like some sort of conspiracy! She’s a single woman at 31 years old! (How long has she been 31?) She realizes she needs to drop her Elizabethan habits and step into the Victorian age. She puts on a fancy dress, goes running through the fields in the manner of a Wuthering Heights character, breaks her ankle, and realizes she is Nature’s bride. As one does.  A man riding his horse down the road notices she’s injured. She replies that she is dead and they get engaged a few minutes later. I guess Nature is okay with giving her up as a bride.

Her new fiance’s name is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire. She’d better marry him, because I don’t know where she’s going to find a man with a sillier name than that. (She introduces herself as Orlando. She doesn’t even need a last name, that’s how cool she is.)

As Shel is leaving, Orlando passionately declares her love for him. Her. Wait. It turns out Shel was a woman all along? Shel is shocked to find that Orlando has been a man all along? I have been a little confused all long.

Later, Orlando gets a note from the Law office, in which she finds that her marriage to the Spanish dancer was annulled and her children are illegitimate because she is a woman. (Granted, if she had been a woman at the time, where would the children have come from?  Scratch that, where did the children come from anyway?  And how many centuries does it take to get a lawyer to annul a marriage?) In any event, her property is hers again, and the peasants rejoice (for some reason, their opinion matters). Shel and Orlando occasionally demand the other to prove their manliness/femininity but eventually just realize that they’re a bit of both. They get married, and have a very lovely wedding, complete with thunder and lightning and ominous portents.

When she gets home, Orlando commits the most daring act possible: She puts pen to paper and begins to write as a married woman. Surprisingly, she is not struck down by the hand of God. Our narrator wryly remarks that it’s okay for women to write, as long as they are writing about love and men.  Heaven forbid women think of something other than men! When Orlando is done writing, she is shocked to discover that the world have continued on without her.  I get this feeling a lot after finishing a good book.

She goes for a walk in London and suddenly sees her old poet friend, Nick Greene. He’s not surprised that she’s a woman now, and she’s not surprised he’s still alive after 200+ years. He’s still living in the past, however, and thinks that Tennyson, Browning, and Carlyle are all degenerates (my Victorian lit professor would be ashamed of him). He reads Orlando’s poem at long last (she’s been working on it since the 1600s) and is pleased to find that it is not modern in any way. He is determined to publish it and bring her royalties, and he carries it off with him. She used to keep it in her bra, so she feels its absence and stumbles out into a park to ponder how on earth one puts the minute details of life into literature. Perhaps she should read Mrs. Dalloway.

She goes on like this for a good portion of the book, having epiphanies about ecstasy and staring out the window, remarking the beauty of day-to-day life and occurrences. Then she has a baby.

Huh?  Oh right, it’s the Victorian era, where babies occur spontaneously with no mention of sex or pregnancy.

The next time she looks out the window, it’s 1928. There are cars instead of carriages, and the world seems to be shrinking. She is only 36 years old when she goes shopping for cloth and starts hallucinating that she sees Sasha. She starts talking to herself until she has a full-blown identity crisis as to who she is, and realizes that she is so many things and has so many identities. (Guys, I’m calling it. Orlando is a Time Lord. It’s the only explanation for the identities, the regeneration, the time travel, and the lack of aging.)

With her identity both resolved and destroyed, Orlando seems to go off the deep end.  She exchanges her skirt for breeches and a leather jacket to collect her winnings from Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Addison. She walks through her house, with its rooms roped off and “do not touch” signs plastered to everything. She has donated her house to history and as she looks around, she can see different eras colliding while nothing changes but everything has changed. She thinks about burying her now-published book in the backyard after realizing it’s priceless, but decides to leave it lying on the ground instead. As our own book draws to a close, Orlando starts screaming the name of her husband into the midnight sky while ripping her shirt open and hallucinating. At least, I assume it’s a hallucination, otherwise Queen Elizabeth is paying her a visit and Shel is falling out of the sky from an aeroplane with a goose leaping over his head.

That’s it.  That’s how the book ends.  And it is beautifully insane.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

To finish off our Brontë summer, we have the often-forgotten black sheep of the family, Anne. Unlike her older sisters, Anne Brontë has the crazy idea that male love interests should not be dark and broody like to Emily’s Heathcliff or Charlotte’s Rochester. One could even say her first novel, Agnes Grey, is rather dull because the main characters are so tediously decent. In fact, I say this pretty often. So we’re going to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall instead.  It’s quite scandalous, what with the main female character challenging the laws of her time with feminist rage and prohibitionist anger.  (Of course, she’s still a proper Victorian lady, so you have to squint before you see the rage.)

And, of course, it’s yet another epistolary tale. Did people really write novel-length letters?  What is the proper length of a response to a novel-length letter?  I can see things getting out of hand very quickly.  But I digress. Our humble narrator is a man by the name of Gilbert Markham, who introduces his sister Rose by calling her a “smart, pretty girl of nineteen, with a tidy, dumpy figure.”   Not at all contradictory. Gilbert joins his family around the table and they talk about what they’ve done all day. Gilbert has been breaking in a colt on the farm, his younger brother Fergus has been badger-baiting because no one will let him join the military and he has vowed to become a nuisance instead (he instantly becomes one of the most accurate depictions I’ve ever seen of an obnoxious little brother), and Rose has been gossiping. She has heard the scandalous news that Wildfell Hall has been let at last – by a single woman. *cue storm clouds and bolts of lightning*

The next day, Rose and her mother go to visit the mysterious single woman, Mrs. Graham. They discover she is dressed in mourning attire and dreadfully ignorant about cooking. At church, Gilbert sees for himself what she looks like – decent, but a little scrawny – and the two of them get into a tense staring contest over the pews.

Later, Gilbert is hunting when he stumbles upon Wildfell Hall, and spies a 5 year old boy climbing over a wall. Naturally, he tumbles over with a scream, and Gilbert tries to comfort him. Mrs. Graham comes running out of the house and hisses at Gilbert for kidnapping her son. She takes the kid away as fast as she can. This makes Gilbert grumpy, so he goes to visit Eliza Millward and her sister Mary. Eliza is the vicar’s younger daughter who has a reputation for being just a little bit naughty. Mary mends stockings while Eliza flirts with Gilbert and then makes out with her cat. As one does.

Mrs. Graham does eventually visit Gilbert’s family with her son, Arthur. She refuses party invitations out of fear that he will catch cold from walking in the damp air,  and everyone whispers that all that coddling turn him into a sissy. Gilbert is especially offended by her concern for her son, but that doesn’t stop him from visiting. On one visit with his sister, they learn that Mrs. Graham supports herself by having her paintings sold in London.  She also has a weird habit of labeling the estates in her paintings with different names so no one who recognizes her artwork will trace her back to the original location.  Very curious.  Is she a mobster? He snoops around her room and finds a painting of an attractive young man faced up against the wall. She doesn’t want to talk about it (though why she would bring it and unpack it to begin with, I’m not sure.)  The mystery deepens. Gilbert, of course, is offended that she won’t give him an explanation.  Though to be honest, Gilbert is offended quite often when people don’t do things he thinks they should do, especially when they should be catering to him.

But he still likes her. In fact, he starts to like her more than he likes Eliza, who his mother disapproves of once she catches them kissing. He immediately decides that Eliza is too shallow and that it’s safe to hang out with Mrs. Graham because they surely won’t fall in love with each other. That’s a romcom plot if I’ve ever heard one.

One day, Gilbert accompanies his siblings to Wildfell Hall. Fergus is especially helpful because he’s direct about getting answers out of Mrs. Graham concerning her native lands. When she asks how to get to the beach, Rose refuses to let anyone tell her, instead insisting that they all go together. During this time, their acquaintance, Mr. Lawrence, appears to be stalking Mrs. Graham.  When Gilbert invites him to come and talk with her, he refuses. Very suspicious.

They go to the beach, and Gilbert is offended that Mrs. Graham doesn’t want him chatting and peering over her shoulder while she sketches. He gets more annoyed when she politely declines his offer to help her climb down from her perch. She finally lets him carry her footstool back to the carriage, which was probably a bad move.  Despite her repeatedly shutting down all advances, he still thinks he can wear her down with friendship and presents.  He tries to give her a book, and it goes as well as one might expect. She offers to buy it and refuses to accept it gratis until he promises that it is freely given with no expectations or obligations. Gilbert goes home feeling completely friendzoned.

Eliza appears with more gossip, but we have to go through a whole community full of snubbing before we find out what it is. Apparently people have realized that Mrs. Graham’s son looks an awful lot like Mr. Lawrence. Scandal! Gilbert is so outraged by these obviously false accusations that he has to go to Mrs. Graham and make sure they aren’t true. Of course, he does this in such a roundabout way (namely, by pointing out Mr. Lawrence walking with Miss Wilson and trying to read Mrs. Graham’s reaction) that he doesn’t get an actual answer. He tries to make a move on Mrs. Graham the next day, and she tells him that he can either be her friend or be a complete stranger. He accepts the friendship, but practically challenges Mr. Lawrence to a duel when they cross paths in the street.  Because attacking another man who may or may not be her lover is certainly going to win her heart.

His acceptance of the friendzone never lasts more than a few pages, but after hearing how people are now gossiping about his own visits to see Mrs. Graham, he suddenly decides that it’s a good time to propose. As expected, she turns him down. (Seriously, how is this guy not getting the point?)  Exasperated, she promises to tell him everything soon and sends him away. Instead of going home, he skulks around her property and catches her walking with Mr. Lawrence in the moonlight.  Gasp!  After they walk past, Gilbert throws himself on the ground like a baby in despair. He eventually goes home and mopes for days.

Eventually he goes back to work, but when Mr. Lawrence tries to make small-talk in the streets, Gilbert bashes the poor man in the head with a whip, knocking him off his horse. For a moment, Gilbert worries that he’s killed him, but when he sees eyelids fluttering, he decides Mr. Lawrence will be fine and leaves him lying in the street in the rain. He comes back a few minutes later to help him up. Mr. Lawrence is understandably hesitant for his assistance, so Gilbert gives him his handkerchief and leaves him sitting in the rain.  Again. He finds out later that Mr. Lawrence is very possibly dying from a concussion and a cold, but thinks it serves him right.  Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Mrs. Graham stops by his house some time later, asking why he didn’t visit her to hear her explanation. He tells her that he understands everything already, thank you very much.  She decides his childishness isn’t worth her time and leaves, so of course he has to go to her house just to convince her otherwise. He does so, and she hands him a thick manuscript and tells him to go and read it and tell no one. Naturally, since this is an epistolary novel, he’s going to ignore that last bit and reproduce it for his whole audience in its entirety.

The manuscript turns out to be Mrs. Helen Graham’s diary, starting a few years ago when she was single. I don’t know about you, but when I keep a diary, I tend not to replicate every sentence word-for-word. Helen, however, has a unique skill of making her diary entries sound just like a novel. She talks about meeting a Mr. Huntingdon at a ball, where he saved her from dancing with a really boring man. That same boring man, twice her age, proposes to her, and she objects because she thinks he’s old and boring. Apparently this is a scandalous thing, because how dare women have opinions about possible future husbands.  She prefers to get close to Mr. Huntingdon, while her aunt disapproves and tells her all sorts of scandalous things she’s heard about him. Helen refuses to believe a single bad word and insists he is a good person. Wow, this feels like déjà vu.

Huntingdon ends up visiting with a hunting party (given how often he goes hunting, his name is, perhaps, a little too obvious).  He discovers that Helen has doodled his face on the backs of some of her sketches, which is basically like scribbling “Mrs. Helen Huntingdon” with hearts all over her Trapper Keeper. When they part for the evening, he kisses her, despite her protests.  The next day, he starts stealing all the little pictures she’s drawn of him. She gets one back and throws it in the fire just to spite him. This does nothing to deter him and he gets her to confess her love for him the next night. Her aunt catches them making out and threatens her with “the talk.”

Despite Helen’s concerns about Huntingdon being a morally questionable man and a terrible church-goer, they decide to go through with the marriage.  None of their friends are keen on the matter. Huntingdon’s friends in particular are upset that their bachelor clique is ruined, meaning that their days of gambling and orgies (Brontë’s word, not mine) are coming to an end.

Helen and Arthur get married anyway.  Less than eight weeks later, she regrets it entirely. She complains about not really getting to see Europe on her honeymoon because he’d already seen it all before.  He doesn’t like how religious she is and his favorite pastime is telling her about his ex-girlfriends. They go to London for a change of scenery, but he runs off and isn’t seen for a few weeks. When he does return, he continues to flirt with other girls. She yells at him, he says it’s her fault for being so emotional, and she eventually forgives him.  Ah, the toxic optimism of young love.

Within the first year of marriage, they end up with little baby Arthur. Big baby Arthur doesn’t like the fact that Helen enjoys spending time with her son and would rather drop the baby on the floor so that she’ll spend more time with him. Another year passes, and Arthur Sr. wanders off to London.  Their letters to each other get shorter and shorter until he finally comes back in a temper, demanding that they fire and replace the cook, the clumsy servant, and very possibly Helen herself. His friend Hargrave visits often, and Helen finds herself grateful to him for reminding her husband that she exists.

It turns out she actually has been replaced when she gets a tip from her servant, goes for a walk, and sees Arthur kissing her friend Annabella (also married)  in the moonlit garden while declaring that he doesn’t love Helen one little bit. She confronts him that night, informs him that she was hiding in the shrubbery, and asks if she can take her child and leave him.  He refuses (as expected), and she informs him that she will stay as his child’s mother and housekeeper only.  No more nookie.

She hates her husband, is annoyed by all his friends, and is in a terrible mood for quite awhile. Annabella corners her and demands to know why she’s so suspicious of everyone. Helen tells her how much she enjoys walking in the shrubbery in the moonlight (which is a rather weird excuse, taken out of context) and Annabella just wants to know if Helen’s going to tell her husband.  She won’t negotiate to stop seeing Arthur, but that’s because she’s totally in love with him and their love is obviously forever, etc. Now that they’re no longer hiding the affair, all of Annabella and Arthur’s friends don’t hesitate to talk about it openly. Hargrave thinks it’s now appropriate to profess his love for Helen. She refuses him, of course, and later forgives him for his willingness to sin.  Mainly she just wants him to stop badgering her about having an affair of her own.

Their friends leave eventually and Helen and Arthur are left alone. Helen encourages her husband to go join them, but he’s determined to show the community that they are still totally married and he can totally handle living with his own wife. They argue frequently, Arthur starts drinking, and Helen gets upset because Arthur Jr. happens to like his dad a little more.  All according to plan.

Helen likes how quiet things are when Arthur goes to visit his friends, but she still has to watch out for Mr. Hargrave, who comes over every so often to try and woo her. She rejects him as often as she can and in many different ways until he finally goes to Paris.  When all of Arthur’s friends visit again, Helen threatens to tell Annabella’s husband if she catches them behaving inappropriately. He finds out anyway, and accuses Helen of aiding and abetting adulterers. Because somehow it’s her fault their spouses are cheating on them.

Helen starts calling her husband Mr. Huntingdon again because she doesn’t want to sully her son’s name. Huntingdon, meanwhile, pretends he has no wife and offers her to any man who wants her. For some reason, she tells Hargrave that she’s going to run away, and he professes his love again (sigh). He grabs her hand, insistent that the heavens decided they should be together and since she is his angel, he must be her protector. This guy really needs a reality check, and he gets one.  Helen grabs a palette knife and that sobers him for a moment.  He calls her ungrateful and leaves.

At this point, Huntingdon finds Helen’s diary with all her plans to escape and decides to start confiscating her property. He starts by throwing her painting tools into the fire, having the servants remove her easel and canvases, and steals her money and jewels so she can’t escape with his son. (Fun fact: Married women in Victorian England technically don’t have any property, including their own children.  Everything belongs to their husbands, even if said husbands are adulterous drunkards.)

When he leaves for the hunting season, she starts to train little Arthur to hate the taste of alcohol by giving him a glass with a dash of poison mixed in. (Because nothing shows motherly love like poisoning your own child.) When Huntingdon comes back, he laments that little Arthur has become an automaton and promptly hires a new governess, Miss Myers, who is very obviously Huntingdon’s latest girlfriend.

Helen writes a letter to her brother Frederick, seeking asylum for herself and her son, and packs up her small life, attaching the name “Mrs. Graham” to her trunks. Graham is her mother’s maiden name, and hopefully Huntingdon doesn’t do genealogy as a hobby. Somehow she also manages to pack a lot of paintings  (including that one of the husband she’s trying to run away from).   They sneak out before dawn the next morning, Helen in a black dress and little Arthur in plain clothes. Once at Wildfell Hall, she sells her clothes and buys some more suited to her station along with painting materials with which to make her living. She hears that Huntingdon is hunting her (well, her son, anyway) and tries to fade into the background.  Her attempts are made more difficult due to irritating new neighbors who keep wanting to gossip and visit her, Gilbert.

Gilbert is upset that her diary ends abruptly just as she starts to mention him. (Because he’s really that self-centered.) He is certainly convinced that the rest of her diary is full of initial prejudice against him, followed by a progression to friendship and warm regard (and possibly more) toward him.  He’s a little bit deluded.

To further cement his self-centeredness, Gilbert remarks that the first half of her diary was more painful to him than the second half because he liked the fact that Huntingdon was becoming increasingly awful in Helen’s estimation and he takes a perverse pleasure in that.  (Never mind how much she was suffering.) He runs over to her house at once and even though her servant says she’s not feeling well, he goes in anyway. He and Helen forgive each other for not spilling their hearts upon first meeting, and Helen wants him to promise never to come again. If he does, she’s going to flee Wildfell Hall.   Apparently she doesn’t make these instructions clear enough (a sad theme in het life) because he keeps going on about it. She finally agrees they can exchange messages through her brother, Mr. Frederick Lawrence (who, if you recall, was mysteriously beaten with a whip not long ago and is possibly dying) and she will inform Gilbert of her whereabouts in six months. He protests, but eventually hugs her and runs off.

He goes straight to visit Frederick because although common decency wouldn’t persuade him to save the life of the man he attacked, the possibility of writing to that man’s lovely sister is enough incentive to become acquainted with him. The poor man is ill and bedridden, and as an apology, Gilbert can only say he has “not acted quite correctly towards you as of late.” Such a proper Victorian way of referring to assault and abandonment. Gilbert offers his apologies and remarks that it’s Frederick’s own fault if he doesn’t accept them. It is also Frederick’s fault he didn’t trust Gilbert with the knowledge of being Helen’s brother. Frederick is far too nice for his own good, forgiving Gilbert and only hoping no one has told Helen of his illness so she doesn’t worry about him.

Helen leaves Wildfell Hall two months later, and while Gilbert makes good on his promise not to harass her, he chooses instead to “care” for her sick brother and harass him for information instead. (He confesses to us that he has a thing for Frederick’s slender hands, which are very much like his sister’s. Okay.) When he learns that Frederick saw Helen before she left, he grills the poor fellow for information (Did she talk about me? What did she say?) and is still so shocked when he learns that Mrs. Graham wants to forget him. Naturally, his ability to deny anything he doesn’t like kicks in and he refuses to believe she would say that.

Gilbert gets a visit from Eliza, who has heard the gossip that Mrs. Graham’s husband is alive and that she has gone back to him.  Gilbert doesn’t believe this, of course, even when Lawrence confirms it himself. He has a letter from Helen, who writes how she returned to find Huntingdon very ill and with awful servants because all the good ones had quit. She does her best, but Huntingdon insists that he has no wife and that she should leave. To be honest, between the leeches and the ravings, I’m not sure why she’s sticking around. Gilbert asks Frederick if he can keep the letter (in order to copy it all for our benefit, he argues, but also because he’s a bit of a stalker).

Huntingdon has a relapse in his improving health because he won’t stop drinking wine. He has some kind of epiphany about becoming a good person at one point, but then relapses again and dies before he can properly repent. Gilbert is thrilled by this news, because Gilbert is a terrible person. He is upset that Frederick goes to help out his sister but doesn’t keep Gilbert updated on all of her doings.  To pass the time, he summarizes for us the fates of other characters. As expected, the bad people meet bad ends while the good people meet good ends. (e.g. Annabella gets a divorce after running away with another man and ends up dead in debt and disgrace, while her husband happily remarries a lovely plain woman.)

Time passes, and Eliza informs Gilbert that she heard that Mrs. Graham is going to marry Mr. Hargrave and that Mr. Lawrence has left to attend the ceremony. Of course, Gilbert decides he’s going to go after her and stop the wedding. After a series of snowstorms and lack of carriages (which would generally suggest divine intervention is trying to keep you from doing the thing you are doing), he makes it to the church on time, only to discover that Frederick Lawrence is the groom and Esther Hargrave (Mr. Hargrave’s sister) is the bride. Way to mess with Gilbert, Eliza. Frederick says Gilbert was supposed to get an invitation (uh huh, sure), but since he didn’t, he’s puzzled as to why he showed up anyway.  As Gilbert watches the happy couple leave on their honeymoon, he has a sudden realization that the world does not, in fact, revolve around him, and that other people have their own lives and concerns.  Amazing!

On his way home, Gilbert pays a visit to Staningley Hall to see if Helen is around (he’s not at all stalking her, honest – he just happened to acquire her new address). She isn’t home, but then, just as he’s leaving, Helen and little Arthur pass Gilbert in their carriage.  Probably against her better judgement, she invite him in, and he confesses that his love for her hasn’t changed.  She leans out of her window, picks a rose, and asks if he’ll take it. (English lit alert: The rose is a metaphor). He reaches and closes his hand over it, just in time for her to snatch it out of his hand and defenestrate it. Her only explanation of the action is that he didn’t understand her gift. In reply, Gilbert defenestrates himself and brings the rose back to her. She spells out for him that the rose is her heart and he really shouldn’t be taking it and leaving her alone.

This is her roundabout way of saying she finally consents to being his wifely angel and letting him kiss her, but tells him they’ll have to put the wedding off for a year. He haggles her down to next autumn, and one assumes that Gilbert, at least, lives happily ever after.  As for Helen, we never did find out what she really thinks about Gilbert, so we can’t judge if she’s going to be happy or if she’s just given in after being worn down by so many men.  Gilbert, at least, is probably the lesser of several evils.  And as for Anne…well, even if she doesn’t join the broody man bandwagon, her male protagonist does get an award for being an awful person, so it looks like she’s a Brontë after all.


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Wuthering Heights

Continuing our Brontë Summer, we move on to the only novel written by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. This novel reveals the dangers of marrying within the family and lacking imagination when naming your children. For your convenience, I have supplied a helpful family tree at the end, and will try to use their first names to lessen the chaos.

We start our novel with a completely random man, Mr. Lockwood, who appears to be narrating at us as though we were his journal. At least he isn’t writing us a 340 page letter like last month. Mr. Lockwood is the brand new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, renting from a “capital fellow” (his words, not mine) named Heathcliff, who politely tells him to go to the devil and invites him in to his house at Wuthering Heights, which is not at all a contradictory invitation. Heathcliff is somewhat dark skinned, and we upstanding Victorian readers fan ourselves because we all know what that means. (Hint: it’s racism.)

Nevertheless, Lockwood tries to make conversation with the lady of the house, Mrs. Heathcliff, but it gets more and more awkward with each sentence – he thinks she is Heathcliff’s wife (she isn’t), assumes she is going to offer tea (she’s not), and tries to figure out which kitten in a basket is her favorite (they turn out to be dead rabbits, not live kittens). He asks what he is supposed to do during the storm, but no one offers him hospitality to stay for the night. Eventually Heathcliff takes him home to Thrushcross Grange and his housekeeper, Zillah, puts him to bed.

Lockwood’s room is, of course, haunted. The library, upon perusal, belonged to a Catherine Linton / Healthcliff / Earnshaw. He finds her diary and starts to read it (because when you rent a house, the first thing to do is invade the privacy of former occupants). He nods off, and suddenly hears a scratching at the window. He knocks on the glass and a ghostly hand grabs him.

The ghost introduces herself as Catherine Linton and would like very much to come in. She doesn’t let go of his hand and he tries to slit her wrist on the broken window pane, which is just rude. When he has his hand free, he blocks up part of the window and yells at her. Heathcliff comes running, but he’s too late. He gets upset at Lockwood for interrupting his sleep, and then gets mad at Zillah for letting someone stay in “Cathy’s room.” Lockwood calls the ghost a minx and that just doesn’t sit well with Heathcliff. He sends Lockwood out of the room and bursts into tears, shouting for Cathy at the windowsill. She doesn’t show up again.

Lockwood catches a cold, which is inevitable when one sets foot outside during a Victorian thunderstorm, and this gives him an excuse to get the family dirt from a servant, Mrs. Nelly Dean. She tells him that the Mrs. Heathcliff he met is the widow of Heathcliff’s son, which is only the beginning of a long history of family tree confusion. Suddenly the narration shifts to Nelly, because Lockwood is an outsider and a pretty tedious point of view.

Many years ago, old Mr. Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights went to Liverpool and brought back a present for his children, Cathy and Hindley.  This present happened to be a little black haired homeless boy. (When you see kids who don’t speak English on the streets in Liverpool, it is of course acceptable to take them home with you.) They christen the kid Heathcliff, who, like Madonna, only needs one name.  Heathcliff quickly turns into Cathy’s best friend, which means they both end up as rude brats. Hindley hates Heathcliff and doesn’t stop calling him a gypsy until he decides to run away to college.

A little time passes, and Mr. Earnshaw dies. Hindley brings a new wife, Frances, to the funeral.  She is about as weak and flimsy as we expect a plot point to be. Cathy, meanwhile, is running over the moors with Heathcliff, all the way up to Thrushcross Grange, where they peek in the windows at the Linton children, Edgar and Isabella, who are fighting over a dog. Cathy and Heathcliff laugh when the poor thing is nearly ripped in half, and, upon hearing the sadistic weirdos outside, the children call for their parents. Cathy and Heathcliff try to run, but as the damsel in distress, it is a requirement that Cathy trip and be “attacked” by the dog. The Lintons catch up to them, throw a few racist remarks at Heathcliff and put Cathy on a couch to pamper her. For five weeks.

They finally let her go home at Christmas, after they have tamed the wild out of her and turned her into some semblance of a “lady.”  She goes looking for Heathcliff and immediately laughs at him for being black and grumpy. (And oh how nice, she’s learned some bigotry as well.)

Hindley mocks Heathcliff too, telling him to shake Cathy’s hand nice and proper, but Heathcliff isn’t willing to play the game. Later, he asks Nelly to give him a makeover so he’ll look at least as respectable as Edgar Linton, despite the fact that he is dark-skinned in a racist world.

He doesn’t get a chance to prove himself, however, because Hindley is determined to keep Heathcliff out of the dining room when the Lintons are over. Ever the paragon of the Victorian gentleman, Edgar chooses that moment to walk in and insult Heathcliff’s long hair. Heathcliff throws some applesauce at him and runs off. Edgar and Isabella start to cry as usual and Cathy refuses to eat because she knows Hindley is going to flog Heathcliff.  While everyone else gets over it soon enough because they’re hungry, Heathcliff plots his revenge.  Dinner as usual.  (Also, it is a very elaborate and long-range revenge plan, as we shall see over the course of the novel.)

Summer comes, and Hindley’s wife Frances gives birth to a boy. In typical Victorian fashion, she dies shortly thereafter, having completed her mission in life. Nelly turns from housekeeper into babysitter for the infant Hareton, while Hindley turns into a raging drunkard.

Cathy, of course, remains a little turd.  While waiting for Edgar one day, she yells at Heathcliff until he leaves, pinches Nelly until she leaves, starts shaking baby Hareton until he cries, and accidentally slaps Edgar, who chose the wrong minute to walk in. He almost walks back out the door, but for some reason, sticks around.  Even worse, Edgar and Cathy immediately profess their love to each other.  I guess violence makes the heart grow fonder.

Hindley comes home drunk and catches Nelly trying to stash Hareton in a kitchen cupboard to save the kid from his dad’s rampages. It’s too late, and Hindley grabs Hareton and dangles him over the banister. Fortunately, Heathcliff is below and manages to catch the baby just in time. Hindley, of course, then accuses Nelly for not hiding the baby properly before storming off. Cathy comes in and confesses to her that Edgar has proposed marriage and asks what Nelly thinks her answer should have been. Nelly won’t give a proper reply until she knows the details. For instance, Cathy loves Edgar, but only because he’s handsome and rich, apparently. She is frustrated, however, because she also loves Heathcliff, even she thinks it would degrade her to marry him. At this point, Nelly realizes Heathcliff has been sleeping on a bench nearby, but he slinks out of the room, unnoticed by Cathy, who goes on to say that their souls are the same, and Heathcliff is more Cathy than Cathy is, though I’m not terribly certain if she means that to be a compliment or not.

Nelly prefers to go on to more practical things, such as arguing with Joseph over who’s going to take the food tray up to drunken Hindley (presumably after a few games of rock-paper-scissors, they agree to let him come down if he’s hungry). Joseph, I should mention, is one of those characters in literature that makes me cringe every moment he speaks because Brontë gave him a dialect. In this scene, for example, he says “Und hah isn’t that nowt comed in frough th’ field, be this time? What is he abaht? Girt eedle seeght!” Is that supposed to be Middle English? Ancient Anglo-Saxon? No, it’s just an eyesore that requires reading the sentence aloud in a terrible Cockney English accent and referring to at least one page of very helpful footnotes.

Heathcliff does not come back. Cathy becomes deliriously ill. When she’s a little better, Mr. and Mrs. Linton invite her over to recover at Thrushcross Grange. Then, having served their purpose, they are dispatched quickly via fever. Three years later, Edgar marries Cathy. Nelly is dragged from Wuthering Heights to accompany Cathy to Thrushcross Grange, leaving little five year old Hareton at the sole mercy of his drunken dad.

Of course, Heathcliff eventually comes back with muscles and a beard. Cathy is delighted at his return, and Edgar less so (one can’t imagine why). He dramatically tells Cathy how he planned to see her, kill Hindley and commit suicide, but has since decided otherwise. That night, Cathy comes down to chat with Nelly, since she tried to talk about Heathcliff with her husband and that just made him burst into tears. However,

Things settle for awhile until we learn that Edgar’s sister Isabella has a thing for swarthy broody gentlemen. Then she and Cathy get into brutal namecalling fights over Heathcliff.  Of course, Cathy is a little turd, so she later invites Heathcliff to come in and sit with them and tells him that Isabella admires him. After Isabella flees the room, Cathy and Heathcliff take turns insulting her, though Heathcliff soon recalls that Isabella will be heir to Thrushcross Grange after Edgar dies. No sinister thoughts going on here, folks.

The next time Nelly visits Hareton, he throws rocks at her. She learns that Heathcliff has been teaching him all sorts of swears and bad habits. It turns out nobody seems to like anybody anymore, and these houses that were once full of such angels have degraded into ruinous dens of violence.  Oh, who am I kidding – they were all horrible people to begin with.

Edgar insists that Cathy stop seeing Heathcliff, Heathcliff tries to fight with Edgar (it’s hardly worthy of the term), and Edgar tries to get Isabella to talk about him one way or another.  For some reason, all arguments of this kind tend to send women into illnesses. Cathy goes delirious again, imagining she’s home at Wuthering Heights. While the doctor declares her to be mentally infirm and everyone panics over it, Isabella meanwhile runs off with Heathcliff and gets hitched.

Isabella writes a letter to Nelly a few months later, inquiring if Heathcliff is actually a human. They have moved back in to Wuthering Heights, and Isabella is not sure whether she wants protection from the drunk and violent Hindley or the devilish Heathcliff. It also turns out she needn’t have worried, as Heathcliff doesn’t even want to share a bedroom with her.

Nelly goes to Edgar to ask if she can visit the poor woman. He doesn’t mind if she does, but he refuses to write any little note for Isabella. Nelly likewise tells Isabella that Cathy’s illness is all her fault and she had better leave the country. Heathcliff on the other hand, does want to see Cathy, and hopes Nelly will arrange a meeting in which Edgar will be conveniently absent. At first Nelly refuses, but Heathcliff keeps her prisoner until she agrees to deliver a letter to Cathy.

Nelly hesitates to deliver the letter for awhile, but eventually gets tired of avoiding Heathcliff (who is skulking around Thrushcross Grange). Cathy reads his letter and it’s the first time in months that she reacts. Heathcliff comes in (he’s been hovering in the garden) and he and Cathy start making out. They then get overly dramatic, with wet eyes and heaving bosoms, accusing each other of torturing, killing, and abandoning each other. Then they make out some more, and Nelly (who has been here the whole time) stands around awkwardly. She does not know the protocol for being the unseen narrator in tortured Victorian romances. She clears her throat, announces that Edgar will probably be coming back soon, and Heathcliff tries to extract himself from Cathy, who is moaning about how she’s going to die. Then she faints and Heathcliff swears to be back the next day.

Around midnight, Cathy gives birth to a daughter. It’s a miracle! Nobody even mentioned her being pregnant (especially when she was making out with Heathcliff earlier) but suddenly there is a baby. Cathy, in true Victorian fashion, dies two hours later. They name the baby Catherine, because that’s not morbid or confusing at all.

Nelly dreads telling Heathcliff, but he already knows about Cathy’s death and insists on trampling the flowers in the garden anyway. He grieves in the natural way: cursing Cathy to never find rest so long as he lives, hoping that she’ll haunt him until he’s driven mad. (Halfway there already!)

Nelly is stuck raising a baby again. Isabella comes crashing back into the house and throws Heathcliff’s ring into the fire.  (Presumably it was forged in Mordor.) She’s been avoiding all the men of Wuthering Heights (in other words, everyone) and has only managed to escape now. Heathcliff is not far behind her, though, locked out but scrabbling at the door. He breaks in and gets into a knife/gun showdown with Edgar (who loses, as usual). After it’s all over, Isabella heads south to London and gives birth to a sickly little boy called Linton.  I really do love these parthenogenetic births.

You know the drill by now – it’s time to make a path for the new generation by killing off the old. Hindley dies six months after Cathy, stone drunk. Isabella also dies, though surprisingly she politely waits until her son is twelve.

Meanwhile, Edgar calls his daughter Cathy instead of Catherine because he always called her mother Catherine.   (For clarity’s sake, though, I’m going to keep calling Cathy Jr. “Catherine” here). Heathcliff inherits the house at Wuthering Heights somehow and he intends to raise Hareton as his own. When Edgar tries to send for him, Heathcliff threatens to find his own son Linton, which shuts everyone up for awhile.  The master plan begins to come to fruition.

So twelve years pass, and Catherine turns into her mother, going on adventures and wandering over the moors, ending up at Wuthering Heights to visit Hareton. (Fortunately, Heathcliff isn’t home.) Nelly informs Catherine that she and Hareton are cousins, and Catherine has the natural reaction that Hareton is a coarse young man who can’t possibly be related to her. Hareton, for his part, may have a rough manner and speech, but given his history, he is surprisingly not a completely terrible human being like everyone else.

Edgar, meanwhile, has learned that Isabella is dead and is picking up Linton to bring home to the manor. Linton is a sickly little blond boy who looks nothing like his dad. He is also a spoiled brat, which pretty much goes without saying in this family. Heathcliff sends for him right away, and Nelly takes him the next morning after much fussing and complaining on his part. She tries to describe his father to him (because his mother never told him he had one) but Linton is still terrified on first meeting Heathcliff.

Little wonder, as Heathcliff inspects him, poking and prodding, and decides he’s worse than expected. He also calls Isabella a slut and makes it well known that his kid is heir to everything. Linton refuses to eat what’s put in front of him, and when Nelly goes to leave, he tries to scramble after her in a blind panic, begging her not to leave him at Wuthering Heights alone. Not the greatest of first impressions, but in all fairness, it doesn’t get much better.

Time passes and Catherine hits that dangerous age of 16. She’s never had a real birthday party, because she was born the day her mother died. Instead of a party, she takes Nelly on a wild grouse chase (haha) and winds up on the property of Wuthering Heights (which was purely unintentional on her part, I’m sure).

Heathcliff finds them and invites them in pleasantly. Nelly smells a trap, but Catherine is elated. On the walk back to the house, Heathcliff tells Nelly his master plan: He’s going to try and get Catherine to hook up with Linton so they’ll rule both houses. At least he’s honest about it.

Catherine is elated to meet Linton, who is now a tall pretty boy, and decides she’s going to visit every day and bring her dad sometimes too. That’ll go over well. Heathcliff mentions the quarrel he had with Edgar and tells her to keep her visit secret if she doesn’t want her dad to forbid her from coming.

Heathcliff encourages Linton to show Catherine around the yard, somewhere outdoors, but Linton just wants to stay in and play video games. So Heathcliff has Hareton show her around instead, taking pleasure in embarrassing the poor guy before he goes (because apparently he likes to torment the people most like him). He sends Linton after them. Linton and Catherine gang up on Hareton, teasing him for not being able to read and for having a rough accent.

Catherine gets home and completely forgets her promise. She tells her dad all about nice Mr. Heathcliff and how awful her dad is for never mentioning the people at Wuthering Heights. As expected, she is forbidden from visiting them ever again.

Which means, of course, that Catherine and Linton start up a secret correspondence through a dairy delivery boy. By the time Nelly finds them, Catherine has already declared herself to be desperately in love. Nelly becomes excessively harsh, dropping all the little mementos into the fire.

Several months later, Heathcliff shows up to inform Catherine that Linton is wasting away from lovesickness because she stopped writing back to him. She decides this must not be allowed to happen, and leaps upon her horse to rescue the damsel – er, lordling – in distress.

Linton is there, pleasant as always, as he tells Catherine she should have ridden over more often instead of writing letters, because letters are such hard work. He goes on to call everyone in the house “odious beings.” Still, Catherine thinks he’s charming and pets his hair and wishes he were her brother. Which is…not weird at all.

Linton thinks it would be better if she were his wife, but Catherine is practical enough to say that people sometimes hate their wives, but they always love their siblings. Which I guess is a fair point in the pleasant family dynamics these guys have grown up with. Then they go on to insult each others’ father and Catherine shoves Linton into a chair.

He coughs violently like the weak baby he is, and racks up the pity points with everyone. He guilts Catherine with a “you’ve hurt me so, that I shall lie awake all night, choking with this cough!”  He tries to send them away, but they come running back when they hear him screaming because he’s slid from the chair to the floor and started rolling around. Nelly isn’t falling for it, but Catherine treats him like a baby, adjusting his cushion whenever he decides it’s too high or too low.  She promises to return, even though Nelly threatens to lock her up. Instead Nelly just takes comfort in the fact that Linton will probably die before he’s twenty years old. (While we were all thinking it, the fact that she says this out loud to Catherine is a little concerning.)

Soon, everyone at Thrushcross Grange has caught a cold, from Edgar to Nelly.  This is why it takes Nelly so long to realize that Catherine has been sneaking out to Wuthering Heights at night.  On her travels, she and Linton play a few games before he dissolves into coughing, and she laughs at Hareton because he can only make out the letters of his own name (he’s been practicing).  Then Linton usually starts coughing blood and falls on the ground again.  Despite the trauma, Catherine comes back the next night to find that, no, he isn’t dead, but he is blaming her for upsetting his delicate nature. This goes on for awhile until, eventually, Linton professes his love for her. Catherine for some reason expects Nelly to keep quiet about the whole thing, but Nelly goes and tells Edgar about the secret visits anyway. He forbids her from going to Wuthering Heights again, but says he’ll allow Linton to come and visit.

This doesn’t work at all because Linton is a sickly couch potato.  Several months pass and Catherine’s father finally gives in and lets her go visit him. He has wasted away at this point, barely able to walk out to meet them, and the visit doesn’t last long. The second meeting doesn’t go much better, except Catherine loses her patience because her own father is also wasting away and she’d rather spend time with him. Linton begs her to stay (crying, of course), and Heathcliff invites them all inside. Where he holds them prisoner.   And hits Catherine on the face when she tries to escape. And forces her to marry Linton before she’ll ever be allowed to leave the house again.

Nelly is outraged, and demands to know why anyone on earth would want to marry a “little perishing monkey” like Linton. She says this to Linton’s face, of course, because she’s not the most tactful of servants. Linton starts coughing again and Heathcliff sends him to bed. Nelly finally remembers that there are laws and things preventing people from kidnapping girls and forcing them to marry their sons, but this just makes Heathcliff more insistent. Catherine tries to make a bargain that she’ll marry Linton so long as she can visit her dying father, but Heathcliff just drags her out of the room she and Nelly are locked up in, and leaves Nelly there for a few more days.

When they finally remember to let Nelly out, Zillah tells her that Edgar is still clinging to life and Catherine is locked up elsewhere in the house. She and Linton have been fighting like babies over everything in their newly married life, because Linton has laid claim to all her property, right down to the locket with pictures of her parents in it.

Nelly finally gets back to the dying Edgar. He learns of the plot and resolves to change his will so Heathcliff won’t be able to get his hands on it, but of course the lawyers have already been bought of by Heathcliff so everything’s a bit murky. Then, at last, Catherine is brought home to visit her dad. He kisses his daughter, and (say it with me now) dies immediately thereafter.

After the funeral, Heathcliff shows up at Thrushcross Grange and insists Catherine come back to be with her husband. Despite his attempts to make the kids hate each other (honestly, what’s the point of that?) Catherine is insistent that she’s going to love Linton if it kills him. (Heathcliff at this point is more than a little nuts. He tells us that, as they were burying Edgar, he had them unearth Cathy and then knocked the outer side of her coffin open so he’ll be able to chat with her more easily when he’s buried right next door.)

Nelly is banished yet again.  She hears later how Catherine got home and started to panic when Linton became even worse. Heathcliff had stopped caring at that point and told her to go ahead and nurse him if she wanted, otherwise she could just lock him up until he died. What a lovely father.  Linton does die shortly after, and there is an overwhelming sense of relief that he no longer suffers, and we no longer have to suffer hearing about his suffering. Now that Heathcliff’s revenge is complete, he doesn’t really have a use for Catherine any more and leaves her to fend for herself. Hareton comes to her rescue, but of course she wants nothing to do with him.

Thus Nelly’s tale catches Lockwood up to present times. He goes to visit Wuthering Heights again (why he doesn’t run screaming from this corner of the world, I don’t know) and tries to pass a note from Nelly to Catherine. He is alarmed that she has no books or paper to reply with. She mentions how she found a stash of books in Hareton’s room once, but hasn’t had any access to them. Apparently he has been trying to teach himself to read, which Catherine finds excessively funny. Hareton gets mad and tries to give them back to her, but she doesn’t want them now, so he starts throwing them in the fire.

Time passes, and the next time Lockwood visits his home at Thrushcross Grange, he finds Nelly is no longer there. He decides to walk to Wuthering Heights, because he obviously hasn’t learned his lesson by now. He is puzzled by the smell of flowers and pleasant things and becomes alarmed by the fact that Catherine is teaching Hareton to read and kissing him when he gets something right. He slinks in through the kitchen to find Nelly, who informs him that Heathcliff is dead.  Ah, that would explain it.

Apparently Nelly had been summoned back to Wuthering Heights when Heathcliff decided he didn’t want to look at Catherine any more, and Catherine felt bad that she’d laughed at Hareton so much that she started leaving books around the house as bait in an attempt to get him to read again. Finally they became friends. Nelly can’t wait for them to get hitched, because that’s how these things always work out, apparently.

In their budding love, Hareton and Catherine destroyed Joseph’s currant trees and put up a flowerbed instead. One assumes Joseph was angry about this, but no one can understand him anyway.  I think he blames Nelly for it. When Heathcliff started shouting at Catherine for daring to do things with property that wasn’t hers, she threatened to have Hareton beat him up. This threat doesn’t really work out for her, but she vows to turn Hareton against Heathcliff anyway.

Nelly watched Hareton and Catherine sit by the fire, young and in love, and remarked that they have the exact same eyes. (Well, they are cousins. A bit of incest will do that.) Heathcliff also noticed their similarities and it unnerved him. He sensed a change was coming, as though he were getting closer to a welcome death.

Some time later, he went wandering in the garden, sleepwalking and fasting, and staring at the wall a good percentage of the time. He then informed Nelly exactly how his funeral and burial should go, and died sitting by the open window, letting all the rain in. Nelly didn’t find him until the next morning, when rigor mortis set in and she couldn’t close his eyes or stop his teeth-baring smirk.  Way to be creepy even when you’re dead, Heathcliff. They bury him as asked, presumably in hopes that he won’t haunt them too.  (According to the locals, no such luck – his ghost apparently roams the countryside.)

As our story closes, Hareton and Catherine decide (understandably) to move to Thrushcross Grange and leave only a couple of maintenance people at Wuthering Heights, effectively abandoning it to the ghosts.  One assumes that Lockwood is probably better off renting a different place entirely.

Wuthering Heights Family Tree

Wuthering Heights Family Tree

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The Professor

Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor seems like one of those first novels that everyone except the author likes to pretend doesn’t exist.  I wonder if this is because there aren’t any crazy women squirreled away in the attic and none of the characters are overly swarthy and brooding.  In any event, I feel that it is my duty to bring this odd little gem to the attention of the internet.  (This may also be the start of Brontë summer, but we’ll see.)

I am not entirely sure why some authors decide their novels ought to start out with epistles, but it seems to be a requirement for the Victorians. We begin with a man named William Crimsworth (the epitome of a British name, if I may say so), who is cleaning out his desk and finds a copy of a letter he wrote to an old school friend, Charles.  In his letter, he calls his friend sarcastic and cold-blooded and wonders what animal magnetism drew them together. He then remarks that he saw his friend’s name in the newspaper and decides to launch into a brief autobiography in which he turns down marriage prospects and respectable livings, and instead begs his rich brother for a job. William comments aloud that Charles never answered the letter because he got a job in the colonies (I am sure the name-calling and self-centered rambling had nothing to do with it). William assumes Charles’s silence means that it will amuse him to hear William’s life story.  So naturally he decides writes a book detailing the rest of it.

William’s brother Edward, a newlywed man with a giggly wife, is rather cold to William when William begs for a job. William, in turn, calls Edward “Mr. Crimsworth.”  Not a lot of love lost here, especially when Edward interviews him for a translator position and makes sure he understands that there won’t be any special treatment nor sibling perks.

He is only invited to his brother’s house once, for an office party celebrating his brother’s birthday. It is awkward as he stands around and contemplates the family pictures on the wall, remarking that he looks most like his mother. A tall young man named Mr. Hunsden pops up behind him to remark that the picture looks sensible. William bows and tries to extract himself from the conversation like a “shy noodle” (his words – also, a fantastic phrase). Hunsden figures he may as well stick around out here and chat since William hasn’t had a dancing partner all night.  Their conversation mostly focuses on what makes people attractive, and Hunsden remarks that William is much more aristocratic than his brother. William wonders how he knows that they’re brothers (he likes to pretend his boss is a complete stranger), but Hunsden just complains about William’s shabby wages before finally running off to dance again. William stares at him for the rest of the evening, informing us that he had absolutely nothing better to do than watch. (Sure, William.  I am 90% sure that if Brontë were writing today, William and Hunsden would end up together by the end of the novel.  If you don’t believe me, let’s see how this all plays out, shall we?)

Time passes and William realizes he’s in the wrong line of work.  One evening he takes a walk, rather than go home to his miserable hovel (apparently it’s all the fault of his “slut of a servant” for not lighting a fire.  That’s a little harsh). On his walk, he again encounters Hunsden, who is smoking on the sidewalk.  Hunsden invites him up to his bachelor pad for coffee  (Very unbritish, I know).  They stare at each other for awhile. William contemplates how pretty and feminine Hunsden is. Hunsden calls William a fossil and says he looks like an aristocrat. I’m not entirely certain if they are flirting or insulting each other. At any rate, Hunsden declares William won’t make any money being a tradesman, nor will he find a rich woman to marry, so he’d better think of something else to do.

William spends the next day in a daze, and then tells his slave driver brother that he quits. His brother literally brings out a whip and accuses William of spreading lies about his ill treatment. (The whip doesn’t help your case, Edward). Then Edward throws William out and threatens to have someone cane him if he ever comes around again. Ah, those good old Victorian family values.  William picks up his hat and gloves (and, presumably, his stapler and office plant) and walks home.

When he gets home, everything is dark except for the glowing fireplace in the sitting room, where Hunsden has made himself quite comfortable. Rather than calling the police or demanding to know how he got in, William just pouts at him while Hunsden declares that William owes him a debt of gratitude and tells him to go to the Continent. Because all of Hunsden’s ideas so far have been brilliant, William takes the suggestion with enthusiasm and decides to leave immediately. He is so busy packing that he ignores Hunsden standing in his way, waiting to be thanked before giving up and leaving without a farewell.

Thus William Crimsworth goes to Belgium. He tries to speak French.  It is embarrassing.  People take pity on him and speak English instead. (Unfortunately for poor monolingual English readers, Brontë does not take pity on us.  She throws in plenty of French without translating it, and those of us who do not speak French have to find an edition of this novel with the translations in the back and flip back and forth every time William has a conversation with someone. It’s quite tedious, which is possibly why this book doesn’t do as well as her others.)

Eventually William finds work as a teacher under Mr. Pelet, the principal of a school, who after hearing a few recommendations, wants him to start that very day. (If only jobs were half as easy to get these days.) As an initial test, William reads the Vicar of Wakefield in English to a group of unimpressed boys. (To be fair, it didn’t impress me much, either.) The principal, at least, is pleased, and takes him up to his tiny room.

One of the windows in William’s room has been boarded shut because it overlooks the girls’ school.  Naturally, the first thing William does when he’s alone is to try and find a peephole. He pretends it’s because he wanted to look out into the lovely garden there, but I don’t think he’s fooling anyone.  He doesn’t find a single crack.

He likes his boss, even if he thinks most Flemish people are intellectually inferior (ah, more of those good old-fashioned Victorian values). One day, Pelet’s ugly old mother invites William to tea and his first thought is that she intends to seduce him. It turns out he need not have feared for his chastity, however, as Mrs. Reuter is also there and their talk is all business about giving lessons at the girls’ school.  (Honestly William, none of the evidence points to you being Hot Stuff.)

The next day, William ventures over to the forbidden girls’ school to speak to Mrs. Reuter’s daughter about the lessons. He admires the garden (uh huh) and falls in love with Miss Zoraïde Reuter, the principal, almost instantly. They start sizing each other up, under the guise of meaningless chatter, and he concludes that she is a Real Woman (as opposed to those fake robot women roaming the countryside).  As he starts teaching the teenaged girls, he makes another startling discovery – they are not all perfect angels. William is late to dinner and on his return, he is grilled by Pelet, who mainly wants to talk about Miss Reuter and whether he thinks she’s pretty and whether the girls are pretty (which is not at all creepy coming from an educator).  As it turns out, some of them are, of course, but they are also annoying little turds.

William eventually convinces them to remove the wooden boards from his window, as it is apparently no longer indecent to stare at girls in the garden when one is their professor. Instead, he takes the time to stare at Reuter, who he has started mooning over. He sees her walking with Mr. Pelet in her garden one day, and they giggle at the fact that Willima blushes whenever Reuter’s name is mentioned and that he’s ten years younger than she is.  Also, they find it funny that he has no hope of success with her, because she is already engaged to Pelet.

This puts a damper on William’s amorous intentions.  He tries to bring it up to Reuter, but she instead asks him to tutor one of the other teachers, Miss Frances Evans Henri, in English. She joins his class, and no one seems to find it odd. For some reason (possibly because she won’t tell him how she already knows English), he enjoys knocking her down a peg when she turns in her writing, making her sit in a chair and spending a lot of time going over her every error.  He interrogates her to the point of harassment, but eventually learns that her mother was English.

Even with that answer, he continues to press on in a rather rude way, telling her that she should learn grammar and history to get herself out of the drudgery of teaching sewing classes.  She replies back that she has already learned grammar and history, and furthermore, was able to afford to take the classes because of her lace-mending. What’s more still is that she has a life goal to go to England and teach French. So there. He harrumphs at this idea, completely forgetting that he was once in the exact same position with Hunsden.

The lessons continue and he watches her grow under his tutelage. Reuter thinks it’s a little weird that he praises Miss Henri so much in class, since she’s still technically a teacher and all (it’s a fair point). So of course, the very next week, Frances Henri is absent. William asks Reuter what happened, but she evades the question quite skillfully. He tries to get Frances’s address, but Reuter feigns ignorance, and eventually confesses she gave Frances the boot. So William does the obvious thing and quits his job to go in search of her.

He goes to Brussels and wanders around the graveyard.  Because it’s a Victorian novel and a small, small world, he runs into Frances while she is staring at her father’s grave. Naturally, he falls in love with her then and there.

She tells him she left on leave to visit her aunt, but while away, Reuter paid a visit to basically fire her.  At least she did it in person, I guess.  Frances now invites William to her house (Alone?  How scandalous!) and brings out the tea like the proper anglophile she is.  (No, seriously, this girl is obsessed with England.)  They do a little reading from Paradise Lost (she must either be very dedicated or she is punishing herself for something) and William learns that Frances is planning to save money to get to England by her lace-mending, since she doesn’t trust Reuter to give her a proper reference. Although she gave him money for the lessons, he thinks it is hardly something she can spare, and hides the money under one of her vases.  He leaves, with the new goal in life to marry Frances and save her from destitution.

He doesn’t really care, therefore, when Pelet and Reuter break off their engagement. Pelet gets stinking drunk around him and Reuter declares William to be ever so handsome.  William is awkwardly embarrassed for everyone involved, and is probably relieved when they eventually get back together and get married.

One day, William gets a couple of letters. The first is from Frances. She has, of course, found the money he hid and refuses to keep it. She also has a new teaching job she got through contacts in her lace-mending and now makes 1200 francs a year. He also gets a letter from his buddy Hunsden, who starts out by insulting William’s choice of city and profession, goes on to complain about William’s inability to thank people and write letters to his British friends, and concludes that he is coming to inspect William’s woman (who he has heard is the schoolmistress) and intends to steal her if she’s worth having. It is literally signed Hunsden Yorke Hunsden.  I can’t not love this guy.

William decides to ignore the letter from Hunsden (because how does one even begin to reply to that) and instead chooses to brood over Frances’s. Now that she makes more money than he does, marriage is out of the question. Since he quit his last job, he moves into a little flat and daydreams about teaching her a lot of things.  Before we learn more than we want to about his student/teacher fantasies, William gets himself hot and bothered and has to open a window. At this point, Hunsden knocks on the door and lets himself in.

William stares at him silently for awhile. Hunsden, who is used to this by now, lights a cigar and starts to read one of William’s books until William snaps out of it. In his own humorously rude way, Hunsden learns that William is neither engaged nor heartbroken nor financially well off, and he laments that William will never have wealth, reputation, or love at this rate. After he’s finished with the insults, Hunsden gets to the news – Edward Crimsworth had to sell his house and all his furniture when his business failed. He had almost lost his wife because he was a terrible person (especially without money to cushion the blow), but she came back when it turned out he wasn’t completely destitute.

William doesn’t much care about the house or his brother, but does want to know what happened to the picture of his mom. Hunsden claims that it was probably sold, and he leaves the house cackling. William can’t sleep, but he hears a noise in his sitting room at 5 am. He finds a package there, which contains the portrait of his mother. Rather than being concerned by the breaking and entering, his first instinct is to wonder who the heck would send him his mother’s painting. (Never mind how it got there literally hours after he talked about it.) The question is answered by the included note from H.Y.H., who writes that there is a pleasure in giving candy to babies and he regrets only that he can’t see the look on William’s stupid face when he opens the package.  Aww.  It’s like everyone here is five years old.

William, of course, is not properly thankful and shoves the portrait under his bed. In search of a job, he goes to visit Victor Vandenhuten, the father of one of his rich pupils, who gives him a recommendation to his friends (It doesn’t hurt that William once saved Vandenhuten’s son from drowning).  He eventually gets a job at a college, and decides that he needs to profess his love right away. He hasn’t spoken to Frances in ten weeks, but nevertheless goes to her house and listens at the door to her reading poetry. He finally knocks and decides now is a good time to read and correct aforementioned poetry, because apparently his professor instincts are too strong.  He does this for a good long time.

Then he makes her sit on his knee and demands to know if she’ll marry him. It’s kind of a weird Santa Claus way of going about it, but it works for Frances. She accepts with the ever-so-passionate declaration “Master, I consent to pass my life with you.” William replies dramatically “Very well, Frances.” Then they kiss and stand there silently staring at the fire for awhile. It is… Okay, it’s a little underwhelming.  Possibly not a romance for the ages.

After they call a draw to the staring contest, Frances asks if he’s going to let her keep teaching. He says he will, of course, but that he’ll make more than enough money for both of them. Frances doesn’t want to be a kept woman and would rather have an active life. He agrees to this and kisses her again. He thinks to himself that his new fiancée isn’t pretty or rich or talented, but at least she doesn’t have any obvious defects to get over, so he likes her anyway. Well, with compliments like that, it must be true love.

One day in November, while the two lovebirds are walking down the street, Hunsden passes them by.  He tips his hat at Frances and grimaces at William, not saying a word to either. Frances thinks this is weird, but William appropriately concludes that Hunsden will be paying him a visit soon. He does, and first accuses William of ruining marriages by running around with Madame Pelet-Reuter. William corrects him on that account and proudly announces that his bride-to-be is nothing but a lace-mender. (I’m sure she’ll thank you for that, after working so hard to become a professor herself).

Hunsden is surprised at this and quietly wishes William and Frances prosperity before he tries to leave. William wants to show her off, however, and drags Hunsden along to her house. At first, Frances and Hunsden are cordial to each other and start chatting in French. Frances is shocked to learn that Hunsden doesn’t like England. (Presumably she cries, “But England is perfect!  How could it not be, with Doctor Who and Benedict Cumberbatch and Earl Grey tea and Prince Harry?  Here, have some more tea!  Keep calm and carry on, old chap!”)

Hunsden offers to drag her around the slums to prove that England isn’t perfect, and Frances basically covers her ears and starts quoting Milton. She manages to squeeze the word “hell” into her quote which is, of course, so very scandalous coming from a woman that Hunsden naturally takes a liking to her. Then he insults the Swiss and that gets her even more riled up and she accuses him of being a man without feeling and then angrily serves supper to everyone. William leaves with Hunsden, who has vowed to return to continue a verbal battle with the woman “doomed” to become Mrs. William Crimsworth.  Hunsden remarks that she is not good enough for Hunsden, but too good for William.  They wrestle around on the ground for a bit and part ways without a farewell.  Men are weird.

Two months later, William and Frances get married, and spent a year and a half working. Frances is displeased to realize that her husband is earning 8,000 francs a year to her pitiful 1,200, and she wants a more equal partnership – namely, she wants to start up a school. They do so, and it becomes quite popular. They also have a kid, call him Victor, and eventually return to England. They take a tour of the island and move into a quaint little mansion in the Hunsden Wood (which is, of course, very close to where our Hunsden resides).

Hunsden is still unmarried, but occasionally he goes abroad and brings home random foreigners or Birmingham and Manchester men. But fear not, gentle Victorian readers – he has a picture in his pocket of a woman named Lucia that he wanted to marry once, so rest assured that he’s at least 50% straight.  Probably.

Hunsden comes over for dinner at the Crimsworths’ several times a week, and Frances is a little worried that he’s going to corrupt her son. (Hunsden once bought Victor a dog named Yorke, presumably named after himself.)  William also worries about this a little bit, but he’s as incapable of taking a stand as ever, so he just finishes up his novel and goes in to eat with his odd little family.

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Silas Marner

This month, let’s take a look at  Silas Marner, by George Eliot.  Silas Marner’s backstory is a somewhat tragic one, beginning with the fact that his name sounds so much like an old man’s name that I can’t picture him as a young person.  But he was, once upon a time, and used to live in northern England.  One day, he had an epileptic fit at a prayer meeting and his fishy-looking best friend William Dane spread the rumor that he was plagued by the devil, which presumably had nothing to do with the fact that Silas had picked up a cute fiancée named Sarah.  After this event, Silas asked Sarah if she wanted to break off the engagement but she declined, thinking the community wouldn’t approve of such a scandalous thing. (This is weird reasoning – I thought Silas only wanted to break off the engagement in the first place because people thought he was in league with the devil.  Seems like Sarah would have been caught up in scandal either way.)

To make matters worse, the senior church deacon was dying and while all the locals took turns looking after him, the deacon decided to up and die on Silas’s watch. Things went downhill from there, as William accused Silas of ditching the deacon as soon as he was dead to steal the church money.  The accusation worked, thanks to a careful planting of Silas’s knife in the money’s location, and the money in Silas’s room.   The congregation, for its part, seemed more concerned about the money than the dead man.  Silas announced that William was the real perpetrator, repudiated his Christianity, and left town.  Sarah married William instead.

Silas moved to the quaint farming town of Raveloe, where he was locally considered to be one of those suspicious sorts of people – you know, the kind who just wanders into town and isn’t related to anyone that you’ve met, so he’s obviously in league with the devil, what with his near-sightedness and hermit-like tendencies and rumored arcane knowledge of herb lore. It turns out he was really just a guy who liked to weave things on his loom.  He did make the mistake of using foxglove to concoct a remedy to help relieve a woman’s heart disease once, so everyone assumed that he was capable of improving their lives with charms and spells.  Instead, he just secluded himself further from society and became obsessed with all the money he made on his loom. He started to hoard it and count it and talk to it, hiding his precious gold from those nosy neighbors and their nasty childrenses. (Don’t worry, he hides the precious under the floor where no one will sees it.)

This goes on for fifteen years until one fateful Christmas. The two sons of Squire Cass (the lord of the town) – Godfrey the good-looking guy and Dunsey the dour despicable dude – are arguing over rent money that Godfrey lent Dunsey and hasn’t gotten back yet. Things get ugly – Godfrey threatens to tell their dad about Dunsey’s lost money and Dunsey threatens to tell their dad about Godfrey’s secret drug addict wife.  Things escalate and Godfrey threatens to tell their dad about both so they can get thrown out of the house together. Yikes. To obtain more money, Dunsey offers to sell Godfrey’s horse for him.  In a move of complete stupidity, Godfrey thinks this is a good idea and lets him.

The next morning, Dunsey passes by Silas’s place on his way to sell the horse and realizes that his brother could have tried to borrow money from Silas. (I’m sure that would go over well with the man who has probably named every one of his coin by now.) Dunsey eventually manages to find a buyer for the horse, but before he can deliver it, he joins a hunt and accidentally skewers his brother’s horse. On his walk home and in need of money, he rather desperately passes Silas’s house and goes inside, finding no one at home. He finds the bags of gold almost right away (Silas isn’t very good at hiding things, apparently), steals them, and flees into the night.

Silas, meanwhile, is coming home, excited to eat pork for supper and count his money. He decides to do both at the same time, but flips out when he realizes it’s gone. His first suspect is Jim Rodney, mainly because that guy is crazy enough to visit more often than most people.  Silas runs out in the rain to tell the clergyman, the constable, and Squire Cass to make the dude give it back. He runs to the parlor at the tavern (called the Rainbow, like any respectable establishment), but it’s empty because everyone is celebrating a birthday party. The dudes drinking at the bar aren’t paying attention to him while they quietly accuse each other of stealing cows and retell stories that everyone has heard before about misspoken wedding vows and haunted stables.

Then, of course, they realize they are haunted by Silas, who starts wailing about being robbed and demanding his money from Jem, who has no idea what’s going on. Everyone decides he’s nuts until he finishes his story. Then they agree to help him. The next day they find a tinder-box, presumably connected with the crime, and they get distracted remembering a peddler who came by last month selling tinderboxes and try to recall if he wore earrings or not. Others assume that occult forces must have Silas’s gold. I hope Silas doesn’t have high expectations for the townspeople to solve this case quickly.

Godfrey, meanwhile, is looking for his brother. He passes the man who was supposed to buy the horse, and the man tells him about its gruesome death. Finally Godfrey realizes he’s kind of an idiot and decides to tell his father the truth about everything. When he does tell his father about the dead horse at breakfast, he puts part of the blame on himself and his father calls him an idiot, which is pretty spot-on. He evades the question of marrying the girl he likes and doesn’t bring up his other secret wife.

Weeks pass and various earring-clad peddlers are interrogated while Dunsey’s disappearance is pretty much ignored. Silas mourns the loss of his precious gold – the thought of earning more money is odious, because it reminds him of the friends he may never see again. Still, people stop by and give him pork and puddings while trying to advise him that greed isn’t good for anyone.  They try to trick him into going to church, but to no avail.

At the New Year’s Dance, Nancy Lammeter (the woman Godfrey wishes he were married to) is paying her respects to various relatives and worrying about her outfit matching her sister’s and whatnot. We learn that not only does Nancy not intend to get married, but she also doesn’t want to marry Godfrey. She still manages to get suckered into a dance with him, thanks to Godfrey’s drunken father. Godfrey’s drunken father also manages to step on the train of her dress and rip it at the waist, forcing her to sit down early and wait for her sister’s help. Godfrey takes her into another room and makes the kind of “You’re the best thing in the whole world speech” that makes Nancy cringe a little to hear it.  Of course you can guess who she’ll end up with now.

Meanwhile, Molly (the woman Godfrey is actually married to) is upset that her husband refuses to acknowledge her and their child in public. She decides to crash the party and announce the truth. Before she can do anything interesting, however, she collapses in the snow and promptly dies of literary plot device syndrome (and, presumably, opium overdose). The child she’s still holding is a little upset at this turn of events, and starts to toddle off through the snow into Silas’s open cottage door. This is strange – one would assume he’d want to keep that thing closed and locked on a cold New Year’s Eve, whether he had recently been burgled or not. It turns out that he actually has the habit of sticking his head out of the door from time to time to see if his money has come running home, and is in the middle of this, as well as an epileptic fit, when the little girl comes crawling in. When he comes to, he gets excited to see gold on the floor by the fire, but it turns out to be only hair attached to a baby.  I realize that nearsightedness can be pretty bad, but mistaking a girl for a bag of gold is stretching it a bit, don’t you think?

Silas slips immediately into mommy mode and starts to feed and cuddle the baby.  After a while, he shows up at the New Year’s party with the little girl in his arms and demands to see the doctor because he’s found the dead woman nearby. Godfrey is more than a little unsettled by this fact. When someone offers to take the girl off his hands, it becomes clear that Silas has found his gold replacement: “It’s come to me—I’ve a right to keep it.”

Godfrey uses the opportunity to slip out and see whether his wife is actually dead. Fortunately for him (and his plans for Nancy), she is. He returns and studies his child, who doesn’t recognize him at all. Instead, he offers Silas a guinea to buy her some new clothes.

Everyone thinks it’s a little weird that a single man might actually want to raise a daughter, but no one actually feels like they can drag Silas away from the little girl. Instead, he becomes the focal point of all the doting local mothers, who have plenty of advice and hand-me-down clothes. Dolly (not Molly, mind you) in particular wants to help him with everything. He accepts the advice and lessons, but wants to do everything for the little girl himself. When asked what he’s going to do as she gets older and wants to start wandering around when he’s working, he has the genius idea of tying her to the leg of his loom like a puppy.

Dolly tells him to have the little girl christened and then as an afterthought, realizes he should probably give her a name. He decides to name her Hephzibah after his mother and sister, with a nickname of Eppie. I guess it could have been worse…

As Eppie grows up, she starts to act like an actual toddler and not a perfect angel. Dolly recommends punishing her either by smacking her or locking her up in the coal hole for a little while. (Ah yes, the days of deciding whether to abuse our children physically or mentally were difficult indeed.)

Eppie eventually does, of course, escape her puppy leash by cutting the rope with a pair of Silas’s scissors and he finds her in a mud puddle in the next field over. After rejoicing that she isn’t hurt, he follows through in putting her in the coal hole, but to his dismay, she really kind of enjoys it. So he raises her without punishment and she does, alas, become a perfect angel and not an actual child. Wherever they go, people are either amazed at the sight of a single father or are full of advice to offer him. In either event, he is no longer touted as the local witch doctor. Godfrey, meanwhile, tries to become a better person in order to win Nancy’s hand. I have already lost interest in him.

We jump forward in time sixteen years. Godfrey and Nancy are married, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Instead we follow Silas, who now looks ancient at the ripe old age of 55, and Eppie, who is now properly 18 so we can obsess over her lovely blond curls without feeling creepy.  So can Aaron (one of Dolly’s kids), who is following them for some reason. Eppie wants a garden and Aaron offers to dig her one. They get back to the cottage and reunite with their puppies and kitties and remodeling jobs (paid for as a gift from Godfrey). It’s almost too idyllic.

Eppie has, of course, been told the whole gruesome tale of her adoption. Silas even saved her mother’s wedding ring for her, and she asks if she might be married with it. This is a nice segue for her to inform her father that Aaron has proposed and that she figures she’ll marry him because hey, why not, most people get married sometime. She doesn’t want to leave her father all by himself, however.  He feels that she’s too young to be thinking about such things just yet.

Meanwhile, Nancy walks with her sister and laments over how upset Godfrey is at their not having any children, aside from one who died in childbirth. Godfrey had tried to adopt Eppie when she was 12, but Silas wasn’t having any of that.  (At the time, Nancy wasn’t very fond of the idea, either).

When Nancy returns from her walk, Godfrey tells her that upon draining the stone pit recently, they found the skeleton of Dunsey (remember him?), who had drowned sixteen years ago with all of Silas’s gold. Since it’s truth time, he also tells her about his dead wife and still-living child. Instead of getting upset over the deception like a normal person, Nancy just wishes he’d told her sooner so they could have raised her as their own. Godfrey thinks it’d be a great idea to adopt her now, never mind the fact that she’s 18 and he already tried that once before.

Eppie and Silas are chatting about how fortunate it was that the gold had been taken from Silas before he found Eppie as a replacement. Godfrey and Nancy pay their visit, and Godfrey expresses his regrets for having a thief for a brother. He goes on to compliment Silas’s raising of Eppie, but thinks she’s better off being made a lady, and offers to take her in.

Silas does a pretty impressive thing and lets Eppie make her own decision. Eppie thanks them for the offer, but doesn’t want to leave her father and would rather not be a lady anyway, thank you very much. Godfrey is annoyed at this turn of events (why he didn’t expect them, I don’t know) and pulls out his trump card – he is totally her real dad. Silas is angry and feels that Godfrey has no right to Eppie after turning his back on her, whether it’s for her own good or not. Silas again tells Eppie it’s her decision, and again she declines Godfrey’s offer.

Later that week, Silas and Eppie make the journey to Silas’s old hometown, only to find that the place is gone and replaced by a big factory. There is no one from his old life to be found, leaving me to wonder what the point of the trip was.

Eppie and Aaron are soon married, and Aaron moves in with Eppie and Silas. Now, I’m all for filial piety, but couldn’t they just move next door or something?  This codependency seems a little unhealthy, but how it plays out, we’ll never know.

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Ethan Frome

To celebrate the end of a long winter, I’m going to tackle Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton. Our narrator (who rudely neglects to tell us his name) is a gossipmonger whose sole job is to share with us the goings-on of a little town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. His favorite subject is a man by the name of Ethan Frome – a tired, scarred, cranky 52 year-old-man who’s looked like a geezer since he was 28 years old.

Our narrator is fairly new to town, commuting a long way to work and renting a room from the widow known as Mrs. Ned Hale.  One day, when the narrator’s carpool buddy is home sick, someone suggests he catch a ride to work with Ethan, who could use an extra dollar a day. Over the next few weeks, Ethan is a decent taxi driver, though he barely says more than a word or two on the awkward ride to and from work. At one point, when the narrator accidentally leaves his biochemistry book on the seat, Ethan returns it the next day and expresses some interest in the topic.   The narrator hopes this means Ethan will read it and they’ll have a conversation about it, but no such luck.

Ethan is as reliable as a postman, even driving the narrator to work during a snowstorm.  It gets so bad that they have to take a detour, and as Ethan takes them past his own house, he suddenly seems to have plenty to say about the ugly little thing. On the way home from work, the storm is worse, and they have to stay at Ethan’s house for the night.  This, of course, provides the perfect excuse for Ethan to relate his sordid personal history (though I’m not entirely sure why, as the narrator hasn’t done anything to make himself seem especially trustworthy).

As it turns out, young Ethan Frome was just as stalkery as our narrator is now, peeking into the windows of the church to watch young men and women dance. In particular, he likes watching a dark haired woman called Mattie Silver.  He also likes to ignore the fact that she’s dancing with Denis Eady, the son of the Irish grocer.

Mattie, as it turns out, is a young cousin of Ethan’s sickly wife, Zenobia (often called Zeena. I happen to love the name). She has been living with the couple for a year, and Ethan is rather attached to her, by which I mean entirely smitten – he shaves every day and everything now. Zeena, of course, notices this, and tries to draw attention to Mattie’s lack of domestic talents. Ethan usually ends up helping Mattie with her chores, lighting the fire and scrubbing the floor.  Whenever his wife catches him, she reminds him that they’ll need a hired girl when Mattie gets married.  He doesn’t like the thought of that, so he willfully assumes it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Ethan waits for her after the dance, lurking in the shadows like a creeper while Denis offers her a ride home. She teases Denis by almost letting him take her home, but as soon as he’s in his sleigh, she runs off. Ethan finally emerges from the shadows and walks her home, wishing that he could rub his head on her red scarf.  (Not weird at all.)   They pass by an icy hill and make plans to sled down it sometime, despite the fact that Ned Hale and his fiancée almost hit a big elm and nearly died in the process when they last tried it. What could possibly go wrong?

Ethan tries to find out how serious Mattie is about Denis by asking if she plans to leave soon – probably the wrong thing to do, as she suddenly gets insecure and thinks that they’re planning on firing her. It turns out, to his delight, that she has no plans of getting married just now. They continue on their walk, past the Frome gravestones (which are presumably placed by the side of the road as a pleasant reminder of one’s mortality) and Ethan dreams of the day he and Mattie are buried next to each other in a way that is totally not creepy . When she stumbles over absolutely nothing, he puts his arm around her and she doesn’t run away, so he takes this as a sign to mean he should confess his love on the front porch. Of course, the mood is spoiled when they get to the house and he discovers the key isn’t under the mat by the kitchen door.

As they fumble around looking for it, Zeena appears at the door, with her hair in pins and her outline a bit skeletal. (One can’t help but imagine green face cream and cucumbers). It turns out she didn’t forget to leave the key out – she just couldn’t sleep so she waited up for them.  Now, she heads off to bed. He doesn’t want to follow after her and give Mattie the impression that he actually sleeps in the same room with Zeena (honestly, do you think she hasn’t figured that out?) so he makes the excuse of going over mill accounts. Zeena sees right through him and tells him to hurry up and stop being a baby.

That night, as he listens to Zeena’s asthmatic breathing and imagines her dentures in a cup beside the bed (I realize she’s ill, but honestly, she’s still only 35), Ethan wonders why he didn’t kiss Mattie. In the morning, he watches her and notes how nicely her complexion is warming up, compared to how she looked when she first arrived after the death of her parents and her failure at making her own living in the world (apparently bookkeeping was too strenuous for her health. I’m going to assume it runs in the family and that Wharton isn’t saying all women are incapable of standing upright for more than an hour at a time).

Ethan comes home from work to find Zeena in her best dress, getting ready to visit her Aunt Martha in the city because her shooting pains are terrible, and presumably a bumpy carriage ride will help with that. He usually dreads the thought of her going to the city because she always comes home with expensive new “remedies,” but he’s excited this time because it means he’ll be alone with Mattie. He makes a dumb excuse for why he can’t drive her over himself, but fortunately Zeena’s not really paying attention.

As Ethan carries on with his work, he fantasizes about eating supper alone with Mattie like a married couple, which of course reminds him of how his current marriage started.  He recollects the death of his father and fatal illness of his mother, and the fact that his cousin Zeena had come to tend her. After his mother died and Zeena was preparing to leave, he had begged her to stay with him so he wasn’t left alone on the farm. They had intended to sell the farm and move to a large town, but he could never find any buyers and Zeena soon developed an illness. She grew quieter and he started to wonder if she was turning out like his mother.  (I’m not sure if he means the illness or the notion of slowly dying of boredom on a decaying farm.)

As he walks the streets now, he sees Denis in his sleigh heading in the general direction Frome farm and is immediately jealous. By the church, he hears a couple kissing and takes delight in scaring Ned Hale and his fiancée. He heads home, past the graveyard where he admires a gravestone engraved with the names of Ethan Frome and his wife Endurance who had been married for 50 years. (If the first Ethan was anything like this one, Endurance is probably an apt name for his wife.)

Upon reaching home, Ethan is gleeful to find that Denis never actually showed up and that Mattie is alone in the house. She’s got a ribbon in her hair and food on the table, which makes her appear all kinds of womanly to him.

Supper is awkward, and they talk about the weather and whether it might affect Zeena’s return, while the cat tries to steal the milk jug. In reaching for the jug, they scare the cat, who knocks over Zeena’s pickle dish and shatters it. Apparently Zeena never used the pickle dish (why do pickles need their own dish anyway) and kept it with her best things until Mattie decided tonight was the perfect time for pickles. The pickle dish is, of course, an irreplaceable wedding present from Zeena’s aunt, and its departure from useful existence completely ruins the evening. Ethan puts the pieces back on the shelf in such a way that they don’t look broken from below and decides he’ll glue them back together in the morning.

After eating, Ethan finds Mattie sewing in the kitchen and insists she sit by the stove to complete his fantasy of domesticity.   Mattie seems to find it awkward sitting in Zeena’s rocking chair (no kidding) and since she can’t actually see her sewing, goes back to sit by the lamp. They start chatting about various things – how it’s too dark to go sledding tonight, how he caught her friends making out, and when their wedding is going to be (the friends, that is, not his and Mattie’s – as much as he would wish otherwise). He tries to find out again if she has thoughts of marriage, and she tries to find out if she’s going to be fired. He reaches a hand out toward her, but the meddling cat jumps off Zeena’s rocking chair, which makes him remember that his wife is actually coming back. His hand creeps closer and he kisses Mattie’s sewing. She starts packing it all up (possibly because that was really weird) and they go to bed separately.

The next day he is anxious to run out and get the glue so he can mend the pickle dish and spend time with Mattie before his wife gets home.   Zeena is, of course, already home and in her room when he gets back. There is something ominous when his farmhand refuses to stay for dinner (and they’re even eating donuts – you know it’s bad when he refuses donuts).

Ethan calls Zeena down for dinner, but she says she is much sicker than he thinks, with “complications” and everything. It only now occurs to him that she might actually be telling the truth. Her new doctor says she should probably have an operation, but it’ll be sufficient if they just get a hired girl to do everything around the house instead. She’s already found one, in fact, and the girl is coming over tomorrow.

Ethan freaks out about the money they don’t have, Zeena plays the “I lost my health nursing your mother” guilt card, and things get even nastier when she informs him that she’s letting go of freeloading Mattie immediately – apparently it’s time the girl spent a year sleeping on someone else’s couch and hogging the Doritos.

After this revelation, Ethan slumps downstairs to dinner by himself – though instead of eating, he prefers to be dramatic.  He clutches Mattie to him, kissing her and declaring that he doesn’t want her to go. She is, of course, alarmed because he spent the last two days ensuring her that no one was going to fire her. He insists that he’ll stand up to his wife, but falls silent as Zeena shuffles into the room, deciding she’s going to eat after all. Afterwards, Zeena goes to get some Tums or something for her stomach, but she finds her broken pickle dish instead. She’s enraged.  Ethan blames the cat, Mattie blames herself, and Zeena calls Mattie a bad girl for ruining the one thing she cared about most of all.  (Apparently it was a really fantastic pickle dish.)

Later that night, Ethan realizes he is an independent man who don’t need no bitter woman running his life. He decides he could totally run away with Mattie, leave the farm for Zeena to sell and head west.  But when he starts writing her a letter, he realizes that leaves him with no money whatsoever – not even the train fare to head west. He thinks about borrowing money, but finally realizes that he’s a poor man trying to leave his sickly wife alone and destitute and that no one is likely to feel sympathy for him on the issue.

The day of Mattie’s departure (the very next day, as it turns out) Ethan insists on driving her to the station.  They stop along the way to spend time reminiscing and flirting. Ethan asks her how on earth she’ll manage working in a shop with her helpless little stick legs. She pulls out the letter he started writing and confesses her feelings. He exclaims that he wishes she were dead instead of married to someone else, and she agrees (this seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me, but apparently I know nothing of true love).

As they drive past the old sledding hill, Ethan insists on taking her down it immediately. Ned Hale has conveniently left a sled there for them to use, and after they have a go, Mattie kisses him. As the time draws near for Mattie’s train to leave, they panic about separating, which leads Mattie to the logical conclusion that they should go ahead and kill themselves by crashing the sled into the tree.

Honestly guys, death by urban legend is not the most surefire way to go.  You should try poison or something.

They make the attempt anyway, but during the descent, Ethan hallucinates, sees the face of his wife and jerks the sled slightly off course. They hit the tree all right, but not fatally. Although he’s in pain, Ethan gets up, checks to make sure Mattie’s alive, and then compulsively thinks about feeding his horse.  Man’s got priorities.

The flashback ends and we return to our narrator (remember him?) meeting two gimpy gray-haired women who turn out to be Zeena and Mattie. As the narrator later learns from Mrs. Hale, he’s the first person to set foot in the Frome house for twenty years. Since the accident, Zeena has taken over the care of everyone. Unsurprisingly, she and Mattie still don’t really get along, and they are all miserable.  Mrs. Hale tells the narrator that everyone in that house would be better off dead.  Which is as cheerful an ending as this story is going to get, I guess.  If I’ve learned anything here, it’s either that adultery is wrong or that sledding is a terribly ineffective method of accomplishing suicide pacts.

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