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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Summary

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Summary

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Summary

Pride and Prejudice

Busy month this time around (I recently acquired a very distracting kitten) but I decided to tackle Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which happens to be one of my favorite satirical social commentaries, despite also being a romance.

We are first introduced to the overly dramatic Mrs. Bennet, a mother of five daughters who is bent on pimping them out to the wealthiest single men she can find. When a rich Mr. Charles Bingley moves into the neighborhood, she immediately goes to her husband (whose sense of humor makes him one of my favorites) and insists on having him pay the poor soul a visit. He strings her along awhile before finally admitting he’s already done it. We are also introduced to the girls: First, we have Jane, the pretty/sweet/bland one; then Elizabeth, the sensible firecracker who is our heroine; Mary, the awkward bookworm; Kitty, the flirty whiney brat; and finally Lydia, the whiney, bratty flirt.

The Bennets meet Mr. Bingley at the next ball. He’s a good looking young gentleman who has brought along his two sisters, a brother-in-law, and another handsome man named Mr. Darcy, whose primary gossip-worthy feature is that he earns about ₤10,000 a year (which, to be fair, is about $727,470 when converted to modern US dollars). Where all their money comes from, I’ve never really figured out, since we don’t see them doing anything but traveling the country and going to dances and whatnot.

At this particular ball, Mr. Darcy doesn’t mingle beyond his own circle of friends and therefore earns the title of “most disagreeable man in the world.” That’s even before he tells Bingley that he doesn’t like dancing and the girls around here are only mediocre at best (except for Jane Bennet, who Bingley has been dancing with half the night. Well, okay, twice. But in Mrs. Bennet’s mind, they’re practically married already).

The next day, the Bennet ladies get together with their friends the Lucases and complain about how overly proud Mr. Darcy was. To placate her mother, Elizabeth promises never to dance with him. So that’s the end of that. Except that the Bennets encounter the group often at social gatherings and balls. While Jane and Bingley are getting along splendidly (much to Mrs. Bennet’s delight), Darcy is skulking around admiring Elizabeth’s eyes and edging himself into her conversations (though he never actually says anything). Elizabeth is understandably weirded out by this, and manages to get him to exchange a sentence or two before he flees. At one point, Sir William Lucas drags them together again and insists they dance, but Darcy prefers to stare at her from afar and Elizabeth prefers people who talk.

Time passes and the plot thickens as we learn that a militia regiment is stationed at Meryton, only a mile from the Bennet’s home at Longbourn. Kitty and Lydia obsess over officers, and their father laments over how silly they are. (Not sure what else he expected from teenagers, though.)

Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline writes Jane a letter inviting her over for the day, and Mrs. Bennet sends her over on horseback “because it seems likely to rain, and then you must stay all night.” Jane, of course, catches a cold from riding over in the rain. For Jane’s sake, we are relieved that this is a romcom novel, otherwise she would be dead within the week.  Elizabeth, at least, still remembers that most elder sisters in novels have a high mortality rate, and insists on going to see her. Not having learned anything from Jane’s situation, Elizabeth decides to walk the three miles to Netherfield herself.

When she shows up at Bingley’s house, interrupting their breakfast, the women are blandly polite, Mr. Bingley is kind, and Mr. Darcy just stares, contemplating the way that exercise and muddy skirts make her even more attractive. Elizabeth doesn’t care what anyone thinks, and instead sticks around to take care of her sister. When not attending Jane, she joins the rest of the clan in the drawing room, where the Bingley sisters are passive aggressively making fun of everyone in turn. The conversation turns to accomplished women and Darcy sketches his ideal wife. Apparently, all a woman has to do is be completely adept at music, singing, drawing, dancing, speaking all the modern languages, and having a perfect grace about her walk, her address, and the tone of her voice and expressions. I guess when you’re a millionaire, you’re allowed to have unrealistic expectations.

In less than a week, Elizabeth and Jane are able to head home, to the relief of nearly everyone except their mother (whom I suspect of laying awake at night, contemplating ways to put her daughters in near-death situations in order to catch husbands). Not long after they return home, their father informs them that they will be receiving a guest of their own – his cousin, Mr. Collins, who is slated to inherit the land, the house, and everything in it once Mr. Bennet is dead, thanks to some outdated male inheritance rules. Mr. Collins is a pompous and ridiculous clergyman who reveres his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (her chimney alone costs ₤800!), and plans to preemptively apologize for taking over the Bennet fortune by marrying into the family. Over dinner, he shows himself to be a true ladies’ man by explaining his smooth techniques, stating that “though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.” One wonders how this guy is still single. Mr. Bennet thoroughly enjoys the conversation because Mr. Collins is just as absurd as he has hoped his relative would be.

The girls later plan a walk to Meryton to get out of the house and away from Mr. Collins (he joins them anyway), and there they are happy to meet some officers, who introduce them to Mr. George Wickham, a charmingly handsome soldier. They chat for awhile until Darcy and Bingley ride into town. Then there is something of an old west standoff between Darcy and Wickham until Wickham tips his hat and Darcy leaves. No one but Elizabeth notices that the plot has thickened.

The girls attend a party at their aunt and uncle’s house in Meryton and meet up with the officers again. Mr. Wickham keeps trying to talk to Elizabeth but Lydia interrupts him with chatter until she’s distracted by a game of cards. Elizabeth asks him about Darcy, and it turns out they grew up together – Darcy’s father was Wickham’s godfather and left him a living and a church position in his will, which Darcy apparently did not honor upon the man’s death. Elizabeth is astonished, Wickham calls both Darcy and his sister very proud people (I sense a theme here) and, veering off topic a bit, reveals that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Darcy’s aunt and plans to have her daughter marry Darcy. (I realize marrying your cousin was the thing to do back in the day, but just trying to think about my own cousins in that way makes my skin crawl.)

Elizabeth shares her gossip with Jane, who is determined to think that Darcy can’t be a villain and perhaps there was a misunderstanding. Elizabeth, for her part, predictably takes Wickham’s side. They are distracted from sleuthing, of course, by the news that Bingley is throwing a ball, and to the great displeasure of everyone, Mr. Collins plans to attend. (The Bennet sisters would make terrible criminal investigators, but I would still love to watch a show where they try to solve mysteries.)

At the ball, Elizabeth is talking with her best friend Charlotte Lucas when Darcy drops stealthily in, asks for the next dance, and vanishes as soon as he pulls a yes out of her flustered stuttering. Charlotte tries to cheer her up by saying he might turn out to be an agreeable guy. “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!” says Elizabeth. Well, with that attitude, the ensuing dance with Darcy is naturally a bit awkward as she tries to get him into a deep and meaningful conversation (because apparently each dance takes an entire half hour – no wonder dancing with someone twice is considered a huge commitment).

Elizabeth is grilling Darcy on Mr. Wickham when Mr. Lucas interrupts their dance to compliment them on their skills and to remark about what a great couple they make. (What do you bet he’s already mashed their names up in his head – Darzibeth? Elizarcy? I’m sure there’s a standard portmanteau, but I don’t know it.)

Elizabeth meets up later with Jane, whom she has apparently sent on a reconnaissance mission to find out what Bingley knows about Wickham (the answer: nothing useful). The rest of the evening turns disastrous as she fails to stop Mr. Collins from awkwardly introducing himself to Darcy, overhears her mother telling everyone she knows that Bingley and Jane will soon be engaged, watches Mary embarrass the whole family by accompanying her own bad piano playing with some very bad singing, and suffers again as Mr. Collins makes a grand speech about how a rector parish always has many important things to do.  They are stuck at the house an extra 15 minutes after the party ends while they wait for their late carriages (Mrs. Bennet is to blame, of course). The silence is awkward, but not as awkward as the long speeches/compliments Mr. Collins makes regarding the hospitality of the hosts.

Elizabeth imagines life can’t get worse, but it does. The next morning, Mr. Collins proposes marriage to her. He has a list of reasons why marrying is advantageous for him, but Elizabeth stops his speech to decline the offer. Her mother is overly dramatic as usual, and her father just finds the whole thing funny. Fortunately he also takes Elizabeth’s side.

Charlotte Lucas makes the mistake of visiting at that point, and is told the news four times over. In the days to come, she presumably ends up having to listen to Mr. Collins’ rants, which somehow turns into his fleeing Longbourn in shame and lodging with her family, which somehow turns into a marriage proposal. For some reason, she accepts.

Elizabeth finds her friendship with Charlotte strained (because she’s convinced her friend can’t be happy with such a man and has told her as much), Mrs. Bennet is upset to think that Charlotte will someday kick her out of her own house, and Mr. Bennet carries on with his morbid humor and tries to console his wife with the thought that she might die first. Meanwhile, Jane gets a letter from Caroline Bingley saying that they have returned to the city and don’t intend to come back for a very long time. She tries to console herself by pressing on with life, saying that Bingley was the nicest guy she ever knew and at least they parted as friends. (No one should be this ridiculously nice.  I want to to read about the day that Jane Bennet snaps.)

Mrs. Bennet’s brother and sister-in-law, the Gardiners, come to visit and find themselves subject to all the complaints she has to offer. We learn from the Gardiners that Mr. Darcy’s given name is Fitzwilliam, (which I am immature enough to cackle at – my apologies to the Fitzwilliams of the world) and they return to London, taking Jane with them for a change of scenery.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, goes with Charlotte’s father and sister to visit Charlotte in her new home. While at Charlotte’s house, Elizabeth is invited to dine at Rosings Park, home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady de Bourgh is the perfect companion for Mr. Collins, as she just loves basking in compliments. Her daughter is a very sickly and silent (and Elizabeth remarks to herself that she’ll make an excellent wife for Darcy). Lady de Bourgh interrogates Elizabeth about her family life – scandalized that she never had a governess, that all her sisters are out in society at the same time, and that she has an opinion of her own at her age (Elizabeth is 20, by the way).

Because the world of romcoms is a tiny one, Elizabeth learns that Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam (snort) are coming to visit his aunt. Colonel Fitzwilliam is yet another friendly gentleman and Elizabeth finds herself actually enjoying conversation with him. Naturally, Lady de Bourgh butts into their conversations, becomes the center of the conversation herself, and then returns to her habit of telling other people what to do.

Elizabeth is coerced into playing the piano when Darcy stalks up behind her. The two pick each other apart in the ensuing conversation. Darcy says he’s not good at small talk, and Elizabeth replies that the main reason that she’s not good at the piano because she doesn’t practice. Taking her words to heart, Darcy shows up at the house the next morning and they have an awkward conversation in the sitting room. Charlotte is scandalized at the fact that the two of them were in the same room alone for more than a few minutes, and naturally assumes that Darcy is in love with Elizabeth.

Darcy and Fitzwilliam (pfft) come over frequently after that, even though Darcy remains silent most of the time. (This is unheard of for some reason. Were there really no quiet people in the Regency era?) Elizabeth also keeps running into Darcy in the garden, but merely finds it puzzling, rather than assumes he’s basically stalking her.

In an act of bad timing, Elizabeth finds out from Colonel Fitzwilliam that Darcy was the one who convinced Bingley to leave Jane. Not long after, Darcy bursts into her home, passionately declares his love for her despite her inferiority, and asks her to marry him. Well, that escalated quickly.

She declines, of course, and Darcy takes the rejection the same way every manly rich man ought:  he storms out of the house and then writes her a strongly worded letter before he departs the countryside.  In the letter, he explains that he didn’t perceive that Jane was really in love with Bingley (because, as we all know, Darcy is an expert when it comes to social interactions) and because he was disgusted by the manners of Elizabeth’s family at the previous ball. Well, okay, I’ll give him that one. He then clarifies that Wickham was the son of his father’s steward, had his way through Cambridge paid, but when the time came, decided not to go into the church business (for the better, I think. Can you imagine Wickham as a clergyman?) and instead hoped to be paid ₤3,000 to pursue a degree in law. When that money ran out, Wickham again expressed an interest in being ordained, but Darcy refused to give him the funds. Wickham threw a fit and convinced Darcy’s 15-year-old sister Georgiana to elope with him, but they were discovered before they went through with it.

Elizabeth realizes she believes every word of the letter, starts feeling pretty awful for Miss Darcy and ashamed of herself, but does take a moment to amuse herself with the thought of how Lady de Bourgh would have reacted to hearing that she was going to be her future niece. She is sorry to leave Charlotte all alone, but not sorry enough to regret heading home. On the way home, she meets up with Jane and her two younger sisters, who lament that the regiment is leaving. The carriage is crowded, since Lydia bought an ugly bonnet (just because it wasn’t as ugly as the others,) and they have to listen to her prattle on about how she’d love to be the first sister married. This will in no way end badly.

Once home, Elizabeth tells Jane about Wickham, and the two decide not to reveal his bad character to the rest of the world since he’ll soon be out of sight and out of mind. Unfortunately, Lydia has friends in high places, and her friend Mrs. Forester invites her to travel with the regiment to Brighton. Elizabeth pleads with her father not to let Lydia go, but he thinks it’ll be best if she gets the flirting out of her system, so off she goes.

The Gardiners meanwhile offer to take Elizabeth to Derbyshire, which just so happens to be the county where our dour lord of Pemberly, Mr. Darcy, resides. Elizabeth thinks to herself, “Surely I may encounter his county with impunity, and rob it of a few petrified spars without his perceiving me.” Oh, Elizabeth. How little you underestimate his Bennet Radar. This is a romcom, so naturally during the course of their travels, the Gardiners ask Elizabeth if she’d like to see Pemberly. She is relieved to hear from the locals that Darcy isn’t home, so with no worries of running into him, she agrees to visit Pemberly with her aunt and uncle.

Oh, Elizabeth. Your optimism is refreshing.

Apparently if someone is rich enough, it’s okay to just wander into their house and have the servants show you around, which seems a little weird to me, but whatever.  Upon visiting Pemberly, Elizabeth falls in love with the place. It’s lavish but not ostentatious and she daydreams about being mistress of the properties. The housekeeper informs them that Darcy will return with a group of friends the next day, and Elizabeth is relieved at her narrow escape. The woman goes on to praise him as a good-natured master (though honestly, how many of us say terrible things about our employers when word might get back to them?) and Elizabeth and her companions try to make sense of their conflicting accounts of the man. As they are leaving, they bump into Mr. Darcy himself.

There is surprise on both sides, but he quickly regains his composure and politely (yet distractedly) asks after her family before excusing himself. (There is, alas, no mention of his going for a swim.) They press on, but he catches up to them for an actual human conversation. Elizabeth informs him that they weren’t expecting him to show up and that she wasn’t throwing herself in his path, honest. The Gardiners are astonished because they’d heard the legends of his pride but aren’t seeing any evidence of it. (Well, to be fair, he’s on home turf, so of course he’s more comfortable.) Darcy shows up the next morning with Bingley and his sister in tow, and Georgiana is delighted to meet Elizabeth, having heard so much about her.

Elizabeth quickly realizes she no longer hates Darcy, and possibly even *gasp* likes him (though I suspect the size of his house probably has something to do with it). Things would probably have progressed a lot faster, but she receives a distressing letter from Jane, who informs her that Lydia has run off with Wickham. Everyone is surprised by this for some reason. There is hope that the couple have eloped to Gretna Green in Scotland (where 16-year-olds like Lydia can freely marry without the consent of their parents), but there is acknowledgement that they’ve probably gone to London instead, without the intent of getting married (a scandal indeed).

Elizabeth finishes reading the letter at the moment that Darcy appears, his Bennet Radar alarm going off. She has a servant fetch her uncle and tells Darcy everything. He leaves her to her misery and departs, while she returns home as soon as possible to mourn over the loss of family honor with the rest of her relatives. While everyone sits around waiting for news about Lydia, Mr. Bennet basically grounds Kitty for the next ten years. It’s probably not her fault that Lydia ran off, but everyone pretty much agrees that she had it coming.

Eventually they get a letter from Mr. Gardiner. Lydia and Wickham have been found unmarried, but they will get married if Mr. Bennet gives Lydia her ₤5000. Mr. Bennet realizes that it’s a small ransom, and fears that Uncle Gardiner must have already paid them an awful lot. In his cynicism, he estimates that it’s at least cheaper than keeping Lydia around at home. Mrs. Bennet, of course, is ecstatic. I imagine if one’s only purpose in life was to marry off one’s daughters, it would be considered a good day indeed. Elizabeth mainly just regrets having told Mr. Darcy the news now that the two are getting married, primarily because his regard of her family will have diminished yet again (not that it could get much lower) and he’ll never want her now – oh yes, of course now she thinks he might have been a good husband for her after all.

Lydia and Wickham are married and come to greet the family without an ounce of apologetic sentiment. Lydia demands congratulations, and Wickham just acts pleasant and unconcerned. Mrs. Bennet is proud of her daughter and hopes the others will soon be married as well. Elizabeth is disgusted by the whole thing, but has to sit through Lydia’s description of the wedding anyway, only to learn that Darcy was present (Of course).

She presses her aunt for more information, and learns that Darcy was the one who found the pair (of course he was – Bennet Radar, remember?) and discovered that Wickham had actually been fleeing from debt and was hoping to marry a rich lady in another country (Lydia just tagged along with her own assumptions). Darcy then forced them to marry, paid off all the debts, and apparently swore everyone to secrecy concerning his generosity, becoming the hero that Longbourn needed, though probably not the one it deserved.

Lydia and Wickham prepare to depart, and Lydia is, as always, irritatingly bratty as she declares that “married women have never much time for writing. My sisters may write to me. They will have nothing else to do.” Mrs. Bennet is depressed over the loss of her favorite daughter, but still has enough spirit to abuse Mr. Bingley’s name when she hears the man is returning to Netherfield. Even when he is riding up the steps of their house with Mr. Darcy, she curses both of their names. The ensuing dinner conversations are, of course, awkward.

Later, Mr. Bingley comes to visit alone, and Mrs. Bennet manages to clear everyone out of the room except Jane. (Very subtle, Mrs. B.) This repeats for several days at a slow, maddening pace until the man finally proposes to Jane. Mrs. Bennet immediately has a new favorite child (whose husband-to-be earns ₤5000 per year).

One morning they are graced with the unexpected presence of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who starts by insulting the size of their property and the position of their windows. Some people really don’t change. Elizabeth takes her on a tour, and is immediately accused of golddigging out of nowhere. Her ladyship explains that Darcy is intended for her daughter and his marrying Elizabeth will bring dishonor on his family. Elizabeth, who is completely confused, declares that she is not engaged to him, but refuses to promise never to be engaged to him.

Several days later, her father receives a letter from Mr. Collins hinting that Elizabeth will likely be married soon. Apparently everyone knows about her engagement to Mr. Darcy except her. While Mr. Bennet finds the whole idea to be a joke, Elizabeth can’t help but twinge at how close to the truth he is.

When she next walks with Mr. Darcy (because these families have trouble not running into each other), Elizabeth confesses that she doesn’t know how to express her gratitude for his super-secret help in the matter. He’s a little bit embarrassed, but confesses his love again and they both lament over how terribly they each behaved on the day of the initial proposal. Then they finally get engaged.

Not even Jane believes Elizabeth when she tells of her engagement, and she has to inform her father of her affections and reveal Darcy’s identity as Batman before he’ll consent to the marriage. For his part, Mr. Bennet is just glad he won’t have to pay Darcy back for what he did for Lydia. What a practical guy. Mrs. Bennet is stunned on the matter until she remembers that Darcy has ₤10,000 a year and she’ll have gotten rid of three out of five daughters. It goes pretty well after that. Other than Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is furious, and the Collinses, who flee their home for awhile to escape her wrath, but things end up happily ever after, for the most part.

After the marriages, the Bingleys move closer to the Darcys and Mr. Bennet pops up for unexpected visits at Pemberly from time to time. Kitty is still grounded, but stays with her rich sisters and works on becoming a decent person. Mary voluntarily stays home. The Wickhams, of course, end up in a penniless and loveless marriage and often beg for cash handouts, which Elizabeth occasionally sends them to keep them quiet. For the most part, though, everyone gets what they deserve.

1 Comment

Filed under Summary

Their Eyes Were Watching God

To celebrate African-American History Month, I thought I’d take a break from dead white guys and feature a dead black woman instead.  Hence, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.  The writing style in this one is really quite breathtaking and I highly recommend it.

Our story begins as our main character, Janie, returns home from a mysterious voyage.  She is greeted with awkward staring and whispered ridicule from her neighbors.  Her old friend Pheoby is the only one brave enough to talk to her and we learn several things during the conversation:  1. Gossip is practically a form of currency around here.  2. Janie has recently lost her husband Tea Cake.  3. Tea Cake is actually somebody’s name.

As the two of them are sitting on the porch, Pheoby asks what happened.  Janie takes the opportunity to delve into her life story via flashback because, well, why not.

Janie was raised by her grandmother (creatively called Nanny) in Florida.  As a child, she played with the local white children so often that she didn’t discover she was black until she saw a group photograph and didn’t recognize herself.  This implies that: 1. Janie is fairly light skinned.  2. Janie grew up among pretty tolerant people.  3. Janie isn’t entirely self-aware.

Fast forward until Janie reaches the elderly age of 16, when Nanny catches her kissing a black boy at the gate and decides it’s time Janie got married to somebody fancy.  Like, immediately.  Nanny’s even got a bloke in mind – Logan Killicks – and she plays the “You’re wearing out your tired old grandma by making her take care of you” card to guilt Janie into agreeing.

Marriage, Janie discovers, does not magically make a woman love a man.  When she complains to Nanny after the fact, Nanny doesn’t see how she can’t be in love with Logan – I mean, he has 60 acres of land and the only organ in town (and that’s not even a euphemism).

One day, when Logan is off buying a mule, Janie meets a man called Joe Starks while pumping water.   It eventually turns into a water cooler romance, and by that I mean they chat every day until he informs her that he intends to make her his wife.  Apparently he sees no flaw in this plan.

Janie considers the offer, and that night in bed asks her husband what would happen if she ran off and left him.  He doesn’t seem overly concerned by the thought, and tells her she’d probably just come straight back.  The next day while she’s cooking, he asks her to help him with the manure and she decides that’s quite enough.  She tosses her apron into some bushes and runs off to marry Joe.

Apparently bigamy is not an issue around here.

They ride the train to a primarily African-American town called Maitland as Jody (apparently that is the name Joe prefers) talks about his big plans for moneymaking.  Surprisingly, he actually follows through, setting up a store and making improvements to the town when he gets there.  Elections come around, and he is immediately voted in as mayor.  During the victory celebrations, one of the citizens demands a speech from the new mayor’s wife.  Jody informs them that Janie’s no speechmaker and her place is in the home.  Darn.  I was just starting to like him.

Janie is not pleased with the assumption, either, and even less pleased when he insists that she run the store while he is off doing important mayorial things, like throwing barbeque parties for the installation of the first lamp in a colored town and freeing abused mules in order to let them roam the streets until they die.  (Furthermore, apparently when a mule dies, the body is dragged out to the edge of town.  Like everything else, this is cause for a local celebration as most of the town shows up for the funeral.  Jody, however, won’t let Janie go because he thinks it’s below her dignity.  If that wasn’t enough to solidify his status as a terrible human being, he forces her to wear headscarves so other men aren’t tempted by her hair, slaps her over a poorly cooked meal, and spends years stomping down any opinions or personal value she attaches to herself.

Years go by until one day when Janie makes a small mistake measuring tobacco for a customer.  Jody publicly insults her for the error, mostly by calling her butt saggy.  This sets her off onto a great speech in which she tells him to “stop mixin’ up mah doings wid mah looks,” which is something I’d like to say to the media whenever they whine about certain women looking old.  During her rant, after admitting that she probably looks her age (about 40), Janie makes the mistake of insulting Jody’s wrinkly genitals as well.  It’s amusing, and certainly makes for fair play, but since it makes it really awkward for Jody to regain the respect his friends, he blows it out of proportion.  He beats her and they start to sleep separately.  When he refuses to eat her cooking (and why on earth she still cooks for him, I may never understand), she complains to her friend Pheoby, who tells her to just go and get a divorce.

It turns out there is no need, as Jody’s kidneys suddenly start to fail him and he refuses to see her until the very end, when she gives him another tongue lashing.  I would say it’s kind of awful to give someone a piece of your mind when they’re on their deathbed, but this guy sorta deserves it.  Janie feels some sympathy when his noises of complaint turn into death gurgles, but it’s overshadowed by her newfound sense of freedom.

After the funeral, she burns her headscarves and thrives peacefully in her solitude.  Of course, after a month, all the local men notice there is a rich and pretty widow and think it’s high time she have another husband.  (Meanwhile I still can’t help but wonder what happened to the first one.)

One afternoon while the whole town is at a baseball game, she meets a 25 year old man who got a bit lost in trying to find its location.  Instead of sending him on his way, Janie learns to play checkers instead.  He introduces himself as Vergible Woods – Tea Cake for short.

I give up trying to make sense of that nickname.

He starts visiting regularly.  Janie tries to convince herself that he’s only there for her money, but she doesn’t do a very good job of it.  Whenever he comes around, she enjoys the time they spend together, whether it’s playing chess or fishing in the dark (that’s not a euphemism either).

When Janie and Tea Cake go to the town picnic together, the citizens are abuzz.  They whisper that her husband has only been dead 9 months (never mind they all tried to marry her before) and he would be rolling in his grave to see her with a younger man.  When Pheoby asks, Janie explains that he makes her happy, hasn’t asked for a cent, and doesn’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do.  Janie’s tired of living the way other people want her to, so now she’s living the way she wants.  Now that’s a role model.

Janie and Tea Cake move to Jacksonville and get married.  (For those keeping track, we’re barely halfway through the book and this woman’s on her third marriage).  She pins $200 into her shirt as emergency money, but wakes up one morning to find it and her husband have vanished.  She completely underreacts, shrugging off the money and just hoping Tea Cake isn’t hurt.  He shows up a few days later and explains how he discovered the money and spent it all on a party for a few old coworkers and invited attractive women before getting caught in a brawl and buying a guitar.

Janie, for her part, is only upset that she didn’t get as close to the door as the ugly women he paid to keep away from the party.  Janie still does not seem to have her priorities set quite right.  Tea Cake assures her that the $12 left over in his pocket can be gambled back into more than $200.  He practices his cards and dice all weekend, and in the end, he comes home with $322 and only a minor stab wound.  No biggie.  He tells her to put her $200 back in the bank so they can go make money gambling and raising crops in the Everglades.  With reputable financial planning like that, how can they go wrong?

Once they reach Florida, Tea Cake gets a job harvesting crops and in his free time, he teaches Janie to shoot, to the point where she becomes better than him.  This is in no way foreshadowing future sinister events.

Out in the fields, all kinds of things happen.  Women make passes at Tea Cake and men make passes at Janie.  One black woman named Mrs. Turner worships Janie because she’s lighter than the average black person and everyone decides to boycott that woman for being racist.  When Mrs. Turner goes as far as trying to set Janie up with her brother, Tea Cake decides that the solution is to slap Janie around a bit to show everyone that she belongs to him.  Because there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a little domestic violence, right?  Even Tea Cake’s reasoning is completely sound:  “Ah didn’t whup Janie ‘cause she done nothin’.  Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss.”  I mean, with logic like that, how could you not appreciate this guy?  (Blogger’s note:  This paragraph is pure sarcasm.  In reality, anyone who advocates violence immediately sinks to the bottom of my “awesome people” list.  Sorry, Tea Cake, but I’m not that sorry.)

In a rather sickening show of solidarity, the local guys, of course, applaud Tea Cake and wish their wives were half as light as Janie so their bruises would show as clearly as hers do.  They also decide to take their violence to Mrs. Turner’s restaurant and start brawling, shoving over her tables and breaking her dishes and running her family out of town.  While I’m not one to side with racists, I’m not too sure I can side with the local guys either.  I mean, yeesh.

One day, Janie sees several groups of native Seminoles passing by, who warn her that a hurricane is coming.  Rather than taking this as a warning, she and her friends assume that because they’re making $8 a day for picking beans, the Indians are just being stupid.  Apparently, so are the rabbits, snakes, and deer that appear to be fleeing the scene.  Tea Cake and Janie laugh it off with their friends and keep playing their games into the rainy night until the storm whips the light out.

When they start to see fish swimming in the water that’s accumulated in the yard, Janie and Tea Cake decide it’s probably time to move to higher ground.  They make it out into the streets, but by that time, the lake has spilled over and is coming toward them.  As they trudge through the rapidly rising water, they try to grab hold of anything solid.  At one point, Tea Cake hangs onto a cow.  Unfortunately, the cow currently has an occupant on its back – a mad dog, which bites Tea Cake on the face.

The two of them keep climbing and, surprisingly, they make it through the storm and the flood alive.  The survivors begin to bury the dead, but the overseers demand that the bodies be separated by color so that the white victims can be buried in coffins while the rest go into pits.  Of course, most of the drowned bodies are bloated and gray or covered in mud so that no one can tell them apart, and once you stop feeling sick to your stomach, there is a rather lovely metaphor in that.  Janie and Tea Cake can’t handle the racism on top of everything else, and they decide to flee back to the Everglades.

There, they last a few weeks until Tea Cake comes home one day with a headache that escalates quickly into rabies, which he got from that dog bite.  He retains his sanity for a little while longer, but eventually starts gurgling viciously.  Janie partially unloads the guns in the house, fearing for her own safety at the hands of her increasingly deranged husband.  He does, of course, get his hands on the pistol.  There is a good old-fashioned standoff as she grabs the rifle while he fires three empty clicks at her, and then they both shoot bullets.  His bullet hits the wall behind her, while hers finds its mark.  Guess those lessons came in handy after all.

Janie spends the rest of her day in jail with a speedy trial at the end of it.  She is found not guilty of murdering her husband and is let go.  If only the justice system today were nearly as swift.  She buries her husband in a strong vault in the cemetery, grabs a packet of garden seeds he never planted, and heads back to her old town to tell the whole story to Pheoby.  This is basically where we came in, but now we know a little more about Janie beyond the local gossip.

Leave a comment

Filed under Summary

A Study in Scarlet

Fandom can be a terrifying thing.  Back in the Victorian era, one poor soul called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about a fantastic mystery-solving detective that fans couldn’t get enough of, even when he himself got tired of the character.  They were so insistent that he keep writing stories about Sherlock Holmes that Doyle actually killed off his main character to get them to stop bothering him.  It didn’t work and they protested so vocally that Doyle had to bring him back to life for several more volumes.  This just goes to show you that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Personally, I love the thought of rabid Victorian fans and think it’s a shame that we’ll never know how many if them secretly shipped Johnlock.  A Study in Scarlet is the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes, and one I felt was fairly appropriate to tackle this month.  As a side note, I also highly recommend the audio book series on Project Gutenberg – if nothing else, then for the way the narrator says “Good heavens, Holmes!” which never fails to make me smile.

On to the plot.  Our tale is written by one Dr. John H. Watson, who is in no way an objective crime reporter, as is made clear by his beginning with his own history.  He relates becoming a doctor in London, joining the army, spending a tour in Afghanistan before getting shot up and knocked down by fever, and getting sent back to London, where he has been staying at a hotel until the point where he has run out of money.  Fortunately, he runs into an old friend who just so happens to work in a laboratory and knows someone looking for a roommate to split the cost of a London flat.  This friend warns Watson that the man is a little odd (understatement of the year), but Watson doesn’t care so long as the man’s a studious person who isn’t prone to noise or excitement.  Well, one out of three will have to do.

They visit the lab to meet Sherlock Holmes, who is celebrating his latest development of a new forensic test for bloodstains.  Holmes already has in mind a place on Baker Street, and they do the traditional roommate interview: “Do you mind tobacco? Assorted chemicals?  Me doing the occasional experiment? Sulking for days on end? Violins?” asks Holmes.  (Sure, when he puts it that way, his habits sound like a minor inconvenience.)  Watson has his own vices and asks “Do you mind my bulldog puppy?  Or the fact that I don’t like arguments, get up at ungodly hours and am extremely lazy?”  None of these issues appear to be deal breakers, so the two save the revelation of the rest of their charming quirks for another day.  Watson shakes Holmes’s bandaged hand (presumably the ethics committee isn’t around to faint at the sight of him using his own body for his bloodstain experiments) and they move in to the flat the next day.

There are a few weeks in which Holmes is not a difficult person to live with, and Watson is fascinated by him.  Holmes knows a lot about a random assortment of things, and Watson starts to keep little journals of stalkery notes about what he does and does not know.  Things known: Opium and various poisons, soils, chemistry, anatomy, sensational literature, British law, boxing, swordplay, and the violin.  Things not known:  Contemporary literature, heliocentric theories, the solar system, politics, and botany.  Well, when you really think about it, life is a bit simpler when you don’t have to get worked up over who’s Prime Minister or whether Pluto is a planet or not.

Alas, the honeymoon period doesn’t last forever and soon Watson starts becoming concerned at all the shady characters who keep dropping by their flat.  He reads an article on the science of deduction that is sitting around the flat, and declares it to be “ineffable twaddle” (one of my new favorite phrases).  It turns out Holmes is the one who wrote it, and he sets about explaining that, in his capacity as a consulting detective, he can deduce facts from tiny details.  Watson declares his roommate to be quite arrogant (even if he does happen to be impressively right).

Later, Holmes gets a letter from Scotland Yard requesting his help on a mysterious murder, and Holmes invites Watson to come along.  As one does with confidential murder cases.  At the scene of the crime, Holmes is dismissive to the various detectives (namely, Gregson and Lestrade), collects a few clues such as a woman’s wedding ring, and notices someone has written Rache in blood on the wall.  (This seems like a rather big clue to have missed before.)  While the police deduce that someone was trying to write the name Rachel, Holmes naturally assumes someone intended to write the German word for revenge, despite the fact that the victim is American.  In the police officers’ defense, I have to say that if I were trying to get revenge, I wouldn’t bother writing the word revenge, I would just write the name of the person I wanted revenge on.  Then again, obviously, I would not be a killer worthy of Holmes’ time.  Everyone present also assumes that the killer was the one who wrote the thing on the wall in his own blood, because the victim shows no signs of struggle or wounds.  Holmes informs us that the victim, named Drebber, was poisoned, and we go with it because at this point, he’s the only one who seems to have eyes.  He has furthermore deduced the height of the killer and discovered from the footprints that the two knew each other.

Holmes interviews a constable and determines the killer is still looking for the ring he picked up at the crime scene.  Because nothing else could possibly have been of value.  He does the logical thing and puts a “Ring found” ad in the paper, assuming that the murderer will show up to reclaim it.  (Are we really expecting the killer to be quite that stupid?)

An old woman shows up to claim the ring, which Holmes has switched out with a fake.  Holmes decides to follow her after she takes it, assuming she is an accomplice to the murderer.  After a short walk, however, she gets into a cab and vanishes soon after.  Holmes naturally concludes that she was actually a fast, healthy young man in disguise, (because heaven forbid he get outsmarted by a little old lady).

Fortunately, Holmes has a network of street beggars whom he employs to bring him news of goings on, and when he returns to the flat, he sends them on a mission.  (Good thing the justice system doesn’t require reliable witnesses…)  Gregson appears at the door to inform them that Scotland Yard has the killer, based on a hat they found at the scene of the crime.  They trace it back to the location where the victim had stayed, pinning the blame on a young navy man who presumably killed the man to defend his sister’s honor.  Gregson and Holmes congratulate each other when Lestrade appears to inform them of another death – this time, the victim’s secretary, Stangerson, has been found dead in his hotel room with some pills by his bed and the word Rache written on the wall in blood.  Turns out the congratulations were premature.

Holmes is thrilled to hear about the pills, and convinces Lestrade to hand them over.  He has Watson bring up an old sick dog that he happens to have lying around downstairs (Why, we ask.  No one answers us.  This is completely normal for them.)  Holmes then dissolves half a pill in water (destroying part of the evidence in the process) and feeds it to the dog.  (The ASPCA is presumably outraged, having been in existence for 20 years at this point.)

The dog, for its part, does nothing.  Holmes gets impatient.

He cuts the other pill in half and feeds it to the dog.  This time, the dog keels over dead.  There are several lessons here:  1. Never mix your poisons in with your vitamins.  2. Don’t feed your dog from your medicine cabinet.  3. Pay very close attention when your future roommate says he conducts the “occasional experiment.”

The lesson that Holmes draws from the experiment is that one pill was harmless and the other was a deadly poison and that there will be no more murders.  One of his street urchins shows up to inform him that the cab has arrived, Holmes handcuffs the cab man and declares he has found the murderer.  The man, named Jefferson Hope, struggles to escape and tries to defenestrate himself, only managing to get partway out the window before Gregson and Lestrade stop him.  Holmes congratulates himself on a job well done and asks if there are any questions for him.

When the next chapter begins, we are inexplicably dropped into a description of an American landscape – namely, a portion of it which constitutes an “arid and repulsive desert” that ranges from the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska and preserves “the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.”

To which I reply, Hey, I happen to live in part of that desert!  I then pause a moment and add, Wait, what happened with the cab driver?  Where are we?  Why did you strand us in the desert?  To which Doyle responds by giving a long description of the Sierra Blanco, which is not a place I’ve ever heard of, so I don’t feel too bad about it being insulted.  His narrative follows a random traveler out in the forsaken desert, who is carrying a rifle and a bundled shawl which happens to contain a whiney little girl.  Just an average day, then.  It soon becomes evident that the rest of their party has died, and they too are dying of thirst and hunger.  Fortunately, another party comes along to rescue the starving man, named John Ferrier, and the whiney little girl he has just adopted, Lucy.

It turns out the rescue party is a band of Mormons who will only allow the man and the girl to stay with them if they convert.  The man doesn’t care one way or another about religion, but he’ll do anything for a decent meal and a ride out of the desert, so he accepts.  They make their way to the glorious land of Utah and settle in Salt Lake City.  Time passes, Lucy grows up, and a tumbleweed rolls by in my mind.  I am still puzzled as to why we are here.  Did the printer make a mistake in my book and stick in a bunch of pages from a western novel?  As I ponder this, Lucy falls in love with a man named Jefferson Hope.

Aha!  At last we meet the man whose name matches the killer from that Sherlock Holmes story so many pages ago!  There is a point to all of this!  Alas, the plot continues.

Jefferson is a pioneer from California, and he proposes to Lucy before he sets off on a dangerous trip to Nevada.  Meanwhile, the single female population in the Mormon town is running low due to polygamy, and there are rumors of new brides being kidnapped from elsewhere.  At one point, John Ferrier chats awhile with Brigham Young, who helpfully “recommends” that his daughter marry a nice Mormon boy within the month or suffer the consequences.  John and Lucy decide it’s probably better to leave Utah as soon as her fiancé gets back.  Upon returning home the next day, they meet Joseph Stangerson and young Drebber, two local men who are interested in acquiring another wife.  (Aha!  The names of the victims from that Sherlock Holmes case!)  It turns out Stangerson only has four wives while Drebber has seven, but they’re both intent on marrying Lucy.  John isn’t having any of it, and boots them out of the house.  He wakes the next day with a semi-threatening note paperclipped to his blanket which says “Twenty-nine days are given you for amendment and then—.”  There isn’t actually a warning following this, which, honestly, is pretty lazy as far as threats go.  I mean, you could at least say something vague like “you will pay” like most generic villains do.  There are standards for this sort of thing.  At any rate, every day after that, a countdown is left on his house – numbers painted on the door, burned onto the ceiling, etc.  Apparently these guys really don’t have enough to keep them busy at home.

With only one day in the countdown to spare, Jefferson returns home, so close to starvation that he writhes along the ground like a snake to the front door (ahaha, did you see that Biblical reference there).  After a meal, he, John, and Lucy pack up their stuff and head for Nevada.  During their exodus, however, John dies and Lucy is carried back to the city to be married to Drebber, where she pines away over Jefferson and dies after a month, with only her co-wives to mourn her.  Jefferson returns for revenge, ripping the wedding ring off the finger of Lucy’s corpse and retreating to the wilderness to become a wild mountain man.  As one does.  Occasionally he rides into town to shoot at the two men, just to keep them on their toes.  After awhile, they do the sensible thing and leave Salt Lake City.  They travel to Europe and eventually end up in London, where our story finally picks up Holmes again (to my great relief).

It turns out that Jefferson is really quite polite to the officers.  He hopes no one was hurt and cooperates with his arrest, but informs them he probably won’t be around for the trial – apparently an aortic aneurism will kill him in a matter of days (probably shouldn’t have been defenestrating yourself, then) – but he does want to give them an account of the murders so he isn’t remembered as a common cut-throat.  The result is, of course, the confusing stack of pages preceding this chapter, which would probably have benefitted from an editor.  He explains that the two people he killed were murderers for killing John and Lucy, though I don’t think kidnapping and her death from a broken heart is quite the same as murder.  Still a crime, though, which is good enough for the old west, I suppose.

Jefferson explains how he got various jobs to fund his pursuit of the men.  In London, for instance, he became a cab driver.  He followed Drebber while he was drunk and, using his knowledge of poisons from a previous gig as a janitor eavesdropping on a chemistry teacher in America, offered the man two pills: one harmless and one poisonous.   This seems like a very convoluted way to get revenge.  Drebber took the poison pill and Jefferson wrote Rache on the wall in his own blood (apparently his nose was bleeding at the time) because he saw it done in New York over a German victim.  All the cool kids were doing it, I guess.

Jefferson next paid a visit to Stangerson’s hotel, pretending to be drunk to get in, and climbed into his room via the bedroom window (which is very spry for a man who’s dying).  Stangerson was not impressed by the pill game and instead tried to kill Jefferson, which is probably a more reasonable reaction, in the long run.  Jefferson retaliated, stabbing him in the heart and clearing his own conscience by assuming he would have picked the poison anyway because he’s a Bad Man (and we all know what God does to Bad Men).  After confessing that he hired another man to pretend to be the old woman retrieving the ring, Jefferson is led off to prison, where he dies just before the trial.

Watson laments that Gregson and Lestrade won’t get their praise, and Holmes just waves the case off as a simple one, admitting that he solved it quickly based on the small tread of the cab’s tire tracks, the smell of poison on the dead man’s breath, the wedding ring, and the pills which were clearly part of a simplified game of Russian Roulette.   I mean, obviously that was the only conclusion one could have reached.

Watson is nevertheless impressed, and thinks Holmes is deserving of public merit.  He concludes the narration to our first Sherlock Holmes story with a little Latin ditty that means “The public hiss at me, but I cheer myself when in my own house I contemplate the coins in my strong-box.”  It’s kind of a weird phrase to know in Latin, but I like to assume that Watson’s interests are actually almost as bizarre as Holmes’, and that the two will be perfectly happy together.

Leave a comment

Filed under Summary

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Welcome to the holiday episode of Camelot, otherwise known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sure, I could have done Dickens’ Christmas Carol, but that would have been ridiculously predictable.  Maybe next year.  Anyway, this anonymous story is written in Middle English and, as one might expect, takes place during the reign of King Arthur.  (For the record, my edition has been translated by J.A. Burrow).

We open with the knights dining, jousting, and dancing to carols in celebration of the holidays.  This goes on for a few weeks until New Year’s Eve, when Arthur himself is giddily feasting at the high table with his wife and an assortment of other friends and family, including Gawain.  Suddenly, the doors fly open and someone rides into the hall on horseback, literally gate-crashing the party.  The rude interloper is certainly dressed for the occasion, though:  He’s wearing all green, his horse is green, his hair and beard are green, and, really, he’s just very committed to the color green.  Naturally, we’re going to call him the Green Knight.  Even though he isn’t wearing any armor, he does have holly in one hand and an ax in the other, and he requests to be taken to their leader.

King Arthur hesitantly welcomes the odd man, who swears he comes in peace and asks the general court if they’d like to play a game.  (Children, the answer to this query should always be “no.”)  The game goes like this: in the spirit of Christmas, the Green Knight offers his nice ax to anyone willing to behead him now and be beheaded by him in return next year.

Everyone thinks this guy is pretty nuts.  What good is his severed head as a decoration?  Sure, it would be a festive green and red color, but they don’t need another tree topper and there just isn’t any more room in the nativity scene.  When no one takes him up on the offer, the Green Knight calls them all cowards.  Arthur’s so ashamed that he volunteers for the task, but when he grabs the ax and prepares to decapitate the man, Gawain suddenly insists on taking in his place.

Gawain claims to be the weakest among the knights, and argues that the loss of his life is the least of any among them.  Gawain makes the contract and the Green Knight tells him to come visit his house after the beheading.  Of course, he doesn’t tell him where the house is, or even what his own name is, but one hopes all will be revealed in time.  (Spoiler: it is.)  The Green Knight presents his neck and Gawain decapitates him with a swift blow.  He holds up the head for everyone to see, making it the year that everyone collectively lost their appetites at a New Year’s Eve banquet.

Unexpectedly, the body gets up, takes the head from Gawain, and puts it back on.  He tells Gawain to go to the Green Chapel and receive his own beheading on the next New Year’s morning, a year and a day from now, and introduces himself as the Knight of the Green Chapel.  Then he rides out of the castle.

Awkward silence ensues until Arthur calls loudly for more dancing and music posthaste.  An Arthur party stops for no man.

Many months pass, and Sir Gawain procrastinates until the day after Halloween before he even starts to think about his bargain.  Then, reluctantly, he puts on his armor, says his goodbyes and heads out in search of the Green Chapel.  He rides all over the place, but doesn’t find it.  Finally, he prays to God, and because even God wants him to get on with it, Gawain immediately stumbles on a castle.  The servants are happy to let him in, and neither party asks where the other came from.  The lord of the castle greets him, and in the manner of all medieval hospitality, promptly gets him drunk.  Now that Gawain is drunk, he spills his life story.  The lord decides it’s the perfect time to introduce his wife, who of course is attractive and charming.

Gawain parties at the castle awhile, and by “awhile” I mean “days and days” until suddenly it is December 27th.  He realizes he probably should find that chapel after all and tries to excuse himself.  When he tells them the reason he’s departing, they inform him that they happen to know exactly where the chapel is, that it isn’t far from here, and really, why not stay a few days more?  Honestly, why didn’t he ask them for directions to the chapel in the first place?  (Ugh, men – am I right, girls?)

The lordly host also has a game to play this festive eve.  He will go hunting the next day and everything he gets he will give to Gawain.  In return, everything Gawain gets that day he will give to the host.  Gawain is more than happy to play, completely forgetting what happened the last time he agreed to a game of reciprocity.

They all get drunk again, and don’t think anything of it until the next morning.  The host goes off on his hunt and Gawain lies around in bed.  The host’s wife sneaks into his room and stares at him while he pretends to be asleep.  This is more than a little creepy, so he feigns the whole just-waking-up bit.  He tries to get out of bed, but the lady isn’t having any of that.  She’s locked the door and doesn’t intend to let him get away.  She offers herself to him, and he uses all the politeness he posses to turn her down by telling her how unworthy he is of her affections.  (Hey, didn’t Gilgamesh try this too?)  Instead, they spend all day in bed chatting.  Before she leaves, the lady insists upon a parting hug and a kiss.

Finally, Gawain is able to get out of bed and get dressed.  That evening, the host offers Gawain the deer he has killed.  In return, Gawain gives him a hug and a kiss.  The host is a little concerned about where Gawain got these things, but Gawain sidesteps the matter and they move on to other topics.

The next day is a repeat of the first.  The lord hunts a vicious boar, while Gawain fends off the advances of a different kind of animal all together.  The lady gets two kisses out of him this time.  At dinner, the host gives Gawain the boar and Gawain kisses him some more.  (One wonders how awkward dinner would be if he actually gave in to the lady’s advances.  Unless the three of them are into that sort of thing.  No judgment here.)  They go back to dancing and Christmas carols.  Gawain feels like he really should get going since his task is only two days away, but they convince him to stay at least one more day.  I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?  A ménage a trois?

The next day, the host hunts a vicious fox, while Gawain fends off a vixen of his own.  (I would almost feel sorry for this guy, but he knows perfectly well that his door has a lock and he’s not using it.)  He spurns her advances yet again, and she tries to get some token from him, but he won’t even give her his hoodie.  She tries to give him one of her rings instead, which is totally Not A Trap.  Wising up, he rejects that too.  Finally, she offers him her green girdle.  He rejects it at first, until she tells him that whoever possesses it will be immortal.  Gawain, for his part, likes the idea of wearing a magic belt to his own beheading, and concedes to her wishes.  Along with the belt, she gives him three farewell kisses.

Gawain visits a priest for confession, and then goes to dinner.  He starts the swap before the host can and kisses the man three times.  The host then gives him the fox he has caught, lamenting that it is not worthy of the exchange.  (Those must have been really good kisses.)  More drunken revelry ensues, Gawain requests a servant to show him the way to the chapel tomorrow, and after sharing some more kisses with that very open-minded couple, he heads off to bed.  Nothing is ever said of the magic belt.

The next day, he puts on his nicest clothes, his fanciest armor, and the lady’s green girdle.  (No judgment here.)  The host blesses him and bids him farewell, and off he goes to the Green Chapel.  Once they reach the area, the servant warns him to leave, but he sends the man away instead.  Sir Gawain finds it at last – a hill that is hollow inside with a hole at either end.  (Perhaps the Green Chapel was actually built for hobbits?)  He hears a grindstone whirring and calls out to the Green Knight, who has been sharpening his ax in the backyard.

The Green Knight is happy to see him and cheerfully recollects their pact.  Gawain tries to mimic his cheer and offers his neck on the chopping block.  The Green Knight swings his ax, and Gawain flinches.  The Green Knight is disappointed, because apparently real knights never show fear or weakness or survival instinct.  Gawain urges him to try again and this time, doesn’t budge an inch when the ax comes down.  However, the Green Knight stops just before impact and taunts him a little more.  When the knight brings down the ax the third time, he only nicks a little off the neck.

Gawain’s had quite enough of playing around.  He jumps up, puts on his helmet again, and berates the Green Knight for hacking at him.  The Green Knight has had three tries, and from now on, Gawain is going to start retaliating every blow.  The Green Knight declares that he is done – he has had his hit and doesn’t wish any more.  Instead, he explains that each feint was for each morning Gawain kissed his wife, and the nick in his neck was for the failure to give him the girdle.

Oh yeah.

It turns out the Green Knight was our lordly host all along, and he knows all about Gawain and his wife because he was the one who set them up.  Also, the green girdle that Gawain is wearing actually belongs to him.  (No judgment here.)  I guess this really shouldn’t have been a surprise, as green is his favorite color.

Gawain, of course, is more than a little embarrassed about failing the tests of courage and truthfulness, and begs for another chance to prove himself.  The Green Knight laughs and tells him keep the girdle as a present.  (Weirdest. Santa. Ever.)  He isn’t too worried about the makeout sessions, and figured that Gawain only kept the girdle because he was scared for his own life, and not because he had any interest in the lady.  For his part, Gawain accepts the forgiveness and counts himself as being one of those mighty men who fall prey to seductive temptresses. (Ugh, women – am I right, boys?)

Before he goes home, Gawain insists on knowing what’s actually up with this guy, and the Green Knight informs him that his real name is Bercilak de Hautdesert (which is seriously one of the best names in anything ever) and he was able to manage his magical feats because Morgan le Fay is hanging out at his house in the guise of a wrinkly old woman.  As one does.

With the explanations done, the two exchange a farewell kiss (come on, boys, get a room) and part ways.  Gawain returns home and tells Arthur and friends the whole story about his very happy holidays.  Presumably, Gawain also becomes known as that guy who gets himself into the *weirdest* situations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Summary