Review: The Manticore – Robertson Davies

2017:85
2 of 5 stars
Published 1972

I read a few books by some newer Canadian authors over the summer. Now it’s time to go back to some of the classic Canadian writers like Robertson Davies. I avoided him for many years, thinking he would not be very interesting and perhaps when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated him anyway. Last year, I read Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford Trilogy. The Manticore is the second of the three. Davies’ characters are really well drawn, interesting. I remember thinking after reading Fifth Business that I wasn’t so keen on the main character but all of the others that he encountered in his “life” fairly leaped off the page.

This book continues with a character, David Staunton, who was a minor character in Fifth Business who is also from the town of Deptford. I wasn’t too keen on him, either. After the death of David’s father, “Boy” Staunton, David retreats to Switzerland to enter treatment with a Jungian psychiatrist to figure out his relationship with his father and how it affected his life. Thus we return to his earlier life and experiences and follow them through as David gets to grips with who he is.

The Jungian psychoanalysis side was a hard slog for me so there were parts where I found it difficult to concentrate. And as was the case in Fifth Business, the characters David encounters in his life are more interesting than David himself. His father might have kept him on a short leash, but David was still a spoiled rich kid with a major sense of entitlement. He is a spoiled, rich adult too. I found the book a struggle to get through.

Davies is a very good writer and he ties things all together well. His books are not light and fluffy nor would you want them to be. He tells a good story and his characters are all well written. I only rate the book lower than I might have because I find it difficult to get on with a book where I find the main character uninteresting and I also didn’t enjoy all the analysis bits. It’s ok if I dislike a character because that’s often the intent of the author. But I found David to be far too self absorbed and had no charm or mischief in him. I suppose that also was the intent and I should take in the overall story and I did, which is why I didn’t give up on the book half way through like I thought about doing. It did keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile, though and it took awhile to get to the end. I’m glad I got through it but I’m also glad to see the end of it, if you get my drift.

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Review: The Watch that Ends the Night – Hugh MacLennan

2017: 82
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 1959

This is the final book I needed to read to complete my 2017 Bingo Reading Challenge “Card”! The square called for a book published in the year you were born (or decade if you couldn’t find something). That gives me a few months to research books that might work for next year’s Bingo challenge!

George Stewart is married to Catherine, the love of his life whose health is precarious due to a heart condition. But she was married to a man before him, a man who became his best friend, Dr. Jerome Martell. Jerome went missing in WWII, presumed dead in a POW camp. But Jerome has returned to Montreal and the apple cart is upset.

The story then retreats into the pasts of all three characters to bring t heir stories from the 1930s right up to the early 1950s when the story began. George became a third wheel in the relationship between Catherine and Jerome and was a good family friend to them both up to when Jerome left Montreal to take his medical skills to the Spanish Civil War.   Montreal in the 1930s was crackling with politics, with the Spanish war between the Fascists and Communists firing imaginations worldwide. George then has to deal with the huge impact that Jerome’s return has caused. I did find that the narrative got dragged down by too much philosophy near the end. I don’t think it really added to the story much, just gave the author a chance to express his own views on the world and the individual.

It’s the story of relationships, friendship, politics, families, love, survival and loyalties. The characters are interesting and the dynamics between them are written very realistically. I’m reading this book nearly 60 years after it was written, but it doesn’t feel dated at all.

Book to Screen – Mansfield Park (1999)

Recently, I read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. In my review, I mentioned the movie from 1999 that I’d seen and liked. But I haven’t seen it in quite a long time so I thought it was time for another viewing since the book was fresh in my mind. I got quite a surprise. There will be spoilers below for both book and movie.

The movie is very different from the book. Character personalities are changed. The plot is manipulated and changed somewhat and there’s even a brief sub plot injected for no other apparent reason than to make a politically correct comment that slavery is a Very Bad Thing. Unless I missed it, that’s not in the book at all and it felt very out of place here.

Fanny Price, our heroine, as written by Jane Austen, is meek, mild, proper, respectful, intelligent, shy and tends to blend in to the background, the objective observer. She has her own opinions but doesn’t usually express them. She loves Edmund Bertram from afar most of her life but never breathes a word about her feelings to him or anyone else. She doesn’t trust Henry Crawford and will never love him.

The movie starts with Fanny moving to Mansfield Park from her home in Portsmouth. You get a few brief scenes where you understand that she is the poor relative and will always be treated as such and there’s a scene where Edmund introduces himself to her. You kind of see that they become good friends in a brother/sister way but it’s not really emphasized and the next thing you know, the plot leaps to somewhere near the last third of the book. We’ve barely met the Crawford siblings and they’ve hardly made an impression on us and yet Fanny already has them pegged and figured out as not to be trusted.

When Henry Crawford decides he will woo Fanny, it’s nearly instant and after he asks her uncle for her hand, he accepts and she refuses, it all goes to hell. In the book, her relatives are far more gentle in their attempts at persuading her to accept Henry. In the movie, she is immediately banished back home where, after some time, Henry Crawford appears with sparkly fireworks and doves. Huh? Henry confronts her with his knowledge that she loves Edmund which she admits and is told Edmund is going to marry Mary, Henry’s sister. We really haven’t seen much of Edmund and Mary together to fully accept that he’s besotted with her and she’s undecided because he’s only a second son and is going to be a minister.There’s really not much build up to that on screen at all aside from a couple of speeches and no chemistry.

Henry nearly convinces her to accept his proposal, at least I think that was what her dream of doing exactly that was about, but the health crisis of her cousin Tom calls her back to the Park, which also didn’t happen in the book.  And also, never part of the book, Tom’s extended illness seems to be implied caused as a result of his reaction to seeing slavery at his father’s estate in Antigua. His father has a book with drawings of slaves and says his son is mad. I believe the implication is that his son saw the mistreatment of the slaves in Antigua, drew the pictures himself and what he saw is now haunting him. What? In the book Fanny remained in Portsmouth and was continually updated by letter as to Tom’s  recovery. She didn’t return until the scandal about Henry Crawford and her cousin Maria hit the fan.

Ah yes, the scandal. In the book this was totally off “screen” as it were. Fanny receives news that her newly married cousin Maria has run off with Henry Crawford after Fanny firmly rejects his proposal yet again and Edmund arrives to take her back to Mansfield Park.  In the movie, Fanny walks in on Henry and Maria in bed after she has returned to Mansfield and while Tom is still ill. I can understand why they’d change this for the movie since it would have more impact for a viewing audience but by this time as you’re watching the film, having read the book, you’ll just be shaking your head.

Then there’s Fanny herself. Her personality is very different. She’s bright and cheerful, ready, willing and able to stand up for herself if need be. She’s also a budding writer, having loved to write her stories since she was a child. This is encouraged as she gets older, by Edmund, and at the end, a possible publisher is found for her. Not even close to the Fanny of the page.

The bare bones of the story is the same and there are the same characters but they really aren’t developed well. The story, such as it is, resembles that of the book, or a small part of it. So much of the detail has been left out. Most of the characters have a tenuous relationship to the personalities that Jane wrote for them. I do get that you need to see a lot of the action that, in the book, was only conveyed by letter or conversation. A movie would be very boring otherwise. I know that a lot of detail has to be left out of a book because there’s only a limited length for a film. I tried to think of how the movie might be viewed for someone that has never read the book, and I think that was me when I first saw it. I’m pretty sure now that was one of the books I hadn’t read.

I did like it when I saw it but it’s been quite a number of years since I have seen it, likely rented on DVD at the time. Fans of Jane Austen’s books will not like this filmed version very much. I would be curious to find other versions to compare but I’d not be optimistic that I’d actually think any of them are a worth adaptation.

To use a phrase from the end of the movie, it could have been different. But it wasn’t.

Review: Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

2017:81
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

The next in my effort to read all of Jane Austen is Mansfield Park. This is the story of Fanny Price, one of the many children of a younger of three sisters, the one that married for love and now struggles to feed the children and pay the bills. Because she married against her family’s better judgment, she has had no contact with her sisters for many years but reaches out to ask for help in desperation. The other two sisters decide they should take on one of the older children, a daughter, and so they do. This is Fanny, of course, who is moved away from her home and beloved brother William to Mansfield Park where her aunt and uncle, the Baronet and Lady Bertram reside.

Fanny is homesick and miserable but makes friends with the younger of the two sons, Edmund, who treats her affectionately and looks out for her, at least some of the time. The two Bertram sisters more or less leave her to her own devices most of the time. Fanny is generally treated all right but is never allowed to forget she’s not their equal, a poor relation dependent on them, and is kept in the background, running errands and keeping her aunt company for her keep but Fanny is a quiet girl and seems happy enough. Things change when she’s about 17 and new neighbours, the Crawfords, Mary and her brother Henry, move to the area.

Talk about setting the cat among the pigeons! There are romantic entanglements, jealousy, scandal, and flirtatious games being played. Through it all, Fanny watches with an objective eye, the Crawfords are “society” and are shallow and insincere, they corrupt those around them but only Fanny seems to see it. She stays true to herself even when she is rejected and banished as ungrateful but never fear, Fanny gets her happy ending.

I like Mansfield Park a lot. Most of the characters are great fun, in that they’re not all upstanding, honest and stout hearted. Many are by and large devious, haughty, shallow, naive, self absorbed, shrewd and snobby. They aren’t horrible to Fanny mostly but they never let her forget that she should be grateful for the advantages they have provided for her and very surprised when she is shown to have integrity and a mind of her own, as most of Jane Austen’s heroines have, even if some of them are easily swayed from the straight and narrow path on occasion.

As with most of Austen’s books, it has been filmed. My favourite is the movie released in 1999 starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund.

Official trailer here.

Review: The Chronicles of Avonlea – L. M. Montgomery

2017: 72
4 of 5 stars
Published 1912

Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables. She wrote many books about Anne Shirley but she also wrote about the Islanders and communities in and around Avonlea where Green Gables is. These are 12 stories about the men, women and children of various communities in the area around Avonlea and Carmody. Anne Shirley even gets name checked or makes a brief appearance now and then but the stories aren’t about her. They’re about an engaged couple that haven’t spoken in 15 years, or a proud old woman who sacrifices to do special things for the daughter of a lost love, or a young lad who has an extraordinary talent for the fiddle or two very different sisters trying to raise a young lad. We get heart warming stories, humourous stories, hopes and dreams all told in the superb prose of Montgomery, never cloyingly sweet or “folksy”, just prose glowing with wit and painting a perfect picture of rural Prince Edward Island and it’s inhabitants.

This book nearly completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. Just one for the Northwest Territories left, that will be “Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay.

Review – Persuasion by Jane Austen

2017: 67
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

I never read Jane Austen’s books when I was younger. What sparked my interest, along with a lot of others’, was after watching the British mini series Pride and Prejudice including *that* scene, you know the one, Colin Firth popping out of a pond after a swim, standing there, soaked to the skin in a white shirt. Yes. I also loved another BBC production, Persuasion that featured rugged Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Let’s not forget Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. If you’re spotting a trend here, you won’t be far wrong.

But whatever it was that lured me to pick up the original material, it was worth it. I quite enjoyed the Jane Austen books I read. With some classic books, I find the language a bit difficult to process in my modern brain. Dickens mystifies me. Jane Austen is much easier to read and her “old fashioned” turn of phrase comes across as elegant. I have decided to reread the ones I’ve already read and finish the set of all her novels. There aren’t that many, she only lived a short life. Can you imagine what she would have produced if she’d lived even just 10 or 20 years longer than her final age of 42? This year is the 200th anniversary of her death so there’s been a lot of publicity around. What better time to undertake this reading project?

So the first novel out of the gate is Persuasion which was published in 1818 after her death. It is the story of Anne Elliott and her family. Anne had fallen in love with a sailor, Frederick Wentworth, seven years before at the age of 19 and they were engaged to be married but her  father, older sister and, primarily, a family friend, Lady Russell,  interfered and persuaded Anne to break off the engagement. Wentworth was not from a family of good background and he was not rich. It just would not do. Anne never married though her younger sister did. The family’s finances have been sinking lower and lower since the death of Anne’s mother, now no longer there to prevent her Baronet father from living beyond his means. Lady Russell has been consulted and in turn has consulted Anne who has been running the home and they have devised a plan.

Kellynch Hall will be let out and they will rent cheaper rooms in Bath. The Napoleonic wars have recently ended and Kellynch Hall has been let by an Admiral Croft and his wife, Sophie. Lo and behold, Captain Frederick Wentworth is Sophie’s brother and he has returned from the war a rich man. These are the days when officers and sailors alike can still profit from war.  It’s clear that Anne still loves him and if he still has feelings for her, he does not act on them, still resentful of her allowing her family to persuade her to break off with him.

Anne’s family moves through society,  with long suffering Anne preferring a quieter life so she tends to stay in the background when she can, avoiding the apparent resentful and accusatory glares of Wentworth whenever possible. The heir to Kellynch Hall, William Elliott,  has also reappeared and may be looking for a wife. Anne’s sister Mary’s two sisters-in-law are also anxious to be married and one of them seems to have caught the eye of Wentworth.

Anne herself is generally taken for granted by her family, dismissed by them when they think of her at all and used by them when they need her to do something. She is not beautiful like her older sister nor married with children like her younger one though her younger sister, Mary,  does show more love to Anne even if Mary’s selfish side that depends on Anne’s generosity for child minding and help in the home.  Anne does not have the skills to shine in society and lives a quiet life though that may not be what her heart truly desires. She seems to have an adventurous soul but for women, that’s not an easy dream to follow in those days.

Will Anne and Wentworth finally reconcile their past and make a future together? What do you think?! It’s not really a spoiler to say this has a happy ending. All of Austen’s books pretty much do. The girl always gets the man she desires. (SPOILER)  Anne and Wentworth’s reconciliation comes after a romantic letter about the fidelity of the hearts of men wherein Frederick declares himself to Anne.

Jane Austen could write about Society with all it’s rules, banality and put-on airs and graces and nails it firmly through her own real-life observations. She has a sharp humour woven through the narrative and quite clearly a romantic heart.

Family tree for the characters of Persuasion, courtesy of Wikipedia. Click on the photo for a larger view

All About Austen

This year marks the 200th anniversary since writer Jane Austen died. Miss Austen was 41 and had never married. Jane Austen wrote 7 books, 3 of which were published after she died, which have become hugely popular classics. They are “Pride and Prejudice”, “Northanger Abbey”, “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Persuasion”, “Susan” and “Mansfield Park”. She also published three collections of “Juvenilia”, odds and ends written when she was younger including poems, satirical pieces, essays etc.

Royal Circus

Bath – The “Royal Circus”. Houses by architect John Wood, the Elder (and the Younger who finished the work his father began)

Jane Austen has become hugely popular, as I’ve said, to the point where there are university courses on her life and works and there are Austen scholars that spend their careers researching this woman. There isn’t a lot of detail known about her. She was a private person and there were not many women writers back then. Because she never married, she lived with family, stayed with friends when she could. She’s associated with the city of Bath which also features in several of her books. There is a Jane Austen museum/resource centre in the historic city and Bath attracts a lot of her fans. The Georgian streets haven’t changed a lot in 200 years aside from the shops sporting more electric signs and the hordes of tourists. The architecture is elegant and graceful and the streets wide enough for two carriages to pass by. You can still imagine what it was like in the days when Bath was *the* place to be seen by society.

Austen heroes

Everyone has their favourite of her novels, with most people pointing to Pride and Prejudice. I think that has to do, in part, with the British series starring Colin Firth as Darcy. Many a heart beat a little faster watching him dive into that pond and emerge soaking wet with his white shirt nearly transparent and clinging to his broad chest.

Excuse me. I’ll just go sit by the air conditioner for a minute.

Actually, my favourite Austen book is Persuasion and, I confess, that’s also influenced by a filmed version that the BBC did staring Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Oh yes. A very close runner up was the movie Sense and Sensibility starring Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant. Rickman’s Colonel Brandon will also set pulses racing! I also confess that I hadn’t read any Jane Austen until I had seen my first filmed version, P&P and then Persuasion, both of which persuaded (ahem) me to pick up the books. There have been a few filmed versions of these novels that I’ve enjoyed and a great number of movies and tv series that have been made from them. It says something about the perpetual popularity of Austen’s works that they continue to be made.

Other filmed versions I’ve enjoyed are Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and also Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless was based on Emma and it was quite fun as well. Mansfield Park starring James Purefoy and Frances O’Connor. P&P probably has the most filmed versions including a 1938 movie and a 1952 television series, 6 episodes, starting Peter Cushing as Mr. Darcy! Fans of Cushing’s horror movies will find that an odd casting choice but of course he was an actor long before he became popular for the macabre. However, there’s also Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Cushing would have fit right in there! It’s a bizarre mash up of P&P and the current zombie fad where the five Bennet sisters are badass zombie fighters.

There’s a really good podcast by the British newspaper, The Guardian, here which includes an interview with historian Lucy Worsley . The podcast talks more about the woman, Jane Austen, who she was and why she’s popular. Lucy Worsley has a  new book about Jane, “Jane Austen at Home” which  covers her home life via the various homes where she lived and how that was so important to her books’ characters. If you’re a fan of Jane Austen, you will enjoy this new book.

 

Lucy Worsley

Lucy Worsley’s pretty awesome, by the way. She’s the curator of the Royal Palaces in London and she writes books about various historical topics and they’re very approachable. She’s also filmed companion television series to go along with many of the books and they’re really good, too. She’s very charming and quirky and cheeky and very likeable. She makes history very interesting, bringing out it’s human side rather than just parading dusty dates and relics. On the Austen topic, there is also an article written by Lucy for the Guardian on Jane Austen and an interview with History Extra as well.

Various other writers have also submitted their opinions on which is their favourite Austen Novel, published in the Guardian here.

I haven’t read all of Austen’s books and I think probably I should. I’ve never been a FANatic fan but I *have* enjoyed the ones I’ve read and it’s likely time for a reread. The ebooks are free to download because they’re outside the copyright limits. Project Gutenberg (a great site to get free ebook versions of classic novels) will have them but you should also be able to get them via Amazon Kindle or other ebook retailers though some of them will still try to charge you for some electronic versions so be persistent. I may even lend an ear to an audiobook version via the library.

Are you a fan of Jane Austen? If so, what is your favourite of the books (or movies)?

Lucy Worsley on Twitter
Jane Austen Centre in Bath