Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean

Thomas Hardy was an architect, and his novels reflect his expertise.   A master of the blueprint, he became an architect of literary structure.

The structure of my favorite Hardy novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, is flawlessly classical:  he applies the figure of speech chiasmus to the underpinnings of the narrative.  But even we Hardy fans realize he can be heavy-handed: in Jude the Obscure, the famous novel that incurred the fury of critics, he enraged his audience by the ferocity of his attack on marriage laws–and I think he manages that more subtly in The Woodlanders.

And that’s why I often prefer his early novels:  they are less elegant, but more entertaining.  One of my favorites is A Laodicean,  a relatively light novel which reminds me of Charlotte Bronte’s  Shirley–in other words, not the best in either author’s canon, but each portrays a rich, charming, independent heroine whose money gives her control over her life and loves.

Hardy begins A Laodicean, his seventh novel, with a sunset and an architect (and couldn’t that be emblematic of his work in general?).  George Somerset is sketching a Norman castle, and is so engrossed he does not notice the “brilliant chromatic effect of the sunset.”

The sun blazed down and down, till it was within half-an-hour of its setting; but the sketcher still lingered at his occupation of measuring and copying the chevroned doorway—a bold and quaint example of a transitional style of architecture, which formed the tower entrance to an English village church. The graveyard being quite open on its western side, the tweed-clad figure of the young draughtsman, and the tall mass of antique masonry which rose above him to a battlemented parapet, were fired to a great brightness by the solar rays, that crossed the neighbouring mead like a warp of gold threads, in whose mazes groups of equally lustrous gnats danced and wailed incessantly.

Hardy is lyrical, but a master of plot.  Somerset has arrived at just the right time:  the rich, gorgeous heroine, Paula Power, has inherited the castle from her father, a railroad magnate, and is looking for an architect, because  she intends to live at the castle.   The two are very taken with each other, and soon become romantically involved, but there is some confusion about the work:  the local architect, Mr. Havill, expected to get the job.  And so there  is a competition between their finished designs.

Paula’s father made his money building railroads, and her money is respected. But she is still educating herself to be a lady, and learns about architecture from Somerset.  Her closest friend is Charlotte de Stancy,  whose father sold Mr. Power the castle. Charlotte has no sense of herself as an usurped aristocrat, so she does not resent Paula.   Although Somerset never notices Charlotte, she is in love with him.  I wondered  if Hardy thought of Charlotte Bronte  as he wrote this:  in  Shirley, two women, Shirley and Caroline, become inseparable friends, but Shirley is so beautiful and witty that Caroline, the weaker and more delicate, is seldom noticed by men.

Soon Paula has a second suitor, Charlotte’s brother, Captain de Stancy, who falls in love with her at first sight.  Will Paula marry Somerset or Captain de Stancy?  Perhaps neither:  she takes a trip abroad, and though she corresponds with Somerset by telegraph (she is a modern woman), and the captain tags along, she is more interested in seeing Europe than conducting a romance.

Many critics find fault with the plot:  they consider the trip to Europe rambling (and it does happen that Hardy and his wife had recently taken a similar trip), but I enjoyed it.  Hardy became very ill while writing A Laodicean, and dictated much of it to his wife, Emma, because it had to be done for the serialization.  All things considered, I think it’s quite good. Paula’s character is a bit too formal at times, and Somerset and de Stancy seem more believeable, but I loved it.

After Hardy, What Do You Read? W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale

Having recently read five novels by Thomas Hardy in a row (A Laodicean, The Woodlanders, The Well-Beloved, Jude the Obscure, and The Return of the Native), and having heard from a few bloggers that Hardy is not their cup of tea,  I turned to W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale.  Did I want cake?  No.  But Maugham’s brilliant novel revolves around a Thomas Hardy-like character, Edward Driffield. The narrator, Willie Ashenden, explores the perpetuation of myths about Edward Driffield after his death, and examines  writers’ different approaches to shaping memories.

When Alroy Kear, a mediocre writer who has risen in the literary world through sheer obsequiousness, contacts Willie for the first time in 20 years,  Willie cannot imagine what he wants.  Roy is a user, and Willie’s waning career as a writer cannot make him useful.  Although Willie says he still feels affection for Roy, his witty, satiric portrait of his character makes us think otherwise.

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters.  His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature.  I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position with so little talent.  This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon….  I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when  first he read that Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains.  He pondered the saying.  If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest…

And Roy does, of course, want to use Ashenden. He is writing a biography of Driffield, at the request of Driffield’s widow (Driffield’s second wife), an overly-refined former nurse, who  wants to fashion their memories into an acceptable form.

Although Willie was never a fan of Driffield’s novels, he very much liked Driffield and his first wife, Rosie, a former barmaid. He met the bohemian couple when he was a boy:   Driffield kindly taught Willie to ride a bicycle, and they invited him frequently to tea.  His uncle, a vicar, forbade him to see them, thinking them scandalously low-class, but even the curate clandestinely attended their tea parties, and eventually the vicar allowed him to do gravestone-rubbings with them at a historic cemeterys.  One day, the Driffields  left town without paying their bills, and Willie was shocked.  But later, in London, he got to know them again.  He especially liked Rosie, a very pretty, charming, smart, and kind woman,  who went to bed with many of the guests.

Driffield’s second wife wants to write Rosie out of the biography, or make her a villain.  But   Driffield wrote his best books when he was married to Rosie.  And, eventually, Willie learns the tragic story behind Driffield’s Jude the Obscure-like novel, which kindled abuse from the critics.  Rosie is a bit like Arabella, the barmaid in Jude the Obscure, but she is kinder and Willie humanizes the motivation behind her most shocking act.

I do love Maugham, and I wonder what his reputation is now.  He reminds me slightly of Willa Cather, whom I read before her books were considered classics.  Are any of Maugham’s well-plotted novels considered classics today, or are they “middlebrow” and “craftsmanlike,” as Cather’s were described?  Both writers were gay, and sometimes they changed homosexual loves to heterosexual in their books.   They wrote equally well about men and women, I think, though not all agree.

Fans of Hardy, as well as his critics, will enjoy Cakes and Ale.

Alison Lurie’s Love and Friendship

I may be embarking on an Alison Lurie binge, thanks to Nancy/Silver Season’s recommendation of Lurie in a comment on my post, “Are University Towns Paradise?”

Years ago I read a lot of Alison Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for Foreign Affairs, a witty novel about two American professors on sabbatical in London.  She was very popular in the ’80s and ’90s, and my favorite was The Truth about Lorin Jones, a novel about a biographer.

Do people still read Lurie?  Alas, our library has discarded Lurie’s books, so I searched online bookstores.  I found an e-book of her first novel,  Love And Friendship, for $1.99.   Not only is it one of the best college-town novels I’ve read, but it is as accomplished as  Mary McCarthy’s satire, The Groves of Academe.  Lurie’s wit is less biting, but she doesn’t spare the absurdity of academic life.   And she  transcends the college town satire with her vivid, believable characters and detailed descriptions of the chilly winter landscape (adultery is often pursued outdoors) and the politics of college life (you must conform socially and stay on the good side of department heads and deans) .

In Love and Friendship, published in 1962, we follow a small group of professors and their wives over the course of an academic year.  The men teach at  Convers College, in the tiny town of Convers, Pennsylvania.

Lurie writes,

No one came to Convers except to go to school. The local farmers took their onions and tobacco and corn over to Hampton, and bought their clothes and furniture there. They could not afford and did not want the button-down shirts and imported ski sweaters which were sold in the two local men’s shops, or the hand-rubbed chairs displayed by the Convers antique dealers.

The heroine, Emily Stockwell Turner, a faculty wife and the mother of a small boy, doesn’t mind Convers:  her brothers went to school here, her father is on the board of trustees, and now her husband, Holman, teaches English here.  But she has always felt cheated at being barred from Convers because of her sex.   And we realize that she is still barred from the college because of her sex: the wives have little to do besides volunteer gigs and hobnobbing with each other.

Fortunately, she likes Miranda, a hippieish woman whose husband Jules is decidedly odd, and she spends hours socializing with her while Holman is at work.  Then she meets Miranda’s friend, a philandering music professor, Will Thomas.  Soon Will and Emmy, who is called Emily by Will, are rolling in the hay, or snow, at every opportunity.  Emmy is always giggling, and their frequent sex outdoors makes her think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  They are in love, but Will’s definition of love is different from Emmy’s.

Love is not all:  every college has politics.  And, alas, they want a scapegoat.  Miranda’s husband, the strange, intellectual Jules, is brilliant but a nonconformist.  Everyone knows that the college wants to fire him.  But the actual firing  takes a hilarious twist, which I cannot reveal.  This is overall a very charming book, beautifully-written, light and bright.

I hope there will be an e-book sale on Lurie!

Shabby Books & Replacement Copies

Some of my old books are so excessively seedy that, along with old newspaper and New Yorkers, they should be recycled.   The question? Do these books deserve replacement? Or should I hang on to the old copies?

Take Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall.  The one on the left (below) was my first copy, and it survived two reads.  That’s Drabble on the cover:  several in this series have photos of Drabble as cover art.   A few years ago, I bought a second reading copy for $1 at the Planned Parenthood book sale.  To be honest, this one is shabby, too, and I’m not sure it will survive another read!  (And, by the way, this is a very good but neglected novel. I posted about The Waterfall here in 2013.)

How about Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd?  The new movie has spoiled it for me temporarily, alas, because  I keep picturing Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba and Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel! And that just doesn’t work in a book.  Below is the  battered Signet edition, either mine or my husband’s, because we had many duplicates.  When it became disgracefully worn, I bought this Heritage Press edition with illustrations, and also a very cheap Modern Library hardback, which can knock around in my bike pannier without damage.   I do dislike the TV-series tie-in dust jacket, but this hardcover will last.  And I can take off the dust jacket.

One of my favorite novels is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The Norton was my first “grown-up” edition of Wuthering Heights.  I bought it used, and though it is still readable, it has been read in the bathtub a few times too many. And so when I found the illustrated Heritage Press edition at a used bookstore, I had to have it.  It is a sturdy  book, with lovely illustrations, and has survived many reads!

Here are some pix of books that have seen better days.

This 1956 edition of Horace:  The Complete Works lasted four generations.  My husband and I both used it in our Horace classes (different years).  But, as you can see, the 21st-century has been too much for it.

My Modern Library paperback of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady finally fell apart. The Heritage Press edition (left) is oversized and too hefty for a comfortable read, so I bought this mint-condition 1983 Modern Library hardback (right),  from a local dealer, who delivered it to my house.  Now that’s good service.

I can’t enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford because the spine is cocked!  Should I read it?  The pages of My Lady Ludlow and Other Stories show some signs of wear, but the Oxford is still readable.  Go figure!

When, if ever, do you replace your books?And if you buy used, what condition do you look for:  Like New, Very Good, Good, or Acceptable?  (I often find that “acceptable” is the same as “nightmarish.”)

Are University Towns Paradise? Jude the Obscure, Lucky Jim, The Groves of Academe, and Me

Iowa City

I grew up in Iowa City, a midwestern university town.  Was it Paradise?  Charles R. Frederick Jr., director of the Academic Student Center at Indiana University, thinks so.   In his fascinating essay, “Growing up Mennonite, Growing up Hawkeye,” he describes growing up in Iowa City.  He says,

I often tell my own children that they grew up ‘in Paradise.’  Their version of the place is Bloomington, Indiana. But I was there first; Iowa City was a great place to grow up.

Bloomington, Indiana

I yearned to move to a big city. But, coincidentally, like Frederick, I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, which is leafy, green, lush, and more paradisiacal in terms of climate.  In both towns, there are great libraries, beautiful tree-lined streets, lush gardens, a food co-op, foreign films at the Union, museums, poetry and fiction readings (Borges, Tillie Olsen…), and you didn’t need a car.   I didn’t realize what I had till I left.

But university towns, whether the schools are state-funded or posh, aren’t for every literary hero. I have just reread Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and am musing on how Christminster, the Oxford of Hardy’s novel, did not prove to be Paradise for  Jude.  A stone-mason and an autodidact, he taught himself Greek and Latin.   When he moves to Christminster, he is told he will never be admitted to the university, could not possibly compete with men educated at Eton, and should stick to stone.  And then things go from bad to worse…so bad, so much worse.  His girlfriend, the brilliant, pretty Sue Bridehead, who doesn’t like to have sex, finally leaves her husband, with whom she also did not like to have sex, and commits herself to Jude only after  his wife, Arabella, a voluptuous barmaid, returns from Australia and tries to get him back.  Later, their son, Father Time (yes, really), kills his siblings and commits suicide, because he understands they are a burden to Jude and Sue.  And that’s the end of Jude.

Might I have been a Jude if I hadn’t grown up in Iowa City?  Well, no, I don’t see myself as the heroine of a gloomy novel (not Hardy’s masterpiece, whatever people tell you), but I studied classics, like Jude.  And I climbed a class or two by getting degrees in literature and classics.   So God bless midwestern university towns, and all the loans, grants, and assistantships!

Wouldn’t working at a university be idyllic?  In 20th-century literature, many professor-heroes hate college towns.  In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jim Dixon, who teaches medieval history at a provincial university, has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, gets drunk at parties, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, with the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”   He gets  fired–and that’s a blessing!  You can’t live a good life at a provincial university in Amis’s world.

In Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, a satire of an experimental college during the McCarthy era, the hero, Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar and instructor at a small “progressive” college in Pennsylvania, learns that his contract will not be renewed.  It is not a good time to be a leftist:  he was fired from a university in California because of his radical writings in The Nation.   Hen manipulates his friends to intercede on his behalf:  he says his wife Cathy has a severe heart condition and that any shock could kill her, and he implies that the FBI is out to get him and that Hoar has caved to pressure.   When his friends  learn that Hen has lied (Cathy was ill after her last pregnancy, but isn’t now, and Hen was never a member of the Communist party), the group is furious.  Although Hen  is brilliant and popular, how far must they go to protect him?  (I wrote more about this here.)

Ah, well, university towns are not ideal for everyone.  And since my mother died, I go less often to Iowa City.  My hometown has changed:   the downtown is undergoing a second urban renewal, there is ugly  development south of downtown, but most of the town survives intact, and is still very pretty.   It was a great place to grow up:   bicycling to the quarry to swim, looking at the Jackson Pollack at the art museum, co-writing satires of the classics department with my fellow Greek students, sitting by the river, eating at the  Pagliai’s Pizza, and hiking through Hickory Hill Park.

I had so much fun!

And that’s important, as life goes on.

Beyond Words & Bookish Catalogues

Political discussions can wreck online book groups.  Even if you’re on the same side, and you, like me, are a liberal,  I don’t want to talk politics with you.  We’re not political commentators, and anyway, just you wait, it will turn out we supported Bernie Sanders for completely different reasons.

I used to be a co-moderator of an online book group that splintered over the critic Edward Said’s brilliant memoir, Out of Place. Those of us who loved it as a memoir of growing up in Palestine were baffled, and the crazy thing was that only three or four  had even read the book.  As soon as they heard the word Palestine, a pro-Palestine faction and a pro-Israel faction emerged, accusing each other of genocide and anti-Semitism.  We co-moderators tried to get back to literature, but the group never recovered from this horrifying battle.

One of my favorite memoirs: who knew it would be controversial?

Dissension occurs in Goodreads groups and Yahoo groups.  One group was discussing, I believe, Tennyson, when the members began to fight about climate change. Every time I read the posts, I thought, “Yeah, climate change is happening:  deal with it!” And so I learned to skip the posts by the more irascible participants, because they upset me (and anybody else who has lived through Midwestern floods, Texas hurricanes, Mexican earthquakes, and more.)..

Another group became obsessed with racism in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gone with the Wind during a discussion of a Russian novel. How did that come up?   If you like Margaret Mitchell’s trashy 1936 best-seller, and I’m not a big fan, you realize that the book is not in the least literary, that it is a romance set during the Civil War, that the heroine is a very nasty woman named Scarlett O’Hara, and, yes, many of the black slaves are stereotypical. It’s not Uncle Tom’s Cabin!


I wonder if we blog these days to avoid  inimical online conversations.


I love book catalogues.  There are so few these days.

The Autumn 2017 Folio Society catalogue recently came in the mail.  This 99-page catalogue is almost as good as one of the books.  The paper is high-quality and the catalogue includes illustrations from the books.  I am not buying at the moment, having shot my wad, but some of you might like the following.

Virginia Woolf fans might be interested in the new edition of A Room of One’s Own,  with the original woodcuts by Vanessa Bell.

And how about the new edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, illustrated by Jonathan Burton?  But honestly I already have three copies of Northanger Abbey!

I also like the Persephone catalogue, the Dover catalogue, and the Dedalus catalogue.  The Dover and the Dedalus offer cheap, and often very strange  books we can all afford! I especially like to support the Dover catalogue, with its unusual collection of of  obscure mysteries, science fiction, classics, and coloring books.  Few bookstores stock them anymore, so I sometimes order at the Dover book site.

What are your favorite book catalogues?

Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America

Mary McCarthy’s 1971 satire, Birds of America, is a tour de force.  Set in New England, Paris, and Rome in the 1960s, it skewers both American innocence and hypocrisy.

I chortled over this comic novel, which is still pertinent today, but, bizarrely, it seems little-known.   You don’t have to know about the 1960s to be amused by her mockery of frozen foods, a pious Thanksgiving abroad (which the hero calls “a harvest fest”), the faux-historicism of New England villages, and tourism in Europe (the protagonist thinks tourists should be licensed to go to art museums).

The 19-year-old hero, Peter Levi, an amateur ornithologist, is the son of the twice-divorced Rosamund, a harpsichordist with old-fashioned WASP values, and his father, “Babbo,”  a Jewish-Italian art historian who teaches at Wellesley.   Peter’s bird-watching is the ideal training for observing his elders and criticizing society, though his point of view is very odd.

McCarthy can eviscerate with a few well-chosen images.  Take the scarcity of bean pots.  In Rocky Port, a small New England town where Rosamund and Peter live for a short time after she leaves her second husband, Rosamund has decided to cook only American dishes from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook. But she cannot find a bean pot at the grocery store.

“How extraordinary, Peter!  The man says they don’t make them any more.  Do you think that can be true?”  She was always asking him wide-eyed, troubled questions like that one, to which he could not possibly, at his age,  know the answer; it was a kind of flattery, applied to the male ego. The only bean pot Peter was familiar with was pictured on a can.  But the saw that for his mother this was a truly upsetting discovery, tantamount to finding that the American eagle was extinct.  She was even more ruffled when she returned from her weekly shopping trip with the report that the two hardware stores in the neighboring town did not carry bean pots either.

Now Rosamund is my favorite character in the book, but I also see Peter’s point of view: why not just use a casserole?  And after she searches hardware stores in neighboring towns and comes up with nada, their landlady gives her a bean pot she had used as vase for dried grasses.  And that is the fate of bean pots and other old things:  they are used decoratively, or stuck  in the attic.

In college, Peter becomes a radical, but his parents won’t allow him to go to Mississippi with a Students for Civil Rights group.  Ironically, during a summer vacation in Rocky Port, Rosamund and Peter are arrested when Rosamund refuses to put up a fake historical sign on the rented house (long story!) for a parade and festival for tourists.

Most of the book takes place during Peter’s junior year abroad in Paris, and it is very funny indeed.   Peter is genuinely concerned about politics, but he doesn’t quite get the protocol of French student protests, where there is a tacit agreement between police and students that those arrested  will be let go in a few hours.  His attempt to intercede in an arrest annoys one of his acquaintances, but Peter’s complaint at the embassy is so ridiculous that  he does eventually get them to make inquiries:  of course the boy had been let go almost immediately!

Peter and his fellow American students, annoyed by the dumbed-down American program at the Sorbonne, have little practice speaking French, because the French ignore them.  His most satisfying interactions are with a French bird-watching group.

So how does Peter spend his time?  He argues about politics. He travels to Rome.  He spends a lot of time furtively scrubbing the shared toilets in French and Italian hotels (in Rome a group of German tourists dominate the toilet all morning). And, not surprisingly, a quixotic  attempt in Paris to help a homeless drunkard by letting her stay on his couch ends in disaster. (She vomits on the couch and steals his doorknob.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Birds of America, which was published in 1971. And  I hope McCarthy is having a comeback:  the Library of America just published her complete fiction.  My own favorite McCarthy novel is A Charmed Life, a satire of an artists’ colony in a New England village.  You can read my post here.  But I have read several of her books, and enjoyed them all.