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Gregory S. Buzwell "bagpuss007" (London)
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Dracula n/e (Oxford World's Classics)
Dracula n/e (Oxford World's Classics)
by Bram Stoker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Victorian Gothic, 11 May 2013
Dracula, like its fellow masterpieces in the Gothic genre Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, transcends its origins as a novel. The Transylvanian Count has over the years taken on - rather appropriately perhaps - a life of his own and it becomes difficult to disentangle the events in the novel from the numerous film and stage adaptations that followed. Recently rereading the novel it struck me all over again just how brilliantly peculiar Bram Stoker's weird tale actually is, and just how closely it ties-in with the fears and anxieties haunting late-Victorian Britain. The fear of old aristocratic Europe stalking new progressive Britain is there, as is the fear of the independent, sexually alluring and free-spirited New Woman. Similarly the clash between old superstition and new science is played out to the death as Dracula and Van Helsing continually strive to overcome each other's ploys using supernatural powers, mesmerism, religion and technology in turn.

Dracula is told from the perspective of several different characters in the form of diaries, letters, telegrams and newspaper reports. This method of narration gives the book a compelling immediacy, as though the events are quite genuinely unfolding before the eyes of those involved. Jonathan Harker's diary entries, for example, kept while a guest in Count Dracula's castle move from soberly enthusiastic to increasingly fear-stricken as the Count's behaviour becomes ever more sinister and bizarre - culminating perhaps in Jonathan's hysteria when he gazes out of his window, high up in one of the castle's turrets, and sees the count crawling down the exterior wall like a giant, macabre lizard. Similarly Dr Seward's diary, recorded on a phonogram, recounts the lunatic Renfield's mental disintegration in a shockingly direct manner. Seeing the increasingly bizarre events unfold through the eyes of the friends caught up at their centre is a brilliant way of making the terror shockingly direct and intimate.

I think, personally, the novel is at its very best during the big set-pieces: The Count's arrival at Whitby aboard The Demeter with its crew decimated and destroyed during the voyage; Lucy Westenra's decent into vampirism and Van Helsing's desperate measures to free her spirit from torment; Dracula's encounter with Renfield in the asylum and the final dramatic pursuit as the vampire hunters pursue the Count back to his homeland. It's all brilliantly Gothic and over-the-top horror. If the novel drags a little on occasion then the thought that the next set-piece is surely only a few pages away keeps you reading. It is, in its grounding in everyday life on the one hand (genteel holidays in Whitby, proposals of marriage, a doctor going about his rounds) and its flights of bizarre weirdness on the other (everything to do with the Count) a novel unlike any other. Bram Stoker never really hit the same heights again but at least, in Dracula, he notched up one genuine Grade A classic of the horror genre. If you only know the films then it's worth going back to the book. Trust me, it will be more brilliantly weird than you can possibly imagine.


The Quickening
The Quickening
by Julie Myerson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scary as Hell, 22 April 2013
This review is from: The Quickening (Hardcover)
I've always had a soft spot for a good ghost story. I love that delicious sense of unease and the eerie feeling that somehow, somewhere, in some manner you can't quite put your finger on events and situations which should be logical and sensible are just not quite right. Ghost stories are the literary equivalents of those moments when you catch, or think you catch, something moving from the corner of your eye or hear a creek on the stairs when you know for certain you're alone in the house. The Quickening is part ghost story and part horror story but most importantly, no matter what the exact genre in which it operates, it works beautifully. The mark of the truly scary tale is always the reveal at the end. With The Quickening there are really two twists. One I saw coming, but only at the very end while the other completely took me by surprise. Like an expert conjurer Myerson has you looking in one direction when you really should be looking in the other ....

Dan and Rachel, recently married and expecting their first child, head to the Caribbean on honeymoon swapping the chilly grey of London for the clear skies and heat of a paradise isle. When they arrive however inexplicable events seem to occur with Rachel as their focus. Glass shatters for no reason; the locals give her cryptic warnings and an old school friend of Dan's occasionally crosses her path although nobody else ever sees him and the hotel has no record of him being a guest. As the strange events escalate Rachel becomes ever more anxious while Dan remains strangely calm, but just who is in danger and who, or what, is the predator?

The Quickening is a relatively short book but that works in its favour. The cast of characters is fairly small and the narrative moves at a tremendous pace - it has been a long while since I found myself turning the pages of a book with such eagerness to find out what happens next. Just when the pieces appear to be falling into place something bizarre and unexpected will cause you to re-evaluate what you know, or what you think you know. I remember reading somewhere that Julie Myerson is a fan of Daphne du Maurier and there is more than a hint of du Maurier's haunting short stories ('Don't Look Now' in particular) in The Quickening. It's a disturbing book, and one which is more brutal than it at first appears, but the supernatural elements are well handled and while the conclusion is suitably unexpected and shocking an air of mystery remains up to the very end, and perhaps beyond. The truly frightening ghost story is a rarity but for me this one worked beautifully. The Quickening is haunting in a very clever, and a very disturbing, fashion. Brilliant.


A Perfect Woman
A Perfect Woman
by L. P. Hartley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and Perceptive, 21 April 2013
This review is from: A Perfect Woman (Paperback)
L. P. Hartley must be somewhere near the top of the 'Undeservedly Neglected 20th-Century Authors' list so it is good to see a selection of his books coming back into print. A Perfect Woman, published in 1955 between two of Hartley's best known novels - The Go-Between and The Hireling - is a particularly welcome addition to the list of titles readily available being full of likeable characters, fascinating insights into love and marriage and with a definite icy sting in the tail.

Harold Eastwood, a rather earnest and unimaginative chartered accountant, meets bohemian novelist Alec Goodrich on a train. The latter is travelling first class with a third-class ticket but, due to his considerable charm, manages to wriggle free from any unpleasantness when the ticket inspector arrives. The two men, so disimmilar, begin a conversation following the incident which results in Harold agreeing to look after Alec's financial arrangements. From casual acquaintance the colourful and charming Alec soon finds himself a close friend not only of Harold but also of Harold's downtrodden but artistic and imaginative wife Isabel and, via a trip to Harold's local pub, the beautiful Austrian barmaid Irma. Alec finds Irma fascinating; Isabel finds Alec fascinating and Harold, blinkered and staid in the midst of it all, finds himself playing an unlikely knight in shining armour to the lonely Irma. Add Alec's long-term mistress Elspeth into the mix, and Harold and Isabel's two young children and the emotional turmoil and the blindness of love lead to some unlikely but memorable incidents.

Hartley was always good at describing the internal lives of his characters. Much of A Perfect Woman is played out inside the characters' heads. As the novel progresses the solid, reliable but drearily prosaic nature of Harold and Isabel's marriage becomes all too obvious. Similarly Alec's simultaneous desire for Elspeth on the one hand, and his horror of her vampire-like presence on the other slowly bleeds through into his relationships with Irma and Isabel. Meanwhile Harold, who could so easily have become a drab non-event, is portrayed as a decent man brought up to do the 'right thing' for his family who suddenly finds himself wrong-footed by the attentions of a much younger and very beautiful woman.

I really enjoyed A Perfect Woman, so much so that on reflection I'd give it four and a half stars if I could. The characters, so normal in so many ways, live, develop and become fascinating. I was never quite sure where the plot was heading but I would rapidly read thirty or forty pages at a go in my eagerness to find out. By turns the novel is funny, eccentric, perceptive, elegant, moving and, on two occasions, quite shocking. If there is a little bit of trickery involved in setting up some of the situations then the beauty with which they're played out more than makes up for it. It's a haunting read, and one which definitely leaves me hoping more of Hartley's work comes back into print very soon.


Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Victorian Sensation, 20 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Wilkie Collins (Paperback)
Wilkie Collins, perhaps rather unjustly, is frequently regarded as lurking somewhere amongst those 'second-tier' Victorian novelists. His work is not as verbally dazzling and charismatic as that of Dickens, nor as passionate as that of the Brontes. He didn't have the biting social conscience of Gaskell; the sheer intellect of George Eliot (then again, nobody did) or the beautiful, brilliant bleakness of Hardy. What he did have however, and it's a gift any novelist would weep with happiness at the thought of obtaining, was a superb and seemingly effortless ability to tell a rattling good yarn. We may, in the 21st century, patiently study the novels of the great Victorian worthies but for fun, for pleasure, for relaxation and delight we're much more likely to read The Woman in White or The Moonstone.

Peter Ackroyd's concise biography of Collins acts as something of an impressionist picture of the author and his work, it may be brief and a touch sketchy but it does definitely give a good indication of the man and his novels and Ackroyd's comments and observations are unfailingly perceptive and thought-provoking throughout. Collins's curious and unorthodox life (most male Victorian novelists had a wife and a mistress, Wilkie cut out the wife and settled for the more bracing arrangement of having two mistresses) is discussed, as is his always delicate health, his reliance on laudanum and his passion for foreign travel. His friendship with Charles Dickens is also given the space and importance it deserves but where the biography really shines is with the analysis and detail given regarding Collins's work - both his fiction and his plays. The Woman in White and The Moonstone are staples for anyone with a love of the Victorian novel but it is reassuring to find Ackroyd arguing for a greater appreciation of novels such as The New Magdalene and Heart and Science, both of which came towards the end of Collins's career and both of which are much better novels than historical opinion would suggest. I think Ackroyd may be a touch harsh in his dismissal of the novel Poor Miss Finch (seriously, how can anyone fail to be enthralled by a novel that features a (literally) blue man?) but his discussion of novels such as Basil and The Dead Secret made me want to head back and reread the books straight away.

For all of his ill-health Wilkie Collins lived to a fairly good age, writing his sensational novels, tales, short stories and plays right up until the end. His great books have remained in the public eye ever since the date of their first publication and many of his less well known novels are coming back into print. Hopefully Ackroyd's biography will allow the author behind them to, once again, step into the limelight. I think it is always the sign of a good biography of a literary figure when having finished the book you head straight back to the novels of the author under discussion. Personally speaking, on that basis, Ackroyd's biography works beautifully.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 11, 2013 2:57 PM BST


The Goodbye Look (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Goodbye Look (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Ross Macdonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Broken Hearts, 18 Mar. 2013
The Goodbye Look, which comes fairly late in Macdonald's career, is a bleak, occasionally chilling but always brilliant novel. If ever an author had a prose style perfectly pitched for hard-boiled noir crime fiction then it was Ross Macdonald. The stories are complex and involved; the characters are shabby, hard done by, optimistic in the face of all the evidence to the contrary or as honest as a nine-dollar note as the case may be but it's the prose that carries everything through and makes the end result so impressive. There are many dazzling similies and metaphors in The Goodbye Look - my favourite being the description of a woman with a slash of grey in her hair 'as if time had thrust a loving hand through it' (it's the use of the word 'loving' that gets me), and each and every one adds to the quality of the writing and the quality of the tale being told.

The initial premise of the novel is quite simple. Irene Chalmers, wealthy and respectable, asks her lawyer to recommend a private eye. Her house has been broken into and a valuable Italian box dating back to the Renaissance, along with the family letters it contained has been stolen. The thing is, and this is the reason she doesn't want the police involved, Mrs Chalmers secretly suspects her own son has carried out the crime. Lew Archer, the private eye, takes up the case and finds himself dealing with broken hearts; a nasty hit-and-run; a bank fraud; fragile siblings and over-bearing parents. Even the medical profession, who play quite a large part in the novel, possibly have secrets to hide. Is the treatment of Mrs Chalmers' son entirely carried out for his own benefit or is he being sedated and hospitalized to keep him out of the way? If I had a criticism it would be that the novel contains perhaps a plot strand and a twist too many, but then with so much fiction being drab and unadventurous that really is a rather half-hearted attempt at finding fault. The conclusion of the novel is complex but it does hang together and the prose is all so beautiful that when I reached the end of the book I was tempted to start it all over again just to see those numerous twists and turns being played out.

I've read quite a few of Macdonald's Lew Archer novels now and while each one contains echoes of the others (they all feature crimes from the past bleeding through to the present, and most feature troubled sons and daughters from loving but perhaps over-protective families) each one has been an absolute delight. I wouldn't suggest The Goodbye Look as being the best place to start - it's complexity makes it the most challenging of the Archer books I have encountered so far (The Galton Case or The Drowning Pool would be my choices for where to start with Macdonald), but it does contain one of his best plots and some of his most elegant writing - I loved the way the pictures on the walls of the homes and offices Archer visits all say something about the people who own them or live with them, from Mr and Mrs Chalmers with their taste for paintings depicting 17th-century scenes of Indians and Spanish soldiers (the glorious past with a clear demarcation, in their eyes, between rulers and ruled) through to the walls of the psychiatric hospital adorned with abstract paintings featuring opaque, unformed shapes (the mind in flux, attempting to find its own patterns and impose a comprehensible order on the world). The Goodbye Look is, all in all, a dazzling detective novel, but it is also so much more than that. It's a dazzling novel, period.

Finally, to end on a shallow (perhaps) but still important point. The recent Penguin reprint does feature just about the perfect cover for a crime noir novel. In an age where text can be downloaded in seconds it's good to see thought and attention to style going into the marketing of good old fashioned paperbacks. The book is brilliant, but as I'm sure any author would tell you, an eye-catching cover never hurts.


Black Narcissus: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
Black Narcissus: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
by Rumer Godden
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bewitched and Beguiled, 14 Mar. 2013
A windswept, decaying palace high in the Himalayas is given to an order of nuns for use as a convent; and so the former 'House of Women', so called because it was once used to house a harem, becomes the Convent of St Faith. The gift is a generous one and the nuns set out with the best of intentions but under the relentless, beautiful emptiness of the mountain skies and in the closed and isolated world of the convent personalities grate and clash, powerful and long repressed emotions bubble to the surface and the nuns' devout faith, belief in the importance of their mission and love of God all become dangerously entwined with doubts, earthly desires and, in the case of Sister Clodagh, the romantic allure of the past and the road not taken.

Black Narcissus works brilliantly on a number of different levels. The plot itself is fairly simple - the nuns set up their convent, begin their work of educating and helping the locals and cope, or fail to cope, with the various challenges placed in their path but the personalities of the nuns are so beautifully portrayed, and the landscape of the mountains so vividly realised, that the whole novel becomes utterly haunting and beguiling. As the book progresses and the sense of claustrophobia within the convent escalates and the terrifying empty beauty of the landscape without takes a hold aspects of the nuns' characters become amplified: Sister Honey's love for the local children drifts from charming to possessive; Sister Clodagh's innocent reflections upon a youthful love affair become dangerously intrusive and potent; and Sister Ruth's always suspect grasp on reality buckles and bows under the haunting isolation, her sense of being slighted by Sister Clodagh and her occasional encounters with the ruggedly charismatic Mr Dean, the local intermediary between the inhabitants of the mountain and the nuns. It's an intoxicating mixture of passions and emotions and as the story progresses the atmosphere within the convent changes from rural idyll to gothic horror, something made all the more powerful by the subtlety with which the author handles the shift from sunlight to shadow.

Rumer Godden, rather like her contemporary Daphne du Maurier, was blessed with a beautiful and seemingly effortless prose style. Her descriptions of landscape and her ability to portray subtle alterations of character under the influence of emotional pressure are sublime. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I knew the film version of Black Narcissus rather well while having little idea about the book on which it was based. I came to the novel hoping it would be every bit as brilliant as the film. I was in luck - it is, and it's terrific to see so much of Godden's work coming back into print. Having finished Black Narcissus it's inspiring to think I have so much more of her work to explore.


A Sicilian Romance (Oxford World's Classics)
A Sicilian Romance (Oxford World's Classics)
by Ann Radcliffe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Queen of Gothic, 2 Mar. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A Sicilian Romance, Ann Radcliffe's second novel, was published at the beginning of what was to be a remarkable decade for Gothic fiction. The genre may have existed since Horace Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto appeared in 1764 but it was only with the 1790s, and with Radcliffe in particular, that Gothic fiction really came into its own. A Sicilian Romance takes many of the elements that defined the genre: there is a fiendish Italian nobleman with a poisonous wife and two beautiful daughters; he lives in a decaying castle, the south wing of which is reputedly haunted; he is surrounded by servants who range from the cowardly to the downright sinister and he clearly has secrets buried deep in his past. When his daughter, Julia, decides she doesn't want to marry the suitor her father has chosen for her and flees the castle the stage is set for a whole series of beautifully Gothic set pieces.

One of Radcliffe's great gifts as a novelist was her ability to describe landscape in a beautifully haunting fashion. During A Sicilian Romance Julia is pursued through moonlit forests; seeks shelter from a thunderstorm in a decaying monastery; contemplates the possibility of happiness while sitting on the shore of a sun-dappled lake and views the world from the lower slopes of windswept mountains. In a sense very little of this advances the plot but the descriptions do trigger an emotional response in the reader, awakening a sense of the beautiful and sublime in the landscape around us and thus setting the ground for the Gothic shocks lurking just around the corner. The plot, when you examine it, does seem a touch contrived (the thugish knights pursuing Julia continually miss her while her former companion stumbles across her straight away while strolling somewhat aimlessly down a hillside) but in a way that doesn't matter. Gothic fiction isn't really about tightly drawn plots and it certainly isn't about plausibility, it's about triggering a sense of fear and wonder and in that respect A Sicilian Romance, like most of Radcliffe's work, succeeds admirably.

I really enjoyed A Sicilian Romance, if you're looking for a way in to the weird and wonderful world of early Gothic fiction this is a great place to start. It's with Radcliffe that the frequently daft but fascinating excesses of Gothic become merged with a brilliant eye for description and effect. Nobody before Radcliffe, and very few since, could describe a crumbling monastery as seen on a summer's night by the flashes of distant lightning as well as she could. Her scene setting is superb and even her characters take on a depth that puts many of the cardboard cutouts of her predecessors to shame. It's no surprise that when Jane Austen took an affectionate dig at Gothic fiction in her novel Northanger Abbey she set Radcliffe up as the definitive example of the genre. For all of its implausibilities A Sicilian Romance is a very good novel and it shows the author well on her way to the heights of Udolpho and The Italian. Sublime, in every sense of the word.


Jude the Obscure (Wordsworth Classics)
Jude the Obscure (Wordsworth Classics)
by Thomas Hardy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fifty Shades of Black, 13 Feb. 2013
Branded 'Jude the Obscene' in at least one contemporary review and famously burned by the Bishop of Wakefield Hardy's final novel is nothing if not controversial. While most novels from the Victorian era that caused a bit of a stir at the time now seem relatively tame Jude retains much of its power to shock and disturb. The book was many years ahead of its time and even in the Victorian fin de siecle - an age not especially noted for its prim and retiring ways - it stands out as the work of a brilliant but very bitter and angry man. Jude the Obscure attacks marriage and the Church in a savage fashion; it castigates the class system and the world of privilege that allows the rich to study at university while denying the opportunity to those who lack money and status; it simultaneously loves and despises women who make an effort to live their lives as they wish in preference to tamely bowing down to convention and it rages against an indifferent universe that neither loves nor hates mankind but merely continues ever onwards, equally oblivious to love and beauty as to suffering and death. It's not an easy read, but it is a perceptive one and, as ever with Hardy, beyond the bleakness much of the descriptive writing is touched with a sublime poetry.

Jude Fawley, intelligent, sensitive and handsome, dreams of attending Christminster (a thinly veiled Oxford) only to fall foul of class, money and the wiles of a woman, Arabella, out to nab herself a husband before her looks fade. Trapped in a loveless marriage Jude becomes increasingly attracted to his cousin Sue Bridehead, a woman with her own ideas, a dislike of convention and a deeply capricious nature. Add some typically bleak Hardyesque runs of bad luck; a few spiteful village gossips and a social structure that prefers loveless marriages to blissfully happy partnerships out of wedlock and you have a narrative that is never going to end happily. What makes the book fascinating however is the interplay between Jude, his love for Sue, his marriage to Arabella and the strangely bloodless presence of Phillotson, Jude's old teacher and a man in love with Sue. The way the characters interact is compelling and it gives the book an all too human quality. In particular the contrast between Sue (all intellect and pale, distant beauty) and Arabella (passion, drive, clever but uneducated and one of life's survivors) is fascinating. Hady's novels are full of memorable female characters but to my mind Sue and Arabella, and the contrasts between them, are among his very finest creations. They give the novel its drive and they fascinate the reader just as much as they fascinate the male characters in the book.

In conclusion while I adore Hardy with a passion I always find Jude a somewhat difficult book to like. The events, from the pig-killing at the beginning (Hardy had a lifelong disgust of cruelty to animals) to the tragic tale of Jude and Arabella's son, Little Father Time, at the end make it an uncomfortable read but, for all that, it contains moments of exquisite beauty: Christminster seen in the distance through the haze of a summer's day for example, or Jude's brief moments of happiness with Sue or his youthful, passionate affair with Arabella. It's bleak certainly; but it is also important and written with a rare passion and for those reasons alone it's an unforgettable novel.


A Laodicean: Or the Castle of the De Stancys (Penguin Classics)
A Laodicean: Or the Castle of the De Stancys (Penguin Classics)
by Thomas Hardy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strangely compelling., 19 Jan. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A Laodicean is often regarded as the poor relation in the run of Thomas Hardy's novels. It sits on the shelf, the runt of the litter, all dusty and neglected while academia and the general public rave about Tess and Jude and The Mayor of Casterbridge. This is actually rather unfair because while it doesn't quite scale the heights of Hardy's greatest work it is, all things considered, actually a compelling and fascinating novel.

Paula Power, intelligent, beautiful and strong-willed enough to follow her own mind even if what she believes one day isn't always quite the same as what she believes the next inherits a large fortune and a crumbling castle from her father, a railway magnate and a man who very much made his money in the modern world. To do up the castle Paula employs a young architect, George Somerset who, as is the way of these things, falls in love with the delicious heiress. At this point a rival enters the scene in the form of Captain De Stancy, a descendent of the castle's original owners and a rather dashing and likeable figure in his own right. Add to the mix a young man by the name of Dare who is not averse to waving a gun at people and Uncle Abner, Paula's long lost shifty and very sinister uncle and the plot is ripe for mischief, devious and downright shabby behaviour, misunderstood motives and misinterpreted conversations. The course of true love never did run smooth, least of all in a Thomas Hardy novel and you can sense the great author rather enjoying himself by placing one duff piece of luck after another in the path of the rival lovers.

There are many good points about A Laodicean and one slightly bad one. To start with the good Paula is one of Hardy's most interesting characters. She is capricious, coquettish and not too reluctant to toy with people's emotions if it suits her but she is intelligent, independent and, especially in the context of the Victorian novel, really rather sexy. Captain De Stancy meanwhile is honest, decent and rather dashing and acts as a splendid foil to George Somerset, the ostensible hero of the piece who does, on occasion, come across as a bit clingy and wet. Young Dare, meanwhile, is vile and plays merry havoc with those around him in a way which is, again, rather strong by the standards of Victorian fiction. The scene in which Dare and Abner conduct an icy conversation in a deserted church where each holds the other at gunpoint is genuinely chilling. Also, as ever with Hardy, the set pieces are superb. Paula's last minute refusal to enter the Baptist faith at the beginning is emotionally charged; Somerset's close encounter with a steam train emerging from a tunnel is thrilling; Captain De Stancy's unscripted kissing of Paula during a stage play is shocking and Paula's work out in her gymnasium while De Stancy looks on furtively through a hole in the wall is erotic and shifty in equal measure - the sort of thing Hardy carried off better than anyone. What slightly lets the book down is the final third in which the action moves abroad - Somerset, Dare, De Stancy and Paula pretty much do nothing but chase each other around various tourist spots in France and Germany for chapter after chapter. It's all well-written, but the endless round of misunderstandings and silly coincidences becomes rather tiresome. It's a shame, but it doesn't spoil the whole book by any means.

Overall I feel anyone who has read and enjoyed, say, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native would enjoy A Laodicean. Hardy makes great use of contemporary technology - the railways, telegraph systems and photography all feature heavily in the novel. The contrast between De Stancy's nobility but lack of money and Paula's money derived from her father's hard work and industry is well played, as is Paula's role as an independent New Woman of the type who was to rise to prominence in the 1890s. Also, as ever with Hardy, the descriptions of the countryside and the locals who run the pubs, till the soil and serve the gentry are all sublime. Not his best novel then, but by no means a bad one and certainly better than its neglected state would suggest. Read it for Paula, read it for the lyrical descriptions and read it for the dramatic set-pieces. The occasionally dappy plot can go hang - there is so much more to enjoy.


Orley Farm (Oxford World's Classics)
Orley Farm (Oxford World's Classics)
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful, 13 Jan. 2013
Orley Farm tells the story of Lady Mason and a contested will by which her son inherited a desirable property. Twenty years later, and after some furtive digging by the rather bitter Mr Dockwrath who bears Lady Mason and her son Lucius a grudge the details surrounding the signing and validity of the will are once again called into question. The aggrieved parties press for a new trial and the full weight of the law lumbers into ponderous, dinosaur-like action. Lady Mason, once again finds herself about to stand trial but this time without her youthful vitality and wit to see her through.

Trollope clearly had a bit of an axe to grind with regard to the due processes of the law. He is not as vitriolic on the subject as Dickens had been in Bleak House but, as one can tell from the names he gives to one partcular firm of solicitors - Messrs Slow and Bideawhile - he was of the opinion that justice came a distant second to the legal arts of prevarication, making money and treating the law as a grand game. Whether innocent or guilty is not what matters to the legal combatants in the courtroom drama, it is being able to sway opinion, discard the incriminating and play upon the emotions of the jury that counts. An old gentleman like Sir Peregrine Orme, baronet, sees the English jury system as the pinacle of truth and justice but the shabby games played by the lawyers to defend the clearly guilty and persecute the obvioulsy innocent cause his entire faith in humanity to wobble. Trollope appears to be arguing throughout the novel that honesty and 'doing the right thing' should count for more when it comes to justice than the wit and guile of a clever lawyer.

As ever with Trollope there are several delightful subplots. Lady Mason's trial forms the main narrative but her friends and lawyers, and her enemies and their own legal teams each entangle themselves in love affairs, financial misadventures and the glorious pursuits of the landed gentry. With regard to the characters the women are particularly well served. Madeline Stavely, daughter of a judge, is an intelligent and charming English Rose who finds herself pursued by a good and honourable man whom she doesn't love; Sophia Furnival, a lawyer's daughter, is a delightfully coquettish young woman who is more than a match for the barristers and solicitors who make a play for her hand and Lady Mason herself is a woman of character brought low by the pressures of defending her name. Mrs Mason of Groby Park, meanwhile, is a slave to unnecessary cost-cutting: there is no piece of meat for the dinner table which cannot be cut into ever more invisible slithers in the name of sensible (i.e. insane) frugality. The scene in which she foists a set of wretched, unusable metal furniture onto the lady who gives her daughters music lessons while her husband looks on in appalled embarrassement is a comic masterpiece. Similar notable episodes in the novel include a dramatic fox hunt and a splendid Christmas party in which Miss Stavely and Miss Furnival play the role of ghosts, handing out sweets to the children while simultaneously flat-batting the amorous advances of their male admirers.

Orley Farm is a long novel (just over 800 pages) but it never drags. Even the scenes which can be regarded as padding such as those involving the salesman Mr Moulder - all sweating blubber and pompous bombast - are a delight and the main narrative of the trial itself contains moments of genuine high drama. It's a beautiful tale of what can happen when the 'morally right' action and the 'legally right' one clash head-on and it contains many notable scenes and characters who linger long in the mind. In short I can think of few more enjoyable novels with which to while away a series of long, dark winter evenings. Delightful.


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