The Lawyer’s Wife

Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House had been one of the oldest TBRs ever. I added it to my list when I was like 17 after attending a special seminar on modern European Drama back in College but for some unexplained reason I did not get around to reading until 16 years later. Why? No idea. All I can say is that I am immensely glad I took part in the 12 Months Classic Challenge, which finally led me to read this drama after all my intellectual and academic fervor that I cannot say has had much tangible results. The brilliance  or lack of it in our modern education system is a theme I rest for discussion another day, and for now move on to The Doll’s House review! Cleo, my partner in all kinds of reading adventures came along for the read and made it a read along – she will be putting up her post soon and you can find it on her website!

The Doll’s House opens on the Christmas Eve with Nora, a young housewife coming back home from a shopping expedition in a happy expectancy of the gaities of the season and the expected good fortune stemming from her husband, Torvald Helemer being appointed a Bank Manager. It is evident that while Nora and Torvald seem to be in a comfortable circumstances, they have reached this status, through much hard work and trimming their expenses and there have been times, when they were in significant financial distress. However they are debt free and while they had to sacrifice much to achieve this status, they have managed to do so without being beholden to anyone, a matter of significant pride for Torvald. The relationship between Torvald and Nora appear to be one of happy contentment; Torvald seems to rule Nora and check her more extravagant tendencies, treating her more like a child, who needs to be alternately petted and disciplined to ensure the smooth functioning of the home and hearth. Nora is completely dedicated to her husband and her home, his opinion of her and her actions are her guiding factors and though there are things which she undertakes secretly from her husband, the primary motive of those actions is to keep Torvald happy. The first act also introduces the audience to the ensemble cast of Dr. Rank a doctor, who is Torvald best friend and has been a companion to the Helemer household for anions. The audience is also introduced to Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora’s, who has come seeking employment from Torvald, since she is now a widow and in financial difficulty and finally Nils Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, whom Torvald seeks to replace and a man who had committed some misdemeanor in the past but is desperate to regain a respectable footing for the sake of his children. The audience soon is made to understand that about 8 years previously when the Helemer’s were just married and extremely poor, Torvald had fallen gravely ill with the only cure being to take him to Italy for the summer. Being extremely poor, they could not undertake this trip and Nora desperate to save her husband’s live was forced to borrow money from the same Krogstad and she since then has been paying him off through odd jobs. Torvald has no idea that his wife has borrowed money from the man he plans to fire and believes that the money came from Nora’s dying father. Act Two reveals that in a desperate bid to save his job, Krogstad blackmails Nora and asks her to use her influence on her husband otherwise he will disclose her monetary dealings with him including the fact that she had forged her father’s signature on the gaurentee papers – an act she undertook because she wanted to spare her then dying father the agony of her financial and personal crisis. When Nora is unable to convince Torvald to retain Krogstad, she shares her story with Mrs. Linde, who in turn offers to persuade and talk to Krogstad and with whom she was engaged previously. This intervention however comes in late and though Krogstad convinced by Mrs. Linde sends another letter to nullify the harm of the first one which had earlier posted revealing all,  Nora is forced to contend with her husband’s displeasure and face far more hard hitting reality than she could have previously fathomed, forcing her to make decisions she could have never forseen or believed herself capable of making!

So much has been written and debated about this play, that I am quite at a loss of what to actually say. When originally published, the play created a furor even to the extent that the German production had to amend the ending to suit the sensibilities of the audience then and uphold the image of women as mothers and centers of the hearth! I can understand why there should have been such angst with its publication in 19th century – many scholars contend that this play was centered on emancipation of women, but I cannot help but feel that it was more than an woman’s empowerment concept; the drama in fact seemed to me to revolutionize the concept of an individual, instead of a collective identity of mother/wife. it recognized Nora as a being  and even in the more individualistic 21st century society, this concept of standing on sole instead of clan identity is difficult for many to adjust! But this very stand, revealed in Act 3 made this play a piece of brilliant work for me and put me in awe. The first two acts, I could not abide by much – Nora seemed like a scatterbrain with the best intentions and least abilities to think through the actions stemming from those interventions. I was sick of what would Torvald think, do, react, – yes Torvald, no Torvald and three bags full Torvald. In creating Torvald’s character however I think, Ibsen’s brilliance came forth; its not like you like him, though he seems like a respectable, self made man devoted to his family and friends (his duplicity is not revealed till the end) but you cannot quite seem to like him  – I am not sure if it is a 21st century phenomena but his “skylaring” “squirelling” Nora put in the mind of men who call their partners “honey/doll” etc, which seems to dehumanize these women to fluffy pink icing pastry! The very fact that he wants Nora to be a perfect wife/mother/hostess, singing/dancing pleasing one and all, gives the audience the first glimpse into the “Doll’s House” and the Doll Master! This slow unraveling of what seems picture perfect, is a testimony to the dramatic capability of Ibsen where in 3 acts he reveals all without really rushing the reader. The ensemble cast is quite as brilliant as well – in Krogstad , the audience readily feels sympathy of a man being tried twice for the same crime, especially when desperately trying to establish his credibility for the future of her children. Mrs. Linde’s character is a foil to Nora’s – a sensible grounded woman who has worked hard all her life and now when emptiness seems to threaten to overtake her, she once again seeks work to keep her balance. In terms of plot, I did feel that Act I  was too prolonged and Act III kind of hurriedly reconciled the end, but the brilliance of Act III overpowers all flaws and left me converted to Ibsen.

I feel like an idiot for not reading this work sooner and will surely look up more of his plays!

Celebrating Freedom – The Home and The World Read Along

In the year of 1916, exactly 100 years ago, 3 years since he became the first Non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most prolific artistic geniuses to come from India, published his extremely controversial and then much contested “The Home and The World“. It was a book that broke the mold and brought out women from the “anter mahal” (the inner chambers where women led secluded lives in 18th-19th century Bengal, albeit with consequences) and put a spin on on the Indian National Movement by defining and defying at the same time what a true patriot is/was. This novel has been since subjected to countless reviews, researches and critiques and has been subject of several dramas and filming, the most popular version being the one directed by Satyajit Ray, another first, the first Indian to win an Oscar!

On Aug 15th. 2016, India celebrates her 69th year of “Independence”; exactly 69 years ago, India regained her independence from the British rule after more than 200 years of colonization and exploitation. This act of regaining independence was the final culmination of the Indian National Movement, which began after the disastrous failure of the  ill-fated attempt of 1857 Mutiny and would ultimately inspire many world leaders in their efforts gain freedom and equality, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Interestingly 2016, nearly a 100 years after Tagore brought the traditional bengali woman to the man’s world in a startling attempt to emancipate women atleast in literature, the first batch women fighter pilots of Indian Air force, take to the sky, in a revolutionary departure from the historically masculine dominated world of military and warfare!

With such changes and events, colliding, it made sense to host a reading event that celebrated the long way India and her women had come along and “The Home and The World” seemed an apt book to do it with. Therefore with all humility and some pride I present “The Home and The World Read Along” for the month of August! It’s short novella, and does not require much time, but stitched together in those 120 odd pages is a story that speaks both of unique historical moment of time and of relationships that are timeless and abound through the ages!

Batch

I already have the honor of having Stefanie and Cleo join me for the event. Ruth also committed to check in and try and fit in with her schedule, and I am hoping many of you will join as well.( Please feel free to share the button above to share the love!) Like I promised Stefanie, I plan to provide an overview of the socio-political events that formed the background of this novel as well a summary of the position of women in India through centuries to help you better understand the book and provide you crucial clutches to navigate the specifics of the novel!

So come on and join us as we travel through time to the coming of age of an old country and her people!

Some Goblins, Some Songs & A Birthday

For somebody enormously fond of literature and passionate about readings, my adventures in Poetry are next to none. Despite majoring in English Literature for my undergraduate degree, I could not develop a liking for this form of writing. I always felt that it takes a very developed and highly sensitized brain to truly appreciate poetry and somehow, I seemed to lack both in the right measure to really become a connoisseur. So I remained in the margins, reading up what others wrote about the texts assigned to me and managed to get the degree with honors, largely because I loved prose and drama. Anyway since the dismal tryst with poetry, I have usually kept such reading limited and at bay;however this year like I keep harping and I am trying to do things differently, as in reading Woolf and Zola, both of which I had dreaded and ended up loving, that not to venture forth with this other albatross seemed silly and I decided to plunge ahead. Since I was planning to take baby steps in reading poetry, I decided to start with someone whose works I have read in the past and enjoyed and did not not struggle through – Christina Rossetti fitted the bill to a T and her Goblin Market and Other Poems seemed the thing that slid very nicely into my Women’s Classic Literature Reading Event as well The 12 Month Reading Challenge, March theme being, A Classic that has been recommended! Goblin Market has been recommended to me for like FOREVER and now was a good time to start!

The Penguin Edition of Rossetti’s works is a collection of the poet’s 20 poems, the most famous being The Goblin Market. The poem describes the coming of the Goblins to sell their wares – the most delicious and freshest of fruits apples, cranberries, peaches, apricots, pears, grapes, pomegranates etc. Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie who live together hear the coming of the Goblins; Laura is tempted by the descriptions of the fruits, but Lizzie cautions against going and purchasing the fruits from the Goblins. Laura however is tempted and one evening lingers around the stream waiting for the Goblins to come and bring their fruits; when the Goblins arrive, she realizes she does not have any money to buy the fruits but the goblins offer to take a piece of her golden hair instead. So Laura gives up some of her hair, gorges herself on goblin fruit, and heads on home to her sister.The next day Laura and Lizzie go about their work in the house, Laura dreamily longs for the coming evening’s meeting with the goblins who will come again with their delicious fruits. But at the stream that evening, as she strains to hear the usual goblin cries of their fruits, she realizes that although Lizzie still hears the goblins’ voices, she no longer can. She slowly begins to fall ill and starts to waste away.  A worried Lizzie has to act soon and decides to confront the Goblins in an effort to save her sister!

This is the primary poem of the collections consisting of 28 stanzas and provides much food for thought! There is of course a vast deal of analysis that is available on this poem and they range from feminism, to sexual freedom to anti-Judaic character treatment etc etc. There is no denying that there is a sexual element to this composition, however, my take is that simply, Rossetti was rebelling against the social mores and restrictions, especially the ending, where the Victorian fallen woman, instead of dying away in oblivion, is resurrected and lives to a ripe old age! There is also the creation of Lizzie as a “hero” noble and brave who goes out to find a cure for her sister – there is no Prince Charming to the rescue here, but rather a theme of how woman must stand by each other! Then there is the aspect of being cautious against things we seem to little understand and letting them be.The poem uses an irregular rhyme scheme and irregular meter and allows some time to pass before the word finds its partner, which makes for a very unique reading experience and is best if read aloud. Apparently this poem was written for children, but I am not quite sure, if that was the only purpose of Ms. Rossetti.

I loved the collection and I completely  “besotted” is the word is guess, by the images and the themes that Ms. Rossetti uses to bring forth in her poems. While I really enjoyed the revolutionary spirit of Goblin Market, I also loved her “Song – When I am dead, my dearest” I cannot help but feel that though this particular poem bespoke of sadness of departing in death, there is also the same element of rebelling that was present in the Goblin Market, where the narrator ironically and iconically points out that the ‘dearest’ will not remember her! Yet another poem, a memorial for Keats called On Keats. Keats was a poet she greatly admired is as beautiful in its lyricism as much as its in its ode to the master poet “Here lies one whose name was writ, In water: while the chilly shadows flit, Of sweet Saint Agnes’ Eve; while basil springs, His name, in every humble heart that sings, Shall be a fountain of love, verily”. I also loved “A Birthday“, a poem where the narrator celebrates and expresses her joy at the upcoming birthday of her love. I loved the simple innocence of a true love and the brilliant way she weaves the words to create a lasting imagery! There is so much I can say, yet all of it will be insufficient to accurately describe the brilliance of this collection! Therefore, I leave you with only one thought – Please read it yourself!

 

From The Idyllic Counties To The Factory Towns

I finished reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell as part of my Reading England Project. It also ties in brilliantly with my Women’s Classic Literature Event. I have always been a huge Gaskell fan and some of my best blogging buddies (Cleo and Stefanie. I am especially looking at two of you now!) have often told me that this is perhaps on of Gaskell’s best works! Naturally, I was excited to be able to finally read this work!

The novel opens with Margaret Hale preparing for a change in her life – she was brought up with her cousin Edith in her Aunt Shaw’s house in England; but Edith is now getting married and Margaret is going back to her own home at Helstone, where her father is the local pastor. She loves the village and has great plans to settle down there and support her parents in their daily routines and get a chance to be the daughter of the family. However her plans are overthrown when soon after her return, her father tells her that he is planning to resign from his post in Church of England due to his lack of beliefs in the institution and the Hales must move to Milton, an industrial town in Darkshire, north England, where he will work as a private tutor. Margaret does not like this transition, and her initial impression of Milton is unfavorable. Her understanding of mill owners is spurious and she believes them to be tradesman, without culture and intellect, incapable of being gentlemen. Her first impressions are further strengthen, when her father’s first pupil John Thornton, owner of the  Marlborough Mills, speaks straightforwardly on how the mill owners have risen and how their work is real, versus the intellectual pursuits of a “gentleman”.  John Thornton, despite believing Margaret Hale to be haughty, soon falls in love with her and proposes, which she declines. However the ensuing 18 months, bring many changes in Margaret’s life forcing her to not only revise her first opinion of mill owners, but also start caring deeply for John Thornton. But there are tumultuous events in Margaret’s life including the well –being of her exiled brother, Fredrick, who was part of a naval mutiny and now residing in Spain as well the health of her mother which will force to make many life choices which would push John Thornton’s love for her at the very edge.

Before I get into a more detailed review of the book, let me end the curiosity and speculation and say – I LOVED the book! Simply loved it!

Now for the more detailed analysis – Strong characterization has always been Mrs. Gaskell’s strength and in North and South, she not only plays to it, but comes out triumphantly! Margaret Hale is a living, breathing girl, with opinions about matters she understands little, petty jealousies and pride. She is also very loyal, generous, and capable of doing her duty, no matter what the sacrifice. She learns from her mistakes and is humble in her acceptance; and when her very world is torn apart, she stands like a rock, despite her own heartbreak to provide strength to those who love her! In short, she is not just a heroine, but she is a human heroine. John Thornton is everything a 19th century gentleman would have been, especially around Manchester. A self made man, who will not stand for anything that comes in the path of his success, but is also kind and loyal, who will do good, even when he knows there will be no rewards for his goodness. The supporting characters are wonderful as well – Mrs. Thornton as the proud mother to John Thornton, who never bowed or lost her self respect even in the worst of times; Mr and Mrs. Hale, two good people, who were perhaps not the best couple, despite their love for each other. I loved the loyal and sometime draconian servant, Dixon and Mr. Bell, Margaret’s God Father.  Finally, my heart went out to Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Betsy, kind and good even when they have nothing, absolutely nothing to be kind with! While the novel has a similar backdrop as that of Mary Barton, this book looks more closely at the owner and employers of the mills and brings home the fact; they not all of them are black villain, a subject, and the author had already touched upon in Mary Barton. She acknowledges that while there was much that needed to be done for the workers, the mill owners were also facing challenges, especially from the booming cotton business from Southern United States. She tries to showcase the struggle and effort these mill owners themselves went through, to reach their current position and these were all self-made man, who worked their lives through to build what they have built. Like all Gaskell’s novels, religion is a strong pillar in the construct of the story, and while, it is used as a means of building fortitude and courage, it is also openly questioned for its absoluteness, several times. This streak of rebellion against the establishment runs through the plot and while very much crouched in the conventions of Victorian England, it is very much there and one cannot ignore it – Mr. Hale’s break with the church, Fredrick’s mutiny, albeit against tyranny, but nevertheless against authority, the strike of the workers, and of course Margaret’s rebellion against anyone trying to tell her about social proprieties, which she feels impinges on what is personal to her. There is a smidgen feeling of Pride and Prejudice in the romance between Margaret and John, but it is smidgen and their story stands independently on its own!

Overall it’s an absolutely marvelous read. Mrs. Gaskell remains as brilliant as ever!

Pioneering Relations…

I finished reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia two days ago and I wanted to wait and assimilate my thoughts before I began blogging about it. My Antonia fell very neatly into two my reading events for December – The Classic Club Spin #8 and heavenali’s Willa Cather Reading Week. When my friends from blogosphere got to know in my previous post that this was in my reading plan, there were lots of good words and encouragement about a book that seemed to be universally liked! Needless to say this added to my angst…I am not too fond of hail the frontier kind of books…I love history but somehow the frontier things, maybe because it has been made so hackneyed and clichéd by popular culture makes me wary. Adding on top of that was my experience that if a book is excessively liked, I will end up NOT liking it; case to the point, my readings of Madame Bovary and Rebecca.

However there was much support and such strong belief among the people I really respected, about this book that I could not give the it up and I ventured forth.

My Antonia” begins with a short introduction by the author about Jim Burden, now a successful lawyer and humane person, who as a boy grew up in Nebraska’s frontier town and country and whose close association with Antonia, made it fitting that it is his story of Antonia is shared with the public

The story then opens with a 10-year-old Jim Burden travelling to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents. On the same train, the conductor lets Jim and Jake, the ranch hand entrusted with getting Jim to Nebraska, that a family from Bohemia is also travelling to the same town of Black Hawk and no one in the family could speak any English, except for the little girl, who could hammer together a few words and was a few years older to Jim. The Shimerdas from Bohemia are Jim Burden’s closest neighbors, come to make their fortune in the new land through farming. On behest of Mr. Shimerda, Jim and his grandmother began to teach Antonia. Their days of childhood is surrounded by games and nature and sunshine and though the Shimerdas are struggling to gain their foothold in the new country, Antonia is the companionship of Jim blossoms into a vivacious, strong girl with sensitivity and delicacy. However the idyllic days come to a halt when Mr. Shimerda commits suicide, grieving over the loss of his place in society and the loneliness of the new country. Antonia then goes to work for her brother, doing hard farm labor, while the Burden’s move to the town of Black Hawk, retiring from their farm. Mr. and Mrs. Harling are their new neighbors and under the influence of Mrs Burden, Antonia starts working in the kitchen for Mrs. Harling. She is much-loved and treated as a family member until an inevitable break comes in this relationship. Antonia’s life then takes on various different paths until takes her almost to the very edge of the precipice, till life comes back to a full circle!

On the face of it, it is indeed a Pioneerish novel, but there is just so much more to it! The characters more than the plot moves this story forward and there is a whole ensemble of this cast, each more memorable than the other; each holding a place in the reader’s heart. Jim Burden is a wonderful, kind generous boy who grows up to be a down to earth generous man. Men like that with honor and care for others are more found in books than in life and more is the pity!!! Naturally the protagonist Antonia is a lovely, courageous girl full of life and though her life chances are often stunted by various events in her life, her duty and her principles raises her from the ordinary. But it’s not just Jim Burden and Antonia’s character that holds you spell-bound, but a host of others as they flit through the lives of these two – the kind and noble Otto Fuchs and Jake Marpole, the very distinguished and kind Josiah and Emmaline Burden and for all her faults Mrs.Harling. You love these characters and wish you had the honor of knowing them all. One of the underlying trait of all Willa Cather’s character is generosity – the ability to help not only when convenient, but even in your extreme distress, if others are in need, you lend a hand. May be it was part of the pioneer culture, may be it was the then sparsely populated difficult land that forced men to be generous towards each other, for if they did not look out for each other, who would have? The land and its culture comes out racing through the book…you can see, hear and even feel Nebraska. There are some lovely and lyrical description of the land and her seasons that takes your breath away!! But most of all I liked and loved the comradery between Jim Burden and Antonia. In today’s day of tagging all relationships and constantly placing a sexual relation in the mix, it’s refreshing to read of a bond of love and friendship and comradery between two people of opposite gender that went beyond the clichéd definitions of a relationship. The relation between Jim and Antonia was so much deeper and closely linked to the very land where they grew up and I am so very impressed that Ms. Cather in an age way before our times where even now friendships between men and women is looked at with skepticism, could not only fathom but also beautifully evolve a rich relationship of depth and platonic love. It is truly brilliantly done!!

Now I know all my friends were right.  As always, a big thank you to Ali, Stefanie, Jane and Cleo for encourging me to read this book!!! I am so glad to have listened to all of you once again and to have read this book!!

Love and Equality in Victorian England

I finished re-reading Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” today as part of my Classic Club November Victorian Literature event. I think besides Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, there is no other book in English literature that is so famous or the by-word of must read lists and whose plot has been copied innumerable times for prequels, sequels, pre-prequels and it central story line used for films, stage and even modernized versions of the original book. Therefore since novel is so well steeped in the public memory, it makes little sense to summarize its story or review the book considering practically almost all of us have done that at least once middle-school upwards. Thus I adopt the same means as I when I wanted to discuss Rebecca and Sign of Four and share with you some observations and thoughts –

I have always had mixed feelings about “Jane Eyre” – as a young girl in her pre- teens, I could not warm up to Jane Eyre, with her controlled behavior and her at times cold approach. I liked my leading ladies to have all the fire in the world and I could not suppose why Jane was always striving to be so what I considered uptight in her actions. This came from the heart that worshipped Elizabeth Bennet and was fundamentally a Marianne Dashwood. However re-reading the book, several times since then, I did realize that allowances had to be made for the age – woman had limited means and character once lost would irrevocably lead to ruin. I did understand that one had to only act correct but also seem correct and one’s passion must be regulated by one’s intellect for the long-term well-being of all concerned. Jane Eyre therefore had long seized to be a cold insipid creature, but rather a courageous and strong woman who did what was right, no matter what the sacrifice and no matter how painful. The idea of what is right versus what makes me happy, is refreshing especially in the modern world of “absolute individualism” and “doing what makes me happy as long as no one is hurt” – perhaps by becoming Mr. Rochester’s mistress, no one would be hurt, after all the wife is mad!! Besides what is right for me may not be right for you and would the modern re-telling of Jane Eyre, actually hold up the value of not living in while the spouse, albeit mad lives? Would the modern readers judge such an action – such “living in the moment” more logical and plausible than the original Victorian moral guide of what is now considered as “prude”. I am very curious, what would be the turning point of should Charlotte Bronte write Jane Eyre in 21st century or is such a story longer possible, since the very socio-political background has changed?

Moving on to Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester – I know why I never liked the “Jane Eyre”; it was because I NEVER liked the hero!! Not in my pre-teens and not now at the age of 32. I mean come on – I am all for anti-hero and all such, but Mr. Rochester is farce and a weakling! Never mind his redeeming stance about trying to save his mad wife from the fire or his utter complete love for Jane. He is pugnacious, cowardly and irresponsible from the word go. Oh! Yes! His father wanted him to marry a wealthy heiress but he did choose to marry Bertha Mason and there is no justification in saying he did not know her well enough when of marriage; really whose fault is that? The fact that he stayed married to her is no absolution for his original fool hardy actions. We have loads of heroes who choose to break away from parental tyranny to make a better life or seek fortunes through means wholly unconnected with matrimony. Cases to the point include Henry Tilney in “Northanger Abbey” and Captain Frederick Wentworth in “Persuasions” and many others. Then this whole business of marrying Jane when he was already married; I do not understand this kind of selfish love – the kind of love where you seek only one goal, your own goal and the justification of the means is that you love the person so completely that this was the only way out!! Had the marriage happened, Jane legally would have been no better than a mistress and he was willing to carry out this ceremony , despite knowing how much faith and belief Jane held to doing what is right and how much weight she gave to the appearance of what is expected of good conduct in the society. I do not understand this kind of selfish self-centered love, where you willingly sacrifice the very principles that are held dear by whom you proclaim you love; and I cannot understand how a sensible a heroine like Jane Eyre could go back to such a man.

The one last thing that I love about this book and I may have mentioned this in one my older blogs is that I believe that this is first book that takes a stand of feminism and equality.

It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are

Could there be a more revolutionary statement, especially considering the time it was written in? Here was this young orphaned girl with no money, no relations and no prospects; furthermore she is a mere governess in the house of rich and aristocratic landowner. Yet she demands to be treated as an equal because at the end of the day when all the material considerations are stripped away, we all stand as one and equal. This was a triumphant feminist war cry, that sought equality and that demanded that women no matter what their material situation is treated equal to a man. Jane Eyre the heroine knows that true love is made of respect and of being treated as equal, and this is not something that can be bought with money and in a position of a paid mistress!

The Ripping Reads….

I finally finished two of my RIP IX reads and considering both are masterpieces and everything that could be said has been said about them. Therefore I thought of doing a short combined post on both the books and instead of doing the usual reviews, I thought I will just share some observations that have now stuck me, after my re-readings!

The precedence as always goes to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, featuring the greatest of all fictional detectives, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his trusty aide, Dr. Watson. The book begins with Dr. Watson trying to convince Holmes to give up his use of cocaine and other such substances with Holmes replying that these are the only stimulants that keep his brain active, in the absence of work. This conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Miss Mary Morstan , a young genteel woman, who has been employed in the capacity of a governess and whose regular life has been disturbed by a note which asks her to meet a certain person that evening at six, along with two of her trusted friends, so that a great wrong that has been done to her can be righted. Miss Morstan also reveals that her father had been a Captain in the British India army and posted at Andaman Islands, from where he returned about ten years ago. He then wrote a letter to his daughter, who at time was in a boarding school, asking her to join him in London; that was the last she ever heard of him and he had since disappeared. Finally she states that for the last 6 years, she has received an expensive pearl anonymously. She then requests Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to accompany her in the evening to meet the man who wrote to her. Thus begins, the adventure of the Sign of Four, taking the reader from the fogs of London, to Cumberland, to Agra and the Andamans, in search of treasure, truth and in a very non Conan Doyle style, love. It’s a great mystery and the art of scientific deduction is wonderful to read – it makes one wistful and wish that if only one could think logically and deductively as a habit and at all the times. The narrative style is as always in a memoir of Dr. Watson and for once, some of the ending is given away, with allusions to what happened in future. However this does no harm to story in itself and it is a thrilling and nail biting narrative to read (especially the steam boat chase chapter) which has not lost even a tenth of its shine, since being published in 1890. Like I said, I can say nothing more about the novel than what has not already been said and shared; but this time two items stuck me as, well, a bit non-palatable. One was the portrayal of Mary Morstan, sweet, gentle, supportive, fragile, disdaining treasure for the sake of love – I mean Ye!! Gods!! Help me from such virtuous role models; for that’s exactly what she is – a model of ideal womanhood from Conan’s point of view. I know allowances need to be made for that particular time and the social-political rules that governed the society; but Victorian era produced a number of strong women who would disdain any namby pamby portrayal of their characters – these were women of blood, sweat, substance and strength, and while possessing a lot of compassion, they also were practical and sensible. I mean, England was ruled by such a woman at that time, not to mention, other wonderful women like Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Fry. This concept of the ‘household angel’ was enough to throw me off the book, and I cannot believe that I had been so oblivious to this angle during my earlier reads! Sir Conan Doyle wrote of a much better woman, at least vis-à-vis character in Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia“– who is intelligent, loyal and practical to a T! Hard to believe the same man wrote about Mary Morstan. The other item that hit me was the portrayal of non-whites – whether it is Mohmet Khan planning a cold-blooded murder or Tonga the indigenous tribal from Andaman, the natives can kill with no conscience, the only redeeming characteristic being their loyalty! Thank Heavens for that!! I mean as it is the brown man/woman are “savages” but imagine the greatness and generosity of Englishmen, in inspiring loyalty among this unworthy people!! Kipling was a unaplogetic and unashamed imperialist, but to think Sir Conan Doyle also sang a similar tune, is kind of unsettling; as I mentioned before allowance have to be made for the age and I do, but with Kiplings, and Doyles and Haggards, at times, it becomes difficult not to be prejudiced! Everything apart though, it is a great book and Sir Doyle does what does the best, proving time and again he is the master of “detective fiction”.

The second book that I read for RIP IX is “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier. I had originally read this novel when I was 15, through the night, when I was racked with fever and could not sleep. I had deep impressions from that read – all very gothic and creepy. The story is too well-known from me to write in detail – Maxim De Winters, the owner of the Manderley, an estate on the Cornish Cost, brings home a young wife after the accidental death of his first wife Rebecca, in a boating accident, a year ago. The second Mrs De Winter, is a young, shy woman who has great hopes of her future, that come to standstill, as she grapples with the presence of Rebecca in Manderley, whose presence is overwhelming and who continues to run the house from her grave! It could be that fever had induced my brain to be more sensitive, because, when I had read this book the first time I had felt the terrifying presence of Rebecca, I was afraid of Mrs. Danvers and I felt all the apprehensions and illogical fears of the second Mrs. De Winters. I should have waited for another bout of fever, before re-reading this book! I know people rant and rave about this book and I may be offending half a million readers if not more, but only a teenager, with really low self-esteem can like this book! My whole problem with the book is the second Mrs. De Winters – I can understand being shy and I can empathize with the feeling of being left out and not belonging, but Mrs. De Winters made me want to throw up and throw the book at her. She does not even try; for heavens’s sake, she is not even willing to try. She goes around the house like a mouse, when she has no reason to, and is perpetually afraid of Mrs. Danver who is just a big ol’ bully who should be set in her place. She does not even try to manage the house or stake her claim as the mistress – had she tried and then failed, that would have added a complex layer to the narrative, besides adding on to her oh-i-am-so-scared characterization. She is embarrassed in the presence of Mrs. Van Hopper, she is embarrassed with Maxim and she is embarrassed when Mrs. Danver finds her in East Wing! Mrs. Van Hopper is embarrassing and it could be that the second Mrs. De Winters’s initial life may have been a trial, but as Jane Austen had showed us, that one can still act sensible in presence of distressing environs; case to point, Elizabeth Bingley with Mrs. Bingley as a painful dimwitted loud mother or Jane Fairfax with her poor, silly aunt. But of course, no understanding of self-worth, enters the poor little Mrs. De Winters’s head until her lord and master, declares his undying love her and confesses that he never loved Rebecca – I mean what value do we women have unless, it is to be made worthy by the acceptance of the man. Also let’s not forget, that the Lord and the Master is a great man of courage and forbearance, who can murder to save his family name from infamy but cannot divorce for the fear of scandal. Such wonderful choice makes this declaration of love, even more touching; after all who can resist the love of a cowardly soul, who cannot face the truth; no matter how far he would have to go hide it. Only by such love, can one make herself a complete woman!!! By such standards, I should really consider myself an absolute failure and consider becoming a nun!!!! The redeeming feature of the novel, really are the last 100 pages as the body of Rebecca is discovered, and the mystery unfolds to an unexpected and unbelievable climax. This is where Ms. Du Maurier revealed her exceptional brilliance and expertise of her craft and as a reader; you are left breathless and shocked by the sudden twist of the tale!! It is this end, which makes the book in my view a classic and preserves it from the morbid and irritating presence of Mrs De Winter, the second! I never realized how disgusted I was with this novel, until I wrote this piece! Writing I guess is therapeutic!

I know this is one of my longest posts, but I cannot end, without once again urging all of your help in the Indiegogo Crowdfunding project which I am managing. We are not doing that well and your help would really make a difference. Again, there are a couple of ways to support this cause –

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Once Upon a time in Puritan New England

As part of the Classic Club Spin # 6, I was to read Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlett Letter! To the say the least I was not pleased; I am completely fed up with this 20th century obsession with the heroine whose infidelity leads to tumultuous ending. Case to the point are Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; I was done with the heroine trying to seek fulfilment outside an unhappy marriage leading to disastrous results with the only viable option left for our protagonist being death!! This might be fully in keeping with the morality of the age and the writing may be lyrical, majestic etc etc; but the stories left me cold (though I do love Anna Karenina more than any such genre novel; it’s because of its awe-inspiring descriptions of Russia and her society and of course the love story of Levi and Kitty; I must stop this is not after all a review of Anna Karenina!) Therefore with the strongest dislike I began to read this book; thinking of it more a chore than a pleasure! And Surprise! Surprise!

The book from the very beginning grabbed my attention. It begins with the description of the jailhouse from which an adulteress came out to be paraded onto the street and then to be displayed in all her shame with her “misbegotten” child in the town square before all the public; the letter A was emblazoned on her dress, which she would have to wear for the rest of her life in this new Puritan colony of New England. Here it self was a big difference, the story began where the other books had left off and in itself, it made a huge statement about the courage and valor of the heroine – a heroine who was capable enough to commit adultery in the conservative society of 17th century, was brave enough to live through it. The story of Hester Prynne was different because it traced her life and forced her to live after committing adultery. The Scarlett Letter follows her struggle as she is boycotted from the 17th century society and tries to bring up her daughter alone in such circumstances, defying the patriarchs of the colony who pressurize her to name her partner in the adultery. She lives outside the colony settlement and tries to earn her livelihood by doing embroidery and other such work. Her life is harsh and she is ostracized by the society even to the point of the poor who abuse her when she gives them alms  and  the Elders of the society debate whether she is morally fit enough to be a mother and try to take away her daughter from her, until pastor Arthur Dimmesdale, whose parishioner she used to be, intercedes on her behalf and ensures that Pearl, i.e. her daughter stays with her mother. Parallel to Hester Pynne’s tale is the story of this very Arthur Dimmesdale, a promising priest and scholar, who had graduated with a degree from Oxford and had then taken a ship to the Colonies to do his bit in this new community. Since the 7 years, when Hester Prynne was ordered to wear the scarlet letter A, Arthur Dimmesdale had become more and more ill. A new entrant to the New England colony, Roger Chillingworth who was supposed to be a famed doctor takes charge of Arthur Dimmesdale’s health and tries to improve it, but the latter continues to waste away! It is at this point that Hester Prynne intercedes to show the true nature of Roger Chiingworth’s character to Arthur Dimmesdale, leading to the culminating tragedy and revelation before all of New England’s society about the true nature of the scarlett letter. The novel closes with a brief epilogue on the last years of Hester Prynne with a comforting speculation about the well-being and happiness of her daughter Pearl, now a grown woman and ends with the death of the heroine due to old age!

I loved the fact that our adulteress protagonist lived and lived to a ripe old age, where her former sins were forgotten and she was the wise old woman of the society to whom everybody turned to for solace, advice and comfort. This in itself was such a huge shift in paradigm from Hawthorn’s contemporary or successors; it ties in directly with the concept of “Timshel- thou mayest overcome” as written by John Steinbeck 100 years after the publication of The Scarlett Letter. But then the character of Hester Prynne differs from all other competition literary adulteress’s in the fact that Hester never saw her act as a sin – she saw it as an act of love for which she was blessed with Pearl. Here lies the fundamental difference from the other heroines – she did not feel any guilt or vengeance. She did not regret the momentary act of passion, because for her it was borne out of love and it gave her the joy of becoming a mother. While she did regret the scorn and the isolation of her place of and in the society, never did she regret her child. She is a strong, proud woman who takes on the realities of life as it comes and yet retains gentleness, kindness and courage to act once again in complete contradiction of the society laws and norms, if it will be for the good of the people whom she loves. In Hester Prynne, Hawthorn created a character that would endure and win the admiration of her readers because of this endurance!! Arthur Dimmesdale character on the other hand is in paradox to Hester Prynne’s open courage; fearful of the society and yet lacking the moral courage to break free from the rules which he and others like himself impose, he decays from the inside. While Hester draws her strength from her harsh realities filled with adversity, Arthur Dimmesdale degenerates, both in soul and in person, because he is unable to face the reality and is constantly torn by what is perceived and what he knows himself to be! In drawing out the characters and their psychology, Nathaniel Hawthorne not only creates a masterpiece but also probably writes the first psychological novel in the history of literature. The story, so oft-repeated is taken to a wholly new level as the minds and behaviors and not so much action, takes the tale forward. The beautiful description of New England is breath-taking and even more so when the author so cleverly crafts the scenic details of the landscape to match the thinking/mentality of his protagonists. The book is set in 17th century Puritan England was written nearly two hundred years in the future in 1840s is well researched and describes the land, the people, the architecture, and clothes and costumes of that era is correct details. Puritan New England comes out vibrating to life in the pages of The Scarlett Letter.

This is not an easy book to read; you cannot read it overnight though it’s barely 200 pages. It is a book to be read in piece meal so that you can sit back and cast your mind over all that may have truly transpired so many centuries ago!!

All about Leaning Towards and In

I held of writing this review for practically 2 days because I did not want an outpouring of knee jerk reactions, especially since the subject of the book hit really close home. I am talking of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in – Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I know this book is the latest “in” book and I had for some time avoided reading it, primarily because, I do not like Management and Leadership yada yada yada books and secondly, I was convinced that Ms. Sandberg’s work could not possibly compare to feminist writings of Gloria Steinem, Emma Goldberg or even a Virginia Woolf. I did not believe that what these women had already written could be overridden and what could Ms. Sandburg possibly write that was original? However at a recent corporate event, I was given this book as a corporate gift, in fact it was given to all women participants and on the way back from work, out of curiosity, I began to read the book.

My assumptions were not wrong; this book is hardly literary or even scholarly. It is a Cosmopolitan to the Room Magazine. Like Cosmopolitan, every one’s heard of Lean In and like the Room Magazine, very few people have actually read The Second Sex, or Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion. Those who have read any of the academic feminist authors will agree that Ms. Sandburg’s work lacks depth; it’s very narrow in scope and enumerates the challenges faced by a very narrow specific group – primarily white, educated (Ivy League educated) of upper class background. True feminist challenges are far more complex – women around the world have to struggle and overcome challenges with security, survival, socio-economic opportunities, just to reach the plateau from which Ms. Sandburg begins her hypothesis. She talks of supportive partners and bosses who will be open to communication – but for these to happen, there are certain “givens” which she assumes; partners who are not chauvinists and are not violent; bosses who do not indulge in sexual harassment or other discriminatory behavior. Her road ahead for equality and leadership is based on all things being equal and in equilibrium.

Having said all of this, I must acknowledge a deep respect for the home truths that she brings out if we reach that plateau or if things are in equilibrium. There is no getting away from the fact that women today in a corporate environment continue to be discriminated against and the “glass ceiling” very much exists. The leadership gap, which she succinctly points out, exists and I am in completely in agreement with her that unless women take up more and more leadership roles, the road to corporate equality will not be built and we will fight the same battles our mothers and grandmothers fought. Her understanding of corporate dynamics is par excellent – she writes that men are promoted basis potential while women are promoted basis past accomplishments; she dryly states that men are allowed to focus on their achievements but women are expected to be loyal to their organizations and leaders. She speaks of how professional ambition is expected out of a man, but is considered a non-complimentary trait among women. The women who has career aspirations is considered “too aggressive” , a “bit political” or “difficult or worse, much worse “a feminist” (Shudder! Shudder! Horror! Horror!!). I was absolutely bowled over when she wrote about work –live balance, an oft-repeated jargon of the corporate world. She is the first senior leader, regardless of gender, who points out the inherent dichotomy of the term – “Framing issues as work-life balance – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” She makes an extremely valid point about women “keeping their hand up” because inherently it’s men and not women who put themselves forward, and in the absence of raising the hand, even managers with the best of intentions miss out. She bares the fact out that women are emotional and cites the example of Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, who believes that women cannot help but care when attacked and they should react accordingly and feel anger, sadness associated with such criticism and then move on. She lambasted the popular myths of Mentoring and Having it all – she categorically states that the new culture of seeking mentor may not be the best way to go – usually, mentoring refers to a senior person seeking and talented junior employee out and guiding them along the path. It’s not having an hour-long in-depth conversation. She also brilliantly calls out that no woman can do it all – it’s just important to get it done. I am absolutely floored by the fact, that she notices that single woman as well women married with children need a home life. It is important for the single woman to have a personal life as much as a married woman, may be in the end so that she herself can meet someone and get married and become the married woman with children herself. In the end, there are two very important things that she states, one , men also need to lean in as the women and become equal partners at home and at work and secondly women themselves need to band together to promote their cause and celebrate their success!

I work for one the biggest Fortune 500 conglomerates and I can truly say that my organization is an equal opportunity employer and truly promotes and respects women. There are stringent laws on sexual harassment with an HR team which has a hawk eye focus and an independent authority to make sure there are no powerful influences distorting truth. I have colleagues and bosses, who openly declare that women make better employees. Yet despite all this, I know it’s not a level playing field and unconsciously there are actions which bring the glass ceiling up all around us. The very fact that “Lean In” was given to only female managers is a case to the point. When Zig Zigler writes a leadership book, everyone gets it, but” Lean In” is for women?????This is a management book for both men and women, but because the tag line has women in it, it is instantly branded as a women leadership self – help book. I have seen men who have been guilty of some really bad indiscretions, being promoted, while the women with great results, flawless execution are told to improve their “peer management” skills. A colleague of mine is aggressive and a go getter – guess what happens? Promotion. I have another colleague who is aggressive and a go getter and this one is told to be more “sensitive” and less “aggressive” – I leave you to guess the gender of both. Time and again, I have been told that I am a “emotional” creature and this is a disruptive quality in my career progression – well I am a woman and I am wired to be emotional and I am going to be emotional when someone critiques my work because it’s my hard work, my sweat, my sacrifice of my Ph.D, which keeps getting prolonged because I spend 16 hrs plus at work, so yes, I am going to be emotional about it!!

So where does it all end? I don’t know – I am too small a fry to real solve the big problems, but a nano step can be a move in direction, when men read a “Lean In”

 

A Universal New Zealander…..

I just finished reading Katherine Mansfield’s The Collected Stories and I am sitting in awe….there is no other word except awe! Actually I take that back, I am in awe and at the same time kicking myself for being stupid – why the hell did it take me soooooooooo long to get around reading her work????? I remember trying to read her works, way back as a teenager, and then I do not know what happened!! Where the hell did I pick up the idea that she was of the Kate Chopin (The Awakening makes me want to never ever awake!!) Or my bigger reading albatross Virginia Wool (Shudder! Shudder!! One day I will bravely tread those choppy waters, but not now!) While it is true that Katherine Mansfield did interact with Virginia Woolf and was for a time a believer of Fauvism, her writings are her own – original, poignant and completely realistic.

The Complete Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield is an all-embracing assemblage of her short stories, including – Bliss and Other Stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories, The Dove’s Nest, Something Childish and Other stories and In a German Pension. This collection also contains her unfinished stories. How do I describe out nearly 100 short stories, which are my favorite? I just love them all – I love Bliss for its heart wrenching end, the broken pieces of illusion; I love The Garden Party for it generosity and sensitivity and I felt such sadness for the The Daughters of the Late Colonel, for their servitude, for their devotion and lack of independence. I love all the stories of the German Pension and though Katherine Mansfield called those stories “immature’, I loved the irony and the subtle mockery of mankind and its pretensions. Stories like Je ne parle pas français and The Dolls House made me cry, especially the latter for its brutal portrayal of weakness of men and women and the pain they inflict on innocents because of their own failures! I absolutely admire the way she speaks of children and their loneliness or attachments or fears, whether it’s the Prelude, or How Pearl Button was Kidnapped or The Little Girl! I cannot decide, I like all her works!

How do I define her work? I can only use adjectives …ok maybe some verbs! Her language is sheer poetry, whether describing a new house or the sea. It evokes such wonderful imagery in the reader’s mind and some of my favorite passages are of her nature descriptions, especially of New Zealand. Her stories are however anything but colloquial or restricted in New Zealand; though they are based in as far flung locales as New Zealand, France, England and Germany, her stories are universal. Her portrayal of marriage, both good and bad kind is real and hard-hitting. Despite being a “bluestocking” , she gives a very rational portrait of men and women, though being a woman, she does bring out the various nuances of a woman’s character far more adeptly than her presentation of her men. Her women are all kinds – brilliant, loving, sparkling, lonely, independent, deprived, unkind, courageous and humorous. They are extremely humane. Long back I had read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex where she said that only three female authors have explored ‘the given’ – the disproportionate struggle for women to seek what is given for men – education, economic power, political platform; the three woman who have managed to question this were Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. I now understand what Simone Beauvoir meant; Mansfield through her stories constantly challenged and questioned the unequal struggle that women had to go through for those basic things in life, which men so easily took for granted – independence, economy and security. But to call all Mansfield writing as feminist is a narrow and unidimesional categorization that is absolutely inaccurate; while she wrote a lot about women, she also wrote about things like love, relationships and some marvelously succinct and astute insight into the lives of children. It’s a tragedy that she died so young, for even her unfinished short stories had such promise of richness.

In the end, all I can say is that one cannot truly describe Mansfield and do justice to it. One has to read her work, sit back and savor it and only then does her brilliance completely sink in!

A humongous Thank You to Dr. Joan Bouza Koster, for reintroducing me to Ms Mansfield in the best way possible!!