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Category Archives: 19th Century

Jolly

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Posted by on December 10, 2017 in 19th Century, fiction

 

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The Magnificent Ambersons

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Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons witty observations on the Gilded Age. The first passages grabbed me.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.

The story’s hero is George Amberson Minafer, the most egotistical fool I’ve ever read about. When George is a boy in the small Middle American town his grandfather developed from what seems to have been prairie, he fights with every boy who looks at him the wrong way. He’ll pound the pastor’s son to a pulp and curse at the pastor when he pulls the boys apart. George defines entitlement. From his childhood, he was well aware that as his family is the “First Family” of Midland, that everyone else was riffraff and should kowtow to him.

As a boy terrorized the town with his carelessness and the good citizens could do nothing but raise their fists in anger and shout that one day that so and so would get his comeuppance.

What made George such a public nuisance? His mother. Isabela Amberson Minafer doted on George as no woman ever doted on her child. This was her Achilles’ heel, which like in any Greek tragedy is guaranteed to lead to a character’s downfall. Isabela prized dignity. As a young woman, the most wealthy woman in town, she was humiliated when Eugene Morgan came to serenade her and since he’d been drinking fell flat on his face, a spectacle that Isabela assumed the whole world witnessed. That was enough for her to banish Eugene from her heart and to marry a safe, drab accountant, Wilbur Minafer. As the gossip in town predicted, Isabela would lavish her affection on her child, George as Wilbur wasn’t the sort of man to stir up much passion in a wife.

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Posted by on November 26, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, book review, fiction

 

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Digging a Hole to Heaven

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S. D. Nelson’s children’s book Digging a Hole to Heaven: Coal Miner Boys will teach readers about the hardships of the children who had to work deep in the mines during the 19th century. The illustrations are well done and show a sharp contrast between the dark mines and the sunny lives lived above ground. Throughout the story of 12 year old Conall, his brother and miners, Nelson has inserted sidebars with facts about child labor, and mining in particular.

I enjoyed the book, but wish the characters had more depth and personality. Each one was standard cookie cutter. Yet I still recommend the book as an introduction to this aspect of history, that’s usually forgotten.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2017 in 19th Century, book review, Children's Lit, historical fiction, history

 

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The Kill

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Émile Zola continues his stories of the Rougon-Marquart clan with The Kill (La Curée), which tells the story of Aristide Rougon, who is introduced to readers in The Fortune of the Rougon-Marquart’s as a slothful (accent on full) son of the matriarch of this clan. Aristide changes his name to Saccard when the gets to Paris. He hits his well connected brother to get a cushy government job with loads of status. He’s disappointed at first with apparently low level job till he realizes that he will get all sorts of information on city plans that enable him to make real estate deals, quite questionably ethically ones, that will get him a fortune. Saccard is slimy for sure, but the house of cards he sets up is compelling. As a reader, I was just wondering when this all would fall.

Along with Saccard, his second wife Renée is equally questionable ethically. She’s materialistic, superficial, self absorbed and incapable of loyalty. The marriage was arranged to get Renée out of trouble. Her early life was pitiful, but by the time of the story she’s in control and for much of the story rather powerful and independent. Her undoing is her relationship with Saccard’s son.

The writing is beautiful and this portrait of a corrupt society feels real and moves quickly. It was fascinating to learn about the corrupt real estate market of 19th century France Wall Street didn’t invent financial malfeasance..

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2017 in 19th Century, fiction, French Lit

 

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Eugenie Grandet

By Honoré Balzac, Eugenie Grandet had a plot that surprised me. A friend suggested reading and discussing this novel online and I’m glad he did. For most of the book I wondered why it was entitled Eugenie Grandet because for 85-90% of the book is dominated by her father’s character.

Set in the provinces, early on readers meet Monsieur Grandet a miser who counts every egg and sugar cube in his pantry. He’s a shrewd businessman who constantly cries poor. His neighbours distrust and dislike him and pit his wife, daughter Eugenie and servant Nanon, who live like peasants in a cold, dark house eating meagre rations and going along without complaint as justified as it would be.

Since Eugenie is of marriageable age, and clearly would inherit father’s fortune, two families compete so their son will win her hand — and possibly heart. The marriage race is neck and neck and Papa Grandet enjoys the futile race, which he knows no one can win since he has no plans to agree with either proposal.

When a rich Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, Eugenie falls in love and her father wonders how the Parisian social status can help him. When papa gets a letter from his Parisian brother admitting that he’s lost all his money and since he’s bankrupt will commit suicide, the Grandet’s household is turned upside down. Eugenie, whose grown up more or less in seclusion sympathises and falls for her cousin (marrying cousins was okay back then). Though he’s got a high class love back in Paris, he’s struck by Eugenie’s pure love. Still Charles must go to the New World to earn some money and restore his father’s reputation.

Balzac gives us a witty insider’s view of each character taking us down an original story path. Monsieur Grandet dominates the story and his daughter’s life even after he’s dead.

Though Papa Grandet is a one dimensional character, the story is witty and absorbing, well worth reading.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2016 in 19th Century, book review, fiction, French Lit

 

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Sister Carrie

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A friend suggested I read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as I’m working on a historical fiction project. I finally found the time and I really enjoyed it, though it’s not because it’s filled with characters I was drawn to — at all. I wanted to find out what would happen and I found Dreiser’s style pleasant if not outstanding.

The title character, Carrie comes to Chicago from a small town hoping to find her fortune. She moves in with the sister and brother-in-law, who live in a tenement and grind their way through each day. They encourage Carrie to get a job and she pounds the pavement and finds a job in a factory. She hates the course language and rough behaviour of her coworkers. The work itself is dull. She soon loses her job and begins her rise. What’s unusual about Carrie is she does so little and is swept up by luck higher and higher up the social and financial with extremely little effort. She’s not witty or smart or hard working. She’s lucky. She met Drouet, a snappy salesman on the train to Chicago and is impressed with his suave style. She meets him again and he persuades her to move in with him. She’s just lost her job and her brother-in-law’s getting on her nerves so what the heck, she leaves her sister’s home.

She lives with Drouet and is rather isolated. She’s a kept woman and when she does make friends pretends to be married. She has no consequences to leading this wild life (for 1900). She never gets pregnant, never is judged or pinned with a scarlet A.

While with Drouet, she meets his even more prosperous and suave friend Hardwood, a manager of a high-ish class bar. Hardwood falls for her and winds ups leaving his wife and stealing $10,000 from his employer and running away with Carrie.

Carrie doesn’t even make any big decisions. She is tricked into going with Hardwood and lacks the chutzpah or direction to leave him. They move to New York and Hardwood tries to live off what remains of his post-divorce money. He slowly slides down to the gutter as Carrie ascends by dabbling in musical comedy.

I normally like books with characters I either identify with or admire. No one in <em>Sister Carrie </em>is anyone I’d want to spend time with, but they’re sympathetic enough and I didn’t know where the story would go.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2015 in 19th Century, American Lit, fiction

 

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