This week’s top ten Tuesday theme: Top Ten Things On My Reading Wishlist (if you could make authors write about these things you would. Could be a specific type of character, an issue tackled, a time period, a certain plot, etc.) Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

  1. YA historical fiction without paranormal themes. Two of my recent favorite books are Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys and The Caged Graves by Dianne Salierni. Bonus points if the historical fiction is set in the Victorian era. Double bonus points if it centers around a mystery.
  2. Victorian era without steampunk/fantastical elements. Seriously, the industrial revolution was fascinating. It doesn’t need googles and dirigibles to dress it up (as much fun as they are). I am completely consumed with fascination for the Victorians.
  3. YA mysteries – again without paranormal themes. It seems like everything being published in YA revolves around shifters, ghosts, vampires, aliens, or other creatures of nightmare and mythology. This is fun and all, but a good mystery satisfies. Bonus points if it is a historical mystery.
  4. Books about gypsies. I don’t know why.
  5. Books set in brooding gothic castles. Preferably brooding gothic castles in places like Romania or Hungary (see below).
  6. Books set in Budapest & Prague. Really, anywhere in Eastern Europe. Combining this with historical fiction about Bohemia for the win.
  7. Books written by Brandon Sanderson, who, sadly, is a mere mortal and is incapable of publishing books on the schedule that I would prefer.
  8. A companion to Lord of the Rings, told from the perspective of Eowyn. I want to know more about Rohan, and seeing Middle Earth from the perspective of the only significant woman (who is not an elf) would be awesome. Sadly, this will never happen, J.R.R. Tolkien being disinterested in writing about women as substantial characters, and also, of course, being dead.
  9. Books set before, during or just after World War I. It’s the 100 year anniversary of the start of WWI, after all.
  10. Books that don’t involve love triangles. I am over them. OVER THEM.

Tien from Tien’s Blurb weighed in on my prior post about Les Miserables to mention that she hadn’t liked Cosette much in the book, which surprised her. Her comment – rather perceptively – referred to how much Cosette was “cossetted” and, honestly, I hadn’t made the connection between her name and the word cosset, although I have to surmise that this wasn’t a coincidence on the part of Hugo. Cosset is a verb that means “to pamper or treat as a pet,” the origin of which may be the “mid 16th century (as a noun denoting a lamb brought up by hand, later a spoiled child): probably from Anglo-Norman French coscet ‘cottager’, from Old English cotsǣta ‘cottar’.” (See: Oxford Dictionaries online).

This made me start thinking about the various depictions of Victorian womanhood in novels. This pampered girl is a common archetype of the period, and not just in Les Miserables, where it is exemplified by Cosette:

Les Misérables

“To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of the presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. “

And then we have the English version, Dora Spenlow from David Copperfield


“All was over in a moment. I had fulfilled my destiny. I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction! She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don’t know what she was – anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.”

And, pampered girl a la Russe, Kitty Shcherbatskaya from Anna Karenina:

“But Levin was in love, and so it seemed to him that Kitty was so perfect in every respect that she was a creature far above everything earthly; and that he was a creature so low and so earthly that it could not even be conceived that other people and she herself could regard him as worthy of her.”

There are similarities between all three of these characters. They are all three extraordinarily pretty, but somewhat dimwitted, young women who exist and who are spoken about primarily as foils to the male hero. David Copperfield and Anna Karenina both, to some degree, have characters that function as stand-ins for the male author (David Copperfield is frankly biographical, and Konstantin Levin, in Anna Karenina is often considered to be a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Tolstoy’s own beliefs, struggles and life events).

Dora Spenlow is, in my opinion, one of the absolutely most boring characters ever created in literature. She is incapable of so much as holding a broom and sweeping the kitchen, and her defining traits are that she marries the hero and plays with her dog. Cosette isn’t much better – she is pampered by Jean Valjean to the point that she lacks even the tiniest bit of independence, and she essentially goes from his home to the home of Marius without the slightest hiccup, never engaging in even the mildest rebellion. Even as she is being separated from the man that she loves, she doesn’t speak an unkind word. Neither of these characters exhibit any emotional growth during the course of their novels (Dora is so miserably static that Dickens kills her off to open the door to David Copperfield having a relationship with the multi-dimensional Agnes).

As I have mentioned before, I am also listening to one of the Great Courses on the Victorian era. I doubt seriously that this character would have or could have existed in real form. Girls – even upper-class teen girls – are not so lacking in dimension that, even during the Victorian era, they would have been successfully pampered into lapdogs. So this abomination of a living, breathing, woman may have been the ideal, but what a tragic freaking commentary that is on the society that admired these characters – that an ideal young woman was young, pretty, brainless, and useless.

The reality was likely – hopefully – far more interesting than the fictional.

I am not slamming Dickens, Tolstoy and Hugo. All three of these authors created other female characters that were multi-dimensional and interesting – sometimes even in the same book. Anna Karenina, herself, is a whiny pain in the hind-end, but she is a great character. Flawed (oh, so flawed), interesting, petulant, but with depth and the ability to make absolutely terrible choices for herself. I’ve already mentioned Agnes from David Copperfield – David’s second and so much better choice – but we also have David’s Aunt Betsy, who is an amazing character, full of life, acerbic and hard-working. Fantine, in Les Miserables, is melodramatic and idealized, but still had individual agency, and Eponine, tragically, does rebel against her family and society by taking to the barricades and she dies because of it (is it a coincidence that Hugo’s female characters who step outside of this idealized role all end up tragically dying? Probably not).

This archetypal character – Dora/Cosette/Kitty – provides insight into a society that frankly oppressed women, by taking the ultimate expression of what that oppression wrought (a woman utterly bereft of usefulness, a decorative non-person, with about as much substance as a blow-up doll) and idealizing it, and that is enlightening.

Les MiserablesSee my first post here.

It took me 15 months to finish Les Mis. I started it in September, 2012, read about 800 pages before setting it aside and coming back to it last week.

Where to begin to unpack this amazing, sweeping, epic, colorful, occasionally frustrating and digressing, often absorbing novel?

I want to start with one of the primary themes that I see running through Hugo’s narrative: justice. I see Hugo’s absolute commitment to justice as being central to the novel. Some people might say that this is a novel about redemption – but I disagree. No one who was “redeemed” required redemption – rather what appears to be redemption is, in my view, actually Hugo providing a form of justice to his character.

Let me begin with Jean Valjean, who is the central figure of the narrative. There are several turning points in his life, and Hugo leaves justice for Valjean until the last, lingering pages of this 1200 page tome. Because most of Valjean’s life is characterized by injustice, not justice. French society, Hugo says pointedly, was terribly unjust toward Valjean. His initial crime was one of such insignificance, of such a lack of importance, that the effects of it on his life represent the very heart of injustice and inequity. He – literally – stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, and while, yes, this does constitute a crime under French (and most other nations as well) law, the value of the item stolen is negligible, the impact on the victim nearly non-existent, and the amount of malice and criminality demonstrated by Valjean through the theft sparse, indeed. This was a crime that was perpetuated by a society of such injustice that children die for the want of a slice of bread, and men are villainized for the remainder of their lives – no matter what they do later – because of it.

Jean Valjean did not require redemption from French society. He “redeemed” himself, to the extent necessary, when he took the town in which he was mayor and he made society there more just, more functional, and more equitable. He did not require redemption for his soul – he received that from Bishop Myriel near the beginning of the book. What Valjean needed, and what he finally received, was a just acknowledgment that he was greater than his worst moment, and that there was more to him than the theft of a loaf of bread. This is what he gets, belatedly, at the end, from Marius and Fantine.

Now, I want to move to Fantine. Fantine is another character that is the victim of both terrible poverty, but also, of a terribly unjust world. Her conduct is no worse than that of the man who impregnated her, but he is undamaged. She is plunged into a world of want so terrible that Hugo’s descriptions of it are heartbreaking. There is no justice for Fantine in life, but Hugo ensures justice for her in death through her daughter, Cosette. Hugo has a bit of a habit of passing the wages of justice onto the next generation. Fantine is good, her daughter is rewarded.

Thenardier, on the other hand, passes the wages of his sins onto his children, to their ultimate demise. Gavroche and Eponine are both killed on the barricades, fighting for a more just society. Their father has no principles, so this is a bit of an ironic twist of fate. In spite of his utter moral bankruptcy, he accidentally raises children much better than he is, whose moral compass is not so irretrievably broken.

Hugo is melodramatic, and this book is huge. There is so much contained in it that it is impossible to pack it all into one reading, much less one post. I don’t know if I’ll come back to it or not after more time has passed, but I am not sorry that I read it. I shouldn’t have quit when I did, and I regret waiting as long as I did to complete it.

2/2014 and the first book of the Bronte Project.

agnes grey Agnes Grey was published in 1847. This was an exceptionally good year for the Brontes – 1847 saw the publication of Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which combined to form a trifecta of Bronte awesomeness, and includes the two most well-known books by the Brontes.

Anne Bronte was the youngest Bronte, and remains the least well-known of the three sisters. She died extraordinarily young, at 29 years of age. Her only other published work is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was out of publication for many years at the behest (as I understand it) of the eldest and most prolific sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was published under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Agnes Grey is a bildungsroman, or a coming of age story, in this case, of the titular character, Agnes. The book begins with Agnes and her sister living at home with her parson father and their mother. Father unwisely invests money with a merchant who ends up dying, and the family loses all their savings. Agnes, in a bid for independence, decides to go to work as a governess. She ultimately obtains a position as a governess for a wealthy family, and leaves the family homes and goes out in the world.

I really liked this book. I was not a fan of Wuthering Heights when I read it many years ago (I am rereading it this year), although I did love Jane Eyre. Agnes Grey is, in my mind, less sophisticated than Jane Eyre, but has many of the same themes. Anne Bronte used the book as a vehicle to explore oppression of women, animal cruelty, love, marriage and religion.

I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on the Victorian era as well as reading books that were written in and during the Victorian era. There are two lectures, so far, that dealt directly with women – one about upper class women and one about working class women. The circumstances for working class girls/women were fairly dire, actually, and Agnes Grey does a good job of illustrating that direness. Agnes finds herself working for a family that is clearly inferior to her in most domains – she has more common sense, more integrity, she is better educated, she has a greater work ethic, she is more useful. The only area that they exceed her is in that of wealth. They are rich, she is poor.

Each of the families, nonetheless, considers themselves and is considered by society, to be her superior. The Bloomfield family – the first family where she is a governess – has raised their eldest son to be an overtly cruel human being. He is abusive – both verbally and at times physically – to Agnes, and he casually tortures small animals. His education is a total loss because no one exerts even the slightest degree of control over him to force him to learn, and being the eldest son of a wealthy family, there is no incentive for him to be anything other than what he desires to be. Agnes is dismissed when she fails to educate him.

The second family, the Murray family, is less casually abusive but concomitantly more frivolous. Agnes is governess to their two youngest daughters. The eldest, Rosalie, is a pretty ornament who thinks only of flirtations and marriage. Matilda, the youngest, is a foul-mouthed tomboy who is also a liar (I confess a bit of partiality to poor Matilda. She’s so screwed in that era). The appearance is the reality for this family, and nothing matters but what is on the surface.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne Bronte’s experience as a governess. One of the things that I found interesting was how little actual learning was going on in the schoolroom. I am sure that not every Victorian wealthy family was the same, but Agnes was given no authority at all, and was therefore ignored at best and abused at worst. I cannot think of few worse jobs than being charged with the education of spoiled, entitled, in some cases quite possibly sociopathic, children who have total power over your life. It’s a nightmarish prospect.

It is easy to wax nostalgic for the past, and for eras like the Victorian era. Reading a book like Agnes Grey is a useful exercise to remind us that we should not idealize the past.

I will have more to say about Agnes Grey, and the other Bronte sisters, and probably the Victorians in general, over the course of the rest of the year. I would probably call Agnes Grey a minor masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. I have heard that Anne’s second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is even better.

I have started Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, for a read-along with Maggie, over at Maggie’s blog, An American in France.

2013 books

At least 133, although I didn’t keep as close a count as a should have for the last third of the year. The complete list here.


Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is my top ten bookish resolutions for the new year.

I’m not sure if I will make it to ten, but here are my resolutions, in whatever number!

  1. Finish Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo. These two books have been lingering in limbo for far too long. Les Mis has been hanging about for more than a year! TCOMC is about 6 months old.
  2. Clear the decks for participation in at least one blog read-along, one classics spin, and one read-athon.
  3. Complete my Bronte Project
  4. Complete my C.S. Lewis Project
  5. Make significant progress on my classics clubs reading list
  6. Finish migrating my amazon reviews to booklikes/wordpress and completely disentangle all of my content from gr/amazon.
  7. The zero-budget year

That’s only 7, but it’ll do for now.

I haven’t gotten In as much reading as I had hoped because my whole family went to see The Desolation of Smaug!

Another quote from Agnes Grey:

“Perhaps you are too wise for them. How do you amuse yourself when alone — do you read much?”

“Reading is my favorite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.”

A man after my own heart!