The mad woman in the attic…

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Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books: I love how Jane speaks out for herself in a world that tries to deny her a voice; I love the flawed hero Mr Rochester, even though I shouldn’t; and perhaps most of all, I love the mad woman in the attic, Bertha Mason, the representation of the madness hiding beneath the surface of the repressed Victorian woman.

Surprisingly though, I have never read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys before. It is one of those books that has always been on my ‘to read’ list, yet I’ve never gotten around to. Until now anyway.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre, set in Jamaica, telling the story of how Antoinette Mason became the first Mrs Rochester and how she was driven to madness by her husband.

Rochester’s selfishness is apparent in Jane Eyre and in this story Rhys goes one step further: he is possessive, refusing to let go of his wife when she wants to leave; he becomes obsessed over her race and background, struggling to come to terms with her sensuality.

The style is very different to Jane Eyre, but that in itself helps to bring to life the ‘otherness’ of Antionette,  the very thing that her husband struggles to come to terms with. I always find alternative viewpoint narratives fascinating and this was no different: the tale of the mad woman becomes very different when seen from her point of view. A controlling, cheating husband who drags you half-way across the world only to lock you up… maybe the madness is not so surprising after all.

A fascinating, brilliantly written story and an absolute must for Jane Eyre fans.

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Little Women

As a child, one of my favourite classics was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It has been many years since I last read it, and as I began to read it again I wondered whether it would live up to my strong childhood memories of the story.

Little Women was originally published in two parts, but is now generally sold in one volume, telling the story of the March sisters. The story begins at Christmas, when Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are mourning the lack of presents due to their current state of poverty. The novel follows Jo and her sisters as they grow up, improving themselves, finding love and dealing with loss.

Little Women is a well – loved classic and one that I remember with real fondness. The story is still as interesting as I found it as a child and Jo is an engaging and powerful protagonist to centre the novel on. At times, however, Little Women is overly drawn – out and prone to moral lecturing. I particularly found the pages describing Meg’s children to be an unnecessary distraction from what felt like the ‘real story’.

This is not to say that the overall result of Little Women is unpleasant or a poor reading experience: there is a reason that it is such a popular classic still. The faults and flaws shown by the main characters are ones that we can still relate to: Meg’s desire for worldly goods and pretty things; Jo’s quick temper and impatience; Amy’s desire to impress and be accepted; Laurie’s tendency to be idle and petulant when he doesn’t get his own way. Alcott paints for us an image of characters who try to do the right thing but often get it wrong, make mistakes and need to begin all over again… and shows us that this is in fact the only way to become better people – a message still relevant to today’s reader.

The romances within the novel make for enjoyable reading, but at heart Little Women is a love story of an entirely different nature: it is a story of love between sisters and between family.

Go Set a Watchman

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Go Set a Watchman: the literary event of the year; Harper Lee’s first novel in over 50 years and only her second overall; the most controversial book of 2015.

The excitement felt by many on hearing of the release of this novel was soon tainted by the many controversies surrounding it. There were serious questions over whether Harper Lee had actually given consent for Watchman to be published, especially as the news came so soon after the death of her sister, who for years had been seen as Lee’s ‘protector’. Then, only days before the novel’s release came a second round of controversy. This time it was revealed that Atticus Finch, Mockingbird’s heroic figure, fair to all and inspirational to so many,  is presented in Watchman as a bigot who reads racist propoganda and even once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was horrified and absolutely refused to believe it. I went into denial. It just couldn’t be true. Surely the reviewer had misread some subtle layer of meaning that I would be able to interpret on closer reading.

Sadly not.

However (and I realise as I write this that I am still clinging on to a small piece of that denial) we must remember that Watchman is not, strictly speaking, a sequel to Mockingbird. In fact it was written first and provided the spring board for Mockingbird. The characters we see in this novel, even though they have the same names, were first drafts, who were carefully re – shaped by Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird.

As I read Go Set a Watchman, what I actually saw were characters who were more realistic than those in Mockingbird. They inhabit the grey spaces in between the black and white of right and wrong. There are no simple answers in this story. Mockingbird is like a fairy tale, with characters representing various aspects of good (Atticus, Scout, Tom Robinson, the real Boo Radley) and evil (Bob and Mayella Ewell, the imagined gothic-horror Boo Radley). Watchman on the other hand presents us with characters who are like us. Atticus is “a nice, sweet old gentleman” who is polite to everyone and a bigot at the same time. Jean Louise, when confronted with this truth, actually wishes to some extent that she had been brought up differently so that she would fit in with the prejudices of those around her and not feel so alone. Henry is charming and fun, yet at the same time willing to compromise his morals to be accepted. They all inhabit the spaces between good and evil, between right and wrong. The tone is darker and the message of the novel is that those we idolise and worship as heroes are never as perfect as they may appear to be. It is a novel about growing up and discovering unpleasant truths.

When it comes down to basic plot, Watchman is certainly far weaker than Mockingbird. It is nowhere near as entertaining or as well – written. But, despite this it has some fantastic moments that make me so glad it was published and that show the promise of what was to come when Lee developed her ideas to become Mockingbird. The moment that Jean Louise discovers the truth about her father’s views is one of these – I felt every bit as betrayed as she did; I felt every ounce of her pain at the revelation that Atticus is not the man she thought he was. However the absolute best moments of the novel were by far the flashbacks. The descriptions of Jean Louise as a teenager were fantastic to read but they were nothing compared to the scene where Jem, Scout and Dill play-act a baptism. That moment had to be my favourite part of the whole book – I cannot imagine anyone failing to laugh when Dill appears in a bed sheet as the holy ghost!

Best read as a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird rather than a sequel, Go Set a Watchman makes for fascinating reading, even though it does not quite live up to the high standards set by Lee’s first novel.

As relevant today as when it was written: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

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Ask me who my favourite literary father is and the answer is easy: Atticus Finch. How could it not be? He is wise, fair, respected and respectful, interested in his children’s lives despite also having a busy work life. He’s an amazing shot with a gun, but refuses to use one because he sees the advantage it gives him over others. He also trusts his children to make their own mistakes and to learn things for themselves, even when others may consider it inappropriate.

Focusing on the town of Maycomb in 1930s Alabama, as seen through the eyes of 8 year old Scout, Harper Lee’s novel explores the reaction to the trial of a black man for the rape of a white girl. Despite having read the book many, many times, I still find it hard to pick a favourite moment: the children’s childish games to make Boo Radley come out; the drama of the fire at Miss Maudie’s house; the moment when Atticus shoots the mad dog, Tim Johnson; when Scout disperses an angry mob outside the jail with her innocent attempts at conversation; Atticus’s speech to the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial; or Scout’s final realisation at the conclusion of the novel that to pursue Boo’s role in the death of Bob Ewell would “be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”.

It is, however, impossible to read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ without recognising that even at a distance of 55 years and thousands of miles, there are lessons to be learned that are still hugely relevant in our own society. I’m sure we can all think of people with the hypocrisy of Miss Gates, who recognises the evil of Hitler’s prejudice against the Jews,  but fails to see the prejudice that she (and the society she lives in) holds. Equally, I can think of many examples of people who, like the Ewell’s, feel so shut – out and disengaged with the society they live in that, rather than seek to educate themselves, they hit out at those they feel they should have power over, often minority groups.

Sadly it seems that since 1960 a lot of society still seems unable to accept Scout’s view of things, that “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Powerful, moving and still just as relevant as ever: Lee’s novel really is a masterpiece.

An old childhood favourite: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’

For the past 3 years I have found time to reread this story and to share it with some of the young people I work with, and it never fails to draw me in as effectively as it did when I first read it as a child.

The story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, and their adventures, is so well known that it’s really not necessary for me to summarise it here. Needless to say, the mixture of magic and adventure was exactly the sort of thing I enjoyed reading as a child (and even now) and despite some elements not aging well (the way the children speak at times,  the casual sexism shown by Father Christmas), the story itself never grows old.

I was asked today who my favourite character in the book was, and I had to say (after a little thinking) Mr Tumnus. He’s the first magical creature we meet and he shows us that sometimes good people can make mistakes. However, as he realises his mistake, he stands up for what is right.

A lovely, lovely story, and one I’m sure I will be enjoying for many years to come.

An old favourite

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Sometimes, a book is so familiar, so well loved, that reading it is an instant source of comfort. For me, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is most definitely that book.

I first read it in my early teens, and it was probably my first introduction to anything written before the 20th Century and opened my eyes to a very different world, especially in terms of the role of women at the time. The main characters spoke to me so clearly, I felt that I knew each of them personally.

Sometimes people ask me how I can read a book so many times, and one of the reasons I do is that every single time I pick up on something different, some more subtle meaning. This time it was an awareness of just how rude Colonel Fitzwilliam is in mentioning to Elizabeth that he must marry for money – almost Wickham-esque actually in his motives. I’d previously always thought him quite pleasant but in reality perhaps he shows us that at least Darcy is willing to overlook everything for his feelings – unlike Fitzwilliam who appears on the surface to be more amiable.

My favourite part of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is always Elizabeth’s visit to Mr and Mrs Collins in Kent, although I often find it hard to define why. Perhaps it is the combination of the ridiculous Mr Collins and haughty Lady Catherine, who are just so enjoyable to read about, mixed with Darcy’s clear struggle to repress his feelings for Elizabeth and her absolute shock when he reveals them.

As always, my final thoughts on this book are that it is such a fantastic story, so well told, that I refuse to see why anyone wouldn’t love it as much as I do.