Throwback Thursday: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

ThrowbackThursday

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago. If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.

This week, a proper throwback! I’m sharing my review of Lady Susan by Jane Austen, a short epistolary novel thought to have been written in 1794 (when Jane Austen would have been 19) but never submitted for publication by the author and only published in 1871, years after her death. It’s a book I read as part of the Classics Club Challenge and my From Page to Screen Challenge, based around books adapted into films.  You can read my comparison of the book and the film, Love and Friendshiphere.

lady-susanAbout the Book

Lady Susan takes the form of letters between Lady Susan Vernon and her friend Mrs Johnson, between Lady Susan’s sister-law, Mrs Vernon, and her mother Lady de Courcy and Mrs Vernon’s brother, Reginald. Lady Susan is beautiful, flirtatious and recently widowed. The letters tell of her attempts to seek an advantageous second marriage for herself and persuade her daughter into a decidedly less attractive match.

My version was a free to download edition from Amazon.

Find Lady Susan on Goodreads


My Review

Although a juvenile work that ends rather abruptly (as if the author tired of writing it), Lady Susan has the trademark wit and ability to skewer social foibles one associates with later Jane Austen novels. Notably, the eponymous heroine is an older woman who is by turns scheming, selfish, unscrupulous and conducting an unsuitable relationship with a married man. Lady Susan has no compunction about freeloading from relatives, telling falsehoods or manipulating others. Not exactly the typical heroine of a romantic novel! However, Austen manages to make the reader admire Lady Susan, if not for her morals, for her independent spirit and sheer determination to live life to the full.

The one aspect of Lady Susan’s character that gives the reader pause for thought is her awful treatment of her daughter, Frederica, whom she describes as “a stupid girl” with “nothing to recommend her”. In fact, Frederica is a rather charming young girl but suffers in Lady Susan’s eyes because of her “artlessness” when it comes to capturing a man. When Frederica resists her mother’s plan for her to marry the brainless Sir James, Lady Susan congratulates herself on her maternal affection in not insisting on the marriage, remarking that she will merely make Frederica “thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him”.

Lady Susan has a fitting partner-in-crime in her friend, Mrs Johnson, who advises Lady Susan to pursue Reginald de Courcy on the grounds that his father is “very infirm, and not likely to stand in your way long”. Mrs Johnson herself has the misfortune to be married to a man “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”   Only Mrs Vernon is able to see through Lady Susan’s duplicity: “Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.”

Lady Susan succeeds in capturing a husband as does Frederica, although one suspects that Frederica will find more happiness in matrimony than her mother.

Although I enjoyed the book, it does end rather abruptly and the limitations of an epistolary novel mean the characters are never fully fleshed out. However, for fans of Jane Austen, it is of interest as an early indicator of her literary potential

In three words: Witty, engaging, sprightly

Try something similar: Emma by Jane Austen

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JaneAustenAbout the Author

Jane Austen is one of the most widely read and historically important novelists in English literature famed for her realism, wit and biting social commentary.

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Throwback Thursday: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

ThrowbackThursday

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago. If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.


This week I’m sharing my review of a book from my Classics Club Challenge list – The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1959. I’ve not been making much progress with the challenge lately – too many shiny new books to tempt me – so I’m grateful to have Throwback Thursday to motivate me to read something from my list.

TheHauntingofHillHouseAbout the Book

Alone in the world, Eleanor is delighted to take up Dr. Montague’s invitation to spend a summer in the mysterious Hill House. Joining them are Theodora, an artistic ‘sensitive’, and Luke, heir to the house.

But what begins as a light-hearted experiment is swiftly proven to be a trip into their darkest nightmares, and an investigation that one of their number may not survive.

Format: Paperback Publisher: Penguin Pages: 246
Publication: 1st Oct 2009 Genre: Horror

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com ǀ Barnes & Noble
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Haunting of Hill House on Goodreads

My Review

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the books on my Classics Club Challenge list. This is why I love taking part in reading challenges because it motivates you to read outside the literary equivalent of your comfort zone or get around to reading authors and books you’d always meant to read. For the Classics Club Challenge, I’ve chosen to focus on women writers. Although I’d heard praise for Shirley Jackson’s writing and was aware of a couple of her books – The Haunting of Hill House being one and We Have Always Lived in the Castle being the other – I’d never got around to reading anything she’d written. I’m so glad I’ve now rectified that omission.

I’m not a fan of horror fiction and I’d never watch a film like The Haunting (based on Jackson’s book) – I’m too much of a scaredy-cat.   But I found The Haunting of Hill House pleasantly creepy (if something creepy can be pleasant) and much more of a psychological study than an all-out scare-fest. That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of scenes that gave me the chills and I did refrain from reading it in bed. Bright sunshine is best for me with a book like this although I suspect Hill House would be capable of exerting a malevolent atmosphere over even the sunniest day.

The story is told from the point of view of Eleanor, emotionally damaged by the death of her mother for whom she was long-term carer, socially awkward, introspective and lacking in self-confidence. From the moment of her arrival at Hill House, the author brilliantly conveys Eleanor’s sense of something malign and unsettling about the house.

‘The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.’

Eleanor’s feeling that there is something evil about the house is not helped when Dr Montague recounts the unhappy history of Hill House, describing it as ‘disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity’.  As they explore the house, it is small things such as doors that close of their own volition that start to give the group a sense of an almost human presence: ‘The house. It watches every move you make.

I liked how the sprightly, witty exchanges between the group at mealtimes possessed an undercurrent of malice and bitchiness – or did they? Perhaps this was just a manifestation of Eleanor’s sensitivity, interpreting any comment as directed at her in a disparaging manner. Despite her initial feelings of friendship toward Theodora, Eleanor begins to be suspicious of her motives and doubt Theodora’s friendly overtures. Eleanor starts to feel unsettled by Theodora’s seeming ability to sense her moods and even, Eleanor suspects, her thoughts.   Luke forms the rather hapless, to my mind, third side of this triangle, creating an unsettling tension between the two women.

The only character I felt who really comes out with any credit is Dr. Montague. Although the creator of the whole experiment, he is the first to recognise the potential danger posed to fragile minds by the atmosphere in the house.  On the other hand, his wife is an awful creature who, although she fervently believes in the supernatural, seems immune to the malign atmosphere of the house perhaps because she lacks imagination.

I won’t describe what happens next but safe to say the creepy, unsettling atmosphere continues to build towards its climax. Shirley Jackson leaves the reader to decide whether the events experienced by the group are indeed the result of supernatural activity, are fuelled by some form of group hysteria or just the product of Eleanor’s feverish imagination and unstable mental state.

I really enjoyed this introduction to Shirley Jackson’s work.

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In three words: Creepy, unsettling, dark

Try something similar…The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (click here to read my review)

ShirleyJacksonAbout the Author

A popular writer in her time, Shirley Jackson’s work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson. She is best known for her dystopian short story, “The Lottery” (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, small-town America. In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that “no New Yorker story had ever received.” Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, “bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse.”

Jackson’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote in his preface to a posthumous anthology of her work that “she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years.” Hyman insisted the darker aspects of Jackson’s works were not, as some critics claimed, the product of “personal, even neurotic, fantasies”, but that Jackson intended, as “a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb”, to mirror humanity’s Cold War-era fears. Jackson may even have taken pleasure in the subversive impact of her work, as revealed by Hyman’s statement that she “was always proud that the Union of South Africa banned The Lottery’, and she felt that they at least understood the story”.

In 1965, Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep, at her home in North Bennington Vermont, at the age of 48.

Book Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

TheYellowWall-PaperAbout the Book

First published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is written as the secret journal of a woman who, failing to relish the joys of marriage and motherhood, is sentenced to a country rest cure. Though she longs to write, her husband and doctor forbid it, prescribing instead complete passivity. In the involuntary confinement of her bedroom, the hero creates a reality of her own beyond the hypnotic pattern of the faded yellow wallpaper – a pattern that has come to symbolize her own imprisonment. Narrated with superb psychological and dramatic precision, The Yellow Wallpaper stands out not only for the imaginative authenticity with which it depicts one woman’s descent into insanity, but also for the power of its testimony to the importance of freedom and self-empowerment for women.

Format: ebook Publisher:   Pages: 29
Publication: [1892] Genre: Short Story    

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Yellow Wallpaper on Goodreads


My Review

The Yellow Wallpaper forms part of my Classics Club Challenge.

This short story certainly punches above its weight. It has an air of underlying menace that is quite chilling.   The house itself contributes to this:

‘Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?’

Although there are elements of a horror story – the house no-one wants to rent, the wallpaper with its strange pattern, the barred windows, the feeling of being under constant observation – it is really an unnerving account of mental disintegration.   The author forces the reader to question whether the narrator’s husband is really interested in his wife’s welfare and anxious for her recovery or using her condition to exercise control over her.

‘He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.’

And is their room really a former nursery, with its barred windows, peeling wallpaper, rings in the walls and heavy bedstead fixed to the floor? Or has it had, does it still have, a more sinister function?

The book exposes the distorted attitude to mental illness of the time (particularly women’s mental illness) – that the person just needs to exercise more self-control, to pull them self together to overcome it. The narrator’s husband dismisses his wife’s feeling of repulsion toward the wall-paper out of hand:

‘..He said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.’

In the end, the narrator’s disintegration is complete and shocking, even more so because the story is semi-autobiographical, written while the author was suffering from what we would now recognise as post-natal depression.

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In three words: Chilling, unsettling, dark

Try something similar…The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe


CharlottePerkinsGilmanAbout the Author

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent American sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle.

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

TheReturnoftheSoldierAbout the Book

Set during World War I on an isolated country estate just outside London, Rebecca West’s haunting novel The Return of the Soldier follows Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked captain suffering from amnesia, as he makes a bittersweet homecoming to the three women who have helped shape his life. Will the devoted wife he can no longer recollect, the favourite cousin he remembers only as a childhood friend, and the poor innkeeper’s daughter he once courted leave Chris to languish in a safe, dreamy past—or will they help him recover his memory so that he can return to the front? The answer is revealed through a heart wrenching, unexpected sacrifice.

Format: ebook Publisher: Xist Publishing Pages: 70
Publication: 14th March 2016 Genre: Literary Fiction    

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Return of the Soldier on Goodreads


My Review

The Return of the Soldier is one of the books that makes up my Classics Club Challenge. The challenge has been rather neglected of late so I was pleased to be able to make room in my reading schedule for this book, helped by the fact it is a slim volume.

Chris Baldry’s return from the war is awaited by his wife, Kitty and his cousin, Jenny, who is the narrator of the story. Kitty’s and Jenny’s lives both seem to revolve around Chris. Their role is to supply his (perceived) needs. Indeed there is a sense that their desire for his return is partly so that everything can return to the way it was before he went away. Kitty is in a kind of stasis following the death of their son five years earlier and Jenny seems unsure of her role in the absence of her childhood friend and cousin.

From the reader’s perspective it seems a vain hope that anyone could be unchanged by the experience of war and indeed, when Chris does return, it’s not in the manner Kitty and Jenny hoped and it’s clear everything will not go back to how it was before.   Their dreams of Chris’s return are shattered by the arrival of Margaret Grey who was involved with Chris many years before. She brings news that he has been wounded, not physically but psychologically. A severe case of amnesia means he has forgotten everything about the past fifteen years. When he returns home, he has no memory of his wife or his son. Heartbreakingly for Kitty, it is Margaret to whom Chris now gives his affections, picking up their relationship as if the events of the intervening years (and her marriage to someone else) had never taken place.

At this point, I’m going to be honest and say that, although the writing is fantastic, this book was hard going because I found most of the characters very unlikeable. There was a tone of class snobbery from, in particular, the narrator and Kitty towards Margaret that I found quite unpleasant. For example, this description of Mrs Grey’s arrival with the news:

‘She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.’  

The snobbery isn’t confined to Mrs Grey’s appearance either but to her intellect as well.

‘She answered with an odd glibness and humility, as though tendering us a term she had long brooded over without arriving at comprehension, and hoping that our superior intelligences would make something of it.’

And I wasn’t convinced that the author was seeking to satirise their snobbery.

Although understandably affected by the death of her child, I still found Kitty a distinctly unsympathetic character. Her air of self-pity was unattractive and it seemed part of her outrage at the situation was that Chris’s affections were now directed towards a woman of lower social status.

Margaret comes across as the most likeable character. Despite a difficult marriage, she is a loyal and devoted wife and she is the person who wants the best for Chris even if that means she will lose him again. Towards the end of the novel, I grew to like Jenny a little more because it does seem she is able to place Chris’s interests at the forefront and she comes to realise that Chris needs more than mere physical comforts.

‘It had been our pretence that by wearing costly clothes and organizing a costly life we had been servants of his desire. But [Margaret] revealed the truth that, although he did indeed desire a magnificent house, it was a house not built with hands.’

The Return of the Soldier represents an early exploration of the psychological effects of war (what we would understand as shell-shock, although this term is not used). Chris’s disorientation when he returns home – he goes towards the wrong bedroom, trips over steps that he doesn’t remember being there – and the effect this has on the rest of the household is vividly evoked: ‘Strangeness has come into the house, and everything was appalled by it, even time.’

Chris’s loss of memory exposes the emptiness of Kitty’s and Jenny’s existence without him.

‘But by the blankness of those eyes which saw me only as a disregarded playmate and Kitty not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals he let us know completely where we were.’

More than anything the book explores the moral dilemma of what is the right thing to do if all options have undesirable consequences.

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In three words: Intimate, thought-provoking, challenging

Try something similar…The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf


RebeccaWestAbout the Author

Cicely Isabel Fairfield, known by her pen name Rebecca West was an English author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer. A prolific, protean author who wrote in many genres, West was committed to feminist and liberal principles and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of the twentieth century. She reviewed books for The Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Telegraph, and the New Republic, and she was a correspondent for The Bookman. Her major works include Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), on the history and culture of Yugoslavia; A Train of Powder (1955), her coverage of the Nuremberg trials, published originally in The New Yorker; The Meaning of Treason, later The New Meaning of Treason, a study of World War II and Communist traitors; The Return of the Soldier, a modernist World War I novel; and the “Aubrey trilogy” of autobiographical novels, The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund. Time called her “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” in 1947. She was made CBE in 1949 and DBE in 1959, in recognition of her outstanding contributions to British letters.

My Classics Club Spin List

classics So what is The Classics Club Spin?

It’s an event run by my friends at The Classics Club to help those of us doing The Classics Club Challenge to make some progress with our reading.  I can tell you, I need it, as I’ve only read two from my challenge list so far this year!

It works like this:

  • Before Friday 10th March, create a post with a numbered list of any twenty books remaining to be read on my Classics Club list (as I’ve said, in my case, most of them).  This is my Spin List.
  • On Friday, The Classics Club will post a number between 1 and 20.  The challenge is to read whatever book matches that number on my Spin List by 1st May 2017.

So without further ado, here is my Spin List:

  1. Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. Romola by George Eliot
  3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
  4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  6. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
  7. The Flowers of Adonis by Rosemary Sutcliff
  8. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  9. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  10. Katherine by Anya Seton
  11. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  12. The Last Man by Mary Shelley
  13. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  14. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
  15. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
  16. The Bell by Iris Murdoch
  17. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  18. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
  19. The Power House by John Buchan
  20. Witch Wood by John Buchan

I chose these twenty for the very practical reason that they are all either sitting on my bookshelf or on my Kindle – so, no excuses!

Please, please let it be a short one!