Posts Tagged ‘Edwardian England’

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

July 2, 2014

A Room With a ViewBeing a fan of Jane Austen, I can’t help but love A Room With a View. Even though it was written nearly 100 years after Austen, this novel by E.M. Forster has many Austen hallmarks.

The main character, 19-year-old Lucy Honeychurch, is a member of the English upper middle class, and she hasn’t quite worked out yet just who she is and what she wants from life. On a trip to Italy with her maiden aunt Charlotte, Lucy meets George Emerson and his father, a pair who speak the truth without realizing how offensive this can be. When Lucy witnesses a tragic incident in the town square, George helps her to return to their hotel, and the two form a bond that Lucy refuses to acknowledge, even to herself. Instead, she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, an arrogant, upper class prig of a man who views Lucy as someone he can shape into his ideal woman. Back at home in England, George enters Lucy’s life again. He declares his love for her, but she continues to refuse to see that she feels the same about him.

The most amusing character, and the most Austenian, is Aunt Charlotte. Here she is on a picnic arguing with Lucy about which of them will have the use of a mackintosh square to protect them from the damp ground:

“The ground will do for me. Really I have not had rheumatism for years. If I do feel it coming on I shall stand.” … She cleared her throat. “Now don’t be alarmed; this isn’t a cold. It’s the tiniest cough, and I have had it three days. It’s nothing to do with sitting here at all.”

A Room With a View is Forster’s lightest, most optimistic novel. However, if your copy has an appendix in it, then you will discover that the author did not expect things to go well for his heroine and hero after the events of the book. You can read the appendix  here.  Personally, I prefer a happy ending for Lucy and George.

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Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

April 4, 2014

Howard's End by E.M. ForsterBeing a Jane Austen fanatic, I often see similarities between her novels and whatever I’m reading. In the case of Howards End, that’s especially easy to do. Just like Sense and Sensibility, this book features two sisters of different temperaments. Margaret is the more practical one, while her younger sister Helen is the flighty, romantic one. Margaret and Helen are rich Londoners, living off investments made with inherited money. Their lives become intertwined with those of the Wilcoxes. This family is also rich, but Henry Wilcox and his sons are businessmen. They drive the economy that makes the sisters’ lifestyle possible. A third family is composed of Leonard Bast and his wife. Leonard is a clerk, a member of the working class who is striving desperately to make it into the middle class.

The Howards End of the title is the name of the country home of the Wilcox family. The house and the large elm tree in the yard are symbols of the connection between nature and human beings. Mrs. Wilcox grew up there and only she really appreciates the house, and the importance of connections. Her husband and children just don’t get it. Mr. Wilcox and his oldest son Charles deal with the world by taking emotion out of the equation and breaking problems into small pieces, never allowing themselves to see how their actions might adversely affect others. Here’s Forster’s description of their relationship:

“Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another, and each desired no doughtier comrade when it was necessary to voyage for a little past the emotions. So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another’s ears with wool. “

When the Wilcoxes become involved with Margaret and Helen, who try to help the Basts, then problems arise and complications multiply. Published in 1910, Howards End is a classic tale of Edwardian England, but the problems and issues wrestled with in its pages are relevant to America today.

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Howards End by E.M. Forster

May 17, 2012

Everything about English culture of the early 20th century shows up in this book. Differences in social class, the intellectual class versus the merchant class, illicit and proper love and a vivid plot keep the pages turning.

An impulsive act by Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox gets the Schlegel and Wilcox families off to a rocky beginning.

Margaret Schlegel, the main character, is a peacemaker and an intellectual, who has great love and respect for everyone. When Margaret Schlegel meets Mrs. Wilcox a chain of events is set in motion that alters the future for many people. Mrs. Wilcox soon dies and wills her beloved childhood home Howards End to Margaret on a scrap of paper. Margaret and her brother and sister have been living in a house that is about to be demolished and are looking for lodgings. They eventually rent Howards End. Henry Wilcox decides not to honor his wife’s wish, but eventually courts and marries Margaret, whose family is so completely different from his.

Henry Wilcox is a rich merchant, whose overbearing personality does not sit well with Helen, Margaret’s impulsive, passionate, romantic sister. Meanwhile, a poor young man named Leonard Bast has entered the picture and will have great influence upon the family. The interactions of all these elements and characters drive the book. Henry Wilcox’s past history and subsequent behavior has an unfortunate consequence in several lives.

This is a rich, complex book with much to say. If I had to choose a favorite book, this is it and it was made into a beautiful Merchant-Ivory film.

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The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

January 27, 2012

Many of you know of Janet L.’s persuasive powers when it comes to recommending a book.  Well she worked her magic on me with The House at Riverton and I never regretted it.

While I’ve not enjoyed Kate Morton’s sophomore and junior efforts as much, her debut novel struck a chord with me and generated the same feelings I had when watching (not reading) Remains of the Day and Gosford Park — that behind-the-scenes look into the country homes of early 19th century England, that angle you can only get from the staff’s point of view.  For me, the appeal of books set from this perspective is that, even in a novel, you get the unvarnished truth of the story, not the façade that the people who live in these grand homes present to the world.  In The House at Riverton, the story begins in the present, with the now 98-year-old Grace being asked by a film director to recall her experiences working as a maid in the 1920s, specifically about the suicide of a young poet that occurred in the very house that Grace worked in from the age of 14.

Grace decides this is her opportunity to tell the truth about that suicide and the fallout it created in the aristocratic family she worked for, for so many years.  Told in a series of flashbacks, this book will keep you turning the pages as the secrets are revealed against a beautifully descriptive backdrop that stretches from the Edwardian period to post-World War I England.

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Also see: our previous blog posts about Kate Morton’s books.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King

May 17, 2010

Ordinarily I don’t read novels based on the work of previous writers, such as the Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett knockoffs; the plots are always out of sync with the pacing or seem contrived.  There are plenty of Sherlock Holmes wannabes that I haven’t even picked up, but this title caught my eye and the first few pages reeled me in. The book purports to be a manuscript in a mysterious package mailed anonymously to the editor. Wrapped in with the manuscript are other unexplained objects which might or might not relate to the contents of the manuscript.
The protagonist is Mary Russell, a teenage girl living near a village on the Sussex Downs. In the course of her rambles through the countryside she comes across a man seated on the ground studying bees. He proves to be the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, recently retired in pursuit of challenges other than his criminal investigations. Their conversation starts out stilted and mildly hostile, but Holmes perceives Mary’s keen intellect and begins an informal tutelage involving, among other subjects, the study of human behavior and the identification of mud samples, cigarette butts, shoe soles, etc.–all the details that enabled him to solve the mysteries documented by amiable  Dr. Watson. Mary is preparing for the entrance exams for Oxford and she intersperses her study of Latin verbs and classical literature with chemical experiments and studies of the distinctive musculature developed by people in various professions, such as dairy farmers and woodsmen.
The storyline includes several small mysteries that serve more to illustrate character than to advance the plot. This is reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories originally published in The Strand, a popular English magazine of the time. The analysis of clues based on an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of minutiae harks back to the original Holmes, yet the characters and settings are fresh and the suspenseful plot has a surprise ending. Holmes becomes three-dimensional by having real relationships and actual emotions. The action takes place in the Edwardian period, but the attitudes and sensibilities of the characters would be at home in the modern era.
The narration is larded with references to events that have occurred off ‘screen’. These tidbits act as a lure; the reader assumes they will be explained in the end. The tease is that they are explained in later books in the series, seeming to confirm the series as a well-planned, cohesive unit rather than just a sequence of books using the same characters.  The Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books are well worth reading, whether you are a fan of the originals or not.

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