Over the weekend I had the entertaining experience of listening to an audio dramatization of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. This comedic play was first performed in 1895, and it is a hilarious satirical commentary on Victorian social customs, especially regarding love and marriage. I chose this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and it also fills the Satire spot in The Literary Life 20 for 2020 challenge. (They will be going through this book on the podcast very soon, so I wanted to get it read before then.)
The version I listened to was done by LA Theater Works, and it was a delightful performance. There is hardly a really serious line in the whole play, but the actors delivered their lines as if all was deadly serious, which made it even more hilarious. I could totally see how Wilde’s work in this play paved the way for P. G. Wodehouse, especially in the opening scene with the banter between Algernon and his butler/valet. It definitely reminded me of Bertie Wooster talking with Jeeves. Then, of course, there is the Shakespearean element of mistaken identities causing problems between lovers, which is always entertaining.
Some people would perhaps find the situation unbelievably over-the-top silly, but I think that is what makes Wilde’s commentary work so well. He makes some serious jabs at social conventions, but it is done in such a ridiculous manner that you can’t help but laugh. Of course, if I were in Wilde’s original Victorian era audience, maybe I wouldn’t have thought it quite so funny as I do as a modern!
After a couple of unexpected weeks away from the blog, I’m back this week with a couple of classic book reviews for you! I will also be continuing my AmblesideOnline Year 4 series very soon, I promise! But first, here is my review of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase.
I chose this classic mystery novel as my “Genre Classic” for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge, and I am so glad I did. I have read one other book by this author, Tish, and I hope to read more of her work in the future because her books are just plain fun. Mary Roberts Rinehart was the American predecessor to Agatha Christie, and although she is not as well known today, her detective fiction was quite popular during her lifetime. She had several books adapted for the stage and screen and even wrote a few plays of her own.
The Circular Staircase was Rinehart’s first published novel, and the mystery is told from the perspective of Rachel Innes, spinster aunt and guardian to her young adult niece and nephew Gertrude and Halsey. When a murder takes place in the house they are renting for the summer, Miss Innes and her wards find themselves at the center of an investigation and potential victims, as well. Of course, in the end, all the suspenseful twists and turns of the story are explained, and the truth of the murder and all the other odd occurrences at the residence are laid to rest.
All in all, even if it is not the most literary of detective novels, The Circular Staircase is an enjoyable read, full of the tense moments and curious clues you would expect of a classic mystery. I did have a little trouble at time keeping up with the cast of characters, but that may be in part because I was bouncing back and forth between reading and listening to the book. I also do feel the need to point out that this book is a product of its era, and as such, uses some vocabulary in reference to African Americans that would not be considered appropriate today. With those caveats, I otherwise highly recommend The Circular Staircase for anyone looking for a light classic mystery to wind down with at the end of the day.
Before I get into my thoughts on A Room with a View, I need to apologize to those of you who subscribe to posts via email. The post I published yesterday had a major formatting problem when it transferred to email, and none of the books I was trying to share with you were visible. I’m so sorry for that inconvenience. If you click over to the actual blog website, you can see all the titles and links there, but I should really have been more careful about checking that everything was going to work before hitting publish. Now on to the review…
I fell in love with E. M. Forster’s lovely prose last year when reading Howards End along with the Close Reads Podcast. When I saw a book containing two other of his works at a library sale last year, I snatched it right up. Ever since then I had been waiting for the right time to dive into A Room with a View, and when I saw the Classic (movie) Adaptation category for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I decided this would be my chance. (I also added it to my Literary Fiction list for the Scholé Sisters 5×5 Challenge.)
A Room with a View opens on young Lucy Honeychurch and her middle-aged cousin Charlotte Bartlett staying in a pension in Florence, Italy. It is quite obvious from the beginning that Lucy is not very self-aware, and the main thread through the book follows her journey to knowing her own mind and heart.
Forster is, like Jane Austen, a master of the novel of manners, and he shows the ways that societal conventions were shifting in Edwardian times, while also painting engaging characters, a satisfying romantic plot and breathtaking views of both Italy and England. He balanced the tension in the relationships with just the right amount of satire and humor, as well. Although not everyone in the story gets what they want in the end, I was pleased that Lucy not only becomes self-aware but also gets her happy ending. I also enjoyed the way Forster wraps up the story back where it all began.
The big question now that I have finished reading the book is this—will I watch one of the film adaptations? I am as yet undecided. If I do, it will probably be the BBC version done in 2007. I tend to like BBC adaptations better than Hollywood productions. The truth is, though, if I do watch the movie at all, it will probably not be for a while because I don’t want to ruin the pictures I have in my mind from the beauty of the book just yet. I am definitely one of those people who rarely likes the film more than the book, at least when I’ve read before I’ve watched. What about you? Do you like to watch film adaptations of books you love? Do tell…
Somehow as a child, I somehow missed reading any of the “Little House” books. As such, I have enjoyed sharing my first exploration of these stories along with my children. Wilder’s writing style is both delightfully childlike and literary at the same time, and it is easy to see why these books have become classics.
My only problem as I read this book was that I have also been reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and a history of her times, as well as the life of Rose Wilder (Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser). It was hard for me to suspend disbelief while reading By the Shores of Silver Lake more than previous books, knowing that not all was as it seemed and that the family faced more difficulties to come than were hinted at in this work. Still, as a children’s classic, this book certainly has its place in the series, and Laura’s enduring love for the wild, open prairie shines through even today.
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was the book I chose for the Back to the Classics Challenge “Abandoned Classic” category. I considered plugging in George Eliot’s Middlemarch here because it is another classic I tried to read and gave up on before I had made much progress. Since I was already planning to read Silas Marner for another category, however, I didn’t feel like I needed two Eliot novels on my list.
A couple of years ago, three perhaps, I had started listening to a Penguin audio version of A Tale of Two Cities. I am not sure if it was simply that I didn’t have the brain power at the time (we were in a stressful life season, and I was still nursing our daughter), or if it was also that the narrator was not great, but I simply could not get into the storyline. I generally had a grasp of the plot, but I only got as far as the trial of Charles Darnay at Bailey’s before I just couldn’t go on and gave up on the book entirely.
This time around, I had a print copy, but I also decided to try listening to different audio version, this time on Librivox. I have to give kudos to reader Paul Adams for his excellent performance. His narration brought out both the drama and the humor of Dickens’ masterful tale. I was especially surprised by the humorous passages and Dickens’ satirical voice in A Tale of Two Cities. I have to admit that aside from being very familiar with A Christmas Carol, I had not read any other Dickens in its entirety up until now. The length of his books generally intimidates me for some reason, as well as the gloom of the Victorian era world he creates. Of course, A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution, making it even more violent and dark. This aspect of the novel made portions of it hard reading, but Dickens has such a way with words that even the ugliest parts of the story are poetic and compelling to read.
A Tale of Two Cities is at its core a human story, a story of people at their very best and their very worst, a story of humanity’s struggle to find a higher meaning amidst the bitterness of a sin-cursed world. It is a beautiful, redemptive story. Dickens weaves the plot and characters together in a somewhat surprising and masterful way that brings his tale to a truly satisfying end. Perhaps most unexpected twist of all was the fact that I was actually brought to tears at the last, something I never would have thought possible when reading a Victorian novel. But now that I have read and greatly appreciated the work of Mr. Dickens, you can be sure I will be back for more! The top three Dickens novels I want to read next are David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations, with Little Dorrit right up there, too!
In the meantime, however, I must move on to something else from my challenge lists. Most of what I’m reading right now is either AmblesideOnline Year 4 pre-reads or non-fiction, so I definitely need to add some fun fiction just for me in there! I think it will be A Room with a View because for quite some time I have been eyeing this E. M. Forster trilogy that is sitting on my shelves, just waiting for the perfect moment to jump in!
That’s all for now. I will be back soon with another review because my son and I are almost finished reading By the Shores of Silver Lake together. Until then, I’d love for you to pop into the comments and tell me what you are reading!