In Honor of Poldark’s Aunt Agatha

Unknown-1   Spoiler Alert:  If you have not yet seen the final episode of Poldark, the eighteenth century saga set in Cornwall, you probably want to stop reading now.

Despite the rugged terrain with wild rides along the sea and rivalries among the families, one steady character, reportedly about to celebrate her 100th birthday, challenges the evil doers and maintains her upright moral code despite the corruption around her.  Sadly, Aunt Agatha finally has her heart broken when the cold calculating George Warleggan cancels her birthday party.  Of course, the stalwart Aunt Agatha has her revenge before she takes her last breath.

In the Masterpiece Studio Podcast interview of Catherine Blakiston, the actress playing Aunt Agatha, she mentions she was gifted the tarot cards she often shuffled on scene as she predicted dire consequences for others, and the book Aunt Agatha continually read around the fire – Tristram Shandy.

Hepburn7_logLaurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, with its first of nine volumes published in 1759, begins with its hero about to be born and becomes so sidetracked by digressions that the story ends shortly after his birth, but not before introducing a vivid group of eccentric and farcical characters in a comic tour de force.  Tristram Shandy was a bestseller of its time and Sterne is recognized as one of the forerunners of psychological fiction.

I’ve never read it, so in honor of Aunt Agatha, I’ve downloaded the classic for free from Project Gutenberg – all 760 pages.

Related Information:

 

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New Year’s Eve

Tonight’s December thirty-first,

Something is about to burst.

images-1The clock is crouching, dark and small,

Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark, It’s midnight, children dear,

Duck! Here comes another year!    

Ogden Nash

As the end of another year approaches, what happens to you?  Are you instilled with the remaining fervor of the holiday spirit? Are you complacent observing the folly of others making resolutions?  Are you depressed pondering things undone?  Charles Dickens offers an old tale, written in the nineteenth century and set in Italy – The Chimes.  If you are a fan of “The Christmas Carol,” you will note the similarity in tone, and enjoy the possibilities of the ending.

 The Chimes was one of five in a series of Dickens’ Christmas stories. Appropriate for New Year’s Eve, the moral of the story focuses on the choices we make and their consequences. Like “A Christmas Carol,” a ghost guides the way.

The story opens with the chiming of church bells. After Toby, a messenger, delivers a letter to Lord Bowley and and receives the response – to imprison the man mentioned in the letter, he accidentally bumps into a man carrying a little girl. An apologetic exchange follows, during which Toby discovers this to be the very man to be imprisoned. Toby invites the two home for the night, but he continues to be disillusioned.

He finds  his daughter, Meg, seated by the fire drying her eyes about her apparently aborted marriage plans. When reading his paper,  he comes across the account of a woman, driven from her home by poverty and misfortune, who has killed her child and herself.  He falls asleep convinced of “the inherent vileness of his class.”

The Goblins of the Chimes appear and spirit the sleeping man to the bell tower. His dream takes him on a journey to the future, revealing the dire consequences if he continues to believe there is no purpose for his life or the lives of those around him.  In the end,  Meg wakes Toby from the dream. It’s New Year’s Day. Neighbors enter with greetings and congratulations and a happy party ends the story.

You can read this short tale as you ponder your own resolutions, while waiting for the clock to chime twelve tonight.  Keep your spirits up… images

Dickens Online – The Chimes 

 

Prequel to Jane Eyre – The Wide Sargasso Sea

214fjjbbskl-_ac_ul160_  In her prelude to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys offers the backstory of the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic who destroys Thornfield Hall and herself by fire.  Although the book was published fifty years ago, Rhys’s story is a good reminder the classics have hidden secrets: critical analysts sometimes refer to Bertha as Jane’s alter ego.  After seeing the book on a list of favorites by a fellow reader, I decided to reread this short book and found myself quickly caught up in its fervor.

 In Part One, set in Jamaica, Antoinette, the Creole daughter of a white slave owner, later called Bertha by her English husband, tells the story of her sad childhood. Lonely and rejected by her mother, and running wild after her father dies, she lives in poverty until her mother remarries.   She survives the fire set by an angry mob of locals, destroying her childhood plantation home and driving her mother to madness, and is sent off to a convent. When she is seventeen, her fortune attracts a tall, second son of an Englishman, with no inheritance of his own. Antoinette has a sense of foreboding and imagines she cannot escape her fate.

Part Two begins with Antoinette’s husband narrating the honeymoon, soon to be interrupted by a strange letter revealing the horrors of Antoinette’s background.  Never feeling comfortable in the tropical surroundings of his wife’s home,  Rochester now becomes cold and distant. In a sad and pathetic moment, Rhys has Antoinette enlisting  the voodoo magic of her childhood caregiver to remedy her situation. But her fortune now belongs to her husband, who wants to return to England.

In Part Three, Antoinette’s perspective returns, though she is now living as the quarantined Bertha in Thornfield’s drafty attic.  This section is the shortest, cleverly connecting to Bronte’s book.  Nowhere in the text of her novel does Rhys mention Rochester by name, but she clearly connects to him in the end, as Bertha dreams of setting fire to Thornfield and ending her miserable life.

In Jane Eyre, Bertha raves and screams, but in The Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives her a voice.   In Rhys’s novel, she is the victim of oppression, treated as if she were a ‘white cockroach’ by her family’s black servants, and rejected by Rochester.  Like Jane, she had her own dreams.

The Wide Sargasso Sea won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.  The Cheltenham Prize, created as a companion to the Man Booker, identifies who might have won the Prize if it had existed a century earlier. For a list of the winning books, click on Book Awards: Cheltenham Booker Prize.  You might find another old book worth a second read.  

Listening to The Turn of the Screw

61biobf7pal-_sl150_         Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has always had a scary plot – no matter how interpreted.  The first time I read this short book, I worried about ghosts creeping up to the  window; later in college, the specter of a mad woman governess who imagined ghosts seemed just as thrilling.  Thanks to a friend who recommended Emma Thompson’s interpretation of The Turn of the Screw on Audible,  I am again convinced the ghosts are real, and the audiobook has me checking the locks on windows and doors.

Emma Thompson easily portrays the new  governess to two angelic children in a remote English country house. She becomes convinced that the children are conspiring with a pair of evil ghosts, former employees at the estate – a valet and a previous governess. In life, the two had been discharged as illicit lovers, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible abuse. The governess is convinced she must protect her two charges; in her effort to shield them, she traumatizes the little girl and kills the little boy.  The reader must decide whether the ending is the result of a governess gone mad or the evil ghosts are real.

The story is full of dark “dreadfulness,”  and Emma Thompson easily switches from the well rounded vowels of the governess to the high- pitched voices of the children.   Emma Thompson’s terror becomes tangible as she describes the apparitions, and you can almost imagine the silent screams of the ghosts. But when, as the housekeeper, she uses a quavering voice to deny them, the first hints of the governess’s possible mental instability appear.  Which terror is real – ghosts or madness or possibly both?

After listening to the story, I agree with Brad Leithauser, the editor of The Norton Book of Ghost Stories: “Consigned to everlasting misery, the damned are restless in their perdition. Some of them are too nasty for hell, and they sometimes get in among us.

If a book club is looking for a classic to discuss, The Turn of the Screw would be a great selection – especially around Halloween.