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Remarkably boring

April 26, 2012 21 comments

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. 2009. French title: Prodigieuses créatures.

Remarkable Creatures is this month read for our book club Les Copines d’abord and it is also a readalong for other bloggers interested in reading this novel. I’m afraid this review is going to be a breach in the book blogging etiquette: I abandoned the book of my own readalong. Of course, I feel guilty and at the beginning I wanted to stick with it and endure it until the end for the sake of that readalong. But I had to acknowledge that I started to shy away from the book and I’d rather not read at all than read it. That was the final blow, I stopped exactly at page 111 and the book has 415 pages.

In appearance, Remarkable Creatures has several ingredients of a book I should like. It is set in Lyme Regis, England, a place I visited last year and it’s always nice to read a book when you know the setting. It happens in the King George era, like Austen’s novels. It is the story of a friendship between two women who have a very unladylike passion for fossils. It tells the real story of Mary Anning, a paleontologist and her struggle to reach recognition in a men’s world and in a world where science was for upper classes. Feminism, history, 19thC England, all these are good tags for me.

Now, why didn’t I like it? I have a French edition, so my English has nothing to do with it. I guess it’s all Ms Chevalier’s fault. I was bored with the fossils. Fossils, fossils and more fossils. So many fossils names and no scientific explanation; I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn something nor was my curiosity picked enough to research the names on the internet. And the style! It took Ms Chevalier twenty pages to describe how they detached a crocodile fossil from the cliff and all in a dull style. I didn’t get attached to the characters, which is the basis for that kind of book to work. It could have been a thorough description of the life in a quaint little English town, but no. In the 111 first pages, there is no hint of social analysis, no hope for psychological insight in the characters’ inner minds. Eveything is a flat tale in alternate voices as the two women take turn to relate the events.

I’m quite alone is this assessment of Remarkable Creatures. It has a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon and 4 stars on GoodReads. So don’t be put off by this review, the problem probably comes from me.

As an aside, here are other reviews from French bloggers:

De ma Plume à vos Oreilles and Miss Alfie at Miss Alfie, Croqueuse de livres

After the Book Club meeting.

Well, I feel less alone. They finished it but also found the style flat, without any flavour. Although the themes were appealing (religion, feminism, the beginnings of a science), the story wasn’t interesting. For example, none of us remembered the characters’ names, which is a really bad sign. They didn’t learn anything about fossils, even after 400 and some pages. When I asked them to relate the story, it was difficult since the plot was rather thin.

I know, I know, this was not really chivalrous towards Ms Chevalier but is it my fault if the book is tasteless?

Not the best read of the book club so far. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews of the other participants to this readalong.

19thC England for foreigners: a great guidebook.

January 10, 2012 28 comments

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. From Fox Hunting to Whist – The Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool 1993 Not translated into French.

I was interested in reading this as soon as Caroline recommended it to me. The book is aimed at students and has two parts; the first one explains the facts and life in the 19thC England and the second one is a huge glossary with various words like epergne or Gretna Green. But let me give you a flavor of the book.

If whims, faints and abnormal interest in clothes are often described as the clichéd eternal feminine, Daniel Pool unintentionally points out the clichéd eternal masculine, i.e. cars and sports also sometimes combined into sports cars. I had perfectly gathered from my previous readings that carriages were the sign of social status. So, keeping one or several expensive carriage(s) was the equivalent of our owning German and sports cars. The curricle was probably really a young man’s carriage, like a sports car; it was one of the first things the young Dickens bought when he made money with his writing. Nihil novo sub sole. What I didn’t know was that the Parliamentary season –and thus the London social season—started according to the end of fox hunting time and ended when the grouse shooting began. Put it bluntly: political and social life in Great-Britain depended upon foxes’ and grouses’ living habits. Astonishing.

The chapter about money is absolutely fascinating. It explains taxes, entails, financial investments, bankruptcies and debts. Shareholders in a private company had unlimited liability. One could be jailed for debt until 1869. (In France it was abolished in 1867) Various taxes had collateral damages such as the tax on windows. It was expensive, mere air vents counted for a window, so poor people often lived in lodgings without windows. A tax on paper increased the price of books, slowing their sales. And I now know the difference between an attorney and a barrister.

In the part about Crime and Punishment, I noticed that “Killing a man in a duel, although murder, was considered socially okay for people of quality, so juries generally didn’t convict until the 1840s. Thereafter it became advisable to duel on the Continent”. But where on the Continent? France? The French authorities tolerated duels until the end of the century. (Gendarmes attended the one between Clémenceau and Déroulède in 1892…to keep the mob off the playing field.)

I enjoyed reading about the different social rules: how to address someone, balls and diners, morning calls, stays in the country and so on. When I read Desperate Remedies, I caught details I would never have noticed without this book, such as the social embarrassment about how to call Cytherea Graye when Miss Aldclyffe hires her. As a chambermaid, it should be Cytherea. As a companion, Mrs Graye is suitable even if she’s a maidden. Miss Graye was impossible as it would have been for the daughter of the house.

Pool explains the Church of England, Oxford and Cambridge and more generally the school system. Of course, like in France, women weren’t supposed to learn Latin and Greek. According to an etiquette book, men even had to translate any Greek or Latin quote they said in front of women. School became compulsory in England in 1880. (1882 in France)

It’s full of daily details that aren’t explicit in Victorian novels, such as railroads and lavatories:

There were no toilets on trains until 1892. Ladies might travel together in compartments separate from the gentlemen, for long journeys bringing chamber pots concealed in discreet baskets, while for gentlemen long tubes that could be strapped along the leg under a trouser were advertised.

Embarrassing for us today. It also explores marriage and divorces and the lack of freedom women had to endure. Apparently, auctioning your wife was a form of cheap divorce for poor people. So what Henchard does in The Mayor of Casterbridge actually used to happen. Pool also describes the life of servants, the recycling habits, the nightmare to provide water, warmth and light in big houses. (Servants made 16% of the national work force in 1891) It gives useful information on mourning, illnesses and death; on the poor and the “social system” implemented in parishes to take care of the poorest people.

As you see, it gives a good overview of the way of living in the 19thC England. I’ve read the first part and I intend to use the glossary when needed. I wouldn’t have understood what Trollope really meant by “evangelistic” when he describes Mr Stumfold without this book. The book is very handy for foreigners; it’s staying on the bedside table instead of going back to the shelf.

And actually, if anyone knows a similar book about France in the 19thC, I’ll be glad to read it too.

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