Today I’m going to try something new: not a full post on a particular book, but brief reviews of books I’ve read in the past month. None of them, for me, warrant a full review. My list today is: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; and Persuasion by Jane Austen (a re-read). Ross Poldark is the first novel in a huge family saga set in Cornwall in the 1780s, focusing on Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza. Winston Graham (whom I confess I’d never heard of until I started to watch the new BBC series) was the author of more than 40 novels, and the Poldark series is now in its third recreation as television drama. The central character, Ross, in the new BBC production, has been hailed as sexier than Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. I don’t disagree. But as for the book, he doesn’t stand out (no pun intended) as much as Demelza, the abused waif whom he rescues from a beating by her drunken father, takes on as a kitchen maid, and marries when she is of age. Love comes slowly for Ross; he is seduced by her, who adores and hero worships him, and he gradually realises that she is rough cut diamond, a feisty, loyal, loving, happy, winsome girl of superior intelligence and wit, who quickly blooms into a wild English rose, without losing any of her natural honesty and down-to-earthness. It is a true Pygmalion story, though Ross is not really the architect of her transformation. She transforms herself through her desire to be a worthy wife and partner for him, to be able to hold her own among the aristocracy of the community, and yet does not lose touch with her origins, a child of the earth. She makes mistakes, not least when she becomes a conspirator of the heart with Ross’s cousin Verity, a plain, hard-working young woman whom no-one expects to marry, but who falls in love with a sea captain with a dark past. Demelza’s part in bringing the lovers together splits the family apart and is the catalyst for Ross’s estrangement from Verity’s brother Francis, who happens to have married Ross’s first love, Elizabeth, while Ross was away fighting in the American Civil War. Around the ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, loves and losses of the Poldark family is woven another story, that of the tin mines in Cornwall. It is hard times; many of the mines are abandoned, the price of tin has fallen, and Ross’s estate is derelict. Against all odds, he decides to resurrect one of the family mines. The trials and obstacles of this enterprise occupy a large part of the book, and I confess I found this story less interesting than the central romance. Ross has less affinity with his own class than with the working people, and of course his marriage puts him even more offside with his own relations and their circle. He shares what he has with his workers and their families, and protects them as much as he can from the bad treatment and the poverty they are subject to. So in many ways this book is in the genre of great 19th century novelists like Dickens, Zola and Balzac, who wrote realistic novels portraying individual lives framed by the struggle of the classes and the inhumanities and injustices of society. For me, the writing does not have the force and calibre of these novelists, it is more middle of the road, but nevertheless very readable, and the characters are vivid and convincing. I have ordered the next book in the Poldark series, titled Demelza, from the library.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is translated from Italian by Anna Goldstein (published in English in 2011). This is a book I find hard to describe, and although it’s only about three weeks ago that I read it, I’m pushed to summarise the plot. The first and most interesting thing about this book is that the author has become a sensation on the international literary scene, because of the quality of the writing, but even more because the author has kept her anonymity. Beyond that she grew up in Naples, has lived for periods outside Naples, has a Classics degree, teaches and is a mother, she is unknown. My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy. The narrator, Elena, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and school days in the 1950s; a time and place of ignorance, violence, gangs, cruelty and gossip. Elena admires and tries to emulate Lila, whom she meets in first grade. Lila is described as “that terrible, dazzling girl”, and everyone is afraid of her. Gradually they become friends; Elena does not lose her honesty and innate gentleness, and Lila does not modulate her fierce and uncompromising nature, but they are loyal to each other in a fashion, while Elena is secretly devoted to Lila, even obsessed with her. Lila is the more gifted of the two, but her family does not support her going on to high school, and she gives in and takes on the role of family helpmeet and worker in her father’s shoemaking business. She blossoms into a very beautiful young woman, and marries a local boy from a wealthy family at 16. Elena, on the other hand, is allowed to go on to high school with a scholarship, and what she misses in brilliance, she makes up for in discipline, and becomes a star pupil. That’s a rough outline of a complex book which is close to stream of consciousness in the way it is told, in that one scene melts into another and there is much reflection on the friendship and on her attractions to a particular boy who is at least as bright as she is and more radical in his thinking. But really, it is Lila she loves most, and Lila, like the radical boy, is beyond her reach. At best I can say this is an interesting and intriguing book but it didn’t grip me and make me want to see what happens after the end of the story. It gave me a window into an unfamiliar world, but I felt very much an outsider to it; perhaps this reflects how Elena felt, a misfit, longing to get outside the confines of this narrow world, trapped in it by her childhood, seeing education as her escape. Whereas Lila, the wild one, remains trapped. I will read the sequels. If you want to know more about Ferrante’s work, there is a comprehensive review in the New York Times.
Last but far from least is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. This book needs no introduction; it is perhaps the most read of Austen’s novels after Pride and Prejudice, and has been made into films. It was Austen’s last novel, completed a year before she died at the age of 41. Everyone knows that Austen remained a spinster, and it is tempting to see this story as wish fulfilment. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is the youngest of three daughters, and though possessed of superior ‘elegance of mind and sweetness of character’ was ‘nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way— she was only Anne.’ The intervention of a family friend prevents her from marrying the man she falls in love with at the age of 19, and for eight years she lives a lonely life, longing for what she has lost, and being a dutiful daughter and sister. When the novel starts, she is 27, a shadow of her former bloom and beauty. I’m sure most of you know the plot, so I won’t summarise it. I just want to say that for me, Anne is one of Austen’s strongest and most convincing heroines. When Anne’s former lover, Captain Wentworth, returns from years at sea with a fortune, he finds her much changed, and appears to be playing the field, looking for a likely wife. After many twists and turns, he overhears her talking to another captain, a mutual friend, about love and marriage. Re-reading this climactic scene, I realised that she is my favourite Austin heroine. She utters words which mark her for me as a proto-feminist. Trapped as she is in a hierarchical world where title and connections and money mean more than love and loyalty and kindness, she holds her own in a vigorous argument with Captain Harville ( a friend of Wentworth’s, who is sitting at a nearby table, ostensibly writing a letter). In a conversation about a mutual friend, a man who is fairly recently widowed and has fallen in love again, Anne maintains that women are more constant than men.
Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. … Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything. … All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.
There is a rich context to this defence of woman’s constancy, both in past events and in the present scene. Captain Wentworth, the eavesdropper, the silent witness, finally acknowledges to himself that he has not stopped loving Anne, and that she is superior to any other woman he knows; that she is the very model of constancy and character that he seeks. The rest unfolds as it always done in Austen’s novels, with the marriage summarised in the final chapter; as she says, ‘Who can be in doubt of what followed?’