book reviews


While I was studying for boards, I was reading this book, the third in the Palliser (or Political) series by Anthony Trollope. This series does a splendid job of recreating the world of Victorian high society, introducing characters in one book, then bringing them in as a natural part of the background in later books. (That means that you really need to read these books in order.)

The Eustace Diamonds opens in a style comparable to Pride and Prejudice: “It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies – who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two – that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. . .” Lizzie in fact married a wealthy rake who died a year later, leaving her with a young son and a large fortune – and also the stunning diamond necklace of the title. The story follows Lizzie’s attempts to maintain possession of the diamonds and at the same time to capture another husband. Probably the second most important character is Lizzie’s cousin Frank Greystock, a poor lawyer, a member of Parliament, who is torn between Lizzie’s beauty and wealth (saddled with a poor character), and a devoted governess, with neither money nor looks to recommend her.

Trollope does a wonderful job of accurately portraying an inadmirable character, making Lizzie the protagonist of the book without making her a heroine. He describes her reasoning and motivation in a way that makes her underhanded actions understandable, though not excusable. Trollope, like Dickens, was accused of not being good at plotting. I cannot understand the accusation in either case. Trollope’s characters are complicated individuals, and their actions seem to spring naturally from what has been described of them, and naturally moves the story forward through various complications.

Of course, being of his time period, Trollope is what we would call a male chauvinist. Upon a certain woman making false excuses to avoid testifying to embarassing facts in court, he writes:

And is it not the case that false pretexts against public demands are always held to be justifiable by the female mind? What lady will ever scruple to avoid her taxes? What woman ever understood her duty to the State?

And yet, through other female characters, he spends a great deal of time examining the influence that a wife or sister can have on the course of state affairs, without being able either to vote or to hold office. In fact, he makes Lady Laura, in Phineas Finn, declare that if she could vote, she would not, as she exercises more influence through her fashionable salon than she could as an avowed comabatant in politics.

Phineas Redux

I can’t really write a review of this book without giving away too much of its plot, as well as of the plot of Phineas Finn, so I will just note that Phineas’ re-entry into English politics occurs in the middle of a great controversy about disestablishment of the Anglican church. The Conservative party finds themselves driven to start a bill for disestablishment, in order to win a pyrrhic victory over the Liberals, who find themselves obliged to oppose their favorite project simply because it comes from the opposing party. Other pieces of the plot include a jealous husband, two or three devoted ladies, a murder trial, and a good deal of hunting. This book is even more exciting than Phineas Finn. Both are highly recommended.

The Reproductive final was this morning, so I was studying furiously on Saturday; for once the law of cause and effect worked simply, and the test was easier.Yesterday I picked up my collection of G.K. Chesterton’s poems by way of passing the time. This is my souvenir from when my family visited Paris, and we walked all around the city (it was usually simpler to walk than to take the metro, because by the time my parents had finished figuring out the rainbow-colored tracks, and we had walked down several wrong stairs, and carried the stroller over the barriers backwards – well, walking was simpler), and discovered on the bank of the Seine a bookstore called Shakespeare and Company. And of course we – I! – couldn’t walk by. So we went in; somehow my parents got us out of there with only two books, Chesterton and John Donne; but they have an authentic Shakespeare and Company stamp in the front!

I love Chesterton because he’s so politically incorrect about Muslims. He’s gleeful about the Crusades, and I’m sure it never even occurred to him to feel guilty about it. Here’s a quotation from the poem “Lepanto,” about how Don John of Austria sailed to rescue Christendom from Turkish pirates. (“The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;/ The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the mass/. . . Don John of Austria is going to the war.”) This is Mahound’s reaction in paradise to the news of Don John’s expedition:

‘. . . It is he that saith not ‘Kismet'; it is he that knows not fate; It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate! It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth, Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.’

The Crusader Returns from Captivity

I have come forth alive from the land of purple and poison and glamour, Where the charm is strong as the torture, being chosen to change the mind; Torture of wordless dance and wineless feast without clamour, Palace hidden in palace, garden with garden behind.

Women veiled in the sun, or bare as brass in the shadows, And the endless eyeless patterns where each thing seems an eye. . . And my stride is on Caesar’s sand where it slides to the English meadows, To the last low woods of Sussex and the road that goes to Rye.

In the cool and careless woods the eyes of the eunuchs burned not, But the wild hawk went before me, being free to return or roam, The hills had broad unconscious backs; and the tree-tops turned not, And the huts were heedless of me; and I knew I was at home.

And I saw my lady afar and her holy freedom upon her, A head, without veil, averted, and not to be turned with charms, And I heard above bannerets blown the intolerant trumpets of honour, That usher with iron laughter the coming of Christian arms.

My shield hangs stainless still; but I shall not go where they praise it, A sword is still at my side, but I shall not ride with the King. Only to walk and to walk and to stun my soul and amaze it, A day with the stone and the sparrow and every marvellous thing.

I have trod the curves of the Crescent, in the maze of them that adore it, Curved around doorless chambers and unbeholden abodes, But I walk in the maze no more; on the sign of the cross I swore it, The wild white cross of freedom, the sign of the white cross-road.

And the land shall leave me or take, and the Woman take me or leave me, There shall be no more Night, or nightmares seen in a glass; But life shall hold me alive, and Death shall never deceive me As long as I walk in England in the lanes that let me pass.

Isn’t that fun? “The intolerant trumpets of honour”!

I guess that’s enough for one post. You should also read the poem of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of gunners, because she insisted on having three windows in her tower (for the Trinity), and was martyred as a result; and the epic poem of King Alfred and white chalk horse; and the song of the unborn baby, who promises to be good, if let out into Fairyland, where the hills are covered with green hair and the trees somehow grow taller than the flowers.

Yesterday, besides reading poetry out loud to my longsuffering family, I finished Phineas Finn, the second book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series. I am so delighted to have rediscovered Victorian novels: where three or four people constitute the cast, and the plot consists of them getting in and out of love with various suitable or unsuitable persons – especially in triangles or squares. And yet it takes 800 pages to sort them out, because they’re so scrupulous about honor, and propriety, and duty. And also lots of character actors: the aunt who must guard her niece, thus making everyone’s life miserable, because the niece doesn’t actually need to be guarded; the fathers who quarrel with their sons every other month, and nobody can make it up, even though there’s nothing there to quarrel about, because both sides are so proud and stiff.Trollope’s style of writing, and his complex characters, are fun enough. But then there’s the political part. Trollope apparently wished to enter Parliament, but never quite succeeded; so he always includes at least one characters whose whole goal in life is to get into Parliament, and make a good speech there. In this book, Phineas Finn is from Ireland, so there’s a slight discussion of the abuse of Irish tenants too.

Did you know that in England in the 1860s, you had to be worth 50 pounds a year to be able to vote? That some districts had only 2 or 3 hundred electors? That voting was open – no secret ballot? That if the Government proposed a measure in Parliament, and won by only a slight majority, they regarded themselves as shamefully defeated, and dissolved themselves? That the prime minister was still very ostensibly chosen by the queen, so whenever he was in difficulties (close to what we would call a vote of no-confidence today) he had to go down to the Palace and confer with her, and recommend her to choose his great rival in the other party as the prime minister? That there was no salary for members of parliament, so it was thought imprudent to run for office if you were not independently wealthy? That if you took a paying job in the government (eg, undersecretary for colonial affairs, in charge of deciding whether to run a railway line through Canada to the Rockies), you were obliged to vote the government position, even if it differed with your conscience?

Two of the political leaders in Phineas Finn are thus characterized: the Radical one wanted to do everything exactly in the style of the United States, and he was a staunch enemy of the Liberal man, who wanted to follow every revolutionary style of the Continent.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, because I’m in hopes that you all will also fall in love with Trollope, and want to read all of his books yourself. And they really are very suspenseful, although there are no spies, no bombs, and no murders to solve. So I wouldn’t want to ruin it by letting out who actually ends up marrying whom. (And don’t read any introductions, either – they always ruin the plot.)

“Fear No Evil: The classic memoir of one man’s triumph over a police state” by Natan Sharansky

If the president keeps quoting an author, you know you’ve got to read him. This is the autobiographical story of Natan Sharansky’s time in the Soviet Gulag because of his activities on behalf of refuseniks – those who had been denied a visa to emigrate to Israel.

Sharansky’s memory is amazing. He gives a detailed account of his arrest on fake charges, the sixteen months he spent in Lefortovo, his show trial, and his time in Siberian prison camps. Throughout, he was sustained by the memory of his wife Avital, who had already left Russia, and was working actively to procure his release.

I am so much in awe of his dedication and courage that I can’t say any more about him myself. Get the book and read it for yourself. Remember why totalitarian states are evil, and how people who are dedicated to freedom can triumph even in prison.

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