Tag Archives: Girlebooks

Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

Charlotte Temple - Susanna RowsonCharlotte Temple – Susanna Rowson
Girlebooks, first published 1791
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Charlotte Temple is titled after its main protagonist. We first meet Charlotte when she is fifteen and attending boarding school. She is pretty, innocent, and sweet. This makes her an easy target for her suitor, Montraville. While Charlotte knows she is overstepping the boundaries of propriety, she is egged on by both Montraville and one of her teachers, La Rue. During the promised last meeting before soldier Montraville is bound to sail to the United States she agrees to elope with him, accompanied by La Rue and another man. While Charlotte experiences severe doubts, she ends up on a boat to America. Soon she starts to experience the mental and other consequences of what she has done..

This is what you get for randomly picking one of the preloaded girlebooks books from your ereader based on alphabetized titles and book length. So yes, this is a cautionary tale, complete with all the warnings, sentiments, and drama you might expect from such a story written at the end of the eighteenth century. It was not the most riveting read imaginable.

Susanne Rowson often directly addresses the reader, particularly those girls of an impressionable age to whom she offers the book as advice. Her main argument seems to be that it is only a small step to utter ruin once you even start contemplating transgressing social conventions a little. In this regard, her Charlotte Temple portrays the exact message we might all expect in this type of novel: if you do not listen to your parents or anything they have told you, you might just be persuaded to elope, even if you have doubts other social actors might have such power of persuasion over you (or physical force) to make you oblige to their wishes, once you have taken the one step towards transgression, you will end up ruined, utterly ruined.. And ruin leads to health problems leads to loss of the joyful life you might have had..

What interested me though, was how in the middle of this conservative and expected message, there were small glimpses of a more liberal understanding of what happened to Charlotte. Firstly, her parents remain convinced that she is to be forgiven if she is found. Secondly, Rowson provides commentary on some characters with statements that read that the social boundaries between “innocence” and “ruin” might be too sharp, and that only a little kindness might save those on the wrong side of that line from further harm. Of course, this is inevitably overshadowed by ruin and doom, as cautionary moral tales were expected to end. But it were the little prods and glimpses of this other view that held my interest throughout what I mostly experienced as a not all that engaging and predictable story.

In the middle of this more sympathetic view of Charlotte though, she does lose most of her agency. Throughout most of Charlotte Temple, Charlotte is simply guided by the social forces around her. Whether it is the egging on and later the force of La Rue and Montraville, or the help she receives from some others.. Charlotte herself is a victim, a person being acted upon instead of acting herself, for most of this tale. It makes sense, having to keep Charlotte relatable and sympathetic, she has to be cast more as the victim than the perpetrator, but it also takes away from the small subversions that can be glimpsed in what I mentioned above. I do not judge the book for that, but as a modern reader it is quite difficult to shake the wish for more, even while realising that this might never have been possible.

Charlotte Temple, then, is mostly of interest within the history of cautionary or moral stories. The story in itself, for a contemporary reader, might offer too little out of the ordinary and a writing style that is not exactly engaging. However, it seems to take a particular place in the history of US novels, as it became a bestseller at the time.

Other Opinions: Yours?

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** This post was crossposted to the Project Gutenberg Project.

Christine by Alice Cholmondeley (pseudonym of Elizabeth von Arnim)

Christine - Elizabeth von ArnimChristine by Alice Cholmondeley
Girlebooks, originally published 1917
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Free download: Project Gutenberg, Girlebooks

Christine claims to be a collection of letters written by Christine Cholmondeley to her mother Alice during her stay in Germany in 1914, just before the war began. Christine stays in Berlin and its surroundings to train with renowned violin teacher Kloster, as she is a promising talent. Her letters portray her difficult entry into German society, provide a commentary on German people, and feature her personal dealings with a number of people including Kloster and her eventual love interest Bernd.

However, as the title of my post signals, these were not letters written by Christine to her mother, but instead a fictionalised account written by Elizabeth von Arnim, who made Christine and her mother up.

I love Elizabeth von Arnim, and I have had all of the public domain titles of her works loaded on my ereader for years, supplemented when new ones became available. I was a little puzzled by the fact that this was published under a pseudonym, but did not really look into it. A week ago, I selected it as my next bedtime read without knowing much of the particulars about it. Thinking that anything by Von Arnim was bound to be good, so why not this one? Well, there is a reason for that pseudonym. And it is not necessarily one that will convince readers of Von Arnim’s other books.

By page 30, I was a little puzzled: was this Elizabeth von Arnim? Then what exactly was her aim in publishing these letters as if they were written by someone else? What was she trying to achieve? The answer came through wikipediaChristine is Von Arnim’s contribution to the British war effort, by writing a propaganda-like piece that was apparantly a minor part of an elaborate effort meant to sway the US opinion in favour of joining the war.

You need not read wikipedia to notice the othering that is going on in this story. (Of course, it might be that reading wikipedia sharpened my eye and made it stand out). While in Christine individuals from different classes of the German populations are highlighted, there is a general tendency to use these individuals as depictions of “the state of mind” of the “German population” (as is mentioned in the preface, purportedly written by Alice Cholmondeley). There is an abundance of distinctions being drawn between Christine and her surroundings as she makes observations on how “they” (the Germans) think, act, and feel. The Germans are portrayed as children, conditioned to want greatness and bloodshed for their  by their government, barbaric and uncivilised to some extent denoted by their undemocratic system. At some moments, Christine seems to distinguish between the government as the perpetrators and the people as its victims, but the lines become blurred as she then continues to lament the blood lust that is rife among the people (according to her).

It is really difficult to explain what happens in the text exactly. I think some examples might explain it better. Mind you, these examples can be found on almost every few pages. I am picking some out at random.

Playing on British nationalism:

“Dear England. Dear, dear England. To find out how much one loves England all one has to do is to come to Germany.”

On the Germans:

“But you know, darling mother, it makes it easier for me to harden and look ahead with my chin in the air rather than over my shoulder back at you when I see, as I do see all day long, the extreme sentimentality of the Germans. It is very surprising. They’re the oddest mixture of what really is a brutal hardness, the kind of hardness that springs from real fundamental differences from ours in their attitude towards life, and a squashiness that leaves one with one’s mouth open. They can’t bear to let a single thing that has happened to them ever, however many years ago, drop away into oblivion and die decently in its own dust…”

An example of sympathy turned into othering:

“I could hardly not cry. These cheated people! Exploited and cheated, led carefully step by step from babyhood to a certain habit of mind necessary to their exploiters, with certain passions carefully developed and encouraged, certain ancient ideas, anachronisms every one of them, kept continually before their eyes,—why, if they did win in their murderous attack on nations who have done nothing to them, what are they going to get individually? Just wind; the empty wind of big words. They’ll be told, and they’ll read it in the newspapers, that now they’re great, the mightiest people in the world, the one best able to crush and grind other nations. But not a single happiness really will be added to the private life of a single citizen belonging to the vast class that pays the bill. For the rest of their lives this generation will be poorer and sadder, that’s all. Nobody will give them back the money they have sacrificed, or the ruined businesses, and nobody can give them back their dead sons. There’ll be troops of old miserable women everywhere, who were young and content before all the glory set in, and troops of dreary old men who once had children, and troops of cripples who used to look forward and hope. Yes, I too obeyed the Kaiser and went home and prayed; but what I prayed was that Germany should be beaten—so beaten, so punished for this tremendous crime, that she will be jerked by main force into line with modern life, dragged up to date, taught that the world is too grown up now to put up with the smashings and destructions of a greedy and brutal child. It is queer to think of the fear of God having to be kicked into anybody, but I believe with Prussians it’s the only way. They understand kicks. They respect brute strength exercised brutally. I can hear their roar of derision, if Christ were to come among them today with His gentle, “Little children, love one another.”

Read as propaganda, it is really rather a smart book: it takes an almost instantly sympathetic lead character, who is a promising child with what we are given to understand is a big talent, with no reason really to want to give her mother to understand falsehood about “the Germans”, and puts her into situations in which German people are less than sympathetic towards her, and then adds a final tragedy which the mother, in the preface, reveals so as to steer the sympathies of the reader. Moreover, besides the more blatant examples of othering, there are also more subtle ones. Christine, for example, wants and has to make her own way in life, earn her own keep, and in the story the women of Germany are mostly portrayed as servants or mothers. As such, she is instantly put apart from these women, but also examplifies (perhaps?) a broader respect for the abilities of women in Britain (which I think appears often as a trope of othering  as an “us” that is more emancipated than “they” are).

The question is whether this book is still interesting to read for the contemporary reader, and I cannot give a satisfactory answer to that.

It might be thought of as an interesting study into propaganda and social history, though I think the reader would benefit from contrasting this story with other materials and/or more biographical information and context to this story. It is certainly something I wished for (are there any good Elizabeth von Arnim biographies out there?).

There is also the rather puzzling sensation of reading some ideas about “the Germans” in a book about World War I that I mostly associate with World War II (but this might be my Dutch background given that the Netherlands were neutral during World War I and thus we learn mostly about the first war in the context of the second). There is a certain shock to seeing all these observations about a people being drilled to feel and think certain things, to want bloodshed for the greatness of their nation, and the rallying nature of massive get-together around the Kaiser.. Of course, these were Von Arnim’s ideas about the German, but it was interesting to me that apparently these ideas existed in 1917, while I associate it with the picture of Germany painted in the context of the interbellum and World War II.

However, these interesting things about the story did very little to make it an enjoyable read for me. As a fictional book, Christine mostly left me feeling apathetic. The othering got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. It is sad but true. I usually love Von Arnim’s style, gently humorous comfort reading with a sharp edge at times. Here, she is mostly a little too sentimental for my liking, and the sharp edge comes out much too stark on the side of prejudice, propaganda and nationalism. I admit that I was a little touched emotionally by the end of the book, and yet mostly I felt relieved that it was over, that I could put it behind me, and hopefully still read the other books by Elizabeth von Arnim that were not published under a pseudonym and without these ulterior motives, with joy.

To be fair: Christine can also be read in another light. As is noted over here, it might be interpreted as an hommage to Von Arnim’s fourth daughter who died in Germany in 1916. I can see parts of that reflected in the story, and I think that, put in this light, the story becomes a little more “humane” and might also explain some of what I deemed too sentimental above; for Christine is constantly expressing so much love when writing to her mother that I quickly felt it might be a little too much to be realistic. I cannot help but keep to the opinion that this book did not exactly work for me, that I cannot read around the opinions about the Germans as they were expressed, because for me they obscure what might have been a more interesting narrative otherwise.

[I want to add that I do not think I necessarily begrudge Von Arnim for writing propaganda (though part of me wishes she hadn’t). It is more a matter of not being able to enjoy this “othering” in the contemporary context as a reader turning to Elizabeth von Arnim for enjoyment and not for a study in propaganda. I hope this makes sense and that I did not offend anyone.]

Other Opinions: Random Jottings, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.
** This post was crossposted to the Project Gutenberg Project.

Project Gutenberg Project: The Third Miss Symons by F.M. Mayor

Today, I am over at the Project Gutenberg Project, with a post on The Third Miss Symons by Flora Macdonald Mayor. This book about the life of a single woman during the beginning of the twentieth century reminded me of Consequences by E.M. Delafield, one of my favourite books from last year. I did not like The Third Miss Symons quite as much, but I am still very happy I read it. Please click over to read my post.

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The Project Gutenberg Project blog is, as the description on the website states, a project:

“started with the goal of making public domain titles from sites such as Project Gutenberg and Librivox more accessible. Although a great resource, Project Gutenberg doesn’t currently categorize books by topic or genre, so it’s difficult to find obscure gems. Solution: research, discussion, and reviews!”

Alongside Aarti, Alexandra, Chris, Lu, Meghan, Nymeth, and project leader Tasha, I am one of the regular contributors. Guest posts are always welcome!

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von ArnimThe Solitary Summer – Elizabeth von Arnim
Girlebooks, 2009

Originally published 1899
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The premise of this story is simple: Elizabeth suggests she wants to spend a solitary summer, without the usual company, to read and concentrate on her garden:

“Wouldn’t a whole lovely summer, quite alone, be delightful? Wouldn’t it be perfect to get up every morning for weeks and feel that you belong to yourself and nobody else?”

“The Man of Wrath”, as she calls her husband, agrees, but thinks she will die of boredom. And so this novel follows her summer, Elizabeth wandering around her garden, talking about her babies, visiting the poor. In the end, one could argue her summer is far from solitary, with her family always nearby, and soldiers stationed near her house for a while, and yet the book exudes the atmosphere of quiet and solitary ramblings.

If you are a reader who likes to cuddle up with a book in a quiet corner, it is hard not to relate to Elizabeth’s quest for solitude. Even more so because a large part of The Solitary Summer reflects on her reading during the summer:

“Books have their idiosyncrasies as well as people, and will not show me their full beauties unless the place and time in which they are read suits them.  If, for instance, I cannot read Thoreau in a drawing-room, how much less would I ever dream of reading Boswell in the grass by a pond!  Imagine carrying him off in company with his great friend to a lonely dell in a rye-field, and expecting them to be entertaining.  ‘Nay, my dear lady,’ the great man would say in mighty tones of rebuke, ‘this will never do.  Lie in a rye-field?  What folly is that?  And who would converse in a damp hollow that can help it?’  So I read and laugh over Boswell in the library when the lamps are lit, buried in cushions and surrounded by every sign of civilisation, with the drawn curtains shutting out the garden and the country solitude so much disliked by both sage and disciple.”

It is surprising how easily Elizabeth von Arnim’s books manage to remain interesting, despite a lack of plot. If you were to ask me what exactly this book is about I would find it hard to answer, but I can tell you that I very much enjoyed  reading it. There is a quality to von Arnim’s prose that turns it into a comforting escape from the world. I think in part this is due to the feeling of being a kindred soul to Elizabeth, in her love for reading and wandering in a garden it feels as if you are one of the select few invited into her world during the summer. I am sure those of a more active disposition, who dislike reading, would find it much more difficult to love this book. Part of why The Solitary Summer was such a comforting read is also due to the way in which she gives inanimate objects like books, or live objects that we usually don’t give a will of their own, a distinct personality. It shows in the description of the companionship she holds with  books, but also in her descriptions of the garden itself:

“I saved the dandelions and daisies on that occasion, and I like to believe they know it. They certainly look very jolly when I come out, and I rather fancy the dandelions dig each other in their little ribs when they see me, and whisper, ‘Here comes Elizabeth; she’s a good sort, ain’t she?’ – for of course dandelions do not express themselves very elegantly.”

Between Elizabeth and her German Garden and this follow-up, I am not sure which one I enjoyed better. Perhaps I enjoyed her meandering writing a little more this time around, because I knew what to expect and so I could appreciate the small details better. On the other hand, while there are as many instances i which gendered roles and hierarchies are subverted in this volume as in the first, the middle part of The Solitary Summer deals with visits to the poorer people living in the village nearby Elizabeth, in which a glimpse of elitism appears: Elizabeth believes the peasants are less modern and are, for example, unlikely to understand the need for modern healthcare. At the same time, she shows true compassion for those she visits. Do not get me wrong, I know that class distinctions were common around the turn of the century, I do not blame Elizabeth von Arnim or anything. Actually, she is quite mild in her descriptions. It is just that, as a reader, these parts felt a little out of sync with the setting at the beginning and the end of the book, that concentrate on her garden, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Three books into Elizabeth von Arnim’s oeuvre, I know I would like to read everything by her, if at all possible. And so, here’s another author for the “Complete works of..” list. Luckily, many of her books are available in the public domain, though I admit: I would love to own the pretty Virago Modern Classic editions of her works.

Other Opinions: Verity’s Virago Venture, So Many Books, A Work in Progress, Things Mean A Lot.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

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Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables - L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
Girlebooks, 2009
Originally published 1908

Because English is not my first language, I always feel I am catching up on classics that everyone seems to have read. Whether its required highschool reading, or childhood books that are commonly known and read, or turned into TV series, but that never became a staple book in the Netherlands. Anne of Green Gables is an example of this. And I do feel sorry for my younger self, because this is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a child. Luckily, I still loved discovering it now that I’m older (and I can hear my parents chuckle from here: you mean to say you do not still act like a little child at 24?)

Anne of Green Gables is the story of an orphan girl who is sent to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert by mistake, for Matthew and Marilla sent for a boy to help them at their farm, Green Gables. Anne Shirley quickly manages to capture Matthew’s heart, with her red hair, and her talkative, imaginative and romantic nature, and she is allowed to stay.

Together with the romantic descriptions of Prince Edward Island, Anne’s character is what truly makes this story. Anne is the kind of girl I would have loved to have as a friend as a child, or perhaps, I would have wanted to be Anne. Because Anne shares the imagination and romance that so many children feel, but combines it with clumsy, outspoken, but at the same time heartwarming, behaviour that somehow makes everyone love her. I admit, at first I wasn’t sure if I could go beyond feeling some sympathy for Anne, as the first part of the story has a pattern of Anne trying to be on her good behaviour, nevertheless making a mistake, and Marilla being disappointed in her, but I soon found her funny, quirky, and utterly loveable. Add to this her winning optimism, and who could help but love this girl?

“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs Lynde says, ‘Blessed are those who expected nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expected nothing than to be disappointed.”

What completely won me over was the last half of the book. Anne’s ability to continue learning, and her ultimate loss, selflessness, and taking on of such a responsibility.. I was in tears.

I am currently reading the second book, Anne of Avonlea, which I am enjoying, but I’m not sure if it is as good as this first book in the series. I really want to read the whole series, but I have a feeling I’ll need to alternate my reading of these books with others, so as to avoid irritation.

For the few of those who have not read Anne of Green Gables, I highly recommend giving it a try. Anne quite easily stole my heart.

Other Opinions: Stella Matutina, Confessions of a Bibliovore, The Bluestocking Society, Rhapsody in Books, Always With a Book, Let’s eat Grandpa!, The Blue Bookcase, Jules’ Book Reviews, At Pemberley, Fleur Fisher, Life With Books, Things Mean A Lot, The Fourth Musketeer, Care’s Online Book Club, Bookfoolery.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.