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Caro

Dickens, Woolf, Galsworthy as seen by others

I have finished a book called Imagined London by Anna Quindlen in which she writes about fictionalised London, the authors who made their home in London, and modern London and how it fits with its fictional past.

She makes some comments which I was interested in, and wondered how you saw them.  At one stage she calls Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway “perhaps the twentieth century’s most perfect novel”.  There is no further comment about this so I don’t know in quite what sense she meant.  Do you agree?   Or understand why she would say that.

Later she writes about John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga and says,
Quote:
For years the novels by John Galsworthy were out of fashion, despite an improbably Nobel Prize for Literature for their author.
She continues to say the television series brought them back to public interest, though critics were still unconvinced, calling the books ‘middle-brow’.
Quote:
But a new generation of readers discovered this family saga, and while it is not Middlemarch, it is nonetheless quite entertaining and often moving.  It is also a book in which London features almost mathematically as a map of the fortunes, aspirations, limitations and adaptations of its various characters.
 

I would also say it’s one of the most readable books I have ever come across.  I read it, aged 17, till 5am one morning when I finally finished it.  Obviously unputdownable for me at that time.  I haven’t re-read it, but would like to.  He’s still not really fashionable though, is he?  We don’t talk about him on our board much.

The other comment was about the relative reputations of Thackeray and Dickens.  She talks of fashions in literature.  “Galsworthy out, Bowen out and then in again, Woolf in only for modernists of a certain stripe until, that is,, the movies took her up.  My old clothbound History of English literature, circa 1885, declares, “there are two distinguished authors, who divide the honour of being called ‘First novelist of the day.’  Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray stand side by side on that proud eminence, each with his multitude of admirers.’  But the on-line reading list for Kingston University states flatly, “The great figure of nineteenth-century literary London is Charles Dickens.”  Poor Thackeray.”

At my university one of the few essays I can remember being set was comparing the qualities of Thackeray and Dickens; I came down firmly on the side of Thackeray.  I would not be so firm today, but still think Vanity Fair is as good as any book I have read.  We also read Pendennis, which no one talks about now.  We didn’t read any Trollope, and it seems to me he is much more fashionable now than 40 years ago.  

Any comments?

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

I am sure there are others on this board more qualified than myself to comment on Woolf, but describing a work as “perfect” is not necessarily a recommendation, as most of the works I value highly are very far from perfect. When an artist is ambitious, and aims high, I don’t expect the work to be perfect. War and Peace Beethoven’s 9th symphony, The Prelude, Moby-Dick … these are all imperfect works. So what?

I think the consensus of opinion nowadays is that the two towering British novelists of the Victorian era were Charles Dickens and George Eliot. It’s not a view I’d disagree with. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is still read and admired, but his other novels barely scrape pass marks in the Great Test of Time.

George Eliot was admired in her time, but mainly by a small circle of connoisseurs rather than by the wider public. Dickens thought the world of Adam Bede, for instance, and Felix Holt drew the admiration of Tolstoy. Nowadays, those who do read Victorian novels would probably rate Eliot and Dickens at the top.

Trollope always was popular, and his popularity shows no sign as yet of declining. He is a big gap in my own reading, but I’d guess him to be a writer of such fine craftsmanship that the distinction between craft and art, blurred at best, becomes irrelevant. That is the impression I have of him, at any rate.

So far as I’m aware, the Victorian authors with the highest public profiles in their own time were Dickens and Tennyson. The latter possibly isn’t so widely read these days, but that’s because hardly anyone reads poetry anyway. But for all that, and despite the battering Tennyson took from modernists such as TS Eliot, he has survived quite well, I think. The Victorian poet who is (perhaps unjustly) neglected these days is Browning, despite his having been one of Ezra Pound’s literary heroes.
Mikeharvey

Just before reading the above I had been considering what works might be considered as 'perfect'.  I expect there are lots, but might I offer 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' as a starter?  It sems to me a poetic and dramatic miracle.
TheRejectAmidHair

Mikeharvey wrote:
Just before reading the above I had been considering what works might be considered as 'perfect'.  I expect there are lots, but might I offer 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' as a starter?  It sems to me a poetic and dramatic miracle.


I agree. But is King Lear any lesser a work for not being perfect?
Mikeharvey

Of course not. It adds to the wonder that is 'King Lear'  that you can almost see the chisel marks as Shakespeare struggles to carve the play out of his imagination.   I wonder which of the tragedies is the most approaching perfection.  'Othello'?  Are flaws an almost necessary part of some masterpieces?
Green Jay

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:

So far as I’m aware, the Victorian authors with the highest public profiles in their own time were Dickens and Tennyson.


Having heartily resisted previous centuries during my formal studies of Eng. Lit, I am not well-versed in the Victorians. But it was such a long period there must have been other authors with a very high profile. We would not  lump 50-60 years of the 20th century together and talk of only a couple of authors.

From a position of complete ignorance I'll lob in Sir Walter Scott. I know nothing about him except that at one time he was highly popular and there used to be gazillions of his books in secondhand bookshops or on dusty home bookshelves when I was young; also TV and film versions of some of his novels. Was he simply an historical novelist or did he write other contemporary stuff too?

I'm not suggesting that Scott or the others below should be highly regarded, but I'm wondering who was highly known and sometimes highly rated at the time, yet has not stood the enduring test of time?

Other writers whose relative profiles I have no idea about either, but they were known - Christina Rosetti, Wilkie Collins, George Gissing, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, Charlotte Bronte, Mrs Gaskell, and those other lady authors prefaced with Mrs- (I almost typed Mrs Henry Wood but he's the proms chap). Mrs Henry ??? and Mrs Lynn Linton? Oscar Wilde is a Victorian. Is Walter de la Mare too late?
John Q

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
Trollope always was popular, and his popularity shows no sign as yet of declining. He is a big gap in my own reading, but I’d guess him to be a writer of such fine craftsmanship that the distinction between craft and art, blurred at best, becomes irrelevant. That is the impression I have of him, at any rate.


Don’t guess Himadri.  Read Trollope or don’t read him but do not guess about him.

I used to read a lot of Trollope.  The Small House at Allington and Phineas Finn were my two favourites by him. He is comfortable, satisfying,  an optimistic writer,  with a sunny view on the whole about life.    But eventually his books seem to run seamlessly into one another, which was why I stopped reading him.    

I think the Forsyte Saga is  superior to Middlemarch. Middlemarch  is a view of  life from George Eliot’s  sanctum which she had retired to by the time she wrote it, totally unworldly,  it’s not  - by some way  - even her best book.  The Forsythe Saga is right up there with the very best,  that’s why he got the Nobel, no improbable about it.  I would say  the first part of the trilogy The Man of Property  is as perfect as you could get.  The remaining books of the saga don’t quite maintain it but they are still first rate.  

Thackeray and Dickens?   I would definitely choose Thackeray.   Reading Thackeray I had the same feeling when reading one of the writers like Tolstoy, Thomas Mann or Proust, you are in the presence of a great literary mind.  Dickens wrote  far too much poor stuff  in my view to justify his exalted reputation.
Evie

John - out of interest, what would you say is George Eliot's best book?  I have only read Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede and Silas Marner, and some of the shorter fiction, so would love to know which one it is, so that I can read it next!  Middlemarch is, for me, the finest novel I have read that was written in English - I think only War and Peace and possibly Anna Karenina compete in terms of books I have read, full stop - so am looking forward to an even better one.  Not being at all sarcastic, I genuinely want to know!
TheRejectAmidHair

John Q wrote:
TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
Trollope always was popular, and his popularity shows no sign as yet of declining. He is a big gap in my own reading, but I’d guess him to be a writer of such fine craftsmanship that the distinction between craft and art, blurred at best, becomes irrelevant. That is the impression I have of him, at any rate.


Don’t guess Himadri.  Read Trollope or don’t read him but do not guess about him.


Yes, I'm sure I'll get round to him some day, although, personally, I do have more urgent priorities. But until I do get round to reading him, a hunch is all I have to go on. (As long as I clearly label my hunches as such, of course, and don't presume to pass them off as anything else!)
TheRejectAmidHair

Mikeharvey wrote:
Of course not. It adds to the wonder that is 'King Lear'  that you can almost see the chisel marks as Shakespeare struggles to carve the play out of his imagination.   I wonder which of the tragedies is the most approaching perfection.  'Othello'?  Are flaws an almost necessary part of some masterpieces?


it's an interesting question. there are certain works where, as you say, the chisel marks or the brush strokes are intended to be seen, and it is questionable whether, in such cases, these apparently imperfect elements should be counted as flaws. They're rather like Cleopatra's defects:

                                 I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street
And, having lost her breath, she spoke and panted,
That she did make defect perfection
Caro

I had been hoping Trollope would be on your reading list for this year, Himadri.  I think you would appreciate him - he has a warmth to his writing and is always on the side of his characters, even those he is gently laughing at or criticising.  Not always the case with Dickens, and a quality Jane Austen doesn't bother with, as you have mentioned.

I'm pleased to see someone going into bat for Galsworthy, thanks John.  Vindicates how much I enjoyed Man of Property when I read it.  Another book from the past to re-read; there are so many and I spend too little time reading and too much here.  But then there is also the non-fiction that I love, too.

Browning was read and studied as an important poet when I was at university.  We studied quite a number of those long poems - Milton's Paradise Lost, Byron's Don Juan, Wordsworth The Prelude, Pope's Dunciad, and Browning's monologues.  And I was sure we read a long poem of John Dryden's but I can't remember its name and can't find what I am thinking of.  I am surprised to see he died in 1700; I was about to pop his writing in the lateish 18th century.  Or even the 19th.  

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Green Jay wrote:
TheRejectAmidHair wrote:

So far as I’m aware, the Victorian authors with the highest public profiles in their own time were Dickens and Tennyson.


Having heartily resisted previous centuries during my formal studies of Eng. Lit, I am not well-versed in the Victorians. But it was such a long period there must have been other authors with a very high profile. We would not  lump 50-60 years of the 20th century together and talk of only a couple of authors.

From a position of complete ignorance I'll lob in Sir Walter Scott. I know nothing about him except that at one time he was highly popular and there used to be gazillions of his books in secondhand bookshops or on dusty home bookshelves when I was young; also TV and film versions of some of his novels. Was he simply an historical novelist or did he write other contemporary stuff too?

I'm not suggesting that Scott or the others below should be highly regarded, but I'm wondering who was highly known and sometimes highly rated at the time, yet has not stood the enduring test of time?

Other writers whose relative profiles I have no idea about either, but they were known - Christina Rosetti, Wilkie Collins, George Gissing, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, Charlotte Bronte, Mrs Gaskell, and those other lady authors prefaced with Mrs- (I almost typed Mrs Henry Wood but he's the proms chap). Mrs Henry ??? and Mrs Lynn Linton? Oscar Wilde is a Victorian. Is Walter de la Mare too late?


Walter Scott's reputation was certainly very high in Victorian times, but I wasn't counting him as he died in 1832, some 5 years before Victoria ascended the throne.

For similar reasons, I am not counting Wordsworth either: he lived till 1850, but most of his work - and certanly all his best work - had been written much earlier.

There were other very famous writers as well, of course - many of whom you mention (and it is Mrs Henry Wood, though not connected with the Proms chappie! Her own name was Ellen Wood) - but in terms of public profile, as far as I'm aware, Dickens and Tennyson were the most prominent. Whether or not they were the best is, of course, open to debate. Many would argue, for instance, that the greatest Victorian poet was Gerard Manley Hopkins, but he was barely known in his own lifetime.

As for who the greatest Victorian novelist was, my opinion on that is fairly well-known, I think on that score! But I wouldn't argue with the assertion that Middlemarch is the single greatest Victorian novel - although I'm sure strong cases may be made for some of Hardy's finest works.
TheRejectAmidHair

Caro wrote:
I had been hoping Trollope would be on your reading list for this year, Himadri.  I think you would appreciate him ...


I'm sure I would, but it' s just that I have been feeling of late that I have bee reading too many novels, and neglecting other forms. So, once I've finished Moby-Dick, I may give novels a bit of a rest for a while.
Castorboy

Evie wrote:
John - out of interest, what would you say is George Eliot's best book?  I have only read Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede and Silas Marner, and some of the shorter fiction, so would love to know which one it is, so that I can read it next!  Middlemarch is, for me, the finest novel I have read that was written in English - I think only War and Peace and possibly Anna Karenina compete in terms of books I have read, full stop - so am looking forward to an even better one.  Not being at all sarcastic, I genuinely want to know!

Good question. I would have thought it was almost impossible to decide which was the best because it has to be a personal choice!
Green Jay

[quote="TheRejectAmidHair:23058
Walter Scott's reputation was certainly very high in Victorian times, but I wasn't counting him as he died in 1832, some 5 years before Victoria ascended the throne.

[/quote]

I had no idea that he died *so early*. His writing from what I know about it - secondhand info - doesn't seem to fit into the earlier traditions that I associate with the pre-Victorians. Perhaps he is unique.
John Q

Evie wrote:
John - out of interest, what would you say is George Eliot's best book?  I have only read Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede and Silas Marner, and some of the shorter fiction, so would love to know which one it is, so that I can read it next!  Middlemarch is, for me, the finest novel I have read that was written in English - I think only War and Peace and possibly Anna Karenina compete in terms of books I have read, full stop - so am looking forward to an even better one.  Not being at all sarcastic, I genuinely want to know!



Why would I think you were being sarcastic Evie?  
Yes I am well aware of your opinion of Middlemarch.  
Been a long time since I read George Eliot actually.  Daniel Deronda put me off her  almost forever.  I think both  Adam Bede  and Mill on the Floss are better than Middlemarch.    I certainly enjoyed them a lot more.  They are authentic, seeming  to come straight from her heart with the strong autobiographical element to them.  I think we have a picture of the young Eliot in Maggie Tulliver and  presumably her father in Adam Bede  I happen to think her early books were better than her later ones.  
Incidentally, Evie , I was wondering why, if you like Eliot so much, you haven’t read the rest of her works?
TheRejectAmidHair

Daniel Deronda, I thought, needed a surgical operation. The strand dealing with Gwendolen Harleth is, I think, quite superb, and everything I would expect from a novelist of the stature of George Eliot. (This part of the novel clearly foreshadows the marriage of Isabl Archer to Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, and I don't think even Henry james does a better job of it.) The strand dealing with Daniel discovering his Jewish roots is, I agree, far less satisfactory. If only we could separate out the two strands and keep the finer, we would have a magnificent work.

I haven't yet tackled any of Eliot's earlier novels - Adam Bede, Felix Holt, Romola or Scenes From Clerical Life. Adam Bede is certainly high on my to-be-read list. In The Mill on the Floss , I was particularly struck by Eliot's depiction of the protagonist's developing consciousness as she is growing up: it's a theme many writers have dealt with, but few as convincingly as George Eliot. It is only in the final part of the novel that it goes off the rails a bit: there seemed nothing to indicate why Maggie Tulliver should be attracted by Stephen Guest.

Middlemarch enthralled me throughout, and is among the many works high on my To-be-reread lit.

I know very little of George Eliot's own life, and know very little of how much she drew on it in her works - so I cannot, of course, comment on any autobiographical element. But in general, autobiographical elements in a work of literature are just as likely to be a weakness as they are to be a strength.

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