Category: English Classics (page 1 of 2)

The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sequels

When I saw that one of my favorite LibriVox readers recorded The Scarlet Pimpernel and two of its sequels, I decided to listen to them. The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t great literature, but it’s fun, and I’ve been in the mood for light reading.


Read by Karen Savage

Read by Karen Savage

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy

“Armed with only his wits and his cunning, one man recklessly defies the French revolutionaries and rescues scores of innocent men, women, and children from the deadly guillotine. His friends and foes know him only as the Scarlet Pimpernel. But the ruthless French agent Chauvelin is sworn to discover his identity and to hunt him down.”


Read by Karen Savage

Read by Karen Savage

The Elusive Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy

“In this thrilling sequel, the terrorist Chauvelin devises a vile plot to eliminate the Pimpernel . . . once and for all.”


Read by Karen Savage

Read by Karen Savage

El Dorado, by Baroness Orczy

“The still-raging French Revolution continues to claim lives, and the shadow of the guillotine draws ever nearer to the young Dauphin, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. No one dares to attempt to liberate the little prince—no one, that is, but the . . . Scarlet Pimpernel.”

LibriVox App

Like many readers these days, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while doing other tasks.  A good source for free audiobooks in the public domain is LibriVox. You can download or stream audiobooks from the web site, or you can install an app on your phone or tablet to do the same thing.  Here is the basic description of LibriVox from its web site:

LibriVox Objective

To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.

Our Fundamental Principles

  • Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project
  • Librivox donates its recordings to the public domain
  • Librivox is powered by volunteers
  • Librivox maintains a loose and open structure
  • Librivox welcomes all volunteers from across the globe, in all languages

Some books are read by multiple volunteers; others are read by only one. The more popular titles have several versions, so if you start one and aren’t crazy about the reader or readers, just keep trying until you find a version that appeals to you. For example, the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has seven versions in English.

I prefer to read books one at a time, which means that I will move back and forth between reading and listening to a book before I move on to the next book. For that reason, I rarely listen to an audiobook in its entirety. I listened to significant portions of the six audiobooks below and enjoyed them all very much.

I’ve told several people about the LibriVox app recently and have been surprised by how many readers don’t know about it.  If that describes you, check it out! With over 10,000 files in its catalog, you’re certain to find something you will enjoy.

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot (English classic)

“Brought up at Dorlcote Mill, Maggie Tulliver worships her brother Tom and is desperate to win the approval of her parents, but her passionate, wayward nature and her fierce intelligence bring her into constant conflict with her family. As she reaches adulthood, the clash between their expectations and her desires is painfully played out as she finds herself torn between her relationships with three very different men: her proud and stubborn brother; hunchbacked Tom Wakem, the son of her family’s worst enemy; and the charismatic but dangerous Stephen Guest.”


The Mill on the Floss used to be on my list of George Eliot novels not to read. I watched a movie version of the story years ago and thought that the ending was so random and awful that there was no way I was going to read that book! In the years that have passed, however, I’ve read and loved several novels by George Eliot and come to trust her as an author. I decided I was ready to give The Mill on the Floss a try.

Many descriptions of this book, including the one above, make Maggie sound like a rebel and perhaps even a revolutionary. The quality they miss is her simplicity and lack of sophistication. Maggie doesn’t want to be a rebel! What she lacks is the ability to suppress her natural authenticity in order to conform to the beliefs and behaviors demanded by her family and community. Her mistakes are rarely true sins against God, and yet they are regarded as unpardonable sins by many members of her family and, later in the book, by the community at large. No matter what Maggie does, it isn’t right. Continue reading

Shirley

Shirley

Shirley

Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë (English classic)

“Written at a time of social unrest, [Shirley] is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry.”


I really wanted to like this book and began it with that intention, and by the time I finished it, I did like it—I just didn’t love it. I think the reason was because it never completely captivated me. Brontë begins the novel by describing many minor characters in detail, and I had difficulty understanding which characters the story would follow, which made it all seem rather pointless to me in the beginning. As the novel and its underlying themes unfold, it does become just as much about a community of people as it does the lead characters, which gives at least some purpose for the detailed descriptions of the secondary characters. Structurally, this novel begins with a community in turmoil and ends as that community begins to come out of the turmoil. This struggle is mirrored on an individual level with several of the characters, in particular Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore. This observation from Chapter 20 puts into words what I believe is the overall theme of the novel:

Most people have had a period or periods in their lives when they have felt thus forsaken—when, having long hoped against hope, and still seen the day of fruition deferred, their hearts have truly sickened within them. This is a terrible hour, but it is often that darkest point which precedes the rise of day—that turn of the year when the icy January wind carries over the waste at once the dirge of departing winter and the prophecy of coming spring. The perishing birds, however, cannot thus understand the blast before which they shiver; and as little can the suffering soul recognize, in the climax of its affliction, the dawn of its deliverance. Yet, let whoever grieves still cling fast to love and faith in God. God will never deceive, never finally desert him. “Whom He loveth, He chasteneth.” These words are true, and should not be forgotten.

Continue reading

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (biography)

“It is one of the curiosities of history that the most remarkable novel about Jews and Judaism, predicting the establishment of the Jewish state, should have been written in 1876 by a non-Jew—a Victorian woman and a formidable intellectual, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest of English novelists. And it is still more curious that Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel, should have been dismissed, by many of her admirers at the time and by some critics since, as something of an anomaly, an inexplicable and unfortunate turn in her life and work. . . .

“Why did this Victorian novelist, born a Christian and an early convert to agnosticism, write a book so respectful of Judaism and so prescient about Zionism? And why at a time when there were no pogroms or persecutions to provoke her? What was the general conception of the “Jewish question,” and how did Eliot reinterpret that “question,” for her time as well as ours?”


I learned about this book last year after I re-read Daniel Deronda and was preparing to write a blog post about it, available here. George Eliot’s prescience about Zionism fascinates me, and I was eager to learn more about her path to writing a novel that is as unusual as it is powerful. Himmelfarb does a superb job giving historical context to George Eliot’s work and showing how “her vision of Judaism and a Jewish state was all the more remarkable precisely because it was disinterested, because, unlike Deronda . . . , she was not Jewish and had no personal stake in it. It was still more remarkable because she came to it from a large philosophical perspective and from an intimate knowledge of the most sophisticated critics of Judaism. She knew everything her opponents (and some of her friends) might say in refutation of her views, having once shared some of them. Her conversion, not to Judaism but to a respect for religion in general and Judaism in particular, was all the more notable because it involved a repudiation of some of the most powerful ideologies of her time: the belligerent irreligion and anti-Judaism of the Young Hegelians, the attenuated, syncretistic religion of the Positivists, and the secular humanism of enlightened, ‘advanced’ liberals.” (The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, Epilogue)

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot helped me appreciate Daniel Deronda even more than I already did, and I thought it was a work of genius before I read Himmelfarb’s book. I believe that Eliot’s vision transcends the Jewish drive to unite and establish a national homeland in Palestine because it explores the spiritual bonds of family and heritage in a way that has universal application. Deronda’s story certainly resonates with me, a Mormon woman who, by Himmelfarb’s definition, is as “disinterested” in Judaism as George Eliot was. Himmelfarb explores the reasons George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda from a historical and biographical perspective. I would like to make an observation on how George Eliot was able to write a book with with such an expansive vision of Zion from a spiritual perspective. Continue reading

Persuasion

Persuasion

Persuasion

Persuasion, by Jane Austen (English classic)

“Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?”


One of the things Persuasion does best is show that a desirable home is much more than a grand estate and fine furnishings. Anne Elliot’s standard of homemaking has been set by her deceased mother, who is described as an “excellent woman, sensible and amiable” who had managed Kellynch Hall with “method, moderation, and economy.” Anne is grieved that her father and older sister Elizabeth—who, for all practical purposes, became the mistress of Kellynch Hall after their mother’s death—have mismanaged the family’s resources to such an extent that they will have to “retrench” in Bath, where their lawyer believes a family of high rank can appear important without spending a lot of money.

Many months after the family moves to a much smaller home in Bath, Anne and Elizabeth’s sister Mary unexpectedly arrives at their new home with her husband. They have travelled to Bath with Mary’s mother-in-law Mrs. Musgrove and two others. Once Elizabeth realizes that Mary and her husband have no intention of actually staying with them while they are in Bath, she is able to “put on a decent air of welcome.” As the visit progresses, however, she experiences a quandary: Continue reading

101 Famous Poems

101 Famous Poems

101 Famous Poems

101 Famous Poems, edited by Roy J. Cook. First edition published in 1916.

“Poetry has the power to give us strength, inspiration, and hope, helping us to make meaning from our hectic lives and giving us the opportunity to appreciate new ways of thinking about universal themes and observations.

“Whether you are a newcomer to poetry or a lifelong lover of verse, you will find within the pages of this indispensable compilation the greatest poems of all time, powerful words that have delighted and inspired generations of readers—words that are sure to inspire you today.”


I will be the first to admit that I’m a “newcomer to poetry.” I’ve never disliked poetry, but I’ve also never had much patience with it. I like a terrific story, and that narrative drive is what keeps me reading. As I grow older, however, I’m gaining a greater appreciation for the way poetry can make beautiful language heavenly. The leader of the book club I belong to, on the other hand, loves poetry and has been working to help the rest of us gain a greater appreciation for it. She recommended this book for the group, and I’m glad she did! I started from the beginning, reading a few poems at a time. I’m glad I took this particular approach, because it enabled me to get a much more comprehensive view of a bygone world described by a variety of poets from different time periods. All of these poets are dead, and the world they wrote about is gone—history to us now—but to them the joys and sorrows they wrote about were real. Continue reading

The Secret Garden and The House of the Seven Gables

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Children’s classic)

“Born in India, the unattractive and willful Mary Lennox has remained in the care of servants for as long as she can remember. But the girl’s life changes when her mother and father die and she travels to Yorkshire to live with her uncle. Dark, dreary Misselthwaite Manor seems full of mysteries, including a very special garden, locked tight for 10 years. With the help of Dickon, a local boy, Mary intends to uncover its secrets.”

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (American classic)

“Built over an unquiet grave, the House of the Seven Gables carries a dying man’s curse that blights the lives of its residents for over two centuries. Now Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, an iron-hearted hypocrite and intellectual heir to the mansion’s unscrupulous founder, is attempting to railroad a pair of his elderly relatives out of the house. Only two young people stand in his way–a visiting country cousin and an enigmatic boarder skilled in mesmerism.”


The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables

As soon as I learned that The Secret Garden would be on my book group’s schedule for 2015, I thought it would be nice to re-read The House of the Seven Gables also and comment on both novels. On the surface, these books appear quite different, but I knew they were similar in at least one respect—both stories show gardening as being an activity that nourishes both the body and spirit. By the time I was finished reading the books, I realized that they are even more similar than I had remembered; they both address the healing of emotionally diseased individuals and families in old manor houses that symbolically take on the sickly qualities of the families that inhabit them. One of the characters in The House of the Seven Gables describes this relationship between the families and their generational homes:

“The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about the hearths, and pollute the life of households. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.” (Chapter 17)

The family illness in The Secret Garden has lasted a decade; in The House of the Seven Gables, it has lingered for two centuries. Both stories prescribe a similar remedy—receiving loving help from healthy outsiders, adopting wholesome thoughts, engaging in hard but nourishing work, and opening oneself to both physical and spiritual sunshine in abundance. Notice how similar these two passages are in the way they describe both physical and spiritual light: Continue reading

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (British classic)

“A body is found in the Thames and identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father’s will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society.”


Our Mutual Friend details corruption and falsity in those “various corners of London society” to such a degree that a glimpse of Zion didn’t come easily to me as I read it. In this Babylon-like society, the altruistic mingle with the mercenaries, and distinguishing between them isn’t always simple. One thing that Dickens does well in this novel is show how these types exist at all levels of society and that it is possible for a person to change—sometimes for the better and, just as often, for the worse.

As I was thinking about this novel after I finished it, I became aware of profound themes that illuminated the novel for me in ways that surprised and awed me. I almost want to re-read it again right away so that I can delve more deeply into those themes. The twists and turns of this story are half the fun of it, and I don’t want to spoil that fun for those who haven’t read it by saying too much. For that reason, I will try to tread carefully. Continue reading

Villette

Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (British classic)

Villette

Villette

“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”


I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for the first time about twenty years ago. During that first reading, I became caught up in the raw emotion and love story of this great work. I thought it was a very stark novel, and I said as much when one of the members of my book group told the rest of us in the autumn of 2014 that she had recently finished reading it. She disagreed with my opinion and declared that it was a happy book. Of course, this disagreement fascinated the other members of the group, and we put it on our list for 2015. I just finished re-reading it and still think it is stark and that it ends in tragedy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was the only one out of the five in attendance at our meeting who felt that way. We had a spirited discussion about the matter, and I couldn’t persuade them to my point of view, and they couldn’t persuade me to theirs. Continue reading

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