Friday, February 09, 2007

Classics Challenge, #2, 3, and 4

Elizabeth Gaskell - Mary Barton
Baroness Orczy - Scarlet Pimpernel
John Hershey - A Bell for Adano (substitution for Oliver Twist)

Random thoughts: I hadn't planned on writing about these three books as a group -- or, for that matter, even reading Adano for the classics challenge. A chance reference to it in a crossword puzzle reminded me that my mother's copy was on the bookshelves. Glancing at the foreword, I was intrigued by the following:

You see, the theories about administering occupied territories all turned out to be just theories, and in fact the thing which determined whether we Americans would be successful in that toughest of all jobs was nothing more or less than the quality of the men who did the administering. . . .

America is the international country. . . . That is where we are lucky. No other country has such a fund of men who speak the languages of the lands we must invade, who understand the ways and have listened to their parents sing the folk songs and have tasted the wine of the land on the palate of their memories....

Hershey seemed to touch on so many timely issues that I wanted to try the novel, to see how the issue of US military in occupied territory in WWII would be presented (though it's not a subject I'm going to discuss in the entry).

Thinking back, it seems as if all three books deal, in some fashion, with power and authority figures, and with their potential for good or ill. Although all three use outside narrators, each positions the reader in a slightly different relationship to those in power. Mary Barton generally aligns us with Mary's perspective and that of the working class characters surrounding her; Bell's narrator is clearly sympathetic towards Major Joppolo, the Italian immigrant and former government clerk who is now in charge of overseeing affairs (in more ways than one) in the occupied town of Adano on the Italian coast. Pimpernel frequently shifts perspective early in the novel, but stays with Lady Marguerite for much of the later chapters, generally favoring whichever angle allows inflating the tension and elevating the Scarlet Pimpernel and his dazzling achievements. Like many other literary superluminaries (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe), the Pimpernel is almost always seen through others' admiring eyes, further magnifying his exploits and skill.

In all three novels, the antagonists also represent a larger force -- Chauvelin, the French revolutionary government; John and Harry Carson, the mill owners and manufacturers who band together to make decisions affecting their workers' lives and welfare; General Marvin, military bureaucracy. Their position allows them to wield sufficient power to damage or destroy -- and occasionally end -- the lives of others, including those who should instead be receiving their protection. At some point, each of these men seems to respond out of ego and/or vindictiveness -- exacerbated by an inability to see their victims as people instead of as obstructions. Each novel has a different resolution: Gaskell's Mary Barton brings Carson to some recognition of the sufferings of his workers and a happy (and romantic) ending for the title character; Hershey -- the other novelist writing about a contemporaneous situation and social problems -- opts for the reverse: General Marvin triumphs, and Joppolo ends up en route to Algiers, although the acquisition of the title object at least implies some hope for Adano's future; Chauvelin is ignominiously defeated by the audacious and ever-resourceful Pimpernel.

Two of the novels are written by women, and although at first glance Mary Barton and The Scarlet Pimpernel may seem wildly dissimilar -- one highlighting the plight of the working poor, the other proclaiming that noblemen are, indeed, noble men, and that all that satin and lace merely disguises brilliant minds and dashing young men who live for daring rescues -- there are also some striking similarities. Gaskell and Orczy season their plots with romances, and with somewhat similar ones, at that. In the course of both novels, a woman comes to the realization that she does, indeed, love the man who is devoted to her -- but this discovery occurs under circumstances that prevent her from declaring or demonstrating her love. To complicate matters further, the woman manages (because of her relationship with another man) to place her beloved in jeopardy, then races frantically against time in order to save his life, finding her goal impeded by weather and the complications of travel on water. Unexpected delays heighten her fears until, after witnessing her beloved's trial (literal or metaphorical), she reveals the intensity of her love; the man is saved, the woman swoons, and romance begins (or resumes).

Adano, written by a man, takes a much more prosaic approach to gender relationships and love. There are no scenes where men burn with undying passion as in the following from Pimpernel (which also serves as an example of Orczy's style, since it seems only fair to include an excerpt from her work):

She looked divinely pretty as she stood there in the moonlight, with the fur-cloak sliding off her beautiful shoulders, the gold embroidery on her dress shimmering around her, her childlike blue eyes turned up fully at him.

He stood for a moment, rigid and still, but for the clenching of his hand against the stone balustrade of the terrace.

. . . His whole attitude was one of intense longing -- a veritable prayer for that confidence, which her foolish pride withheld from him. . . .

. . . Had she but turned back then, and looked out once more on to the rose-lit garden, she would have seen that which would have made her own sufferings seem but light and easy to bear -- a strong man, overwhelmed with his own passion and his own despair. Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.

(And isn't that a romantic note on which to end?)


Blogger booklogged said...

Very romantic, indeed! I like how you compared these 3 books. Terrific review. I am adding these 3 to my list.

11:39 AM  

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