Tag Archives: 19th Century

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest, the tragic, eponymous heroine of Fontane’s novel, is the only child of a  German aristocratic couple living on an idyllic country estate outside of Berlin.  When Effi is seventeen years old, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is twenty years her senior.  In addition to the age gap, their very different views on life doom the marriage from achieving any peace and contentment from the start.

When we first meet Effi she is playing in the garden on her parent’s estate, her favorite place in the world.  Effi loves nature and is a carefree spirit who always laughing and taking great delight in socializing with her family and friends.  An hour before she is engaged to Innstetten she is playing tag in the yard with her three best friends.  When she is introduced to her finance, she is excited at the prospect of marrying a man who is ambitious and will provide a good life for her.  Innstetten is a Landrat in Kessin, a senior politician that oversees a large rural population.  But during their engagement there are hints at the aloofness of her future husband in the letters he sends to her.  Effi mentions to her mother that “most of what he writes I could put on the noticeboard at the town hall where his official announcements are posted.  Geert isn’t a Landrat for nothing.”  Effi’s statement is a perfect example of Fontane’s subtle and allusive narrative—we are given hints about the great contrast between Effi’s needs and Geert’s inability to fulfil those desires.

When Effi moves to Innstetten’s home in Pomerania, she is still very much childlike and innocent.  She is oftentimes frightened by noises she hears in her new home and an old legend about the previous owner and his “Chinaman” adds to her terror.  The local Prussian nobility is unwelcoming and aloof and, except for a town chemist who is especially warm and kind to her, Effi is socially isolated.  Innstetten is oftentimes away fulfilling his administrative duties and when he does spend time with his wife he only gives her “one or two tired if well-intended caresses.”  She is oftentimes unhappy and doesn’t realize that it is due to the fact that her marriage has failed to satisfy her emotionally or physically.   It is no big surprise that Effi engages in a brief yet passionate love affair with Major Crampas, a reputed womanizer who is more passionate and expressive than her husband.

But Effi, in the end, develops no real attachment to Crampas and decides that the best course of action for herself and her family—she has an infant daughter by this time—is to stay with her husband who is being promoted through the ranks of the political system.  When Effi and Innstetten move to Berlin for his new ministerial post, Effi believes that the affair is something in the past, a long-forgotten indiscretion.  She still has bouts of sadness because she misses the emotional and physical connection with Crampas but she puts aside her own needs for the sake of her husband and daughter.

Innstetten, who was a former suitor of Effi’s mother, has spent his life working and improving his career.  After the rejection by Effi’s mother, he has denied himself intimate human connections or marriage.  But the thought of having another chance with a young woman who greatly resembles his former love is too tempting.  He seems delighted with Effi and throughout their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage he is very complimentary and affectionate to his young wife.  But once he settles back into his routine he takes on the role of an authority figure.  It is Crampas who points out to Effi that Innstetten has assumed the role of “pedagogue” in their marriage.    Effi’s high spirits and vigor are greatly contrasted with her husband’s restraint and self-control.  He is a man of the law and sees the world in terms of moral imperatives and absolutes.  Effi’s affair is her attempt to free herself from these constraints.

Effi keeps her love letters from Crampas locked away in her sewing box and six years after the affair has ended, while they are living in Berlin, Innstetten discovers the letters quite by accident.  Even though he still loves his wife, his strict adherence to his values causes him to make decisions that destroy his entire family.  He challenges Crampas to a fatal duel, throws his wife out of his home and doesn’t allow Effi any further contact with her daughter.  Innstetten’s handles the situation in the only way he feels right, but his morally correct actions bring him no peace or comfort.  Several years after Effi is gone, he has a vulnerable moment and confides in one of his only friends: “But I’ve forgotten how to be glad about anything.  If I said that to anyone other than you, it would just sound like a glib phrase.  But you can follow my drift.  Look at this place; look at how empty and desolate it all is.”

The strengh of Fontane’s narrative lies in the character of Effi that he creates for his story.  Effi stands among famous 19th century female characters like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as an example of a daring woman who resists the sexual, emotional and even political restraints that are imposed on her.  Effi finally returns to her parent’s home, the one place she was truly happy and free to be herself.  She dies, full of heartache and grief, but is buried in her favorite place in the garden and, as a last act of defiance and free will,  she requests her own, original name be carved on her gravestone: Effi Briest.

(I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.  Persephone Books has also published a translation by Walter Wallich that was reviewed by Ali at her blog: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/effi-briest-theodor-fontane-1895/).

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Filed under Classics, German Literature

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

Review: The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher through TLC Book Tours.

My Review:
Mapmaker's ChildrenThis story is a dual narrative that traces the lives of two women: Sarah Brown is living in the 1860’s and her father is fighting to free slaves, and Eden Anderson is living in the 21st century and lays around wallowing in self-pity and thinking about her fertility issues.  The contrast between the characters of these two women and how they deal with hardships is extreme.  Sarah learns very early on that she cannot have children because of a high fever from dysentery, but she dedicates her life to her father’s cause of helping free slaves through the Underground Railroad.  Sarah draws maps so that these men and women who are desperate to escape their enslavement can make it to safety.  Even when Sarah’s father is hanged for his part in the Harper’s Ferry uprising, she bravely carries on the abolitionist cause at great personal risk.

Eden, on the other hand, is absorbed by anger and depression because she cannot have a child and she sadly takes her frustrations out on her husband.  When the story opens Eden is ready to give up on her marriage and move out.  The juxtaposition between the strength of Sarah and the weakness of Eden makes Eden an even more unlikeable character.  The eleven-year-old girl named Cleo who lives next door to Eden is a much more interesting and feisty character and both she and a dog named Cricket finally challenge Eden to stop feeling sorry for herself.

The two narratives gradually intersect as a secret door in the pantry of Eden’s house reveals the head of a doll.  With Cleo’s help Eden gets to the bottom of this mystery and she, predictably, learns some valuable lessons for her own life.

The strongest part of this novel is the story of Sarah Brown and her family as they fight for the abolition of slavery.  For me the story of Eden and her infertility were distracting and tiresome.  The events of the Harper’s Ferry Rebellion and the fight for freedom is such a powerful and interesting period of history and these events could stood on their own as the focus of an historical fiction novel.

I am interested to hear what other readers think: do you enjoy historical fiction novels with dual narratives in different time frames?

See what other bloggers are saying about the MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN book tour.  Click on the TLC banner below for a listing of all the stops on the tour.

About The Author:
McCoySARAH McCOY is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico; and The Mapmaker’s Children (Crown, May 5, 2015).

Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an Army physician, and their dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas. Sarah enjoys connecting with her readers on Twitter at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page or via her website, http://www.sarahmccoy.com.

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Filed under Historical Fiction

Review: The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns

I received an advanced review copy of this collection of short stories from the author.

My Review:
The Settling EarthAll of the characters in these short stories are connected by their sense of alienation and misery while living an emigrant’s life in the hot, dusty colony of New Zealand in the 19th century.  The book begins with Sarah, whose parents have given her away to an older man named William Sanderson who drags her off to live on his isolated farm in New Zealand.  Sarah is lonely, homesick and stuck in an unhappy marriage.  She seems to be wandering around her home in a daze, either not fully aware of her surrounding or in denial of her situation.

William himself is also the focus of one of the stories in the book and he doesn’t seem to want to live in New Zealand any more than his wife does.  In order to relieve his stress and find an outlet for his frustrations, he likes to visit a brothel in Christchurch.  William is also a bigot and has a severe dislike for the Maori natives.

Several characters from the brothel also have their own stories.  The owner of the brothel, having left England and started her business, tries to look after her “girls” as best she can.  But, despite the fact that precautions are taken,  several of them still manage to get pregnant.  The women in the brothel are just as sad as Sarah and trapped in a lonely and demeaning life.

The saddest, and most heart-rending story in the collection, is that of Mrs. Gray who takes in the babies of unwed mothers.  These fallen women and their children are judged harshly and shunned by the colony.  It is ironic that many of these women have come to the colony for a fresh start but the colony also rejects them because of their perceived sins.  Mrs. Gray believes that she is helping these women and her babies, but the help that she is giving these women is not what they are expecting.

THE SETTLING EARTH is a well-written group of stories, full of downcast and moving characters.  My only complaint about the book, if indeed it can be called a “complaint,” is that just when I became fully invested in a character the story would end. This collection could easily have been made into one, continuous, thought-provoking book;   I would love to see what a talented author like Rebecca Burns could do with a full-length novel.

About The Author:

Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), and has been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”—a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. In November 2014 she won the Black Pear Press short story competition with her story, “Seaglass”. Her piece is the title story in the Black Pear Press anthology, “Seaglass and Other Stories” – available from December 2014 at http://blackpear.net/2014/12/28/wonde…

Rebecca’s debut collection of short stories, “Catching the Barramundi”, was published by Odyssey Books in November 2012 and is available to order from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Catching-Barram…. In March 2013 it was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.

The Settling Earth is Rebecca’s second collection of short stories.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Review and Giveaway: A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor

My Review:
A Memory of VioletsThis book alternates between two narratives, the first of which describes a pair of poor Irish immigrant orphans living on the streets of London in 1876 and who try to sell flowers in order to survive.  Flora, who is 8, is crippled, and Rosie, who is 5, is blind and although they have wretched lives the one thing that they do have is each other.  This part of the narrative is so pathetic and heart-wrenching that I almost gave up on the book because I could not take the sadness any longer.

The other part of the narrative takes place in 1912, when a young woman named Tilly moves to London to become a house mother at a Training Home for Watercress and Flower Girls.  All of the girls who work at the home are handicapped in some way and if it were not for this training home they would be living on the streets in abject poverty.  At the home the girls learn to make flowers out of fabric and the flowers are sold to vendors around London.

Tilly’s story is rather sad as well and we learn that she has had her own family troubles.  But coming to London and taking care of the girls at the home is a happy endeavor for which she is most grateful.  While Tilly is at the training home, she discovers a diary in the back of her closet written by the orphan girl Flora.  One day while they are selling their flowers, Flora and Rosie get separated on the streets of London and Flora ends up living at the home.  Tilly reads Flora’s diary and tries to discover what became of the two sisters and if they ever had the chance to reunite.

A MEMORY OF VIOLETS is a glimpse at the harsh reality of orphaned children living in the streets of London in the 19th century.  The characters will definitely leave an impression on the reader.  Although the narrative is sad and tragic at the beginning, my advise is to keep on turning the pages because the story does have a good ending.

About The Author:
Hazel-GaynorHazel Gaynor is an author and freelance writer in Ireland and the U.K. and was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Award for Emerging Writers in 2012. Originally from North Yorkshire, England, she now lives in Ireland with her husband, two young children, and an accident-prone cat.

Giveaway:
I have a paperback copy of the book to giveaway, open to US residents only.  Just leave a comment below and let me know you want to win!  The winner will be notified via e-mail and will have 48 hours to respond.  Giveaway ends 2/18.

Click on the TLC tour button below to see all of the blogs participating in A Memory of Violets book tour.

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Filed under Giveaways, Historical Fiction