Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Tale of Two British Tales, or What I Read While Traveling

While we were on the road I read two atypical short novels by two major British writers, Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy.   Both authors are deeply English and alike in that they wrote about the oddities of the class system, the moral dilemmas in English life, and both created their own fictional countryside to reflect their themes and perceptions.   Both the novellas were early works of eminent authors who are better known for very different styles of work.   I thought I would informally compare and contrast since after all, I have nothing better to do, but if you want to just skip on, the short version is that I recommend both the books if you happen to enjoy reading well-written, insightful depictions of the country from which our language originates.   I do enjoy that sort of book, so I enjoyed both the books. 

The Trollope novel, really more like a novella with a doom-laden trajectory, was called An Eye for an Eye

Trollope is better known for his lengthy and detailed Barchester Chronicles and Palliser cycle.   The former concern societal and moral issues among the Anglican clergy and the latter concern British political life. All his books deal with moral dilemmas that spring from the rules of upper class life in 19th century England.   I read both these cycles several times a long time ago.

This particular novella draws on his experience in Ireland early in his adult life.   The major events in the book actually take place near the Cliffs of Moher, which we got to visit a few years ago on a family trip to Ireland.  These cliffs are  the most beautiful and desolate I have ever seen, so the story of despair and tragic events seemed very suitably located.   My husband Kevin sacrificed a rear view mirror on our journey to that spot, because the only road to the cliffs is a one-laner along a steep drop, and he had to pull off to the side to let an oncoming tour bus go by.   In the process he scraped off the side mirror of our rental.  Not a pretty picture, but much easier to cope with than what happens to the main characters in this story.

Fred Neville is the Anglican nephew of a British earl and suddenly becomes his heir.
Kate O'Hara is the beautiful, Catholic and isolated only daughter of a gentlewoman who has shut herself away in this wild corner of Ireland because of a scapegrace husband.

The rest follows from the inflexible laws of English society and religion of which fans of 19th century British novels are well aware by now.  

I will not say more, but I do recommend the tale if you don't mind a bit of tragedy.  I am not spoiling anything by saying this because the tragic note is introduced clearly in a prologue where the woman in the insane asylum keeps repeating over again, "An Eye for an Eye!"

Now, Thomas Hardy is well known for this kind of tragic tale of ill-starred love, but the novella Under the Greenwood Tree, or The Mellstock Quire, is quite in another vein from his better known works.   While I have read several of his books, I do not like his writing.   I love his style, but I dislike the post-Christian pagan themes and plots.     Here I am able to get his literary style with a light touch and a happy-ish ending.    I had watched the movie version of the book with my daughter several years back.  It is charming and features Kelsey Hawes whom you may know from the movie versions of  Wives and Daughters and Our Mutual Friend.  She is so beautiful and charming on-screen.

Anyway, the book wasn't quite like the movie, which takes the love affair somewhat more seriously than the book does.   But the book brings out the full value of the robust Mellstock Quire (or choir) and the humanity of the players and their family.   I loved this book.  Some of the humor and careful description of the prosaic elements of the English working class reminded me somewhat of LM Montgomery.  It made me regretful that Thomas Hardy seemed to become so melancholic and arreligious in his later work, even though in this Pastoral or Georgic work, you don't quite see the full development of his talent.

I thought it was funny that I accidentally selected a Trollope work that was somewhat Hardy-esque, and a Hardy work that was somewhat Trollope-ian!  (though not really, because Hardy's book is firmly set among the working class, and Trollope doesn't really write about that class at all). 

I really enjoyed them both and if you have an E-reader, you can read them both for free in the public domain.


  1. I'm pretty sure I read "An Eye for an Eye" in college. A professor of mine made an offhand comment in class that if we wanted to read 10 Trollope novels, he'd excuse us from the semester's paper. I took him up on it and had a great summer of reading!

  2. I would go for the 10 Trollope novels, too. I love reading his books! I hope you didn't have to do the paper, though that can be fun sometimes too.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!