Notes from my Bookshelf

Bleak House

Autumn. There is no better time of year to read Charles Dickens and no better novel than Bleak House.

Outside my four walls, there is a frost or a west wind or a cold rain but I don’t mind. My curtains are drawn, the lights are low except for a lamp to read by. I am wrapped in a blanket, steeped in foreboding, anticipating the winter to come. 

Enter Dickens.

I sink into the pages, one after the other, and am not disappointed. The complicated stories with their plots and sub-plots. The innumerable, memorable characters, heroes and villains alike. The interweaving relationships, the astounding coincidences. The author’s biting anger at the evil that people do, his bemusement at the mere foibles of others. (He can tell the difference, Mr. Dickens.)

I know, I know:  Dickens’ women are his greatest failure. The bit players he creates can be marvellous but the female protagonists are saintly or silly or both. Universally unbelievable. There is no Pip or Copperfield among them.

But in Bleak House, Esther Summerson is who she needs to be. She is quietly strong, the product of her culture and upbringing, her place and time. We understand her humility. Understand that she prefers to stay in the background.  That she believes herself undeserving of whatever love and affection and good fortune come her way. In the novel’s best chapters, she is the unreliable narrator of her story, revealing more – in her understated way – than she ever intended.

I love Esther Summerson.  But.

Couldn’t Esther change – even just a little – over the course of 914 pages? Reveal a hidden complexity, express a hidden desire? Speak up for herself, demand her rights?

Then I remind myself that it’s pointless to have twenty-first century expectations of a nineteenth century novel or novelist.

I settle in and turn another page.


What is to be Done?

Raise your hand if you knew that Mavis Gallant had written a play. (I didn’t.)

What is to be Done? (a play) by Mavis Gallant. Premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in 1982, published in 1983. Re-issued by Linda Leith Publishing, with an introduction by Linda Leith, in 2017.

Like Gallant's Linnet Muir stories, What is to be Done? is set in Montreal in the 1940s. It features Molly and Jenny who are comrades as well as friends. They are young, one is married and the other is single. They are living in a country at war -- though the war is in some respects distant -- at a time when opportunities seemed to be opening up for women. Both of them, or each in their particular way, has the certainties and the insistence and the optimism of youth.

Molly and Jenny attend demonstrations and take informal instruction in Marxism. After Hitler turns his troops east in 1941, and voids the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they join the call for the Allies to open a Second Front. They trust that the defeat of Nazism will result in a better world. (For one thing, surely Franco would no longer rule Spain.)

Gallant was a little cagey in interviews when asked about her own politics during those years but we can read between the lines.  She described herself as “an intensely left-wing political romantic” and “passionately anti-fascist”.[1]  As are these characters. Passionately anti-fascist, but also naïve, romantic, idealistic.

And yet. The young know a thing or two that the writer, looking back from thirty or forty years, will struggle to portray without condescension.

In one exchange, Molly and Jenny reflect on the difference between love and friendship:

Molly:  . . . nothing is owed in friendship. You can close the account without publishing a statement. No one can claim a right to examine the books. There are no mortgages.

Jenny: And love?

Molly: Just one foreclosure after another.[2]

How great is that?


[1] From Mavis Gallant’s 1977 interview with Geoff Hancock, Canadian Fiction Magazine 39, reprinted in Canadian Writers at Work, Interviews with Geoff Hancock (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987). Also cited by Linda Leith, in the introduction to What is to be Done? (2017) and by John Metcalf in “My Heart is Broken: In Memoriam Mavis Gallant, 1922-2014,” Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ), Winter 2016

[2] What is to be Done?, scene 2, page 52 in the Linda Leith edition (2017)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971). 

Not that Elizabeth Taylor. . . .

Continued at The New Quarterly in an on-line exclusive, March 2023.

Return to Home