This year (2020)
Previous years: 2019;
Heart of the Valley
A World Away
in the Darkness
Woman in White
The heroine of this book is a bird, a "dunnock", something I had never heard of before, but
apparently the more common name is the "hedge sparrow". The story takes
place somewhere in the English countryside, near a couple of farms. And we
follow the drama of this little hedge sparrow through a year of its life.
There are so many of these little birds peeping and
tweeting away, particularly in the summer. All sorts of different species,
yet they all look pretty much the same to me. Not like the birds of
Australia which are very distinctive. But how do they survive this horrible
northern European winter? We hang seed dispensers from the the branches of
trees in the winter, resulting in much activity in the garden during these
cold, wet, muddy months. And somehow the tiny birds survive. Then in the
spring and the summer the air is filled with their calls. But we have
remarked on the fact that in recent years there seem to be fewer bees and
butterflies compared with a few years ago. Is it all that glyphoast
which the farmers are spraying everywhere?
The book starts off in the
winter. Many of the birds die of cold and hunger. But then our little
sparrow finds a mate, and they take refuge and some warmth in a barn. When
the warmth of spring returns they make a nest in a hedge directly next to
a driveway, which is soon destroyed by a car squeezing by another car and
scraping the hedge. Then they try somewhere else, later in the summer.
The story then shifts to
Africa. We follow the trials of a cuckoo, flying for days across the desert,
then across the Mediterranean Sea, and France, to finally arrive in the
woods near our sparrow's farm. And so the drama begins. The horrible cuckoo
baby kills the sparrow babies, one after the other. But with the advantage
of having hatched a couple of days earlier, and with much endurance and
agility, one of the sparrow babies survives.
Indeed, I hate the sound of those cuckoos. Germans make
quite a fetish out of their rules and regulations for hunting, so I suppose
they must be a protected species. But what is the good of such parasitic
Well, I suppose all of these things are relative. After
all, the sparrows themselves live by eating up all the insects and worms
that they can find. Such is the struggle for life. The thing that I don't
understand is why sparrow evolution has not advanced to the point of being
able to distinguish a cuckoo baby from a sparrow baby, which would enable
the grown-up sparrows to rid their nest of such little monsters.
The story is concerned with adaptation. For one
reason or another, children are sometimes left without parents. They might
then be put into a strange family and brought up as children of the new
family. Or, usually less happily, they are put into some sort of institution
for dealing with the situation.
In the book, things start off with a mother who has lost
herself in a drug-induced haze and various, more or less violent male
partners. She has two children: Kerry, an eight year old daughter who is
more or less looking after the two year old son. She is keeping herself and
her baby brother alive using desperate measures. But then they are taken
into care. The baby son is adopted by a wealthy, open, friendly family near
Primrose Hill, and he thrives, eventually becoming a barrister in the law
courts of London. He has changed his name to Noah. Kerry was put into a home
with other orphans and has now become a cleaning lady, privately cleaning
other peoples houses for some small, minimum wage, living in a London slum.
Kerry remembers her brother well, but the adoption people
do not tell her how to get into contact with him. Only if he were to contact
them would they release such information.
We follow Noah and his problems in marriage. He seems to
be an almost perfect husband to his wife, and father to their daughter. But
his complaining wife says that he is not sufficiently open. He does not talk
to her enough. And so she wants a divorce.
Is she being unreasonable? Aren't women often naturally
more talkative than men? But more than that, we must think about the
situation of a person living as an adopted child in a family. The family
might be as friendly and loving as can be, but in the background is the
unspoken thought that the ties are not so strong. If things go wrong might
the adopted child not be just as easily returned to wherever it came from? I
can well imagine that adopted children become careful, guarded, cautious
with their families. And this could become a basic way of dealing with life.
Unfortunately the book then became a gushingly emotional
story about the sister developing cancer, finding the long lost brother
using a detective agency, deceiving him at first about her motives (ensuring
that Noah becomes the guardian of her 10 year old son), and then dying and
being eulogized by everybody, including the brother. I would have preferred
to find out more about what Noah's wife was thinking, and what Kerry really
thought of her brother without all of this unrelated drama.
This is not a novel, instead it is a brief history
of the Crusades. The subtitle of the book is, "The Case for the Crusades",
thus telling us that they were justified in some way. Indeed, thinking about
the books I have read, from Gibbons vast history through to a book
describing the Crusades as written down by contemporary Arab observers;
throughout all of these writings we have the impression of primitive,
violent hoards, invading peaceful, civilized lands, leaving chaos
everywhere. Was Pope Urban II nothing but a wild rabble-rouser at Clermont,
addressing a mob of ignorant peasants on the 27th of November, 1095?
Or is all of this just a distortion of things as they
really were? Did Gibbon become carried away with his anti-clerical posture?
And was it only natural that the Arab inhabitants of the lands being invaded
thought of themselves as being civilized and the invaders as brutal
aggressors? What were the causes of the Crusades?
Going back further in time to the year 600, we find that
most of the Mediterranean world was Christian. And judging, for example, by
the Confessions of Saint Augustine, people were free to think in
various ways about philosophy and religion, continuing the open tradition of
ancient Rome. People went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps out of
curiosity, or religious fervor, or to atone for their sins. Then, around 620
Mohammad appeared on the scene, preaching religion but also becoming a warrior, uniting the tribes of Arabia,
first through attacks on caravans and later in pitched battles. The Arab
warriors who came after Mohammad quickly conquered many further lands,
It is said that the system which developed was tolerant,
world-open. Arab learning preserved the "dark ages" from pure ignorance. But
is this really true?
Islam is a utopian system. Yet utopias are always harsh,
intolerant. Free thinking cannot be tolerated. What other explanation is
there for the fact that of the hundreds of Nobel Prizes which have been
awarded in the sciences, only three have been given to people with Muslim
backgrounds, despite the fact that almost two billion of the people in the
world adhere to that religion?
Of course the hoards of Arab warriors emerging in the
seventh century, riding their camels out of Arabia, were no better than
soldiers everywhere. But as Rodney Stark shows, much of what is attributed
to the high Islamic culture of the middle ages was due to people who refused
to change to the new religion. And while they were tolerated, they were
treated very unfairly with repressive taxes and all sorts of restrictions.
And the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were often attacked, robbed,
The brutal, bloody sack of Jerusalem by the crusaders is
often compared with the peaceful conquest of Saladin. But this comparison
fails to remember the rules of warfare in those days. If a city under siege
surrendered, it would be spared. Otherwise everything would be destroyed;
the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Both the crusaders
and Saladin followed these rules. Various cities were subjected to Saladin's
wrath, as bloody and savage as anything the Crusaders offered.
Then there is the sack of Constantinople in the fourth
crusade. Yet this becomes understandable when we read of the continuous
double-crossing of the crusaders and their colony by the Byzantines, often
allying themselves with the Turks against the crusaders.
And finally we have the fact that these days many Muslims
consider the Crusades to be an historical evil, a crime which for a
millennium has been left to fester and eat away at the soul of Islam. The
Zionists of Israel and the invaders of the United States are said to be
crusaders. The bringers of evil. But in fact this idea of the crusaders as
being of great significance was an invention of 19th century Islamic
nationalism. The commentators back then, a thousand years ago, considered
the Crusades to be a minor affair. If anything, they were a welcome force to
counteract the continuing invasions of the Turks.
A painful back condition struck me down for a couple of
weeks, and the realization that things will gradually go downhill as age
progresses through the seventies and into the eighties. And thus I was in
the mood to re-read some of the books I've read over the last few years. A
good exercise. Not always reading in order to find out what happens, but to
know what happens and to think more about what is happening. This time I was
especially moved by Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. I think it
is his best.
And so this year I suppose I will do more re-readings and
less new readings, not bothering to write about them here.
Ghost Bride was Choo's first book, but I read The
Night Tiger first. Both take place in Malaya, which has now been named
Malaysia after it stopped being a British colony. Ghost Bride is set in the
1890s and Night Tiger in the 1930s. And the author was born in Malaysia of
Chinese descent, as are most of the characters in both stories.
Ghost Bride is certainly a very unusual story. I've never
been to China, and I know very little about Chinese culture. But as I
understand it, the tradition is to make paper models of various things and
then burn them at the graves of the ancestors, perhaps even paper money as
well, with the thought that this might help the spirits of the ancestors in
the unknown Beyond.
I had thought that these Asian people generally adhere to
the reincarnation theory of death. But the author shows that the after-world
is, in fact, just a place where the soul temporarily abides before it is
subjected to the judges at the Gates of Hell. There, punishment is
determined for the sins of the past life, and after this punishment is
extracted the soul then returns to our world in its new reincarnation.
Therefore the purpose of these Chinese graveyard sacrifices is to provide
those souls which are waiting as long as possible before their passage
through the Gates of Hell with everything it takes to make life in this
pre-purgatory as pleasant as possible. How dreadful it is to be stranded in
the after-world with nothing; no money, homeless, destitute. Such is the sad
fate of those whose families neglect to offer the appropriate sacrifices at
the graves of the ancestors. And on the other hand, those happy souls whose
families burn huge numbers of paper images and even large amounts of paper
money live a life of great riches in the spirit world, even approaching the
fabled luxuries of a Jeff Bezos or a Bill Gates. Such ideas of the afterlife
were exploited by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in order to extract
huge amounts of money from the lower orders of the population. The money was
not burned, but rather it was used to support the extravagant and degenerate
life styles of the church hierarchy. And as I understand it, the same thing
happened when Buddhism descended from the heights of the Himalayan mountains
to the riches of lowland China. This is the reason that Buddhism is no
longer a popular religion in China.
And so Yangsze Choo gives us a story, telling us what
that other world is really like. The heroine in the Ghost Bride is Li Lan.
She is the daughter in a family which was earlier wealthy but which has
become impoverished in the opium fumes of the father. He has incurred
crushing debts to the powerful Lim family. The only son and heir of the Lim
dynasty, Lim Tian-ching has unfortunately died and it is proposed that Li
Lan, a still living person, should marry his ghost. She resists, and in the
night, in her dreams, she is tormented by the ghost of Lim Tian-ching,
driving her almost crazy. She drinks poison and nearly kills herself,
lingering for weeks in a half dead coma. During this time her soul wanders
about between the real world and the spirit world. It becomes a sort of
adventure story. And a love story with Er-lang, a half man, half spirit.
Very strange. But I enjoyed the book.
The Night Tiger is not such a ghost story, although there
are ghostly elements in it. It is the 1930s and we meet some of the British
colonialists. They are medical types, working in a hospital in a town in the
middle of Malaya. For most it is a banishment from the home country as a
punishment for the sins in their previous lives there.
The Night Tiger is in some way the ghost of one of these
doctors who has just died. We are familiar with the concept of werewolves. Apparently in Malaya the similar concept
of were-tigers existed. Somehow, after death, perhaps if a person was not
completely whole, for example if a finger had been amputated and thrown
away, or placed in a specimen glass with formaldehyde, then the spirit of
the dead body is not free. It becomes a were-tiger, attacking people, or at
least haunting them. It can only be pacified if the missing body parts are
returned to the rest of the body in the grave within 40 days of burial.
But there was much more to the book than just this. It
was an interesting story, giving us a feel for colonial Malaya before it
gained independence. And I enjoyed the book even more than Ghost Bride since
I'm not really such a fan of pure fantasy fiction.
11.22.63, by Stephen King
Apparently the author has written more than 50
books. This is the first one, and probably the last one which I have read.
But I do know that he is a kind of cult author with a large following of
voracious readers. Many of his books, including this one, have been made
into movies or TV series. He must be one of the richest authors in the
world, although I can't imagine that his riches would approach the multiple
billions of dollars that all those truly rich people have amassed for
themselves in our seemingly ever more corrupt modern world.
Following the American convention for writing dates, the
title of the book is the 22nd of November, 1963, the day when Kennedy was
assassinated. The book reduces the whole business to a silly nonsense. It is
a time travel adventure. The hero, Jake Epping, is a school teacher in a
small town in Maine. The time is the summer of 2011. Al, who has a diner in
town where Jake often eats hamburgers, sells them very cheaply. It turns out
that there is a secret passage in the back cupboard leading to the same town
in Maine in September 1958. You can walk down the steps and it is always the
same initial scene regardless of what you may have done on your last visit.
But when you walk up the stairs back into 2011, only 2 minutes have passed
in Al's diner. And during all the years that Al has had his diner, he has
been walking down to 1958, buying meat at the pre-inflation prices of those
days and bringing it back up the stairs to be sold cheaply, but at a good
profit in 2011.
But then, rather than just going down the steps for a
quick shopping of meat, Al, who is, as is the case with Jake, an adherent of
the political theory that democrats are good and republicans are bad,
decided to stay in the world of 1958, waiting for it to become 1963, and
then to save Kennedy from his assassination, and thus changing the world
from being bad to being good. So for Al, five years of time have passed, but
in the world of 2011, when he re-emerges from the past, only 2 minutes have
passed. The next day when Jake goes to the diner for a cheap hamburger after
school he is astonished to see that for some strange reason, Al had aged
totally from one day to the next, and he was practically dead. So Al told
him about his passageway to the past and his plan to kill that evil Lee
Harvey Oswald, the presumed killer of JFK. Obviously Al has not succeeded in
his mission since, as we know, Kennedy was actually killed on that day. Thus
he tells Jake that he must take his place and carry the plan through to
success, changing history so that today, Wikipedia would not have this page in its archives.
After a few fits and starts, Jake does stay in the world
of 1958-63. He falls in love with a beautiful woman and they succeed in
stumbling onto the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, thus
saving Kennedy, but getting the girlfriend shot and killed. Jake decides to
return up the steps into the Maine of 2011, two minutes later, but five
years older. He finds that the world has been changed in terrible ways.
Everything has gone wrong. It seems that even time and space are in the
process of descending into chaos. Existence itself is collapsing!
He learns from a strange man near the bottom of the steps
that the only solution is to go down the steps and then return, thus
"resetting" the world to its true state. He goes down, but wants to stay in
order to meet his girlfriend again and look for a better outcome - after
all, love solves everything - but in the end he decides to return up the
steps and save the world, the universe, space and time, existence, and
everything else. In the final scene he travels to Texas and meets his
girlfriend who is now 80 years old and knows nothing about all this
nonsense, but he finds her to be still attractive.
Well, Ok. I'm not averse to an amusing little time travel
story every now and then. As mentioned here a number of times, we can even
say that the idea is simply a description of the many-worlds theory of
quantum mechanics. Each possible "reset" takes us back to 1958, and from
there we branch off into a new world which no longer has anything to do with
our actual world. The time-traveler has suddenly materialized out of nothing
in 1958 with no parents, no birth, no history. But why not?
I see that Stephen King was also born in the year 1947,
just a couple of months after I was born. So maybe he thought it would be
nice to revisit the memories of his early teenage years in this story. The
hero, in his 1958 existence, soon buys a 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible and
enjoys cruising about the place. He compares it to his small Japanese car in
2011, which he hates. And I remember admiring those cars which had a large
chrome spare wheel container mounted on an extended rear bumper. I thought
that looked really cool and I wanted a car just like that when I grew up.
Now I am 72 years old. If I had such a monstrosity of a car I would
immediately sell it.
But the book is not really concerned with pleasant
feelings of nostalgia for the elderly. It is very long. I think the print
editions run to 700 pages or so. Very long-winded, tedious prose, taking
forever to get to the point. It is all about the theory that Lee Harvey
Oswald, a nasty, violent, crazed nut acted all alone. I had thought that
of the people who bother to think about the JFK assassination, those who
still believe in such an unbelievable theory are those who simply refuse
to read about the known facts. They would prefer to float about in their
happy fantasy-land where the USA remains a peaceful example to the rest of
the world of an enlightened "great" society. But at the end of the book,
Stephen King, who surely does take the trouble to read various things,
gives us a description of what he says are examples of writings which
prove this "lone nut" theory. What can he be thinking?
What do people do who go to university and study
English Literature? Do they all become school teachers? Maybe they go to
work in banks or into hedge funds, overwhelming unsuspecting customers with
elegant words. Of course if they have gotten their degree at Oxford or
Cambridge then they are a step above the rest, and if it is World War 2,
they are recruited into MI5. Then after the war, the obvious step is into
the BBC, with lots of obscure contacts, making for interesting listening.
It seems to me to be the case that people who have
become very rich tend to adopt very conservative beliefs. Perhaps they
feel that if the world will just remain the way it is, with only few
changes, then their riches might be preserved. Upsetting ideas, such as
that the USA experienced a kind of coup d'état with the assassination of
JFK, leading to ever more bloated spending on ever more wars, are thought
of as being vaguely threatening to their accumulated wealth.
And so he depicts Oswald as a monster. And also that
mysterious figure, George de Mohrenschildt, is described as a monster.
Motivated by these thoughts and looking about the internet, I found a
manuscript which de Mohrenschildt wrote shortly before he either committed
suicide or was murdered. The title is "I am a Patsy!". An interesting document, much more
interesting than the present book. It seems to be sincerely written. Is it
fact or fiction? Who knows what's the truth? Was de Mohrenschildt linked
to the CIA as most investigators seem to believe? What role did he have to
play with respect to Ruth Paine, and with getting the job at the Texas
School Book Depository? And did Oswald really take a potshot at General
Walker? The whole thing remains an unresolved murder mystery. The secret
files of the CIA were supposed to be released a year or two ago, but
President Trump, despite all his bluster and assurances that he would
follow the law, caved in, leaving us still in the dark.
Was the world of 1958-63 better than that of today?
Perhaps not. But somehow I have the feeling that not all that much has
changed in the last 50 or 60 years.
Such was the life of Juliet Armstrong. But she was not a
secret agent, parachuted into foreign lands to pretend that she was what she
was not. Instead her job was to sit in an apartment in London, fitted out
with earphones and recording equipment, listening to the goings on in the
apartment next door which had been thoroughly bugged by the technical people
of MI5, and then typing out what she was able to hear. What was she hearing?
Another MI5 agent had ingratiated himself into a small
circle of people who were sympathetic with the enemy, Nazi Germany. They
were mainly housewives. They believed that their friend, the MI5 secret
agent, was a Gestapo agent who was reporting everything over to Berlin, not
knowing that it all went into the room next door where Juliet was typing
everything out. The little group of pretend Nazis was very dilettantish. The
housewives report seeing ships out at sea, or soldiers walking on the
sidewalks. And they discuss how wonderful it will be when Hitler finally
In order to liven things up, Juliet is asked to play a
more active role, becoming a young member of the group. The goal is to find
a secret book, the Red Book, which is thought to be hidden in the house of
one of the women, containing some sort of secret information. She visits the
ringleader, finds the book but is almost found out, climbing out the
upstairs window and down the ivy clinging to the house. While doing so she
compromises the English maid of the house, and soon the maid disappears,
having been murdered and buried in some hole.
Then one day one of these housewives stumbles upon the
TRUTH about the fact that their apartment rendezvous has been bugged, with,
again, very messy results.
The book jumps into the year 1950. Juliet now works for
the BBC, producing Children's Hour. But she receives mysterious, threatening
messages. Is somebody out to get her? Is it revenge? Or is it MI5? Has
Juliet suddenly become transported into a novel by John le Carré?
The narrator has a nice name: Tara Richards. Tara
is a figure in the myths of Buddhism. And Tara Air flies from Kathmandu to
the airstrip at Lukla in the foothills of Mt. Everest. But all that is
neither here nor there as far as this book is concerned.
We first encounter Tara and her mother, Violet, in very
difficult circumstances. They are living in a slum somewhere in London; Tara
is a young girl, 14 or 15; Violet is herself well under 30 and she earns
money singing, or more?, in sleazy London clubs. In the middle of the night
they are kicked out of their room and onto the street by the slum landlord.
They wander through the night. But then they are taken in by an old man who
has a rundown hardware shop and given a room upstairs.
Violet finds a new boyfriend. He seems to be rich. A nice
house. Will he marry Violet and lead Tara into a new life of plenty? He
drives off with Violet to "The Continent" for a holiday, leaving Tara at the
hardware store. But they don't come back. And so Tara lives with her
grandmother, Violet's mother, in a small English coastal town, finishing
school, hoping that her mother will eventually return. She wonders who was
her father? But the grandmother only gives her vague, meaningless words.
Thirty years pass. Suddenly Tara receives a letter from a
lawyer. There is a package from some place in Spain, leading to her mother
and a resolution of the mystery, accompanied by her old boyfriend from
school and revelations about her father. A nice, if somewhat contrived love
The book is a kind of autobiography of the author
in which she tells us the occasional thing about herself while telling us
all about what she has observed of the world. She was born in the 1930s, in
Washington D.C. By the 1950s she was a reporter, writing from a "liberal" or
"left" point of view, and throughout everything she was always on the side
of those who are against war. Since almost all newspapers, television, radio
and all the other mass media, particularly these days, are for war, she was
reduced to being the somewhat unloved European correspondent for an obscure
socialist newspaper in the United States. She was also the Press Secretary
for the Green Party in the European Parliament before it was taken over by Joschka
Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, thus amalgamating it with the War
Given what the "left" has become, I certainly don't think
of myself as being left-leaning. The only time I have ever voted in my life,
I voted for Gough Whitlam in 1972, and indeed he went on to become Prime
Minister of Australia. I admit that there was a degree of self-interest
involved since I had been drafted in Australia and I certainly didn't want
to be sent to Vietnam. Thankfully Whitlam, the leader of the Labour Party,
did extract Australia from that senseless mess and thus I was spared from
any unpleasant military experiences.
Chapter by chapter we are led through all the various
episodes of the news for the past 50 years, and the author tells us how she
experienced these things. She has written a separate book on the war in the former Yugoslavia. In
those days, almost 30 years ago, I saw no reason to doubt the narrative we
were being constantly told on the television news and everywhere else.
Namely that Serbia was the aggressor, a reincarnation of Nazi Germany, full
of concentration camps where the poor Catholic Croats and Muslim Albanians
were being tormented. (A strange idea, given that the Serbs were the victims
of Nazi aggression in World War 2.) Thus NATO bombed them to
smithereens. Was that a reasonable action? How should I have known anything
different? I have never been to the lands of the former Yugoslavia. But
Diana Johnstone was one of only very few people who went to Serbia and
reported on the facts to her obscure newspaper in America. We learn about a
very different story.
What has happened to the "liberal" press? Of course the
television networks have been bought up and conglomerated so that they speak
with just one voice, that of the moneyed interests. As I've remarked already
here, changes to the Guardian newspaper seem characteristic of what has been
happening. For years I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly which was sent to
us on thin, airmail paper. Then for a year or two, after getting a laptop
computer, I subscribed to the normal Guardian via the internet, reading the
daily edition. But now I only occasionally click into the Guardian website.
And what's there? Climate Change, fashion advice, articles about sex,
feminism, and collections of photos. And also articles telling us why it
would be a good thing to go to war with still more countries.
I am writing this in the middle of the Great Panic of
2020. I wonder how it will be thought of in the future? It is now Easter
Sunday, a time when the usual winter flu mortality normally declines to a
lower value during the summer months. Looking at the figures on the website for the total mortality in the different
countries of Europe, the present situation seems comparable with the flu
seasons of 2016-17 and 17-18. But I am expecting to see a spike in the
data later on, representing the additional casualties in this bizarre War on
Death: suicides, domestic violence, financial collapse, and all the other
consequences of the global Lock Down. As with the "normal" influenza, most
of the deaths occur in the very old who will soon die anyway. It is not the
Are we living in an extraordinarily hysterical time?
Perhaps not. Think of all the cases of mass hysteria, even worse than that
of the present, which history presents us with.
N.B. I have found an interesting website called "off-guardian.org". They say that the founders of the
website are all distinguished by the fact that they have been censored on
and/or banned from the Guardian's "Comment is Free" sections. And indeed, in
contrast to the articles in The Guardian, the articles there seem to be well
The Woman in White and The Moonstone
These two books were both published in installments in Charles
Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. In fact, Wilkie Collins and
Charles Dickens were very good friends. I read The Moonstone first
and then The Woman in White afterwards, although they were published
in the other order. Woman in White in 1859 and then almost 10 years later,
in 1868, The Moonstone. The two novels are very similar to one another. I
had the feeling that the author, after a few years, decided to tell the
story again, but in a better way. The complicated plots can be found in the
respective Wikipedia articles so I won't try to summarize everything in a
long-winded fashion here.
In both books the story is told by the technique of the
various characters telling us what is happening from their points of view,
or from the entries in their diaries, successively carrying on the story,
from one to the other. In both stories the heroine is at first prevented
from exercising her love for the hero, but as the extremely complicated
mysteries are finally cleared up, true love prevails. In The Woman in White,
the heroine, Laura, is a weak, spineless, rather pathetic character, in
contrast with her half-sister Marion, and we are disappointed by the fact
that the hero, Walter, in the end, marries Laura rather than the far better
Marion. But thankfully the heroine of the Moonstone, Rachel, is a strong,
upstanding character, and we finish the story with the satisfaction that the
hero, Franklin, who had falsely been placed in a wrong light is redeemed and
they marry happily.
I enjoyed reading both books. Much better than Dickens.
One thing which struck me was the role the post
played back then in the 1860s. These days we have email and instant
messaging: WhatsApp, and whatever else there is. I have none of those
later applications on my smartphone, but apparently, as I understand it,
schoolchildren, even while sitting together, prefer to WhatsApp with one
another rather than simply speaking. Perhaps more formal communications
these days use email. You have a look at what's in your Inbox, and maybe
tomorrow or the next day you might do something about it. Everybody knows
that whatever you send off in the email is immediately analyzed by the
vast computers of the NSA, MI5, and all those other spying agencies who
have gone to the absurd trouble of secretly digging up undersea optical
cables to tap into things, using their submarines and so forth, pretending
that we do not know about it. Back in the 1860s the system was that there
was a "mailbag" in the house which your footman quickly took to the post.
There was great privacy. It was a very serious crime to open other
people's mail. And often even within a day you got a letter of reply from
your lawyer, or your lover or whoever you had written to. Very efficient.
Almost as quick and reliable, but much more secure, than today's email.
The characters travel on the trains in and out of London on the spur of
the moment, quickly getting to their destinations in the country. What a
contrast with public transport and the massive traffic jams blocking the
streets of today's London.
At the beginning we have a rich family living in luxury in the
English countryside. A spacious house, vast gardens, servants. And in
contrast to the usual situation which we expect to read about, we find that
the father is extremely wonderful, loved by everybody. The wife is a model
of wifely charm. There are two daughters, Nora aged 26 and Magdalen aged 18.
Nora is a picture of straight-laced sobriety while Magdalen is full of
spirits. But soon tragedy strikes. The father and the mother die within days
of each other, the father in a train crash, the mother in the process of
childbirth at a much too late age. And so Nora and Magdalen are orphans.
At first one would think: no problems! All the riches
will be transferred to the two daughters through legally binding testaments.
But there is an obscure difficulty. The father, in his wild youth, as a
soldier in Canada, married a woman who then disappeared down the river to
New Orleans. In subsequent correspondence she refused to become divorced.
Thus Nora and Magdalen's parents were not married. They were living in sin!
(back then in 1860 or so). But that's Ok. Our author, Wilkie Collins,
studied law before deciding to become a writer, and so he amuses us with all
the ins and outs of the law in a wonderful style which reminds us of the
novels of Henry Fielding. Thus, despite the fact that the parents were
secretly not married, still, the testament was valid. However, tragically, a
few weeks before their deaths, the parents received a letter from New
Orleans informing them that the earlier wife was dead. Thus they could
marry, becoming honest people. And so they took a secret journey from their
country estate to London and became married without telling anyone (who all
assumed that they were married in the first place). But, as Collins informs
us, the marriage had unexpected consequences. It was apparently the case in
those days (but hopefully not today) that the act of marriage essentially
created, under law, entirely new entities out of the freshly married people.
Thus all legal agreements which related to people before marriage became
void and required to be transferred to the new, married, legal entity in
order to again become valid.
For Nora and Magdalen this meant that they were bastards,
not even entitled to their surnames, and the family riches of the father,
who died without testament or legal offspring, reverted to the brother of
the father. Now one would think that the brother, himself a wealthy man,
seeing the injustice of the case, would restore the inheritance to the
sisters. But no! He was a horrible, rapacious man who soon dies, leaving the
whole thing to the even more horrible and degenerate son. Thus Nora is
reduced to being a penniless housemistress, charged with taking care of a
pair of spoiled young brats in the household of a family which despises her.
But Magdalen is made of sterner stuff. And so the story develops in all
sorts of complicated ways which are described in the Wikipedia article of
this book. In the end natural justice triumphs, the good relatives win and
the bad ones lose, and both Nora and Magdalen live happily ever after.
How the idea of marriage has changed since those
Again a very complicated plot. A family somewhere in the
Caribbean, wealthy slave owners. A young man visits from England; he is to
marry the daughter of the family. His friend has come along with him. But
the friend secretly falls in love with the daughter and elopes with her,
leaving on a ship. The jilted man follows in the swift yacht of the
daughter's family. In a storm they encounter the ship with the daughter and
her false husband, sinking. The man enters the ship and locks his erstwhile
friend in a cabin, leaving him to go down with the ship and drown.
The daughter, who is pregnant, is delivered in disgrace
to a family estate in England to eventually bear a son, Allen Armadale. The
murderous man takes another wife and has a son with her. For some reason
which was explained at the beginning of the book, but which I have
forgotten, he was also named Allen Armadale. Yet this second son is reviled
by his family and he is set out alone into the world as a child. He takes on
a strange name, Midwinter. The story takes place years later when the two
sons have grown up, not knowing of each other. They meet by chance and
become best friends. And there is a woman, Lydia Gwilt, who was the maid of
the daughter of the plantation. Owing to an obscure series of deaths, the
original Allan Armadale inherits the English country estate with all of its
riches. He moves in with Midwinter. He is an honest, simple-minded person,
unwilling to take part in the tedious rituals expected of him.
The main story centers on Lydia. She is 35, Allan only 21
or so. Yet her plan is to become mistress of Allan's fortune by marrying
him. She appears in the district, turning all heads with her overwhelming
beauty. All men are gasping for breath. Allan proposes to her. Midwinter
secretly loves her and eventually marries her under false pretenses. A
drooling old man, Mr. Bashwood, worships her. Thus the story proceeds from
episode to episode, telling us of Lydia's changing schemes. But to be quite
frank I found all of this to be extremely difficult to imagine. In order to
protect her questionable identity she spends most of the time hiding behind
a veil. We imagine the elaborate, bulky costumes women in Victorian England
were expected to wear. Rather like the Mohammedan female costumes of
present-day Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. How could the men discover what
Lydia actually looked like? That she was actually almost 15 years older than
Allan Armadale. Surely this is also a problem for present-day Arab men. Is
it the reason they all seem to want to migrate to Europe where women are not
expected to hide themselves in such a way?
Well, I have now finished all four of Wilkie Collins'
great novels. This leaves somewhat of a vacuum. What am I to do? He did
write a couple of novels before The Woman in White, but according to
the Wikipedia they are not of the same quality. And then after Moonstone
he wrote further, but it is said that his later writings suffer from the
fact that he had become increasingly dependent on opium in the form of laudanum,
and also he began to think of his writings not so much as vehicles to amuse
us but rather to instruct us on such social issues as the rights of women
and of the downtrodden. Still, I will try downloading his next novel, Man
and Wife, and see what that is like.
I am downloading these things from Gutenberg.org, but
there is a problem here. It is apparently so that internet sites can
discover from which country a request has appeared by examining the IP
address. Thus if I click into Gutenberg.org, they immediately see that the
request is coming from Germany. Unfortunately Germans, as a people, often
seem to be overly argumentative, defending obscure points of principle to
the point of litigation. And so a German publishing house brought a law suit
against Gutenberg.org, asserting that they, and nobody else, held the
copyright on some ancient text. Thus to protect itself, Gutenberg.org blocks
all requests from Germany. Thankfully I have found a way around this
difficulty. By using the Tor browser my German address is masked, providing
a way to access the site.