31 December 2018

Wrapup: Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge

At the beginning of the year I joined the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge hosted by Karen at her BooksAndChocolate blog: Read 12 books from the twelve given categories in 2018. I had been trying to read more classics, so this was a perfect way to start off my new year!

Now here's my wrapup post for the challenge. I've completed the full challenge, reading and reviewing one book per category, so I have earned 3 entries to the prize drawing. Karen, you can contact me at DuchessMaude [at] gmail [dot] com .

I enjoyed doing this as it gave me some structure to the rather vague notion of "reading more classic books". And it was so much fun that I am entering the 2019 version!

Books read with links to my reviews:

1.  A 19th century classic
    Red Pottage, Mary Cholmondeley (1899)

2.  A 20th century classic
    Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (1952)

3.  A classic by a woman author
    I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (1948)

4.  A classic in translation
     Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (1920)

5. A children's classic
    The Brownies: Their Book, Palmer Cox (1887).

6.  A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction
    The Seven Dials Mystery, Agatha Christie (1929)

7. A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction
    Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough (1942)

8. A classic with a single-word title
    Celestina, Fernando de Rojas (1499)

9. A classic with a color in the title
    The Red House Mystery, A. A. Milne (1922)

10. A classic by an author that's new to you
    The Pearl, John Steinbeck (1947)

11. A classic that scares you
    The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)

12. Re-read a favorite classic
    Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico (1958)

A Stew of Regret

Red Pottage
Mary Cholmondeley
Amazon Digital Services, 2012
originally published by Edward Arnold, 1899
252 pages in the paperback version

I was lured into reading "Red Pottage" by three factors: 1) the intriguing title, 2) the author's unusual last name, and 3) the free ebook. And it was worth the gamble, if one can gamble on a free book. Or maybe I should say it was worth the time I invested in it.


I am always interested in a good story, but as I started to think about writing this review, I realized that sometimes I am equally curious about the story's cultural background, the unknown quotations and unfamiliar food and books mentioned within. Anyone wanting merely the plot can find it in great detail on many book blogs; however if you are trying to understand the unfamiliar words and references, it takes a lot of Googling and researching around the Internet for a novel written 100+ years ago. So here I'll present an overview of the plot of "Red Pottage" and then explicate some of the interesting quotes and allusions that I found.

The Story

Among several story lines there is the story of the life-long friendship between Rachel West and Hester Gresley, who both have unconventional views of a woman's place in the world in the late 1890s. Rachel, a wealthy heiress who can afford to marry for love not money, falls in love with Hugh, an upper class gentleman who turns out to be a scoundrel. Hester is a successful novelist with no income, forced to live with her pompous brother, the local vicar, who strongly disapproves of her writing. But she is not interested in marrying, desiring instead to make her own way through her writing.

There are lots of characters in both upper-class London and the fictional village of Warpington. I found most of them interesting, though not all are admirable. The plot seemed very busy, with an awful lot of things happening: emotional, dramatic, melodramatic, comedic. With so many intertwined lives and events, the story becomes hard to summarize briefly. Love, heart break, scandal, near-death, weddings, children, temperance meetings, vicars and bishops. Life in 1899.

Other Interesting Notes

Right off the top, there's the question of how to pronounce the author's family name, Cholmondeley. The sources I've found say it's pronounced "CHUM-ley". She was the daughter of a rector in Shropshire. She never married, but lived with her family until her parents died, after which she lived with her sisters.

Then there's that title, "Red Pottage". This comes from a Bible story in Genesis 25:30-34, where Esau, the firstborn son, comes in from working in the fields and is famished. His twin brother, Jacob, has been cooking pottage, a thick stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and meat or fish. He used red lentils, which is why Esau said "Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint" (King James translation). But Jacob replied that he would trade the pottage for Esau's birthright as firstborn, to which Esau agreed. Thus red pottage refers to a material reward for which something of higher value has been sacrificed. In the novel Hugh has traded his good name for the pleasure of an adulterous affair.

The motto on the title page reads "After the Red Pottage comes the exceeding bitter cry." Indeed, in the book Hugh does suffer bitter remorse for what he has done. The quote comes from a sermon by Frederic William Farrar, published in "Everyday Christian Life or, Sermons by the Way", 1887, p. 183.

The epigraph on the opening chapter is from the poem "Modern Love" by George Meredith:
... In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.
Meredith wrote this fifty-poem sonnet-sequence about infidelity and the destruction of a marriage, shortly after similar events occurred in his first marriage. When it was published in 1862, the Victorians considered it scandalous because it talked openly about adultery and physical love. (The archaic verb "wot" means to know.)

Then the opening lines of book are:
"I can't get out." said Sterne's starling, looking through the bars of his cage.
"I will get out," said Hugh Scarlett to himself, seeing no bars but half conscious of a cage.
That first line refers to an odd little story about a starling who amazed people by repeatedly saying "I can't get out" in the novel "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy" by Laurence Sterne, written and first published in 1768. And just so we wouldn't miss her meaning, Cholmondeley presents us with both the quotation and Hugh's refutation of it as the opening scene of the book.

So Cholmondeley gives us quite a sense of foreboding before the book even starts: the title, the motto, an epigraph, a quote, all portending doom or at least bad juju ahead.

All of the 53 chapters start with an epigraph, among them several Kipling quotes and quite a few French ones. If anyone is looking for a thesis project, they might start investigating them. I don't have the time for that but I did research two interesting quotes.

For the opening of chapter 9, the French aphorism is:
"Pour vivre tranquille il faut vivre loin des gens d'église"
which Google translates as:
"To live in peace you have to live far away from church people"
I don't know how many readers in 1899 knew French and understood this quote, but I'm sure it must have raised a few eyebrows and maybe garnered a pulpit denunciation or two. One of the main antagonists in the book is Hester's brother, a vicar who is very self-centered and often unkind to people in his self-righteousness. He makes his sister miserable and eventually quite ill by his behavior toward her.

Within the text, Cholmondeley repeats one quote three times: "High hopes faint on a warm hearthstone". It's from an 1888 Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Winner", implying that a married soldier is a marred soldier, one whose dependents will turn him soft.
White hands cling to the tightened rein,
Slipping the spur from the booted heel;
Tenderest voices cry, "Turn again!"
Red lips tarnish the scabbarded steel.
High hopes faint on a warm hearthstone --
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
There are no military men in the book, but one of Rachel's former suitors was an artist who felt he could not marry her, although he loved her, because domestic life might interfere with his artistic career. Now, four years later, he appears at a gathering Rachel is at. He turned out to be a mediocre artist and the narrator says:
His art had not taken possession of him. "High hopes faint on a warm hearthstone." But they sometimes faint also in bachelor lodgings.
I liked this novel and found it easy reading, except for all the interesting quotations and French phrases, which I looked up as best I could. I don't think you need to do all that work; the story is understandable with out knowing French or Kipling. I just have a personality quirk that makes me want to know what every word means!

This is my 19th century classic for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge on the Books and Chocolate blog.


Mary Cholmondeley
Victorian Fiction Research Guide No. 6
by Jane Crisp
An excellent and long introduction to Cholmondeley's life and work, followed by listings of her extensive publications.

Mary Cholmondeley
fan site by Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, the author of "Let the Flowers Go: A Life of Mary Cholmondeley", Pickering and Chatto 2009.

24 December 2018

Bout of Books Read-a-thon 24


I’m joining #boutofbooks! This is the 24th edition of the popular read-a-thon and my third one. We have a lot of fun with Twitter Chats and other challenges. Why not join us?

Here's the scoop on Bout of Books:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly Rubidoux Apple. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01 am Monday, January 7th and runs through Sunday, January 13th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 24 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

 Here's what I am planning to read:
  • "Queen Lucia", E. F. Benson
  • "The Bridge of San Luis Rey", Thornton Wilder
  • "Miguel Street", V. S. Naipaul

Let the reading commence!

22 December 2018

The Inimitable Mrs. 'Arris

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris
Paul Gallico
Drawings by Gioia Fiammenghi
Doubleday, 1958
157 pages

What fun to return to an old favorite and find that it's still a favorite! I have fond memories of Mrs. 'Arris from my first reading when I was in high school, and it has charmed me anew some 50 years later. Mrs. 'Arris is an ordinary char (cleaning woman) in 1950s London, who glimpses a client's Dior dress, falls in love with its beauty, and is determined to own one like it. She needs to possess that beauty, even though she would never wear such a dress.

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.

She gives up every little thing she can do without in order to save for her 450-British-pound dream. Of course when she gets to Dior's shop in Paris there are complications she hadn't foreseen, not being a worldly woman. One doesn't simply buy a Dior off a rack and fly home that evening! During her stay in the City of Light she makes friends with some of the staff and clientele, who are quite taken with this small, determined British woman. She even performs a bit of match-making in that short week.


There's a 1992 made-for-TV movie of the book, staring Angela Lansbury, and I was shocked when I saw it because the movie ended after she got her Dior and went home, all smiles. The actual book has a more bittersweet ending, one that saves the tale from being too fluffy and sentimental. I won't spoil it here, but I wanted to point out the changed ending of the movie version.

This little novella is rather like an adult fairytale about the human desire for beauty, about determination and the kindness of strangers. With a bit of a twist at the end to give it a wider meaning.

Paul Gallico was a prolific writer, most famous for "The Poseidon Adventure", which was made into a movie, and "The Snow Goose", which won the O. Henry Award for short stories in 1941. There are three more Mrs. 'Arris books, which I have only recently discovered exist and need to read: "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to New York", "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Parliament", and "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Moscow".

This is my selection for Re-read A Favorite Classic in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Young and Lighthearted

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay
Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
Drawings by Alaj√°lov
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1942
247 pages

It's the 1920s, the Roaring Twenties, and in the air is a feeling of novelty and newness, of getting away from the traditions of the past, of relief that World War I is over. Think of jazz, flappers, the Art Deco movement, and expat writers in Paris. With this spirit of modernity, in the early Twenties two women in their early twenties embarked on a summer in England and France, mostly unchaperoned. In this memoir, written nearly 20 years later, Cornelia Skinner and Emily Kimbrough recount their adventures and misadventures during that summer of freedom.

Every thing is new and exciting to them, not just the attentions of the young doctors they meet on the ocean liner but all the sights, sounds, and people in Europe. Written in the first person by Cornelia, this is a light and airy but very entertaining romp through the quaint Old World. I thoroughly enjoyed their little vignettes about France and England a century ago. And the stories about their clothes were quite funny - they never had the right outfits, although they tried hard to look sophisticated and glamorous.

Lots of unnerving things happen to them, some not of their own doing, such as when the ocean liner runs aground before they even leave the St. Lawrence River and they're stuck in Quebec for a week. Cornelia does get seriously ill en route to England, but she pulls through and makes a lively story out of it. Mostly they just get into scrapes because they are so unworldly, but they aren't in real danger except for their dignity.


I felt almost as though I had been on a whirlwind mini-vacation with two charming but very young girls, for from the vantage point of nearly a century, they seem amazingly innocent for well-bred college girls. They claim to have first learned about the birds and the bees from exhibits at the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. Times have definitely changed!

The book was made into a motion picture in 1944, and was dramatized by Jean Kerr in 1946, but I haven't seen either of them. The movie publicity pictures I saw online just don't jibe with my mental pictures of Cornelia and Emily and their adventures. And I rather like my own images, so I'll stick to the book. Long ago there was a radio ad for NPR (National Public Radio) where a little boy said he liked radio better than TV because "the pictures are better." I agree!

This is my selection for Travel in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.