Friday, December 4, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Books

"She leant her cheek against the back of a chair, and gave way to the anguish
which mocked control." Illustration from Susan Ferrier's Marriage by Nelly Erichsen (1894)

For me 2015 was the year of Samuel Richardson and Susan Ferrier. Richardson seemed unavoidable after my immersion last year in the writings of precursors of Jane Austen such as Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald and Maria Edgeworth. He was hugely influential in the late 18th and early 19th century, particularly among women writers. His novels served as models in both form (Burney and Austen wrote epistolary fiction) and content (novels by Burney, Inchbald, Edgeworth and Austen contain echoes of Richardson's plots and characters).

So to understand a bit more about Burney and Austen in particular, I undertook to read one of the longest novels in English, Clarissa, on a smartphone during my commute; and then I read Pamela, and have now just begun Sir Charles Grandison (which is even longer than Clarissa). But…I can't say that any of Richardson's novels have quite claimed a place on my favorites list. While Clarissa and Lovelace, Pamela and Mr. B, Harriet and Pollexfen are memorable characters, the novels in which they appear are extremely long and proceed at a very deliberate pace.

This isn't just my TV- and Internet-conditioned brain talking, either: Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Richardson's, thought so too. He famously said that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." [1]

To avoid carnage among my readership, my list of favorite books from 2015 will include only those that I can recommend less reservedly. Fortunately, this was also the year I encountered Susan Ferrier for the first time. Her first novel, Marriage, was the most enjoyable novel I read this year, and her later Inheritance and Destiny weren't far behind.

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey

Anne is the comparatively unread Brontë sister, but her neglect is hard to fathom. While she's not as polished a writer as Charlotte or Emily, and while her heroines may not be quite as compelling as Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe (Villette), she is still very much worth reading.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne's experiences as a governess in two families. If the fictional counterparts of the families are anything like their real-life models, life as a governess must have been a torture for the sensitive Anne. Agnes, like all governesses, is in an odd, in-between position: socially and economically inferior to her employers, who often reat her as though she is not there, she must also remain aloof from the servants, who are her social inferiors. And she seeks allies in vain among the children in her charge; they try to frustrate her at every turn.

As her sister Charlotte later reported, "[Anne] said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter." [2]

Read the full post: The other Brontë sister: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

George Gissing: New Grub Street

Like Anne Bronte, George Gissing drew directly on his own experiences in writing New Grub Street. Perhaps that's why its descriptions of poverty, literary struggle, and incompatible marriage are so agonizingly vivid. The novel is split between two mismatched couples. Jasper Milvain, a shallow and facile writer who is keenly aware of what will advance his literary career, has impulsively promised to marry the smart, sincere Marian Yule; Marian is led to believe that he returns her love. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, who can only write in those (rare) moments when he is imaginatively inspired, marries Marian's beautiful cousin Amy; she mistakenly thinks Edwin's recent fluke success marks him as a rising young author. Over the course of the novel, Marian, Edwin and Amy will all be bitterly disillusioned. The cynical and calculating Jasper, of course, has few illusions to shatter.

As I wrote in my post on Gissing's novel, "In its candidness about the connection between money and desire, New Grub Street was daring in its day; it remains compelling in ours."

Read the full post: Money and sex: New Grub Street

Susan Ferrier: Marriage

Ferrier is a writer I'd never heard of before happening across Marriage on a bargain cart at a used book store a few months ago. But she shares many of the virtues of her near-contemporary, Jane Austen: dry wit, vivid characters, and sympathetic young heroines negotiating the perilous marriage market. Ferrier not only shares Austen's virtues, she also borrows and reworks some of her characters and plots.

In Marriage, rather than marry a man she doesn't care for, the young, beautiful but heedless Lady Juliana elopes with her penniless lover Henry Douglas. Quickly disillusioned, they soon separate, but not before Lady Juliana gives birth to twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary. Adelaide grows to young adulthood in London under her mother's influence; she is beautiful, but selfish and vacant. The unwanted Mary is left with Henry's brother and his wife in Scotland, where she is taught by precept and example to be kind, thoughtful, selfless and devout.

Adelaide faces the same fateful choice as her mother: marriage to a handsome but impoverished lover, or to an elderly, dull, but fabulously wealthy duke. Will she repeat her mother's mistake, or make her own? Meanwhile, Mary falls in love with Colonel Lennox, a gentleman of small fortune, but her mother strenuously opposes her choice. Will Mary be able to find happiness with the man she loves?

Read the full post: The Scottish Jane Austen: Susan Ferrier


Richard Thaler: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (Norton, 2015)

As a graduate student Richard Thaler began to compile what he called "The List": discrepancies he'd noted between the predictions of economic theory and the choices people actually make. Those discrepancies profoundly violated the principles of traditional economics—and, crucially, did so in ways that weren't attributable to random error

In order to explain how economic models had failed to predict actual economic outcomes, Thaler, together with a handful of colleagues, wound up creating the field of behavioral economics. Behavioral economics tries to take our observable behavior into account, instead of treating us like the super-rational, utility-maximizing, optimal-choice-making agents of traditional economic theory. This isn't just an academic question: understanding the economic choices we make can have profound real-world effects on our well-being and happiness.

As I wrote in my post on Thaler's excellent book, "Misbehaving is an entertaining way to increase your awareness of how, and how easily, we can be manipulated. And with that knowledge, perhaps, we can try to make our choices—political, social, and economic—more conscious ones."

Read the full post: Misbehaving: Richard Thaler and behavioral economics

Michael Rose: The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck (Norton, 2013)

Great works of art can seem inevitable. And the more familiar they are, the harder it is to imagine that they might have turned out differently—or never been created at all.

Michael Rose's The Birth of an Opera helps restore a sense of contingency and even danger to the creation of fifteen operas—as the subtitle has it, from Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642) to Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925). (Although if the works were placed in strict chronological order by first performance, the final opera in the book would have been Giacomo Puccini's Turandot (1926)). Rose makes judicious selections from the letters, diaries, memoirs, and other first-hand accounts written by those involved, and weaves them into compelling tales about the joys and difficulties of creating opera—the most complex art form of all.

His approach limits him to operas for which there is an extensive documentary record, but given that constraint Rose chooses works that are both historically significant and inherently interesting. Those operas include Gluck's Alceste (1767), Mozart's Idomeneo (1781) and Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Berlioz's Les Troyens (1863), Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1865), Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (1879), and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1893). There are, of course, gaps. There are no operas by composers in the 125 years between Monteverdi and Gluck, meaning no Cavalli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Purcell or Handel (perhaps because of a lack of letters or memoirs written by these composers). There are also no operas from the mid-19th century by Donizetti or Bellini (which is fine by me) or from later in the century by Offenbach (a less happy omission; I would have thought that the creation of Les Contes d'Hoffmann would have made a compelling story. Perhaps that work is being saved for a future Volume 2, along with Der Rosenkavalier, La Bohème, Alcina, and Dido & Aeneas).

I have just a few minor hesitations about Rose's book. The first is that short French quotations are often not translated into English, although for other languages generally only a translation is given. Rose is British, and the book originated as a BBC Radio show. In writing for a British audience he can probably assume a certain familiarity with French. My junior high school French was generally sufficient, but for this ignorant American full translations would have been helpful.

The second hesitation has to do with Rose's treatment of the creation of Eugene Onegin, which is an amazing story of art imitating life imitating art. Tchaikovsky was famously contradictory about the timing of his decision to create an opera from Pushkin's poem. In early May 1877 he received an impassioned letter from Antonina Milyukova, one of his former students, declaring her love for him. Shortly afterwards Tchaikovsky attended a dinner party at which his hostess suggested Onegin as an opera subject. That very night, as he wrote in a letter to his brother a few days later, he rushed off to sketch out ideas for the letter scene. The letter scene is a key moment in Onegin in which the heroine, the gentle and vulnerable Tatyana, writes an impassioned letter to Onegin declaring her love.

So the evidence at the time the composition began clearly suggests that Antonina's rash action, no less compromising for her than for Tatyana, was one of the inspirations for Tchaikovsky's choice and treatment of Onegin. But years later Tchaikovsky wrote that Antonina's letter arrived after he had already begun working on the opera. Perhaps after their unhappy marriage and permanent separation, Tchaikovsky was unwilling to credit Antonina for her role in inspiring the Onegin theme. Rose, though, doesn't attempt to reconcile Tchaikovsky's contradictory accounts, and curiously seems to accept the later one rather than the one written at the time. It's a rare lapse in his careful use of historical sources.

But my minor hesitations aside, my main complaint is that the book isn't long enough. We can only hope that Rose really is preparing a Volume 2.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Opera and other music
Classic and contemporary Bollywood
Hollywood and other movies


1. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480.
2. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII

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