We are a passionate bunch here at BlueCastle. We love and loathe in equal measure.
Topping the list of most hated include:
- Moustachioed heroes. (I may include the recently read Karen Robard Wild Orchid’s Max as my ONLY current exception to this rule.) Moustachioed heroes be like:
- Daylight Savings. Please tell me how this is STILL a thing. (Yes I enjoy being jet-lagged, grumpy and sleep deprived whilst trying to remember how to change my car clock & microwave back and/or forwards.)
- Burnt popcorn. I don’t think this needs any explanation…
- Music Elitists. (I don’t care. I WILL like everything from the 80s including Tears for Fears and The Human League and no long-suffering eyebrow quirk is going to change that!)
On the other end of the spectrum are the best things in life:
- Books about Books about Books.
- Bookish mysteries and literary versions of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (which I have written about here)
- Clever, wry, funny quotable books.
- All things Bronte. (which I have enumerated AT length about here)
And now I have added Catherine Lowell to my list, because in a SINGLE novel, she managed to include those 5 dot points.
Seriously. I didn’t think this was even possible. But it has happened.
Now – it is highly plausible that I was just in the right mood at the right time when this book serendipitously fell into my lap….Or it is just PLAIN good and everyone should join me in my newly started Catherine Lowell fan-club.
I will leave you to decide. (Some sort of spoilers)
Also Warning: There may be a dramatic over-use of quotes – but see 4th dot point above.)
Samantha Whipple is the last remaining descendant of Bronte family. (Yes, THOSE Brontes).
Her father died tragically when she was young; her mother, having absconded long ago, has little to do with her. Samantha is rumoured to have been the sole recipient of a VAST and important literary estate, which is worth a fortune, but has never left the family. Samantha has no knowledge of this largesse, but it doesn’t stop the rumours from flying.
So what do potentially depressed and slightly unhinged descendants of the Brontes do? They enrol at Oxford University, of course (!). The plot thickens however, when she starts receiving clues and old annotated novels from her father, which were supposedly all destroyed. Aided by a slightly reluctant Oxford professor (Orville), Samantha starts to run down the mystery, determined to find out the prize at end of the literary scavenger hunt.
ASIDE: If you do read this book – and don’t want to be ruined forever: don’t read the blurb – it is completely spoilerly – (Why do publishers keep doing this? These sadistic blurb-writers need to a die a thousand fiery deaths.)
How to explain Samantha: let me count the ways.
Samantha is a hot-mess of a character. I imagine in real life she would be chronically depressed and medicated up to her eyeballs. Luckily enough for us, she allowed to run rampant through Oxford. She is also pretty unlikeable. She broods. She prickles. She has less than zero social skills and apparently no filter on any of her verbal interactions. She was home-schooled. (I hear people going ‘ahhhh’)
She makes people uncomfortable.
She makes ME uncomfortable.
She is aggressive and belligerent, convinced she is always right and a little insane. And even though she professes a hostility towards the Brontes, deep down she is so intrinsically entwined with them I couldn’t tell where she started and they ended.
Yes, like cat-dog: only slightly more bookish
She is also hilarious, and vulnerable and caught between wanting to please her long-dead father, connect with her suddenly present mother and work out who exactly she is, in the midst of all the Brontes that consume her life. She is wry and acerbic, cruel and heartbreaking. She needs to be loved unconditionally and whole heartedly and more than anything, understood. An entire world takes place in her mind, that whilst we are privy to, no one else (apart from Orville, her difficult Professor) gets to see.
‘Our syllabus implied that I was studying critical theory and the masterpieces of the Western canon. What I was actually learning was the agony of speechlessness, and the exhaustion of contemplating my own idiocy.’
This particular morning, we were having an impromptu pop quiz on “An Essay on Criticism.” Orville had handed me the text the moment I arrived. Now, twenty minutes later, here I was, sweating dramatically.
“You’re still not telling me anything, Samantha,” he said pleasantly. I had a volume called English Masterpieces in my lap, which I had come to know as Hell: Volume I. In it was everything that I hated: “The Rape of the Lock,” “The Wasteland,” blurry pictures of Wordsworth, and four thousand and seventy two footnotes.
Orville asked, “What is ‘An Essay on Criticism’ about?”
I said, “Criticism.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“That depends. Was I right?”
‘Orville was testing me. I could feel it. My lips twitched but no sound emerged. Somewhere in my mind, Samantha Whipple was being terribly witty. It was a shame no one could hear her.’
Her counterpart, Orville is oh-so English, to Samantha’s rather awkward American. He is repressed and restrained. Handsome, yet unattractive. Demanding and maddening. At first he refuses to even discuss Bronte with Samantha. Then, when he reluctantly commits himself to the adventure, he does so with a brutally frank disbelief that forces Samantha to look further; seek more intuitively; rationalise her (fairly) subjective arguments.
I think there will be a tendency to liken Orville to Bronte heroes. But I didn’t find that the case at all. He is individual in his own right, and remember: Rochester and Heathcliffe were mostly NOT NICE people. They wanted what they wanted. They were determined to get it. They shook their fists at the heavens, damned it all to hell and then got all ropeable when it didn’t work out. Even Gilbert spent most of the time in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall trying to work out whether Heather really was a slut…
Conversely Orville CARES. He cares about his family. His job. Samantha. Also; he is FUNNY.
Orville was terrifyingly articulate. Had his entire vocabulary been limited to twelve words, I’m sure he would have found a way to include discursive.
‘He didn’t answer. He returned to the book. Focused men are painfully attractive.’
The romance (what little there is) is a slow-burn. But it is delicious. The way the attraction simmers between them is palpable and slightly uncomfortable. And their banter! The LINES. The WORDS. The BACK-CHAT. It’s glorious.
He was frowning. “What is the purpose of literature to you?” He might have been asking me if I believed in God.
“English is the study of what makes us human,” I said. It was a phrase I had learned from standardized tests.
“Human biology is the study of what makes us human,” he said. “Try again.”
“English is the study of civilization.”
“History is the study of civilization,” he corrected.
“English is the study of art.”
“Art is the study of art.”
I let out a flush of air. “English tells us stories.”
“If you can’t think of anything intelligent to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I shut my mouth. Orville leaned back in his chair. The waiter named Hugh returned and dumped two plates in front of us. On each one was a fish that looked like it had died tragically by drowning in its own fat. The scent was something savage—salty and prehistoric, wrought from an age in which people still ate each other. Hugh shoved a pint of ale on the table in a final act of punctuation.
“Have you ever been in love?” I asked. Orville looked back at me and let out a bark of a laugh. “I’m a great deal older than you are.”
“I mean, properly in love,” I clarified. “The kind of love you strangle people over.” The dishes gave a clank. I couldn’t tell whether that meant yes or no. I imagined a horde of secret lady admirers falling all over him, one by one, getting caught in the spokes of his bike as he moved around the city.
“You probably just haven’t met the right girl yet,” I said, giving a sweet smile. “When you meet someone you really want to kill, I bet you’ll know.”
“What are you watching?” I asked, nodding inside.
“Jane Eyre,” he said. “The new one.”
I said, “I haven’t watched a movie in years.”
“Are you asking for an invitation?”
“No,” I said. “No.”
“Was that a no or a yes?”
“You’d like to watch it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
“Well, then, come in.”
“I said, come in.”
In the midst of this is the LITERATURE. I use capitals because if you aren’t feeling benevolent, it could feel self conscious, self aggrandising and pigeon-breasted in its obsequiousness. Lowell name-drops without remorse and throws down large literati conundrums that I haven’t thought about since school. If you aren’t completely rooting for Samantha at this point – you will HATE everything that is discussed ad infinitum.
Fortunately I loved Samantha. She is like a slightly feral cat that wants to be loved but only knows how to bite. Consequently her thoughts around these theories and ideas are uniquely thought-provoking.
I said, “Are all these books yours?”
“Of course they’re all mine.” His chin tilted up; he might have been speaking about his children….“Very well,” he said. “Let’s get on with it. Please tell me about ‘Porphyria’s Lover.’ ”
“Sure,” I said. “It was pretty bad.”
“I thought it was a terrible poem. Really awful.”
He blinked. “Try to be more articulate, please.”
I waited. He waited. I crossed my legs. …“Bad,” I said. “It was a bad poem. Did you read my essay?”
Orville regarded me for a moment, then reached for the paper in front of him. He held my essay between his thumb and forefinger, like a dish towel. “You mean this?”
He tossed it to me. It landed with a small splat on my side of the table, like he was belching out the last of his lunch…red scribbles bled into the page. I picked it up. The first comment in the right-hand margin read, This is a pathetic sentence.
“Read me your opening paragraph,” he instructed.
“I can’t,” I said. “You’ve crossed out most of it.”
PLUS to make it just that little bit MORE amazeballs? There is SPECULATION about the Brontes. Their life, relationships, art. I love that it spends an inordinate amount of time on Anne Bronte – she always felt like the third of the three tenors – you know ‘Pavarotti.. Domingo.. and.. uh.. the other guy.’
I for one, will never look at any of them the same again.
There were things that irked: Sometimes I felt like the writing was a pugnacious loud-mouthed person that was constantly criticising. People were ‘forcefully’ blonde; days were aggressively European. Things were small and absurd. Some lines were just a bit…lame (there was a bit about Odysseus and Google Maps that was plain aawwkward. But I was willing to overlook these because it was just such FUN.
TMWU hikes up its black graduation gown and runs loudly through hallowed halls. It walks on the grass. It makes me want to pick up those books and poems and stories just to see if I feel differently about them this time. It ROMPS. And at its core, it doesn’t take any of it very seriously at all.
Le Sigh indeed.
Valancy: making t-shirts in all sizes for C.L Fan Club…any takers?
Header Image: Helen Sewell, Jane Eyre, Illustrated, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS • 1938: left to right: ‘Young Lady I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative tonight’; ‘Poor and obscure, and small and plain’; ‘It is nearly four o’clock in the afternoon sir’