acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: December, 2012

Review of Les Miserables

Les MisérablesLes Misérables by Victor Hugo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As many people have already observed, Les Miserables is a flawed novel. The digressions are excessive and sometimes even seem unrelated to the story. Hugo has a maddening tendency to the slow the pace by providing a very lengthy backstory each time a new character or location is introduced. The now-obscure politics are so specific to the time period as to leave most readers today scratching their heads at some point. The coincidences that connect the characters are ridiculous. The characters are, while at times conflicted, never really complex, and the depictions of women are, frankly, often sexist — especially the angelically pretty and good Cosette, who doesn’t have a thought in her head that wasn’t put there by a man. And the first half of the book is far better than the second, despite the undeniable importance of the 1832 revolt to the novel.

And yet… well, how could you finish this unwieldy tome unless you loved it? At times I certainly questioned Hugo’s decisions; for instance, I was actually confused when the first 50 pages were spent describing Monseigneur Bienvenu before Jean Valjean even arrives on the scene — until, to my surprise, I grew to love the character, and by the time JV does arrive, I was able to understand why the bishop made such an impression. Or again, when, right before JV plunges into the sewers of Paris, we are stopped in our tracks with several pages on not just the history of the Paris sewer system but also on how it compares to that of Rome , I was like, seriously, Hugo? We’re in the middle of an action scene! And yet, did I love every bit of that unseemly history? You bet. Even the extremely long digression about the Battle of Waterloo (which, I will admit, I did skim a little) had a pretty meaningful and long-lasting, if brief at the time, payoff at the end. Time and time again, I would realize only in retrospect that the excessive contextualization was enjoyable. I still find the Marius-Cosette love story insufferable, but now that I’ve finished the novel, I find that it’s the digressive nature of the novel — even when it’s repetitive and overdone and excessively detailed — that inspires my fondness for the experience of reading it. (You would think I would know that going in, since I’m a reader who loves a digression, but Hugo really pushes it to the extreme.)

Above anything else for me, the rascally Thenardier–enjoyable in the musical but indispensable to the book–was a surprise. He’s like the cockroach that can survive the nuclear winter: indestructible, adaptable, forever lurking in the shadows. If nothing else made me turn the page, it was the promise of his return and the havoc he would wreak–or the unintentional joy he would bring.

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Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Brantwood

Continuing my posts about the visits my mother and I made to writers’s homes in England in May, we’re on to the last such home we visited in the Lake District: Brantwood, owned by the Victorian writer and art critic John Ruskin. As it happens, we visited Brantwood on my birthday.

Side view of Brantwood

Side view of Brantwood

Having studied Victorian literature for my doctorate, I was familiar with Ruskin’s work (my favorite essay, if you’re interested in an introduction, is “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century“), but before arriving in the Lake District, I wasn’t even aware that he had owned a house in the area. In fact he lived in it for nearly 30 years and died there. Like Beatrix Potter, Ruskin also visited the Lake District as a child on holiday with his family, and the early association obviously left an impression. Also like Potter, Ruskin bought a house in need of repair and made many alterations and improvements both to the house itself and the property.

Brantwood is situated on Coniston Water, which required the longest journey we took in the Lake District: we took quite a long and precarious bus ride (the roads certainly did not seem big enough for the large coach!) from Ambleside to Coniston Launch, followed by a ferry that toured the water and deposited us at Brantwood.

our ferry to Brantwood

our ferry to Brantwood


An odd sight: cows drinking the water of the lake!




view of Brantwood from the ferry



view of Brantwood from the peer!

It took us so long to get there that we needed to stop for tea before we could tour the house! (At least, that was our excuse.)


A splendid location for a scone and a spot of tea!

Upon entering the house, we were accosted by a nice lady who insisted that we watch what turned out to be an amazingly dramatic, almost hallucinogenic video about Ruskin’s life that completely ignored what was arguably the greatest scandals of his life, his marriage to Effie Gray and infatuation with Rose La Touche. I feel a little bad about wanting to hear the gossip on one of the most influential men of the nineteenth century, but it seemed strange to leave it out completely. Oh, well. To my great surprise, I found the video on Youtube! I do not necessarily recommend watching it, but at the same time, it is unlike any other introductory video I’ve ever watched at a house museum. At one point, the narrator intones, “It was more than Ruskin’s fragile mind could stand!”

After the video, we wandered through the house (there was no tour). Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the inside, since photographs were forbidden. Suffice it to say the views, particularly from the dining room and Ruskin’s room, were spectacular.

The grounds at Brantwood are arguably more beautiful and impressive than the house itself. The estate sits on 250 acres of woodland, part of which is cultivated into mountainside gardens. Ruskin enjoyed experimenting with landscaping and designed the gardens himself.

Some of the highlights include Ruskin’s favorite, the Professor’s Garden:

The professor's garden

The professor's flowers

Ruskin’s seat:


and the magical Poets’ Glade:


And of course, the views from around the house were stunning:


I like to think of our visits to the Lake District houses as increasing in beauty and majesty as we continued. Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage (the only one I was familiar with before our visit) was the most modest, Potter’s Hill Top the most charming, and Ruskin’s Brantwood the most impressive. But with all of them, it couldn’t be more obvious why these writers were inspired by the tranquil beauty of the nature that surrounded them.