by Anne Brontë
Recommended Ages: 12+
The youngest of the three literary Brontë sisters lived only 29 years (1820-1849) before succumbing to tuberculosis, a family tradition that had already claimed all but one of her five siblings. Besides a good deal of poetry, Anne Brontë wrote two novels: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—shocking in its time for its unflinching depiction of a woman fleeing her abusive drunk of a husband and making a new life for herself and her child, in defiance of the day's social conventions and marriage laws—and this. Agnes Grey, her first novel, is almost completely autobiographical and reveals some of the intense feelings and difficult experiences its gentle young author had coped with during several years of working as a governess.
The reality of what Anne lived through was probably even more painful than what befalls the fictitious Agnes. Though her career as a governess was more successful than those of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, like Agnes, Anne was held accountable for the behavior of her unruly young charges without being given the authority to discipline them. If at times the book comes across as a Methodist religious tract, it may be because in real life, the author underwent deep spiritual struggles and maintained her noted calm only by the strength of her faith. Saddest of all, the young curate (assistant pastor) with whom Agnes finally finds love and happiness is, most likely, based on a real-life curate for whom Anne cherished a secret love, but who died before his time.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë each submitted their first novels for publication at the same time. Emily's one and only novel became a literary classic. Charlotte's first of what would eventually be four completed novels did not see daylight until after its author's death, though the follow-up Jane Eyre immediately established her as the greatest of the sister authors. By comparison, Agnes Grey enjoyed modest success; and though Anne's second novel was a smash hit, surviving sister Charlotte forbade it to be reprinted during her lifetime. And so Anne Brontë has languished somewhat in the shadow of her more accomplished siblings. Nevertheless, Anne's reputation is making a comeback as the equal of Emily and Charlotte, and even this book—though very simple, direct, and untroubled by the emotional turbulence of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—is now recognized as one of the classic English novels. It has the attractive virtue of lying lightly in the hands, being easy and quick to read. The audio-book version in which I experienced it required only six CDs: the equivalent of a couple of days' commute and a comfortable evening listening at home.
And while I'm not a Methodist and could have done without the passages of thinly veiled polemic, I enjoyed Anne's story. I found the heroine admirable, and the author even more so, because neither of them has the fault of saying aloud (or claiming to have said) everything she thought of saying whether at the time or later. Agnes, and I take it Anne also, was rather the type of young lady who held her tongue when she knew that saying what was in her mind would do no good. Perhaps this makes the book a let-down for readers in search of finger-snapping, histrionic tellings-off and scenes of operatic melodrama. No opera will ever be made from this book, soap or otherwise. But you come to the end of Agnes Grey's gentle adventure feeling kindly toward her, because she has been so kind, and sighing with satisfaction because (even if only in fantasy) it has ended as happily for her as she deserves. And you appreciate the wisdom in her particular happiness because she admits, more than the average novel heroine does, that she and her loved ones will face change, and age, and death, and grief in the future... but they are prepared to meet it all.
by Emily Brontë
Recommended Ages: 13+
This is only known novel by the middle of the three celebrated Brontë sisters, who died at age 30 only a year after it was published in 1847. The rumor that Emily was putting final touches on a second novel adds a tragic mystery to the world of arts and letters, right up beside Beethoven's Tenth Symphony and the lost episodes of Doctor Who. This is especially frustrating since Wuthering Heights has been argued more and more to be the greatest of the seven novels completed by the Brontë sisters, Jane Eyre notwithstanding. It has been the subject of three operas, a graphic novel, and numerous film adaptations, including versions set in Mexico, Japan, and a California high school.
My advice, however, is to accept no substitute for the Yorkshire moors of the original. No other setting could so perfectly embody the haunting, horrifying, operatically tragic destiny of nearly every speaking character in this book. In the opening paragraphs, the author explains the meaning of the word "wuthering" as a reference to the violent atmospheric disturbances among the high, heather-tufted moors, where a dark figure like Heathcliff can well be imagined roaming in the night, tormented by his doomed love for the headstrong Cathy, a torment which finally proves to be the only—and I mean only—redeeming feature of an otherwise scandalously cruel and almost unremittingly vicious monster. It is a setting ripe for a tale of ruined hopes, restless ghosts, perverted passions, fevers that prey on body and mind, and Calvinistically merciless manners and sentiments. It is the only conceivable site for a story in which the near-complete destruction of two generations of a pair of families can arise inevitably from one eavesdropping youth overhearing but the first half of a conversation, before slipping off into the night with unjust bitterness poisoning his heart.
And it is an astonishing work of literary genius, considering that its author was outlived by her masculine pen-name Ellis Bell, so short was her life and career. Despite this, the middle Brontë sister told her tale by way of a daring yet strikingly successful experiment in narrative structure. If, like me, you take in an audio-book edition of this novel, you will immediately understand. The version I listened to required two narrators, one of each sex. This is because the first-person narrative by Mr. Lockwood provides only an introduction, a few transitional passages, and a conclusion. Under this proscenium arch, if I may speak so—and this book is nothing if not an exquisite piece of theater—the main part of the drama unfolds in the words of co-narrator Ellen "Nelly" Dean, who bears a complex relationship to the characters in her tale and even, in her well-meaning way, may have influenced their fates. Be her account as reliable or unreliable as it may, it also encloses passages narrated to her (either orally or in writing) by at least two other characters. Emily B. could have continued this experiment in nesting narrators, like matryoshka dolls, to any number of levels, had she wished. Fussy book-editors may despair of ever getting the number of quotation marks right, but when read aloud (especially by one male and one female actor), it seems altogether clear. And somehow, by howsoever many narrators the events may be removed from us, the whole gut-twisting, hair-pulling, hand-wringing awfulness of the tale seems always to be immediately before the reader, or as close as any drama can be whose actors face us across the gulf of death.
All you need to know about what happens in the book is that rough-and-tumble Heathcliff (that's his whole name, by the way) conceives a hopeless love for his foster-sister Cathy Earnshaw, of the Wuthering Heights Earnshaws, and runs away when he realizes that she can never marry him even if she loves him back. Instead, Cathy marries nice guy Edgar Linton, the heir of the hard-to-pronounce Thrushcross Grange (you try saying it without pausing to aim the "sh" at the right syllable), who loves her tenderly but lacks half the manliness of, well, his wife. When Heathcliff comes back from wherever he's been, the bad blood between him and Edgar vexes Cathy so much that she dies of it, leaving both men heartbroken and a baby daughter motherless. Through one fiendish scheme after another—or rather, all of them at once—Heathcliff contrives to: (a) steal the heart of Edgar's sister Isabella, whom he violently abuses until she runs away; (b) prey on Cathy Sr.'s brother Hindley until Wuthering Heights, complete with Hindley's heir Hareton, belongs to Heathcliff body and soul; (c) terrorize his delicate, weak-willed son to death; (d) coerce Cathy Jr. into marrying Heathcliff Jr. so that he can gain control of the Linton estate; and (e) rule his household in such a way as to reduce Hareton and Cathy Jr.—the last surviving Earnshaw and Linton, respectively—to a state of inhuman savagery. From Lockwood's point of view, he isn't a very genial landlord either.
Whether Heathcliff finally succeeds in all of his grim aims hardly matters, since he succeeds in enough of them to make this book one all-but-ceaseless parade of misery, ruin, and death. One would think it impossible to sympathize with a character like that. Yet, from an early enough page that the narrator's voice belongs to Lockwood, one is also captivated by the tragic aspect of Heathcliff's character, expressed in the unforgettable scene where, believing himself unobserved, the gruff villain leans out the window of Cathy's girlhood bedroom and pleads with her ghost:
"Come in! come in!" he sobbed. "Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more! Oh! My heart's darling, hear me this time—Catherine, at last!"Somehow, in spite of all the fear and loathing on the high moors, this story comes across as one of the great love stories—a heartstring-tugging potboiler in which the most potent female presence spends the majority of the book in her grave, while another generation works out what might have been between her and the wicked, doomed, vile, yet ultimately pitiable Heathcliff. That such a story idea could actually work, and even become one of the great works of English literature, seems so improbable that I wouldn't blame you for doubting my word. Read it to believe it!
Furies of Calderon
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+
In this first book of a series titled "Codex Alera," Dresden Files author Jim Butcher builds a fascinating, original fantasy world filled with non-stop suspense, intrigue, and action, all powered by a unique form of magic. And although the adventure is shared by an ensemble cast, one character who appears in less than half of the book promises to become the driving force for the series to follow: a boy named Tavi who, in defiance of the standard fantasy-hero job description, seems to be the only human being in his world who can't do magic! Tavi must live by his wits, his courage, and his heroic instinct to put the needs of others before his own, if he is going to achieve the great destiny whereat this book mysteriously hints.
The world of Alera is like and unlike our own. It is difficult to say exactly how the two worlds might be related. There is one fleeting hint, in the middle of this novel, that humans came to Alera from "another place" so long ago that their previous history, like their oldest surviving stone inscriptions, has worn away beyond recovery. Some of their places have names similar to geographical entities in our world, such as Aquitaine. The names of many characters, the Latin derivation of many of their words, and the general structure of their society seem to bespeak a familiarity with the ancient Romans. Their culture also seems to have assimilated Freudian psychology (since one character makes a crack about another's "ego"), to say nothing of present-day bumper-sticker slogans such as "What part of _____ didn't you understand?" Yet the savage humanoid species surrounding Aleran territory do not seem to be of this Earth. So this may be a world whose distant past overlaps with our world's distant future, and the Alerans may be the descendants of space-travelers from Earth. Or this may simply be a fantasy-world analogue of the Roman Empire.
One of the ways the world of Alera differs from our world is the number of intelligent races that dwell in it. Besides the human Alerans, there are the neighboring Canim and the Icemen (only mentioned in this book), the savage Marat warriors, and a race of giant waxy spiders, each occupying territory adjacent to Alera and held off by either natural barriers or defenses like the Shieldwall. But what will probably strike you most about this strange world is the way each Aleran is attuned to one or more of the elements of nature—earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal—by communicating directly with the "furies," or invisible spirits who inhabit those elements and bring them to life for those who control them. So an air-crafter can fly, see over great distances, and manipulate the airflow around himself. Water-crafters can sense other people's emotions, using the fluids in and around their bodies to hurt or heal them. Fire-crafters can manipulate not only fire but also people's feelings. Wood-crafters can create illusions that allow them to slip by you unseen; and so on.
So it's obvious that young Tavi, the only Aleran anyone can remember ever reaching the age of fifteen without coming into his furies, has a big disadvantage to compensate for. And it's a dangerous time to be a farm-boy in the Calderon Valley regardless. A treasonous plot is afoot, a plot to overthrow the First Lord of Alera, a plot which will begin by throwing one High Lord's forces in with a Marat horde to destroy the legion garrison that guards the entrance to the valley, and then to wipe out the Steadholts (groups of farms under the protection of a leader known as a Steadholder) that populate the valley. A young woman named Amara, who has just qualified as a Cursor (something between a postal carrier and an intelligence agent), learns of this plot at about the same time as Tavi. Amara spots the plot during her graduation exercise from the Academy, when her own mentor is revealed as a traitor to the First Lord. Tavi stumbles on it by chance while trying to correct an error in his apprenticeship as a shepherd to his steadholder uncle Bernard, when the two of them are attacked by a Marat hordemaster while trying to round up a herd of sheep.
Next thing they know, the people of the Steadholts are in the middle of it, and Tavi and Amara have saved each other's lives, and a world already full of wild dangers and barely restrained conflict breaks open into a bloodbath between a rampaging horde and an ill-prepared army. Fury-crafting farm folk go up against treacherous knights. A vile slaver's inhuman methods bring together as allies two woman who would otherwise be enemies. Supernaturally gifted swordsmen duel in the middle of a colossal battle. Vicious creatures, such as the giant flightless birds known as herdbane, fight alongside their barbarian buddies. A half-witted slave with his face disfigured by a brand of cowardice shows himself to be more than he seems. An autumn-spring romance blossoms in the midst of a beleaguered fort. And one furyless boy, with a surplus of cleverness and nerve, holds his own in a trial of wits against remorseless creatures that can see body heat and whose victims often survive for weeks while being digested alive.
Tavi's ability to do the seemingly impossible without the benefit of magic may turn the tide of a devastating battle that, alas, is probably only the beginning of the troubles to follow in the further books of Codex Alera. Their titles, to-date, are: Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury. The second-most amazing thing about this series is the fact (related in an interview with author Butcher) that he wrote it in response to a bet that he couldn't create a good story based on a lame idea. The most amazing thing, however, is that lame or not, this fantasy-action novel is brilliant from its bottom-most concept to the exciting wealth of detail on its surface. Breathlessly paced, masterfully structured to keep the tension bowstring-taut, it draws the reader in so completely that I, for one, could not hold back from cheering the characters on aloud at several points—"Go, Tavi!" here, "Do it, Amara!" there, etc. It is one of the few books I have read that makes the word "Doomed!" a laugh line; for in spite of the gravitational pressure an author must feel while imagining a new world into being, Jim Butcher is never so far from his roots as the creator of a wise-cracking wizard that he forgets to lighten the mixture with a judicious measure of comic relief. If you can swing it, I recommend the audio-book narrated by Kate Reading (she whose performance of Middlemarch changed my world)—but my enjoyment of this book was so great that I couldn't wait for an audiobook of Academ's Fury and started right in on the paperback. I'll gladly risk the eye-strain, just to find out what happens next!
The Mayor of Casterbridge
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+
In one of his "Jeeves and Wooster" stories, humorist P. G. Wodehouse lightheartedly lists some top examples of men with a lot of brains. The four men he names are Napoleon, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy. Even accounting for the silliness of the context, that is a testament to the seriousness of Hardy's reputation. And this ever-so-serious book is widely taken to be one of Hardy's greatest masterpieces. As it is only the third book by Hardy that I have read, I cannot speak to that. I can only bear witness that it is a fascinating book depicting (as its subtitle says) "the life and death of a man of character"—and as to what sort of character the man has, that is what will keep your eyeballs glued to the book from first page to last.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragedy bound by most of the classical unities. Though the story spans nearly thirty years, most of it takes place within six or seven years of the final act. Scenes are spread out across the width of the fictional English county of Wessex, approximately where Dorset lies in reality; but most of it takes place within the city limits of Casterbridge, a commercial and agricultural center with emphasis on the latter. The action revolves around a handful of characters, and unfolds with a dreadful sense of inevitability. The "man of character" named in the title rises in station from a farm laborer, specializing in trussing hay, to become a prosperous corn merchant and mayor of the town—only to descend back to the state where he began, and perhaps lower still. He owes his ascent primarily to a vow he took at the age of 21 years to touch no liquor for as many years again. And he owes his downfall to the secrets, lies, and flaws in his character (such as jealousy and impulsiveness) which are revealed one by one, until everything he values is either destroyed or taken from him.
The man in question is named Michael Henchard, and his history (as far as this book is concerned) begins when, as a very poor, low-spirited, down-and-out farm laborer, he goes on a drunk and impulsively sells his wife and infant daughter to the highest bidder. When he wakes up the next morning, he repentantly tries to track down his family, only to find they have emigrated somewhere with a sailor named Newson. After this discovery, Henchard makes his oath of sobriety, moves to Casterbridge, and begins his climb. Fast-forward nineteen years, and we find Susan Newson, presumed a widow since her husband's ship foundered at sea, arriving at Casterbridge with her sweet-natured daughter Elizabeth-Jane to find the husband who sold her at the top of his career. When Henchard realizes who they are, he tries to put the family back together without revealing the exact circumstances that separated them (even Elizabeth-Jane doesn't know, at first). But Susan isn't the only woman Henchard has done wrong, and meanwhile she has secrets of her own, and Henchard's young Scottish protegé Donald Farfrae begins to excite the mayor's jealousy, and the other woman (a flighty number named Lucetta) arrives in town to set the wheels of destiny spinning at an even more dangerous level, and a rival of Farfrae's tosses his own bit of vengeful monkey-business into the works, and what with scandal and alienation and financial ruin and death flying about in all directions, things soon get quite out of control.
Least of all can Henchard control himself, continuing even after his downfall to invent new lies and secrets, driven by his insecurity and almost paranoid jealousy, sometimes not even knowing himself what he is doing. Sensations of despair and loneliness, even an impulse toward self-destruction, gather about him as each attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of those he cares about sinks him deeper in disgrace. When you think he has sunk as low as he can, there are still chapters to go. By this time you have learned what to expect, and face it with a peculiar kind of suspense in which you know pretty well what is going to happen, and dread it, but cannot look away.
Getting back together with Susan proves to be the easy part. The downward rush of the tragedy begins when, the very day he acknowledges Elizabeth-Jane "Newson" as his own daughter, he learns by the dead hand of Susan that she is actually Newson's daughter, succeeding to the name after the death of Henchard's own Elizabeth-Jane. At the very moment when Elizabeth-Jane is beginning to accept the lie that Henchard is her real father, Henchard's love toward her seems inexplicably to die. She does not even learn the truth when Newson shows up, alive and well, to claim his daughter—thanks to another lie, the most audacious in Henchard's long career. But one by one, Henchard's deceptions and concealments come home to roost. His recklessness, spurred by bitter jealousy, ruins him. His stepdaughter, spurred by Henchard's strangeness toward her, accepts Lucetta's invitation to be her lady companion, only to get caught up in yet another web of seduction and deceit. The resentments of a blackmailing betrayer named Jopp come together with a lowlife local hazing custom to sow death and destruction among the main characters, made even more tragic by the distrust of Henchard that Farfrae feels after the two men wrestle almost to the death.
So, like The Princess Bride, it has romance, and vendettas, and sports, and even a miracle (or rather, a macabre coincidence that somehow saves Henchard from suicide). And, of interest to Harry Potter fans, it explains the meanings of the words "dumbledore" and "hagrid" within the same paragraph, and later alludes to "alastor" besides. Could this be a clue to where J. K. Rowling found the names for her well-known characters? I'm sure this is no news to the crowd that has memorized every public interview J. K. R. has ever given. That she should have read Hardy's work is unsurprising, but probably doesn't bear significantly on her own work. For the magic of this story consists in the way Hardy's beautiful prose, concentration of thought, and instinct for dramatic shape carry the reader relentlessly beyond, far beyond, and still farther beyond, the point where the inexorable unwinding of the skein of tragedy becomes uncomfortable to witness, drawing you at last to the novel's bleak ending where it philosophically concludes that "happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." It's a melancholy thought at the end of a book that sometimes gives real pain. And yet reading it has been a great pleasure: a fact that explains what I meant when I called this "a fascinating book," and that lends the ring of truth to Wodehouse's tribute to the genius of Thomas Hardy.
The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended Ages: 12+
This Gothic romance, enrolled by some critics (including H. P. Lovecraft) among the early masterpieces of "weird fiction," appeared in 1851. And though its credentials as a classic of American literature may stifle your eagerness to read it—for it does sound like the sort of book your schoolteacher might make you read—it has a lot in it to make the Harry Potter Generation perk up and take notice. It has a century-old curse, an alleged wizard from a family suspected of harboring magical arts, a hint of ghosts and of other supernatural occurrences, a strangely animated painting, some gruesome deaths, and a touch of madness. It is based on a house that actually existed (and still does), and a family ditto (though they never lived in that house). And it is told by an author about whom you probably knew nothing except that he wrote The Scarlet Letter and was matey-matey with Herman Melville (like, yawn), and so you may be pleasantly surprised to find his writing marked by both sparkling wit and a knack for creating torturous suspense.
There is, to be sure, a semblance of Melville about his writing, too. For example, one chapter describes in minute detail how a dead body stays dead throughout a long day and an even longer night. By the next morning, when a succession of characters fails to avail themselves of the opportunity to discover the corpse, your nerves are as well-tuned as a mandolin string. The most ghastly thing about this passage is the cold-blooded tone of droll whimsy that Hawthorne maintains right through it.
But gratifying your taste for the macabre isn't the only thing this novel is good for. It also tells a story of love redeeming a family from a curse that has dogged it for generations, a curse brought on by their own hereditary tendency to grasp at that which rightfully belongs to another. It tells how love heals a feud between two families that have done each other wrong for over a hundred years, beginning with a covetous old colonel who sent his rival to the gallows during the Salem witch trails—whether guilty or not, one can never be sure—only to see a disputed property claim resolved in his favor. It tells how a tradition of bloody death, sometimes hard to distinguish from murder, gets tangled up with a family's thwarted ambitions for great wealth, the gloom of a haunted drawing-room, the broken mind of a sensitive man undone by injustice, the heartbreak of his ugly but devoted sister, the strange art form of a photographer (or, in Hawthorne's language, "daguerrotypist") who specializes in capturing his subjects' true nature on film, the hypocrisy of a prominent and respected citizen, and the transforming inward and outward beauty of a girl named Phoebe Pyncheon, which makes it possible for her family to escape from a cycle of tragedy and guilt.
Hawthorne's preface to this novel suggests that its moral has something to do with the sin of the ancestors being visited upon their descendants. There is something particularly gloomy in the way this theme overshadows the strange house in which genteel poverty shares blood-room with savage greed. Current author Thomas Pynchon, whose family name is smeared by this book, could perhaps make a case against the fortune this novel has made in doing so, if it weren't for the fact that the witch-hunting, sin-haunted family Hawthorne really had in mind was his own. Don't expect me to speculate as to where the line between fact and fancy falls within this book. Rather, enjoy the extra buzz of creepiness that comes from knowing that the line is hidden in there somewhere, like the deed that would have made the Pyncheon family as rich as kings, but for the guilt of their family sin and the retribution—perhaps divine, perhaps diabolical—that followed it. Moral or no, that's entertainment!
Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite
by Anthony Trollope
Recommended Ages: 13+
I wanted to read Trollope's Barsetshire novels, a highly-recommended series of six books satirizing the diet and habits of the upper classes mid-19th-century Britain. But when I sought audio-CD editions of Trollope's works among the holdings of the Saint Louis County Library, I found only this book. I reckoned one must start somewhere, so I let this book initiate me into the vast writings (47 novels!) of an author who influenced, and was admired by, George Eliot, W. H. Auden, and other writers down to the present day. I came to it expecting a piece of lacy-collared satire featuring rich and genteel folk of character ranging from endearingly silly to contemptible, curled around a romance in which the happy couple lives (more or less) happily ever after. Ye gods, was I in for a surprise!
This 1871 novel is, in fact, a piece of tragedy whose ending, if you don't mind my spoiling it for you, may leave you desolate. Forewarned is forearmed. Author Trollope (1815-1882) carries his dramatic argument forward with single-minded intensity, unrelieved by subplots or comic relief—unless the reader chooses to take the caricature of a Jewish moneylender as an outlet for pent-up feelings and nervous laughter. The whole business seems to unfold with dreadful inevitability. And though the main characters are driven by a variety of motivations and priorities, as the situation develops between them their thoughts always seem to be turning over the same handful of problems, caught between the same dilemmas, until even these people—though they may be ever so rich, powerful, clever, or good—seem trapped in a doom from which they can do nothing to escape.
The problem begins when Sir Harry Hotspur and his wife Elizabeth bury their only son, who was to inherit both the family title and its considerable property. Now the estate must go to their lovely but strong-willed daughter Emily, while the title (if it will go on at all) will pass to a young second-cousin named George Hotspur. Sir Harry can't resist the idea that it would be nice to keep the land and the family name together, even if it means marrying Emily to her cousin George. But inviting George to Humblethwaite proves, in the long run, to be the fatal step from which the extinction of the noble house of Hotspur must finally result. A vague suspicion that Cousin George might not be quite respectable grows, the more Sir Harry and his lawyer discover the facts, into a conviction that Emily must never marry George. But by this time, she has given her heart to him as an irrevocable gift. She swears that she will never love or marry anyone else, and sticks to her vow even as the evidence against George's fitness to marry her becomes overwhelming.
Although a "happily ever after" ending seems at least remotely possible almost to the last, no such ending comes. When George is first described, he is observed to be still savable; but he isn't saved. He isn't saved, even though Emily Hotspur exerts all of her considerable power to save him, and cows her doting father into making the effort himself; but each time the young rascal seems to be almost within reach of a rescuing hand, he falls deeper into degradation. It isn't just that he has gotten into debt by betting on horses and playing at cards; nor is it just that he has obtained fraudulent credit by selling his army commission to two moneylenders at the same time; nor is it just that he has already promised to marry an actress from whom he has also accepted money as a last resort; the tale of George's iniquity goes even deeper than that. His style of living might have gone over all right on the American frontier of that period, but where the honor and happiness of a young gentlewoman were concerned—to say nothing of the Hotspur family name and fortune—finally, nothing can be done except to squirm in agony of heart while the hopes of Emily, her parents, George, and his actress friend fade and finally die.
It is such a cruelly, bitterly tragic book that I do not scruple to spoil its ending for you, because I would sooner discourage you from reading it than tamper with your mood. Some people I know and care about might become a danger to themselves after reading such a book. But it is worth reading, if you are up to it. Trollope's narration is full of compassion for its characters, yet it looks with unflinching honesty at such issues as some people's deep, psychological need to survive after death by handing down property and an honorable family name to their heirs; the virtuous woman's sometimes mistaken conviction that a fallen man can, and at any cost must, be raised up again; the responsibilities of a landowner towards his tenants, of wives towards their husbands and vice versa, of parents toward their children and vice versa, of hosts towards their guests and vice versa, and of noblemen toward the honor of their family name; the chances of a dissipated scoundrel being reformed by redemptive love; and whether welcoming a black sheep into the family can lighten his prospects, or darken theirs. What makes Trollope's treatment of these issues so very striking is the fact that he restrains himself from falling into sentimentality, and rather corrects the romantic view of those issues with a brutally bracing realism. And if that doesn't cure one of wanting to read more of Trollope, it will at least cure the idea that he is a literary lightweight.
I can forget about reading more of Trollope's works via audio-books, since the County Library neither holds them nor is interested in buying them, and I can't afford to buy them either. On Kindle, however, I can get loads of them in e-reader format, for free. I foresee myself making much more use of my Kindle the than I have done so far. If you too are interested in more by this author, some noteworthy titles include The Warden (the first of the six Barsetshire novels); Barchester Towers (the second and best-known of ditto); Can You Forgive Her? (the first of the six Palliser novels); and The Way We Live Now (widely regarded as Trollope's masterpiece).