Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoj

Anna Karenin is stuck in a loveless marriage with the much older Alexei. When she meets Count Vronsky (also named Alexei) at a ball, she falls head over heels in love with him. And he with her. This is unfortunate for Princess Kitty, as she had just refused a proposal from landowner Levin because she had a crush on Vronsky. Anna’s affair will become a much debated subject in Russian society for some time to come.

Anna Karenina is one of those thick scary classics that I wrapped around myself like a blanket. An ideal winter read in my opinion. But sometimes it got very warm under that blanket. Let me explain just that. Although this is about a tragic love affair of a proud woman yearning for love, a large part of the story is told from Levin’s point of view.

Levin is pretty much the alter ego of Tolstoy himself. A wealthy, introverted landowner who has rather conservative views and doubts his belief in God. Levin has a passion for agriculture and so the book regularly makes excursions into several chapters of Levin working the land together with his serfs. Or he goes hunting with his friends. And then you also have the large political and philosophical discussions between (male) characters that are so typical of classic literature.

Levin is certainly a sympathetic main character, but he took the pace out of the story for me. I was always waiting to get back to Anna, Vronsky or Anna’s husband. Or to Stipa (Anna’s brother) and Dolly (Kitty’s sister, if you still follow me), who were my favourite couple.

Anna is a complicated woman and I liked that. I’m not sure if I pitied her or if I disliked her. That’s the charm of this book. The characters are real, egocentric at times and even a bit superficial. But it just works.

Tolstoy’s writing style is pleasant. Especially the many short chapters make it manageable and give a sense of progression. I have the feeling that the story doesn’t draw heavily on the historical setting. We get a picture of 19th century Russian and especially the contrast between the elite and the peasants. But I had expected that this would be more a ‘historical’ novel. It’s very character-driven and this surprised me.

I’m less scared now to start War and Peace some day.

This is book 12/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this famous classic?


Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan moves to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt Patience and uncle Joss. But the driver of the carriage warns her right away that strange things are happening at Jamaica Inn, a remote country estate in Cornwall. Once there, she discovers that Patience is afraid of her husband, who drinks a lot and hangs out with vagabonds. When Mary starts to hear strange noises under her room at night and her uncle asks her to shut her eyes, she begins to wonder what this is all about. Especially after meeting her uncle’s younger brother Jem, who is a charming horsethief.

Jamaica Inn is a typical gothic story about a mysterious estate in which a young girl tries to understand what frightens her. Du Maurier is a great author and creates a real page turner. It may all be a bit less ingenious than Rebecca, but I really liked Mary as a main character much more. She’s strong and dares to speak out against the men in her life. I liked her :).

Her uncle Joss is a larger than life character and the truth behind his actions is horrifying. There’s a bit of romance and there are some twists that you see coming. But Mary does not and it has a certain charm to experience it all from a brave but naive young girl. The various characters are well developed: from horsethief Jem, the albino priest Francis Davey, to Mr Bassat who would do anything to drag Joss before court. It all blends together beautifully.

The house ‘Jamaica Inn’ really comes alive through the pages and is a character in itself. The descriptions of a cold and foggy Cornwall provide that dark atmosphere the gothic genre is known for. I certainly enjoyed reading it. And I think I can proudly say now that I am a Du Maurier fan!

This is book 11/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Du Maurier novel?

Howards End by E.M. Forster

The middleclass sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel are living in London together with their younger brother Tibby. On holiday in Germany, the land of birth of their deceased father, they meet the Wilcoxes, a family rich by business. Back in England, Helen goes to live a few days with them at Howard’s End, the favourite house of Mrs. Wilcox. But things don’t go as planned. After a romantic affair with the youngest son Paul, Helen returns to London. At an opera show, she accidentally steals an umbrella of the clerk Leonard Bast who has a poor income. In the coming years fate will bring these three families together again.

I had already seen the most recent BBC/Starz adaptation, so I knew the story a bit. I love how everything comes together at the end and how Howard’s End seems to be an extra character in the book. The house is always there, looming over the events.

Howard’s End was published in 1910 and offers a pre-war perspective on European relationships. At times, it felt like a total different world out there. The book covers a lot of interesting themes: social class, poverty, prejudice, feminism and sisterhood. The three families are all part of a different social class. The Schlegel sisters are middleclass. They love art, poetry and culture and don’t need to worry about money. The Wilcoxes are affluent, trying to make even more money thanks to the right investments. They tend to value things over people. While at the same time, the Basts are struggling to make ends meet. Leonard wants to get higher up in life and starts taking an interest in books and art, a subject he enjoys discussing with the Schlegel sisters.

The main perspective was that of Margaret, the older Schlegel and not my favourite character. Margaret is sensible and thoughtful. She’s the perfect opposite of her impulsive and emotional sister and the rather dull and rational Wilcoxes. She’s the much needed conscience in the story, as many of the other characters appear rather flat and insensitive at times.

The writing is good, although I found it a bit difficult at times. There is some dialogue, but also a strong narrator perspective where Forster directly speaks to the reader. Some of these aren’t always that easy to follow. There are also some time jumps that can be confusing.

In the end, I understand why Howard’s End is considered a true classic. The unique atmosphere of Europe before the Great War combined with themes that are still highly relevant today make for a great novel. I also have ‘A passage to India’ from Forster on my classics club list and am looking forward to see if I’ll like it even more.

This is book 3/50 for the Classics Club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by E.M. Forster? What’s your favourite?

The man in the iron mask by Alexandre Dumas

Our hero d’Artagnan is in the service of king Louis XIV as captain of The Musketeers. What he doesn’t know is that his friends Aramis and Porthos are plotting to remove the king. On the countryside, Raoul is still heartbroken over his love for Louise de la Vallière, the king’s mistress. His father Athos tries to console him. And in the Bastille, a young prisoner Philippe who bears a likeness to Louis, has no idea of the crime he has committed. These events will bring the former musketeers to opposing sides of a conflict at the heart of the Sun King’s court.

The man in the iron mask is the last part in the d’Artagnan romances. As I haven’t read the other books, apart from the first ‘The three musketeers’, I needed some time to understand what has happened before. Some day, I hope to read all these books again in order. Quite a task, I know.

The book opens with a strong prologue where Aramis visits a prisoner in the Bastille. We quickly discover our former musketeer, who is now bishop of Varenne, has contrived a plot against the king. Slowly, the other musketeers appear in the story and I did find the first few chapters very compelling and funny. There are a few scenes at a tailor’s shop that made me laugh out loud.

But when Aramis’ plot falls apart in the middle of the novel, the story does the same. Our attention moves to minister Fouquet and his fall out of grace with the king. There’s also the subplot of Raoul and Athos that I found a bit messy, but that might be because I haven’t read the previous books. Towards the end, the story grows stronger again and I did enjoy the last few chapters. I believe this is a great end to the series and to the lives of these characters that I love so much.

Maybe this book lacks a Milady De Winter or some other villain against which the musketeers can stand together. Now they are at opposing sides while still honoring their friendship. But nonetheless this is again a great piece of storytelling from Dumas and also a fine look into a fascinating part of French history.

This is book 2/50 for the Classics club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Alexandre Dumas novel?

The tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

When Mrs Helen Graham and her five-year-old son Arthur move into the abandoned Wildfell Hall, she becomes the talk of the town. Her strange ways and ideas mark her from the other nobel families. Gilbert Markham is the only one to befriend the young woman who paints to earn a living. But rumours grow that Helen has left her husband, the father of her son. Wildfell Hall is a quiet sanctuary no longer when her secrets are to be exposed.

Anne is the last of the Brontë sisters of whom I hadn’t read a novel yet. Having both loved ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, I was looking forward to discover her writing. So ‘The tenant’ became my first book for the classics club.

The tenant of Wildfell Hall is a Victorian epistolary. The novel is told from two perspectives. The first part is a long letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law (who doesn’t appear in the novel, apart from just being the unknown receiver of the letter). He writes about the arrival of Mrs Graham and her son at Wildfell Hall and the reception by the other families. There is some irony about the elite in this book reminiscent of Jane Austen. But in my opinion Anne is more subtle and funnier (I especially loved Fergus, who’s sadly only a minor character).

I loved Gilbert’s perspective. You get to read the opinions of women on another woman from the point of view of a man who adores her. Gilbert is a bit naive, insecure and stubborn at times. But still he makes for a good main character.

Halfway, Gilbert receives Mrs Graham’ diary and we are introduced to her story. Here, the writing style changes and I needed some time to get used to it. Helen’s story covers some very serious themes that must have been taboo subjects in the 19th century. Alcohol addiction, mental abuse, adultery… The men in Helen’s story are vile creatures.

Anne has written a quite modern story, that maybe isn’t as upsetting anymore than it used to be. But it tells the story of a woman fleeing her unhealthy marriage for a safe haven. This story doesn’t need ghosts or a haunted house. The writing is extremely readable, it didn’t feel as if I was reading a 19th-century-book.

This doesn’t make it any easier to choose my favorite Brontë sister 😅

This is book 1/50 for the Classics club.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite Brontë classic and why?