Likes and Dislikes

I’m in the middle of two novels right now, and let’s just say that the experience of reading these books has been quite different.

One of my novels is Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which, I’d like to say, is a truly excellent novel. I’m about 2/3 of the way through, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll write more about it when I’ve finished, but for now, here’s the opening paragraph:

“Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there’s something happening!” The voice belonged to Mr. Mallett, one of our churchwardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my own front door.

This opening captures the tone of the novel perfectly. The phrase “ah, you ladies” suggests that we are going to be dealing with gender stereotypes, which we certainly are — the “ladies” of this phrase and the “excellent women” of the title refer to unmarried women who find themselves wrapped up in other people’s lives. The narrator’s startled guilt is perfect too; the narrator turns out to be Mildred Lathbury, and she never feels quite at home anywhere. She takes silly accusations like Mr. Mallett’s seriously, does her best to please everybody, but still never quite finds herself fitting in anywhere. The reference to churchwardens is a clue that the novel has much to say about the church; Mildred is a clergyman’s daughter and her best friends are the vicar and his sister. The novel is so delightfully English.

The other novel is Walter Scott’s Waverley, which is very English in its own way, and not nearly so delightful. I’ve tried my best with this novel, people, and it’s just not working for me. I’m going to finish it, but that’s only because I simply must read Walter Scott, since I study his time period and he’s so important in it. But oh boy, is this a tough one. I thought it was just the beginning that was slow and that it would improve as it went on, and I suppose it’s improved marginally, but only marginally.

Part of the problem is the slow pace of the action, but that’s not it entirely because I really don’t mind books with slow paces. I like them, in fact. I love books like Clarissa, which is exactly where you turn if you want the slowest pace possible. The other problem is the Scottish dialects Scott uses and the quirky forms of speech he gives his characters. What do you make of passages like this one:

I crave you to be hushed, Captain Waverley; you are elsewhere, peradventure, sui juris, — foris-familiated, that is, and entitled, it may be, to think and resent for yourself; but in my domain, in this poor Barony of Bradwardine, and under this roof, which is quasi mine, being held by tacit relocation by a tenant at will, I am in loco parentis to you, and bound to see you scathless.

Or this one:

“It represents,” he said, “the chosen crest of our family, a bear, as ye observe, and rampant, because a good herald will depict every animal in its noblest posture: as a horse salient, a greyhound currant, and, as may be inferred, a ravenous animal in actu ferociori, or in a voracious, lacerating, and devouring posture. Now, sir, we hold this most honourable achievement by the wappen-brief, or concession of arms, of Frederick Redbeard, Emperor of Germany, to my predeccessor, Godmund Bradwardine …”

and on and on. I can only handle so much of this before I put the book down and move on to something else. Sorry, Walter Scott.


Filed under Books, Fiction

15 responses to “Likes and Dislikes

  1. I’ve yet to read anything by Walter Scott but, wow, those paragraphs aren’t convincing me to read his work any time soon.


  2. Sounds like one could learn quite a bit of Latin from Mr. Scott!


  3. So glad you’re loving Excellent Women. And my response to your quotes from Scott is “Oh dear.” I think I’ll stick with his poetry.


  4. Isn’t Barbara Pym wonderful! I’d like to read more of her work–if Excellent Women is any guide to what her other books are like, there should be some other wonderful books to look forward to. Sorry about the Scott–that does look a little hard going. I’d be afraid my mind would wander on passages like that and then I’d have to start over. I hope it isn’t a long novel…


  5. Excellent Women sounds – well, excellent.

    I’m sorry to read about your experience with Scott. I’ve finished reading Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’, which sounds so very different from ‘Waverley’. ‘Ivanhoe’ is full of action, there is no dialect and although some of his sentences do go on a bit I found it an easy read. I’ll write in more detail about it on the Outmoded Authors blog.


  6. Oh, I love Barbara Pym. It’s been too many years though – it’s really time for a little judicious rereading.


  7. yay for Excellent Women! Too bad the Scott has turned out to be not so good. And it seemed like it started off so well. That, perhaps, makes it even more of a disappointment.


  8. Don’t blame you in the least for the Scott – ouf! that sounds like heavy going. I’m a big Barbara Pym fan, however, and also loved Jane and Prudence and An Academic Question. She does that kind of self-effacing, slightly nervy, genteel English woman to absolute perfection!


  9. very involved language style isn’t it?


  10. I need to find a copy of Excellent Women. I absolutely loved Jane & Prudence by Barbara Pym so I’m eager to read more by her.


  11. I am sorry you’re not enjoying ‘Waverley’, although it is slower than some of Scott’s novels; I really enjoyed it and grew very fond of the Baron of Bradwardine and his painfully convoluted Latin-filled speeches. ‘Quentin Durwood’ was my introduction to Scott, which was more of a swashbuckler.


  12. Oh, what a coincidence, I recently had Barbara Pym recommended to me, and based on a view of my book collection too! I wasn’t sure, but now that you’ve given it a go, I’ll see if I can find any of her books at the local stores.

    As for the Scott…yeouch. You have my sympathy.


  13. Jess — they are terrible! I’m not even sure I pulled out the worst ones. I do hate to be critical about Scott though …

    Sylvia, yes, I suppose one could learn a lot of Latin that way, if one wanted to …… 🙂

    Emily — I must give his poetry a try! I’m sure I have some of it at home somewhere.

    Danielle — it’s about 450 pages — not extremely long, but not short either. I do miss the meaning of some of the passages because I don’t want to decipher that language, but I generally figure out what’s going on anyway …

    BooksPlease — now I’ve been curious about whether his other novels are like this one or not; Waverley was his first, after all. I’m glad to hear Ivanhoe sounds much better. I actually wouldn’t mind trying another one one day.

    Charlotte — she’s someone I will most definitely have to read again!

    Stefanie — yeah, there was some interesting stuff in the beginning, but a lot of that was material that came before the story even started. The beginning of the plot itself is fairly dull.

    That’s the perfect description of Mildred, Litlove! I’ll will have to check out the books you mention.

    Heather — yes, indeed — it requires more work than I really want to put into it.

    Iliana — I feel exactly the same way!

    Eloise — well, I admire you for enjoying this book! I am so far from enjoying the Baron, but I’m glad you liked the character! I’m also glad to know his other novels aren’t quite so slow.

    Imani — this means you will have to check her out, doesn’t it? About Scott — I wonder if sometimes outmoded authors should … stay outmoded??


  14. I wonder if Scott actually read his novel aloud while working at it, or if maybe he actually spoke to his friends like that… (What a boring conversation it must have been then!) Your quotes got me laughing, an unexpected effect that Scott didn’t have in mind, I think.


  15. My favorite by Sir Walter was Kenilworth, about the murder (?) of Amy Robsart, who married the Earl of Leicester, favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Leicester kept the marriage a secret for fear of Elizabeth’s ire. Did Amy fall, was Leicester the murderer, or were there assassins hired by Elizabeth herself? Amy did die in a fall and the truth will never be known, but I remember loving this fictional account.

    Maybe I need to reread it to see if it stands up to my youthful enthusiasm.


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