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.