The Blithedale Romance, Bread Upon the Waters, and Lady Audley’s Secret

Welcome back to another 3 Classics Review! Today we’re looking at more readings for my courses, one for 19th-century American literature and two for Victorian women novelists. Let’s jump in!

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My Rating: 4 stars

I wasn’t really sure what to expect coming into The Blithedale Romance. I’ve enjoyed several of Hawthorne’s short stories, and The Scarlet Letter is fine. This ended up being my favorite piece by him so far. Everything I’ve read by him so far has been set in the 1600s, so I was happy to find this takes place in the 19th century. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Hawthorne draws on his own experience at Brook Farm, a utopian community that existed from 1841 to 1847. Hawthorne famously hated it despite being one of the founding members and put his feelings into his narrator Coverdale. I don’t usually associate Hawthorne with humor, but I found the first half of this book incredibly funny due to his ironic and sarcastic depiction of the characters and their endeavor. The tone becomes darker as the book goes on, and it ends in tragedy. But that irony and sarcasm is still there, especially in the utterly ridiculous final line.

The best part of this book is by far the main female character, Zenobia. She is a beautiful and wealthy women’s rights activist, and it’s often said Hawthorne used Margaret Fuller as the basis for her character. She’s a wonderfully complicated character. She’s easily the most powerful personality at Blithedale, frequently acts as a leader, and holds many radical views. Yet she’s also prideful, jealous, and even cruel at times. She does something terrible that goes against all the ideals she preaches. I always love a strong, flawed female character. I’m conflicted about her ending. It does make some sense to me, but it’s also incredibly disappointing for such a great character.

Overall, The Blithedale Romance is an enjoyable read with some excellent characters. It’s not at all what I expected from Hawthorne, and that’s what I like best about it.

Bread Upon the Waters: A Governess’s Life by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik

My Rating: 2 stars

Part of my independent study is looking into the lesser known women writers of the period, and Craik was one I particularly wanted to read. Bread Upon the Waters is one of two books by her on my reading list, and I chose this one to read in tandem with Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey since they are both governess novels. When Felicia Lyne’s father remarries, she finds herself and her two younger brothers forced out of the family and the house. She works as a governess to support them and ultimately lives in a degraded state, though her brothers are able to rise up to their former station. I was not impressed with this book at all, and I’m actually worried about reading Olive later this semester. Craik presents the dullest and flattest characters I have ever seen. They have absolutely no personality whatsoever. They don’t really do anything; events just happen to them. It’s disappointing because there is potential for Felicia to be an interesting character, but Craik doesn’t let her. I wanted her to be angry about her situation, but she just meekly accepts it. We never see any real emotion from her; even her romantic interest in Sir Godfrey Redwood is boring. It’s impossible to care about her because there is no connection between her and the reader.

The plot of this book is just misery after misery happening to Felicia, but it’s not even related to her position as a governess as Agnes Grey’s miseries are. In fact, for a book that was written for the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution that claims to be “A Governess’s Life,” there is very little about actually being a governess. She could have been doing any job and the plot wouldn’t have been affected. What irritates me the most though is Craik’s attempt at a happy ending. After all of the misery, it would be nice to see Felicia have a happy ending. However, I saw nothing happy about the situation Craik leaves us with. Felicia has struggled through poverty and been disabled and disfigured for life through an accident. There is a brief moment where it seems she may end up with Sir Godfrey, but no, she refuses his proposal because she knows he is in love with someone else. We end with Felicia single and still disabled, living in her brother’s house and spending time with his and Sir Godfrey’s children. She claims to be peaceful and cheerful, though admits to occasional bouts of depression. This is one of the most unsatisfying endings I’ve come across in literature. I was left wondering what the point was. Why read it if the characters are dull and there is no decent ending? It’s perfectly clear why this book isn’t part of the literary canon.

Overall, Bread Upon the Waters is an incredibly dull book that is best left to the obscurity it’s fallen into.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

My Rating: 4 stars

This is by far the most fun I’ve had with a reading for school in quite some time. This sensation novel centered around the mysterious Lady Audley was essentially the blockbuster of the mid-century. Everyone loved it, and with good reason. Braddon certainly knows how to craft a thrilling and tension filled plot. She hits all the major exciting and scandalous aspects of Victorian Gothic and mystery novels; we have disappearances, hidden identities, buildings burning down, and more. Braddon doesn’t take herself seriously at all, and everything is treated with a hefty dose of irony. It’s not supposed to be high literature; it’s supposed to be fun. And it is while also making some points about the portrayal of women in 19th-century fiction.

It should be no surprise that Lady Audley is the best part of the book. Her name is in the title, after all. She’s an absolutely delicious character. My biggest problem with the book was that I wanted to spend more time with her. We spend most of the book with Robert, Sir Michael Audley’s nephew, who is trying to find out what happened to his missing friend, George Talboys. This is all wrapped up with Lady Audley’s secret, so he sets out to expose her. He’s not an especially interesting character, and I actually kind of disliked him. The result of spending so much time with him is that some of the middle section is a bit boring. I understand why the book needed to focus on him. There wouldn’t be a mystery if we followed Lady Audley the whole time. But it was a little disappointing that we see so little of the most interesting character.

Overall, Lady Audley’s Secret lives up to it’s reputation as the most popular Victorian sensation novel. It’s over-the-top and melodramatic, but that’s what makes it so fun to read.

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