Welcome to another 3 Classics Review! Once again we have one book for my 19th-century American literature course and two for my Victorian women novelists independent study. Let’s jump in!
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My Rating: 2 stars
This was my second time reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The last time was for high school, so I thought time and a few degrees in literature might change my feelings about it. They did not. It felt just as long and tedious as it did when I was fifteen. The problem for me is that if feels Stowe is trying to cram multiple books into one. The two main storylines–Eliza’s and Tom’s–really aren’t connected except for some incredibly coincidental revelations right at the end. And then tons of minor characters have their own storylines. It’s too many people, too many events, and just too much overall. It really starts to drag.
So this is obviously an important piece of literature in American history. It was one of the most popular books in it’s time, and it had a big effect on how people viewed slavery and African-Americans. Considering the era, it was progressive. However, as a modern reader, it is hard to stomach some of this stuff. Even though it’s advocating for abolishing slavery and treating black people as people, it’s still really racist. It reinforces a lot of stereotypes that existed at the time and continue to prevail. It’s a product of it’s time. I don’t think you can completely fault a book for that; we can’t judge a 19th-century novel by modern standards, of course. But it can definitely affect how much a person enjoys reading a book, and that was the case for me with this. I was uncomfortable with Stowe’s depiction of almost every black character, not in a way that makes you think seriously about things but in a way that made me cringe. It’s just hard to enjoy a book like that.
Overall, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an important book that anyone studying literature and history should be familiar with while also being aware of it’s major flaws. But if you’re looking for a classic to enjoy, this probably isn’t it.
East Lynne by Ellen Wood
My Rating: 3 stars
Ellen Wood is a Victorian woman writer I’ve never read before, so I was excited to check her out. Like Lady Audley’s Secret, East Lynne is a sensation novel and a best-seller of the era. I was expecting something similar to Braddon, and that is not what I got at all. The summary of the book focus on Lady Isabel abandoning her family for a lover and later returning disguised as a governess. But none of that happens until the halfway point. We get all this lead up involving Lady Isabel’s father, her meeting and marrying Carlyle, Carlyle’s friendship with Barbara Hare, and the woes of Barbara’s brother who has been accused of murder. It takes forever to get to the point, and I was bored through the first half. The second half is just, for lack of a better term, pure misery porn. We watch Lady Isabel suffer constantly for her choices while the narrator essentially gives sermons on how wives should be happy with their lot in life. It was just too much for me. The Victorians were apparently into it, but I was not.
However, despite disliking the book, I found that I did want to keep reading to see what would happen. This was mainly because the plot is so ridiculous. We have murder, adultery, train accidents, hidden identities, faked deaths, extreme misunderstandings leading to devastating consequences, and more. From this perspective, I can see why Victorian readers loved it so much. There are so many exciting and scandalous things going on. I did wish there were a bit more mystery involved in the plot. The murder mystery we have is easy to figure out and ultimately not tied in that strongly with Lady Isabel’s plot. It almost felt like two different books. And I think Lady Isabel’s story would have been stronger if we started with her returning as a governess and had the details of her past revealed as the book moved forward.
Overall, East Lynne is an odd book that probably won’t appeal to most modern readers. I can’t say I enjoyed it or would recommend it, but I’m glad I read it to get a better understanding of Victorian popular culture.
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
My Rating: 4 stars
This is my fourth Gaskell novel and the second for this independent study. I reviewed Wives and Daughters last month. Ruth is a social novel focusing on the fallen woman figure, who was a common character in Victorian fiction. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Gaskell takes an extremely sympathetic viewpoint of her fallen woman and criticizes the society that ostracizes her. Ruth is an orphan working as a seamstress when she is seduced by Henry Bellingham. When his mother eventually convinces him to abandon her, Ruth is left alone and pregnant. Taken in by a kind minister and his sister, she poses as a widow to be considered a respectable member of society. Ruth is a well-written character who continually fascinated me in her level of passivity. A critical work I read called it radical passivity, and I have to agree. She takes every bit of shame and contempt thrown at her with perfect calmness to the point where the people around her feel guilty for treating her that way. Gaskell does an incredible job with these scenes; they are intense, uncomfortable, and almost haunting.
There are some parts that I found a bit dull, but not nearly as many as in Wives and Daughters. Most of what Gaskell focuses on in Ruth relates to the plot and doesn’t feel unnecessary. My main problem with the book was the ending. It feels like such a cop out. Gaskell creates this sympathetic fallen woman, makes the reader care about her, shows that she can be redeemed, and critiques the society that shames her only to kill her off in the end. This is the typical ending for a fallen woman narrative, and I saw it as Gaskell not being brave enough to stand by her character and her original purpose. Instead she caves to society and has Ruth die as the ultimate way of redeeming herself. And it’s a slap in the face that she gets sick from nursing Mr. Bellingham back to health. Why does he get to live? He’s far worse than Ruth. It has become a running theme for authors to create these subversive female characters only to kill them off in the end because they don’t know what else to do with them (also see The Blithedale Romance).
Overall, Ruth is an important Victorian social novel that really highlights the injustices of the society. It’s definitely worth the read, but know going into it that the ending is a bit disappointing.