As those of you who have visited this blog before know, I recently decided to set a goal for myself: starting on 1/1/11, I'll start reading all those classic books I should have read already--from Gilgamesh and Homer's epics to Joyce and Proust. In order to keep myself on track with this project and also to give me a place to write about my experiences with the books, I set up this blog.
It did not occur to me that other people might be blogging about their reading. But I was extremely pleased to discover the rich world of book bloggers--many of whom are interested in reading classic literature. I was especially thrilled to learn about The Classics Circuit, a monthly extravaganza of literary celebration. Readers from around the blogosphere write about a book by a particular author, in a particular genre, from a literary time period, etc. then share their ideas or responses over the course of a week or more.
This month's Classics Circuit is devoted to Anthony Trollope, an incredibly productive Victorian author. Make sure you check out the amazing lineup of posts. Your to-be-read pile might be expanding considerably...
For "Trollopolooza" (as Dwight calls it), I read one of Trollope's lesser known books, Rachel Ray. Although this novel is not as widely read as some of his other books, it is a wonderful place to start. The book shows off the author's strengths, is shorter than Trollope's average tome, and is quite accessible. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have found myself thinking about it quite a bit since I finished.
I should warn you of a couple of weaknesses. First, there really is no plot. Girl meets Boy and they fall in love. Everybody thinks Boy will be dishonorable and leave Girl. He doesn't, and the two get married. Yep--that really is pretty much it--and you know it from the beginning.
The second thing you should be aware of if you are new to the Victorians is that Trollope reflects many of the assumptions and prejudices of his time. Sometimes his portrayals of gender or race can be kind of off-putting. (For the way this issue plays out in a different novel, check out Falaise's discussion.)
Another problem is that Rachel Ray herself is kind of a sap. Unlike those fascinating young women of Victorian literature like Jane Eyre or Dorothea Brooke, Rachel doesn't seem to have much of a spine or intellect of her own.
While Rachel may seem boring to the modern reader, Trollope's other characters do not. The author's strongest suit is his painting of marvelous portraits. Some seem almost like caricatures, but they have just enough depth to them to make them real. They are also complex: not simply good or bad, but instead both sympathetic at moments and irritating at others. We wind up loving them warts and all, as if they were members of our own families.
Rachel's mother is one of those women "who cannot grow alone as standard trees" and instead "in their growth will bend and incline themselves toward some prop for their life." She is warm and loving, but easily persuaded by others. Her elder daughter, the widowed Mrs. Prime, is fierce and sharp--like her Calvinist friends Mr. Prong and Miss Pucker with their greedy distasteful lives. Even their names show their personalities! The family clergyman is Reverend Comfort--another perfect name--who wants to do what is right but sometimes leads his flock astray. Rachel's love interest, Luke Rowan, is an outsider to the community, eager to exert his right to a place in the local brewery--run by a man with the perfect brewer's name, Mr. Tappitt.
In addition to the character portraits and the author's wit, other reasons to read Rachel Ray are for its fascinating discussions of complicated and changing webs of authority. How Rachel chooses to submit to Luke, to her mother, and to her sister is clearly a major plot line, but issues of power and respect appear everywhere: between young and old, between men and women, between high church and Evangelists, between Jews and Protestants, between between workers and employers.
Trollope was focusing on these questions of authority at exactly a moment in history when the English-speaking world seems to be turning upside down. Charles Darwin had just published The Origin of Species, the United States was becoming embroiled in the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and mass production was reshaping the meanings of everything from labor to wealth, and the British Empire was coming to its peak. Suddenly, traditional interpretations of power and control were thrown to the wind. People found themselves at odds about how to go forward. Questions filled every relationship in this changing world.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the novel has more to do with its production than with the book itself. Trollope was originally hired by Good Words, an Evangelical magazine, to write a novel for serialization in its pages. When the editor saw what Trollope was producing--a book that absolutely skewered Evangelists as people who cared more for money than love--people with "no warmth and little life" as the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition says--he told Trollope that the pages of his Evangelical paper were perhaps not the right place for invective against Evangelists. Surely Trollope did not think he would get away it--but as it turned out, several chapters were set in type before Good Words pulled the novel.
* * *
here is a recipe for
a slightly altered version of
Rachel Ray's Scalloped Potatoes:
2 cups milk
1 cup broth (chicken or veggie) or water
1 cup brown ale (preferably from an English brewery)
4 cloves garlic
3 pounds potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick (peeled--or unpeeled for a more rustic look)
3 ounces of your favorite sharp English cheese, coarsely grated (about 3/4 cup)
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 cup heavy cream plus 2 tablespoons of spicy English mustard
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a large saucepan, combine milk and broth with garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the potatoes and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to prevent the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the beer and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer until the potatoes are tender but still slightly firm, about 8 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer half the potatoes to a buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange the potatoes in an even layer.
Sprinkle with half the cheese and the cayenne. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Repeat with the remaining potatoes and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Whisk together the heavy cream and mustard, then pour the mixture evenly over the top. Bake the scalloped potatoes until golden and crisp on top, 40 to 45 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Enjoy--with a good book.