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January wasn’t anywhere near as booktastic as I would’ve liked, but the three I’d finished were all very enjoyable. I had decided to start working on the Classics Reading challenge first, and now I’m finding it hard to put down those lovely old books!

1. E. Nesbit – The Story of the Treasure Seekers (3 Jan)
2. Elizabeth Gaskell – Mary Barton (16 Jan)
3. Aeschylus – Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians (trans. Philip Vellacott) (31 Jan)

As always, I’ve included cover images of the version I’d picked up. Some of them were a little difficult to find, so please pardon the poor image quality!

1. E. Nesbit – The Story of the Treasure Seekers (3 Jan)

I picked up this book at a sale, and went into it only knowing the year of publication—and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it!

01-treasure seekersBlurb: Meet Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noel, and Horace Octavius (H.O.)—the Bastable children. Living in London with their widowed father, their lives have changed since their mother’s death. Too poor to attend school, they are free to spend their days coming up with ingenious plans to restore their father’s fortune. At the convened council meeting, they resolve to each come up with a different plan to make money and determine to try each scheme in turn.

Accompanied by a diligent dog, permitting a few selected grown-ups to help them and making use of an unwilling neighbouring child, the children are sure that success cannot be far off. Digging for buried treasure, moonlighting as highwaymen and deploying a divining rod are just a few of the plots they conjure up.

Narrated in the first person by one of the children, who tries to keep his identity secret, The Story of the Treasure Seekers is an enchanting read.

Plot: I absolutely loved the stories here! I say “stories” because the novel details the children’s various adventures, and they’re all wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed. The pacing was pretty much perfect, with each chapter at just the right length. Even though the realist (read: boring grown-up) in me wasn’t particularly sold by the ending, I did manage to suspend my disbelief for a moment, and found the conclusion quite magical and very, very touching.

Characters: Golly, how I loved all the characters! The six Bastable children all of their own distinct personalities, from responsible Dora to sensitive Noel. I also loved the portrayal of the adults from the children’s perspective, and the assumptions they make about Father and their Lost Fortune—I can remember the kinds of things I thought about grown-ups when I was a child, and what Nesbit has portrayed all feels very real.

Themes: Adventures, finding treasure, and restoring great fortunes! There is such a wonderful sense of imagination and exploration in this novel—it really reminded me of the days when the world seemed to be governed by a different set of rules, and felt infinite. But it wasn’t just about mindless adventuring—Nesbit’s characters all understand the importance of being polite and well-mannered, and I just loved that dimension of the book’s social milieu.

Language: I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but… I loved the writing. Nesbit really captures the narrator’s voice, and I especially loved the occasional slips the narrator makes (it’s so endearing!).

Overall: I loved this novel, and would happily recommend it to anyone who’s looking for an “old-fashioned” children’s book. I’m a little sad I didn’t come across this in my childhood, but this is definitely a title I’ll keep in mind when purchasing pressies for kiddies in the future. There are two sequels, which I might pick up eventually—but I thought this novel was so wonderful by itself, I don’t really feel the need for more!

For those who like numbers: 4.7/5

2. Elizabeth Gaskell – Mary Barton (16 Jan)

This is basically my kind of book—pre-1900s, heavy (in all senses of the word), detailed, thought-provoking, and beautifully lush in writing, characters, and the society it portrays—but it’s the kind of book I’ve not had many opportunities to read since my late undergrad years. But here we are now, and goodness me, how we are here.

02-mary bartonBlurb: In her remarkable first novel, Mary Barton (1848), Elizabeth Gaskell portrays city life in the “hungry forties” of the nineteenth century.

The plot turns on Mary’s romantic choice between Henry Carson, the son of a rich industrialist, and her working-class lover Jem Wilson, and the rivalries between them. The class-divide and the widening gap between rich and poor are central themes in a novel originally named after Mary’s father, John Barton. A radical trades unionist, his tragedy dominates the book, and in his bitter intelligence and courage he is one of the most compelling heroes in all Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction.

Plot: Mmm, the wonderful plot and pace of 19th century novels…! I thoroughly enjoyed the story and its execution, and even though the main Dun-Dun-Dun bit in the plot was pretty obvious, I loved seeing how each character reacted and handled the situation, especially at the point of revelation. It was altogether a very satisfying read.

Characters: Mary, Jem, Henry, and most of the other characters were all wonderfully portrayed. My only disappointment is with John Barton, whose initially rich character slowly ebbs away in the novel’s second half. I think this might be due to Gaskell’s publishers insisting on focusing on the sentimental plot rather than the radical politics (the publishers actually insisted Gaskell change the previous title of John Barton to Mary Barton), which is a bit of a shame because I loved the politics in the first half. That being said, the shift in focus didn’t necessarily decrease my enjoyment, but it was a different kind of enjoyment derived from reading a different type of narrative. In any case, I would love to know what Gaskell originally wrote (or intended to write) for John Barton—and now we’re heading into the dangerous territory of academic geekery…

Themes: I honestly don’t know where to start here without launching into a long (and possibly rambly) analysis of social order in Victorian England… So here are a few keywords: poverty, division of classes, morality, justice vs. vengeance, compassion. All the wonderful things that make a fantastic novel.

Language: I very much enjoyed Gaskell’s writing in North and South, and my appreciation has only increased—primarily because I’ve since spent some time in North-East England, and have become very sensitive to dialectal differences across England and the UK at large. The narrator gets a little didactic at times, and although I don’t agree with the religious teachings and messages, I can certainly appreciate how such a religious presence had a profound effect on the characters, the story world, and Gaskell’s world at large.

Overall: A very, very enthralling read, which kept me happily curled up with the book for a week or so. I was really sad to have reached the ending, both because of the way things panned out and because the book had ended… But hey, good thing there are more Gaskell novels I can now visit (or re-visit)!

For those who like numbers: 4.7/5

3. Aeschylus – Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians (trans. Philip Vellacott) (31 Jan)

03-prometheusBlurb: Aeschylus (525-c.456 BC) was the first of the great Greek tragedians. The four plays presented in this volume—together with the Oresteian Trilogy—are all that survive of his work. The Persians is set against the Athenian victory at Salamis, which took place only eight years before the play was written. In Seven Against Thebes the two sons of Oedipus are relentlessly pursued to their death by a family curse. But in The Suppliants and Prometheus conflict of principle is resolved by rational compromise.

Overall thoughts: I read The Oresteia last year, and really enjoyed all three plays. Although the rest of Aeschylus’ plays also made a good read, the only one I truly loved was Prometheus Bound. Goodness me, I love everything about the play: the premise, the imagery, the uncompromising characters, the sheer audacity of Prometheus. This is a play I’d love to see staged, and I wouldn’t mind if it functions as a standalone. I know it’s a part of a trilogy, but I find the play powerful enough as is, and honestly don’t need anything more. As for the other three plays, I have to say I didn’t find them as gripping. I’m glad to have read them—and to have experienced another classical drama that incorporates the Oedipus myth in Seven Against Thebes—but I’m afraid that’s about it.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to know what you think. And if you’re interested in “getting into” the classics and have any questions, please feel free to drop me a line!