This is a delightful book written by a master of historical fiction. It seems ironic that this master of literature, much like another of his contemporary authors, Conrad, was not English despite the fact he wrote exclusively in the language.
The book is divided into three sections covering the three lives that the main character's revenge carries him through. The story is, much like all of Sabatini's stories, one of high adventure with an ironic twist in the end. The story takes the main character from a political moderate to a revolutionary in a France before the usurpation of the Ancien Regime. His political metamorphises accompany occupational ones forced on him by the hostility of a Marquis, whom he has sworn to kill. His career changes take him from the robes of a lawyer, to the buckskin of an actor, and finally to the mask of a maitre d'armes.
Each of the acts of this novel are vividly painted. Sabatini was an excellent historian who wrote many books on various subject in the field; as such he is perfectly at home in the past and beautifully and accurately captures the mood of a tulmutuous epoch. He was also raised by a wandering troop of performers, and so writes from his childhood to describe the actors of a group of players from the Comedia Dell'Arte in late eighteent century France. His mastery of fencing is well displayed by the exact, techinical, and exciting handling of the many bouts and duels recounted in this fine work of historical fiction.
The only disappointing point of this book, and indeed it is a downfall only if you know Sabatini, is that its end is very typical of the author and is represented almost perfectly by his other work Master-At-Arms. Also, while it has a philisophical message about the history of man and the mechanics of societies it is somewhat hackneyed. These are the books' only flaws, however, and if you want a swashbuckling romance of epic proportions you need look no farther. It is one of the best edge of your seats adventure ever written and one does it no exageration by saying that it has the cold dangerous charm of a flashing sabre on a summer's afternoon, and the intellectual thrill of a brilliant chess match. The story is made even better by Sabatini's brilliant depiction of the two diametrically opposed protagonists of the book, each involved in an oath to see the death of the other, and involved in this oath to a depth that only gentlemen of yesteryear could possibly have been.
This is the sometimes heart-wrenching story of a young orphan named Phillip Carey. It is essentially a coming of age story and is about the search of a child for meaning in his life as he grows older and how people find their own places in this world in which we live, which are topics much covered and explored by Maughm.
The book covers both Phillip's success and his heartbreaks. Phillip is afflicted with a club-foot and this deformity resurges through out the book to haunt him, but its most permenant and scarring effects are in the boarding school which Phillip attends as a child. Maughm takes pains to paint it as an place where Phillip learns to be isolated and begins to question his faith.
The book deals with the problems which the young Phillip deals with at home alongside his problems at school. He is raised by his much older childless aunt and uncle, who is a vicar. Phillip is raised in an expectedly conservative manner by his clerical uncle. How Phillip deals with this and the consequences it has on his later life add another complex and delightful layer to this story.
The story follows him through his adulthood as he leaves school and goes to Germany where he meets people who will define his life then, and will continue to act as a kind of thermometer for his emotional development.
He moves from Germany to an accounting house where we learn more of what Phillip wants out of life.
Phillip moves to Paris after he discovers he has a dissatisfaction in business. here he tries his hand at painting, and Maughm paints for us a vivid picture of a Paris and ex-pat British Bohemians who are struggling with the ideas of Impressionism, which is now moving on and evolving other artistic styles. We again suffer with Phillip in his uncertainties regarding his art until he gives it up and, with the almost constant castigation from his uncle who believes that he is too flighty for his own good, enrolls in medical school to follow the profession of his father.
While enrolled in medical school we meet Phillip's unfortunate would-be lover. Through the locus of Phillips love-sickness and his rejection Maughm explores the idea of what young love is and what it is like to be strapped to someone who you cannot get out of your mind, even if you hate them and do not care much for you.
After his exploration of love, since this is a Maugh novel, Phillip is stripped of his wealth and thrown into the dregs of society to make a living through his own very inglorious and in the beginning unskilled labor.
This is not the end for Phillip however and the book sees him redeemed.
The book is a powerful masterpiece. It was delightfully written, and it is very indicative of its period (Edwardian and late Victorian). The story is ironically plot driven even though it is a near memoir of the first thirty years of Maughm's life (Phillip's club-foot represents Maughm's own stutter). A such the character growth in the novel is entirely reactionary. Phillip rarely does things on his own, but instead does them because he is put into a situation or because he is forced to. Despite his tendancy to look inward, whether for character reasons or for stylistic reasons, all of Phillip's emotional growth occurs on the physical line of the plot, not on the ethereal. In other words, we do not see the character creating situations to further his growth, he is rather trapped into them. Even his painting, which he undertakes because he thinks he would be good at it, is begun only because other people insist it would be a good thing for him to do. He gives it up, similarly, only because someone else tells him he will never be great. Also, even though we are told from the beginning that Phillip has an introspective kindly nature we do not see a true affection in him for the lower classes, or a true acceptance of their labor or lives until Phillip becomes a laborer himself.
The view of women the piece takes is typical of its epoch. It is shows them as manipulative creatures who desire to be adored and to enjoy the mastery of men to their own ends, which may or may not be in the service of their sex's reproductive nature (one may here compare the female lead Mildred of 'Of Human Bondage' with Ana in Shaw's "Man and Superman", or with Arabella in Hardy's 'Jude the Obscure,' just to name a few examples.)
Perhaps the biggest drawback to the story is the ending which seems mean and small when compared to the rest of this ambitious piece. It appears to the modern discriminating reader to be little more than a comprimise that deals with few of the great issues covered in the book. Indeed, the reader may be tempted to ask if Phillip learned anything from his unfortunate amarous adventures, despite his obvious growth as a character. However, this is but a mild detraction to what can be considered one of the most brilliant epic novels ever published.
The novel's true genius lies not merely in the fact that it is a wonderful piece of story-telling, which it is, but that it manages to be sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional, sometimes mathematical, and sometimes aesthetic. It does all of this effortlessly and without the slightest pretension.
As a rule I am not the biggest fan of Hardy. He seems a little provincial for my tastes, but Jude the Obscure, while most certainly provincial is an amazing piece of literature and art.
The story surrounds an orphan whose family are historically libertines (of course libertines in a kind of upright, properly British fashion. There are no Cecile de Volanges, Valmonts, or Mdm. de Merteuils here) and his struggles to fulfill this familial destiny.
As a child, despite his rural poor socio-economic status, he yearns to go to a University. At nights he pours over the classics and mathematics, taking what classes he can at night from the local schoolmaster and buying what books he can with whatever money he can save. Eventually he becomes apprenticed to a stone mason, but not even this can stamp out his intellectual ardor.
Eventually, he takes up the trade he was trained in and marries a young woman from a nearby villiage after he leaves the house of his master. The marriage ends in disaster due to the mixed match of the partners; Jude is the consumate intellectual and she is completly a woman of her class.
After the marriage dissolves, Jude moves to a town which has a large University. He attempts to enroll in the school, but is told by one of the Professors there to mind his own social reponsibilities and not to concern himself with those of his betters (of course the letter is more nicely worded).
In this same town he meets one of his women cousins who is as iconoclastic as he is (She works painting religious icons for a church, but breaks down and buys a Pagan statuette that strikes her aethetic and ideological fancy on a trip to another town, which has to be hidden from the sight of her mistress). Jude begins here a courtship with her that continues even after she marries another man. The result is that they both end up running off together, which causes the two of them to committ adultry according to the English law of the time (Jude's wife left for Australia without first obtaining a divorce).
After hearing of his wife's change of heart, Jude's cousin's husband lets her go. As a result the lives of all three spiral downward into a misery that doesn't have to happen but is forced upon all by their stodgey hidebound countrymen as a result of Jude family's untraditional lifestyle, evinced by Jude constantly relocating his family caused by their unwillingness to be unhappy just because someone else expects it ("(we must go) not because we have wronged any man, but because we have done that which is right in our own hearts"-Jude).
This book is terribly depressing, but a wonderfully effective attack on Hardy's society. The book, in fact, was refused publication in its original form because it attacked the institution of marriage in England. The truth is that it attacks so much more than just marriage and at times seems often to be little more than a catalogue of Jude's failures, despite his pragmatic ambitions, abilities, and interests. The book sees him denied love, knowledge, education, status, wealth, happiness, and much more and merely because he fixed his own star and lived a moral life outside the moral boundaries constructed for him.
Though this may sound like a terrible book to read it is not at all because it is so unbelievably well written, and in the end produces such an emotion in the reader, almost anti-cathartic (if the Greeks ever had such a thing) becuase the main character has so few flaws other than his obstinance regarding what he deserves, that the gloominess of the story is wholly redeemed. It is very rarely that a novelist or author in any medium can create a master piece that speaks to an audience in any generation, but Hardy has done that here with Jude the Obscure if only because it is the opposite of the Horatio Alger story. The boy would've-done good-story. If you want to admire an author's craft, have an emotional experience, or even just read a period piece of late ninteenth century British literature you can not do much better than Jude the Obscure.
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