Some Victorian Short Stories.

This week I've been in the mood for short stories: I've read Brother Jacob by George Eliot, Best Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens (which felt like an odd choice of read for spring), and my favourite of the three - Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy.

Brother Jacob, I must admit, was my least favourite of the reads: I fell out of love with George Eliot for a while having first read what I think are her best - Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Adam Bede, then being left with what I think are her deadliest - Felix Holt, the Radical and Daniel Deronda (I still have Romola left and I've no idea if or when I'll get to it). Plus she was very rude about Anthony Trollope and that didn't improve matters, so all in all I was left feeling rather disillusioned and Brother Jacob didn't help. It was first published in 1864 and tells the story of David Faux who decides to become a confectioner believing it will make him prosper both socially and financially. When it doesn't, however, he decides instead to head to the West Indies, and steals from his mother to raise the funds. His brother Jacob is aware but keeps silent (he is portrayed as rather slow-witted) and David Faux escapes. Years later a new confectioner opens in town, the owner being Edward Freely, who is none other than David Faux. He is successful and likely to make a good match by marrying the local squire's daughter, however Jacob reveals all and that is that. It really just left me cold.

Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1894, is as bleak if not bleaker than Brother Jacob, but it is infinitely more engaging and, dare I say, far more well-written. There are eight stories:
  1. An Imaginative Woman (1893).
  2. The Son's Veto (1891).
  3. For Conscience' Sake (1891).
  4. A Tragedy of Two Ambitions (1888).
  5. On the Western Circuit (1891).
  6. To Please his Wife (1891).
  7. The Fiddler of the Reels (1893).
  8. A Few Crusted Characters (1891).
The last one, A Few Crusted Characters, is divided into the following ten sections,
  1. Introduction
  2. Tony Kytes, the Arch-Deceiver
  3. The History of the Hardcomes
  4. The Superstitious Man's Story
  5. Andrey Satchel and the Parson and Clerk
  6. Old Andrey's Experience as a Musician
  7. Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir
  8. The Winters and the Palmleys
  9. Incident in the Life of Mr. George Crookhill
  10. Netty Sargent's Copyhold,
and it is a frame story in which passengers on a coach tells each other tales of Wessex people they've encountered.

Of the eight main stories, my favourites, and the most striking I believe, are An Imaginative Woman and To Please his Wife. In An Imaginative Woman we meet Mr. and Mrs. Marchmill who are staying in Solentsea (based on Southsea, Portsmouth). We learn Mrs. Marchmill is a poet, and she is fascinated by Robert Trewe, another poet who she regards as her superior. When she learns that the rooms they are renting are also rented by Robert Trewe who is currently away, she becomes obsessed. Too late, she learns her feelings for him, a man she's never met, are astonishingly reciprocated, which leads to their tragedy. Similarly, To Please his Wife is also a tale of obsession. A sailor wishes to marry Joanna Phippard, however changes his mind in favour of Emily Hanning. Joanna, however, won't release him so, true to his word, he marries Joanna and tries his best to make a success of it. However as Emily, who marries someone else, rises through the social ranks and becomes increasingly more successful in life, Joanna and her husband fall further down. Joanna is well aware that her husband wanted to marry Emily, which makes her very competitive and eager for the success she sees as rightly hers. Unsurprisingly given the tone of this collection, she ends up driving her husband to his death. This is the major themes of the collection: disappointment, tragedy, and as the title suggests, irony, and it is well in keeping with the tone of Hardy's later novels. But it is done very well, so well I admire the stories greatly and enjoyed them, however miserable they left me!

The final collection of stories I read this week was Best Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens, published by Wordsworth in 1997 and including the ghost stories of Charles Dickens from throughout his career. It contains,
  1. The Queer Chair (from Chapter 14 of The Pickwick Papers, 1837).
  2. A Madman's Manuscript (from Chapter 11 of The Pickwick Papers, 1837).
  3. The Goblins who Stole a Sexton (from Chapter 29 of The Pickwick Papers, 1837).
  4. The Ghosts of the Mail (from Chapter 49 of The Pickwick Papers, 1837).
  5. The Baron of Grogzwig (from Chapter 6 of Nicholas Nickleby, 1839).
  6. A Christmas Carol (1843).
  7. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848).
  8. To be Read as Dusk (1852).
  9. The Ghost in the Bride's Chamber (from The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, 1857).
  10. The Haunted House (1859).
  11. The Trial for Murder (1865).
  12. The Signal Man (1866).
Many of these were published at Christmas time, which, as Dickens wrote numerous times, was a time for looking back and remembering those who are no longer with us, past Christmases, happier times or sadder times, and because the past permeates the festive season, it makes it a perfect time for ghost stories. All of these I have read before, and I have already blogged in more detail about my particular favourites (A Christmas Carol being the ultimate), the others, though I enjoyed them, weren't quite as memorable as one would have hoped. Still, I loved re-reading these, though as I've said it was a rather odd time to embark on it! But I do love Dickens and, in May, I'm planning on returning to one of his novels, possibly Nicholas Nickleby, which The Baron of Grogzwig put me in the mood for.

So, all in all, it was a good reading week though it felt somewhat disjointed reading short stories here and there instead of settling into a novel. The best of all was Hardy - I haven't read him all this year and I forgot how much I loved him. I think it may be time to bring back my Hardy's complete works challenge!


  1. like "cellar door" (supposedly the most poetic phrase in literature), i like (although it's the opposite in sonance) eclectic collection... i've read some of the above, but not all by any means; and i have some of those: time to go rummaging through the shelves...

    1. "eclectic collection" is indeed a lovely turn of phrase :) Enjoy rummaging!


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