Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Napoleons and "Barnaby Rudge" Visit Whispering Pines

Well, the latest of the Notting Hill Napoleon's annual “Autumn Retreats” has come and gone but what a delightful weekend it proved to be. For our fifth year in a row, the eleven members of our literary club traveled the pleasant 45-minute drive to Nebraska City to stay Friday night through Sunday morning at the Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast. The house was as comfortable and lovely as always and we were once again given the privilege to take over the whole place for the weekend at just a little bit over the regular (and very reasonable) prices. This year, however, we did encounter a change; namely, Whispering Pines has a new owner! But any fear we may have had of how things might go under new management were quickly dismissed as Jeanna Stavas proved to be a splendid hostess – friendly, energetic, generous and very talented as a cook and innkeeper. The Napoleons are unanimous in recommending Whispering Pines more than ever.

Our Friday night exercise is always to decide on the novels and plays we will be reading for the next year and though the number of nominees was far greater than any other year, a new, streamlined approach led us to our final dozen relatively quickly. Those books making the grade this year are as follows:

2006 Reading List Notting Hill Napoleons
January ---
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
February --- Rodney Stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
March --- Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
April --- Ben Hur by Lew Wallace
May --- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
June --- The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott
July --- The Hounds of God by Rafael Sabatini
August --- North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell
September --- The Warden by Anthony Trollope
October --- Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
November --- The Mystery of Edward Drood by Charles Dickens
December --- A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg
Alternate Selection --- The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

On Saturday morning, after Jeanna’s delicious breakfast, we all trooped over to visit Bud and Shirley, the former owners of the bed and breakfast. Then we spent an hour or so in a couple of downtown Nebraska City’s antique and used bookstores. In the past, I’ve discovered incredibly inexpensive treasures at one of these cluttered little shops: several vintage Leslie Charteris’ novels, five in a hardbound series by Rafael Sabatini, and an entire hard cover set of Sir Walter Scott published in 1905 but in excellent condition (25 novels in 12 volumes for $60 – my best find ever!).

No such fortunes this time around but I did score a few modest hits: a single volume of H. Rider Haggard containing his four most popular novels, a grand treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan in one volume, a few collectible books from the 1960’s, a G.A. Henty, and an unpretentious but charming novel written by, of all people, Cardinal Spellman back in 1951.

Okay, back to Whispering Pines.

Saturday afternoon was spent discussing this year’s Charles Dickens novel, Barnaby Rudge, and a more wonderful three hours of conversation I haven’t had since…well, probably since last year’s Dickens’ discussion! Our consensus on Barnaby Rudge was that it is not only one of Dickens' most underrated novels, it is actually one of his very best. It is one of his only two historical novels but, unlike A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge has plenty of hope, comedy and a very happy ending.

The plot of the novel centers on London's “No Popery” riots of 1780, a tragically inflamed five days of violent anti-Catholic hysteria, including arson and murder in which over 300 were killed. Though not himself a Catholic, Dickens was horrified at how London’s population had been gripped by this fever and his intention with Barnaby Rudge was to teach critical moral lessons about tolerance, hypocrisy, the wickedness of distorting religious passions to inflame base hatreds, and the dangers of mass hysteria.

He succeeds in his mission magnificently and along the way he treats his readers to an inviting tale of mystery, tension, and moral transformation. Indeed, regarding the latter, Dickens takes two of the novel’s characters through a startling but deeply moving conversion from villains to penitent heroes. Terrific! And, oh yes, in this novel the reader comes to love one of Dickens’ very best characters, Gabriel Varden. With the courage of a lion, the heart of a saint, the patience of Job – all in the portly body of a middle-aged locksmith – Gabriel Varden deserves a place of honor even among the pantheon of Dickens’ better-known heroes. Let me urge you not to neglect Barnaby Rudge; it is truly Dickens at his best.

A lovely dinner, a rousing game of Tabloid Teasers, some more conversation, a peek at the USC football game, and it was time to close a full day with the prospect of quiet sleep. However, Jeanna’s spicy Southwest breakfast served up on Sunday morning got us quickly awake and made for the perfect ending to a fabulous weekend. All book clubs should have it this good!