Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Annotated Sense and Sensibility, Edited by David M. Shapard

I can think of no better way to end both the year and The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge than with a a review of The Annotated Sense and Sensibility by David M. Shapard. Like his editions of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (read my review if the latter here), Mr. Shapard not only displays a sincere love and respect for our dear Miss Austen, but also an incredible understanding of her intentions, humor, and the era in which she lived. I adore his annotated volumes and consider them fundamental reading for all Janeites with an academic interest in her work.

When I read Mr. Shapard's annotations, I feel like I've been transported into an intensive class on Austen. When I reviewed his Persuasion, I quoted extensively from his annotations as a means of conveying this sensation. Unfortunately, the clock rapidly clicking towards year's end, as well as the demands of a six month old, do not allow me the leisure to repeat that effort here. Instead, I will confine myself to pointing out his particular attention to "the cult of sensibility", it's fundamental importance to this novel (especially in the development of Marianne's character), and his success at explaining it to a modern audience. I quote from his introduction:
... the theory of moral sense, was an influential philosophical doctrine that explained morality as the product of an instinctive sense of benevolence in human beings. This sense allowed people to understand moral principals, served as proof of the validity of moral laws, and gave people a reason to act morally, since such actions would naturally produce pleasure while immoral actions would produce pain.
In these principals lies the core of Marianne's philosophy. Often we dismiss her as merely a spoiled teenager and fail to understand that her actions are grounded in a doctrine that was pervasive at the end of the 18th century. Austen directly challenges these notions, advocated by many of the great minds of the day - a rather bold move for a young woman of rural origins. For example, when Marianne clearly trespasses on the rules of decorum when she and Willoughby tour Allenham, she and Elinor have the following exchange:
"I have never spent a pleasanter morning in my life."


"I am afraid," replied Elinor, "that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety."


"On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure."
Mr. Shapard's annotations on this scene point right back to the notion of Moral Sense, and it is in this manner that he emphasizes this fundamental aspect of Marianne's character throughout the book, constantly reminding us of what would be obvious to Austen's contemporaries, though it is a rather alien notion to the modern audience. My previous readings of Sense and Sensibility have certainly been informed by the knowledge I have of 18th century philosophies, but it took Mr. Shapard's annotations to illuminate the pervasive extent to which Austen dwells on these subjects. I finished the book with renewed appreciation for Austen's brilliance and a far better understanding of her authorial intentions. This book is so much more than an excellent romance; it is a carefully worked philosophical essay.

For more on the cult of sensibility I refer you the excellent post that Laurel Ann Nattress, coincidentally our Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge host, wrote for the last installment of The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration at My Jane Austen Book Club, entitled Marianne Dashwood: A Passion for Dead Leaves and Other Sensibilities. Mr. Shapard's Annotated Emma will be out in March. I can hardly wait!

Happy New Year everybody!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Pattillo

I managed to get this book read - absolutely necessary if I have any possibility of completing The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, issued by Austenprose - by reciting it to my husband as we drove ten hours to Indiana to celebrate Christmas. I have wondered about the books of Beth Pattillo before but never read them, not being super keen on Austenesque set in the present, so this was a welcome opportunity to expand my horizons a bit. The Dashwood Sisters Tell All is about two sisters (shocking, I know) who travel to England to attend a Jane Austen themed walking tour as part of their mother's dieing request. The mother, being a attentive Janeite, knew the importance of documenting her final wishes rather than simply relying on a promise to do as she wished. John Dashwood, after all, certainly intended to fulfill his father's request to care for his sisters, amply demonstrating how good intentions often go to waste. Before Ellen and Mimi Dodge can inherit their mother's estate, they must attend this tour and choose a place to scatter her ashes, and they also must determine what to do with a most unusual item that had been in her possession - Cassandra Austen's diary.

I challenge any Austen lover to read this book without drooling over the prospect of Cassandra's diary. Such an item, as the characters in the book are so good as to continually assert, would be priceless. One of the most intriguing parts of this story is reading some of those imagined entries. Ms. Pattillo envisions a new romance for Jane that drives her behavior in some of the most debated episodes of her life, like the flirtation with Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal. The whole concept is extremely juicy and compelling, but I found myself dissatisfied at the end. The problem with this book is not the premise, which is fabulous, but the characters. Like every Sense and Sensibility modernization I have read during the course of this challenge, the modern versions of Eleanor and Marianne annoyed the heck out of me.

Why is it that when Eleanor and Marianne are transformed into 21st century women they become frigid and ditsy? I noticed this in The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine and Jennifer Ziegler's Sass & Serendipity. Do the Dashwood ladies just not translate into our modern world, or have they not been done justice? I think it is a case of the latter. In this story, Ellen is cast as the practical one while behaving as if her head was sewn on backwards. Here she is in possession of an invaluable article that she insists on hiding it in her hotel room, repeatedly foreshadowing its eventual theft (I do not consider that tidbit a spoiler as it is blatantly apparent that this is precisely what will happen almost as soon as the diary is introduced). I felt like reaching into the book and smacking her. She also completely lacks Eleanor's keen perception of character and empathy, as demonstrated in her paranoid misreading of her Edward's intentions. Mimi is the pretty vivacious one with a knack for falling for the wrong guy. I think I would have been more satisfied with her portrayal if she hadn't kept complaining that no one thought she was smart while acting like an idiot. Should it not be the cardinal rule of all Austen homages that characters display their essence through actions? A person who asserts one thing while behaving in an opposite fashion is the profile for a Lucy Steele or Fanny Dashwood, not our heroine.

Overall, despite my complaints, the book kept us well entertained though our car trip (the baby, in her infinite mercy, slept almost the entire way). I would love to attend a walking tour like the one described here. The Dodge sisters visit all the great Austen locals, from Steventon to Winchester. The story is, in many ways a Janeite fantasy come true, which is precisely what makes the main characters' shortcomings so annoying. I would love to further elaborate on my response to this book, but as I am just barely managing to get this post completed before the end of the year (and I still have one more review to go before the challenge can be considered complete - stay tuned!), I will conclude by simply saying that I do intend to read Ms. Pattillo's other books, but I am not in a rush to do so.   

Jane Austen Made Me Do It: "A Night at Northanger" by Lauren Willig

I wrote this post in mid November and never published it. Oh this disordered Mommy brain of mine!

As I slowly make my way through Jane Austen Made Me Do It, beautifully edited by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose fame, I felt the need to go back and review a story I had previously determined not to: "A Night at Northanger" by Lauren Willig. The tale has grown on me while lingering in my mind ever since I finished it a few weeks ago. Though I was immediately impressed with Ms. Willig's writing (which I had been meaning toexplore for quite sometime), the premise she sets for this story initially left me a bit discombobulated. It begins with our main character Cate, a disgruntled television personality working on a ghost hunting show, descending with her crew upon Northanger Abbey, home of Mr. Moreland Tilney-Tilney, whom I presume to be the horribly inbred descendant of Austen's hero and heroine. Though Cate has absolutely no belief in ghosts, she and her companions are predetermined to uncover something terrifying in the old Abbey, regardless of their host's goodnatured insistence that the house is far from haunted: "...you mean that rubbish by the lady novelist! Frightfully famous, too, can't think of her name at the moment. Crashing bore, all this dance and that aunt and who's going to marry whom. Don't go in for that sort of thing myself." So it is to Cate's immense surprise that she meets a very real apparition, demanding to know what she is doing in her room and prepared to dole out life advice.

As mentioned above, the notion of a paranormal reality show in the context of an Austen tribute jarred me at first. I really can't stand that sort of programming and was unable to conjure up any sympathy for Cate, who repeatedly laments the fact that she has yet to become the next Barbara Walters, but then the ghost showed up to entrance me. I do not want to completely spoil the story, so let me just quote the extremely sage career advice that the ghost provides a somewhat befuddled Cate:
"An independence," mused the apparition. "Not something at which one would sneer. Even so..." She seated herself on a chair that wasn't there and looked thoughtfully at a fire that wasn't lit. "Poverty is a great evil, but to a woman of education and feeling, it ought not, it cannot be, the worse."
This story keeps running through my head - haunting me, one might say. I've now reread it twice and imagine I will continue to come back for more. The notion of conversing with this particular ghost is so appealing; I keep wondering how she would advise me on the cares and concerns I encounter each day. When I do finally find more time to read again I will definitely move on reading some of Ms. Willig's Pink Carnation books, which had loitered in my TBR pile for far too long. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

My poor neglected blog! Santa's bringing you lots of posts to make you feel loved again before the year is over. In the meantime, "May your Christmas abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings"!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

From Prada to Nada

The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge has led me to reflect on how amazingly universal Jane Austen's stories are, particularly considering how limited was the range of her own experience. Though she confined her topics to the very small world in which she existed, she captured quintessential truths about humanity, allowing her stories to cross cultural boundaries in an impressively fluid manner. For this challenge, hosted by Austenprose, I have watched two adaptations of Sense and Sensibility that set the tale outside of Regency England: Kandukondain Kandukondain, which I loved (read my review here) and From Prada to Nada. The latter is a very cute film, providing excellent entertainment while my daughter napped on a snowy afternoon, and though it kind of falls apart at the end, it is, nevertheless, a wonderful illustration of the remarkable pliability of Austen's novels.

Our story begins in Beverley Hills, where highly assimilated Nora (Camilla Belle) and Mary Dominguez (Alexa Vega) live pampered lives. Like the book, this movie starts with death - we learn that their mother died several years ago, and then their doting father suffers a similar fate, hurrying us into a funeral scene. Here the girls are surprised by the appearance of their illegitimate older brother, Gabe (Pablo Cruz), of whose existence they were previously ignorant. He has with him his girlfriend, Olivia (April Bowlby), who does justice to everything that is repulsive in Fanny Dashwood's character, and the two are quick to claim their share of the assets. Unfortunately for everyone, their father had apparently been in bankruptcy proceedings, leaving nothing but debt behind him. Nora and Mary take refuge at their aunt Aurelia's house (Adriana Barraza) in East LA, where Spanish is the native tongue and gun shots ring through the night. No Barton Cottage, but with time the girls come to consider it home.

Like all Elinors, Nora is pragmatic and focused, intent on getting her law degree. Like all Mariannes, Mary is spoiled and self-centered. Her Willoughby takes the form of a TA at her college named Rodrigo (Kuno Becker). He is, of course, thoroughly despicable, but the fact that Mary sees him as a means of regaining her old life style softens the blow he inflicts. Colonel Brandon's role is taken by Bruno, played by a shockingly sexy Wilmer Valderrama (where did little Fez go?), a brooding artist who lives across the street from their aunt. Though his back story is entirely eliminated, I really enjoyed his strong, silent portrayal of the brooding lover, even if I had a hard time understanding his attraction to Mary, who is horribly rude to him when they first meet. It would have been nice if his was a more developed character. The only male role that really receives a lot of attention is that of Edward Ferrars, a lawyer who hires Nora as a clerk, and his development is completely dependent on the intensity of feelings for Nora. Perhaps the most Latin aspect of this film, other than the setting, is the acute romanticism of the male roles. Depth and complexity are reserved for the ladies.

Though the movie is very cute and entertaining, as mentioned above the ending is not well composed. Austen's style of hurrying everyone along towards perfect happiness in the last chapter doesn't work well on film. It would have been much better if the filmmakers had spent more time making the conclusion realistic. As it is, the end feels like a fairytale, lacking in believability. I also wish they had included Wickham's repentance scene. Still, I would definitely recommend this movie to all Janeites. It is a fitting homage to the sweeping nature of Austen's endurance.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Little Miss Austen Review at AustenBlog

I hope you'll all go check out my review of Little Miss Austen by Jennifer Adams, an awesome counting primer based on Pride and Prejudice! Mags, Editrix extraordinaire of AustenBlog, asked me to read the book with my little girl, and it has now become one of our standard go-to books. Here is the link:  http://austenblog.com/2011/10/28/review-little-miss-austen-pride-and-prejudice-by-jennifer-adams-illustrations-by-alison-oliver/. Enjoy! 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jane Austen Made Me Do It: "Waiting" by Jane Odiwe

One of the hardest parts of becoming a parent is finding time for yourself, and I don't mean time for morning yoga on the beach. I mean finding five minutes to shower. It's entirely too easy to completely lose yourself in a child, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I haven't been finding a lot of time to read. After thirty years of devouring every book in sight, this is a rough adjustment. I am trying to make the most of the opportunities that do arise, and there could not have been a better time for a collection of short stories, the eagerly awaited Jane Austen Made Me Do It (thanks Random House!), edited by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose.com, to fall into my hands. I'm indulging in a tale here and there, as I get the chance, and I have decided to review it in a similar manner. I will post on those stories that particularly moved me, beginning with one by a favorite author, Jane Odiwe.  

Jane Austen mocks her readers by beginning the final chapter of Persuasion with a question: "Who can be in doubt of what followed?" I have begged the great authoress aloud, even after countless readings, to not tease me so. It is really quite cruel. How greedily I eat up the few morsels she then bestows on such a simpleton as I, desperate to know far more details than she summarily provides. I tried to prolong that last chapter myself in my Persuasion Janeicillin, and Ms. Odiwe takes a similar approach in Waiting, exploring the minds of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth following their second engagement. The story further gratifies in its inclusion of Anne's memories of her first few meetings with then Lieutenant Wentworth, imagining a charming garden party at the rectory. As always, I was impressed by Ms. Odiwe's ability to paint vignettes as vivid as the lovely watercolors she also produces. Can you not see this moment as Anne arranges roses?
He took her tiny hand. Anne felt the warmth and strength of his long fingers pressed against her own. Her breath quickened. A bead, like a ruby red jewel, spurted to the surface of her skin. She eased her hand from his grasp to bring the finger to her lips knowing that his eyes were on her mouth. Just a small scratch, the flow of blood was easily stemmed, but not before Lieutenant Wentworth took her hand again to inspect the wound. Anne regarded the eyes fringed in black lashes deep in concentration. He seemed to be holding her hand forever.
A bit sensual, perhaps, but the portrait is irresistible (though I have to wonder why she is without gloves at a garden party). As lovely as it is to reflect on Anne and Wentworth's first moments together, the frame for this flashback is the announcement of their second and final engagement, a structure that reinforces the theme announced in the tale's title. It took this couple nearly a decade of heartache before finding happiness. Ms. Odiwe takes this opportunity to explore them in both their youthful optimism and as adults who have endured disappointment, convincingly capturing the sentiments and scenarios that Austen so cruelly skims over. The result is a sweetly satisfying story. Thank you Ms. Odiwe! It is always delightful.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Etiquette: Breast Feeding

My husband and I find ourselves often consulting the copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan that his mother gave him upon graduation from high school. It is a bit dated, the 1995 edition we own having last been updated in 1978, but we find it an extremely useful guide when we have questions about how to appropriately proceed. I know we are discussing modern manners, not those of Jane Austen's era, but I have decided to start posting when we consult the book, as I just find it so fascinating. Miss Austen, after all, would want us all to be well-mannered, wouldn't she?

Has it really been a month since I last posted? Unbelievable. Time is flying by. My massive child is wearing 9 month clothes at 16 weeks, and I find it incredibly difficult to focus on anything other than her. There are may things I intend to blog about, but this topic is foremost in my mind, and I feel the need to apologize for posting a rather unpopular etiquette rant instead of the long overdue Edward Ferrars profile. Sorry! But really, my brain is good for little other than baby these days. 


I am breast feeding my daughter. It is a subject on which  I could speak out at length, expressing its challenges and triumphs, but such information is a bit too personal to share. What I am happy to categorically admit is that I've found breast feeding to be an extremely private experience, which is why I have never become comfortable feeding in public. I certainly feel that I have the right to, should it be necessary, but I just don't really want to. I know it makes others uncomfortable, like it or not, and isn't the entire point of etiquette and manners to not cause discomfort in public? I find it extremely fascinating that Romanticism triggered a popularization of breast feeding among the English upper classes in the early 19th century, having embraced it as closer to nature, but this was certainly an activity confined to the home. This is a complex issue, one every mother must address individually, but here is what Amy Vanderbilt has to say on the subject (remember that this was written in the 70's): 

"Now that medical science has pretty much confirmed the notion that breast feeding is healthier than bottle feeding (it passes along various antibodies that formula cannot), the issue of where and how to breast-feed in public arises. Despite Americans' propensity for selling everything from beer to bicycles with sex, we are still, at heart, a puritanical society. Therefore, the sight of a bare breast, even one performing its natural function, may make many people uneasy. Though a nursing mother will not view her breast as anything other than a convenient way to feed her baby, it is best to be circumspect about nursing in front of others."

I must state that I continue to view my breasts as much more than just a nourishment delivery system. 


"While a variety of breast-feeding books are available in bookstores to provide you with ideas for breast feeding discretely, common sense dictates most of them. If you don't want to express your milk at home and carry it with you in a bottle so you can feed in public, find a secluded spot and toss a billowy scarf over your chest and the baby's head. You might even want to buy a few blouses with slits behind the pockets which were designed just for this purpose. In a restaurant that caters to children, you can always go to the ladies room to breast-feed." - this is not necessarily true - "Owners of children's stores are particularly sympathetic when it comes to breast feeding and may allow you a few minutes in a private area, such as an office. If you are visiting friends, ask your hostess if anyone will be made uncomfortable by your breast feeding in front of them. If so, ask if you can go into some other room when it's time to nurse."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Austen in Walking Land

Burghley House - Rosings Park 2005
How wonderful to be included in the Austenesque Extravaganza, hosted by Austenesque Reviews! Thank you so much, Meredith, for both allowing me to participate and also for kindly scheduling me at the end of the month, giving me a few extra weeks to adapt to new motherhood. I have tried to switch back into my normal Austen/Austenesque obsessed state, but right not even dear Jane can garner my attention: life is all about baby. So as the month kicked off and I still had no notion what this post would be about, I had good reason to fear that my offering would be pitiful indeed. Instead, I found a delightful new method of incorporating Austen into my life! It is my pleasure to be able to invite you to join my wonderful daughter and I as we take our morning walk through the neighborhood - a seemingly magical place where all of Austen's characters reside in close proximity to each other, regardless of geographical boundaries. One just steps out my door and proceeds southwest to encounter the sprawling grounds of Rosings Park (Lady Catherine is so kind as to provide common land). We can pursue the very paths which Elizabeth explored while visiting in Kent. I believe I might even have identified the grove in which Mr. Darcy gives her his letter. It is not long before the house itself comes in sight. We walk along the park's handsome gate, the numerous chimneys, certainly connected to impressive chimney-pieces, casting shadows across our path. Several carriages. To the right of the house, Hunsford Parsonage comes into sight. We pass directly by Mr. Collins' book room, from where he can see all the comings and goings at the Park. As we turn the corner and stop to admire his gardening skills (such healthful exercise!), we can spot the window of Mrs. Collins' backward facing parlor.


Groombridge Place - Longbourn 2005
Remarkable to discover that on the very next corner the county of Devonshire is to be found! Nevertheless, there is Barton Cottage, right down to the casement windows which Sir John favors speaking through to waiting at the door. Though an orderly house, the grounds are highly picturesque, and I can see the Dashwood ladies making themselves perfectly comfortable in it. For some unknown reason, Mrs. Dashwood's improvements have included painting the facade blue, a poor choice I fear. The ladies are in good company, for as we proceed here is Longbourn on our left. Though the park is small, there is the "prettyish kind of a little wilderness" to one side. Maybe someday we will be allowed to explore it in search of the hermitage Mrs. Bennet recommends to Lady Catherine.

Sheldon Manor - Uppercross 2007
While the presence of Devonshire and Hertfordshire on the very same block might be disconcerting, it is highly orderly that Somersetshire adjourn the former. Conveniently, here on our right, we find the Great House at Uppercross, with its "high walls, great gates, and old trees," while almost directly across the way lies the Cottage, complete with veranda and French windows. Directly passed this modernized edifice we again skip counties (please ignore the presence of Tara on our left, as it is not relevant), landing squarely in Surrey. The younger Musgrove branch has amiable neighbors in the residents at Randalls, who in turn couldn't be more happily situated than precisely where they are, directly behind Hartfield. That house has also undergone improvement, for Mr. Woodhouse was so concerned about the ordeal his horses endured each time they journeyed forth to Randalls that he relocated the sweep drive onto his own grounds, thereby saving them all the trouble. Across the street lies Donwell Abbey, which I must say is my favorite of all the homes, "rambling and irregular" though it be, especially when compared with the orderliness Hartfield. The view is particularly breathtaking, as it overlooks sprawling park land.
Broughton Castle - Donwell Abbey 1995 (ITV)

Not unlike the Royal Crescent in Bath, in that they loop around adjacent park land, we have arrived at a strip of particularly fine houses, in which some of our most affluent characters reside. After Hartfield and Donwell we encounter Norland Park (Marianne will be pleased to know that despite the improvements enacted by her brother, there are still ample quantities of leaves to admire, all of which are sure to die in time). Next we pass Kellynch, so fashionably situated. Everything, by the way, looks ship shape under the Crofts' stewardship, as might be expected. Then comes Netherfield Hall, rounding out this impressive address. We are left to traverse a comparative social wasteland. Lovely houses abound, but none are of any import but Rosings, which we are again passing on our right (whether or not the presence of Rosings actually does anything to rectify the social void is an issue that will not here be addressed). Eventually, we find ourselves at Fullerton, fronted by a perfect hill for the children to roll down. Soon we turn right, but before we do let us look southeast, for one can just make out Northanger Abbey. It is worth investigating, but considerably out of our way. If you should ever venture in that direction, be sure to note the windows. Yes, they are indeed disappointingly modern in their functionality, but the form is unquestionably Gothic.

Kirby Hall - Mansfield Park 1999
We proceed along into the orderly village of Mansfield. Here is the Park on our left, nice and tidy. Almost immediately to its right you see the parsonage. Note the evergreens. Farther along, also on the left, we come upon Mrs. Norris' White House - just one spare room for a friend. Here is a surprise, for this is surely the Elton's parsonage on our right, instantly recognizable by the sharpness of the corner upon which it stands. Very gentlemanly, if a bit showy. Perhaps we have entered into a clerical neighborhood, for here a block up we find Woodston. Mr. Tilney must have his capable hands full, for in the smaller homes across the street one must surely find the Price's Portsmouth home, and there, above the shop on the corner, is the house where the Bates' reside.  I am sure Miss Bates and Mrs. Tilney are great friends.

If one were to head North from here and continue for quite a distance, one might happen upon Pemberley. Little Girl and I have not yet ventured so far, and sometimes I wonder if we ever shall or even should. We have driven by, of course, and ache to get a closer glimpse. The house is spectacularly magnificent, so much we can ascertain, and the knowledge that an exploration of its grounds could only surpass our expectations is a wonderful assurance to have, but I still hesitate to undertake the journey. Pemberley, perhaps, should not be so much a concrete location as a place of dreams. Besides, the Darcys can always visit Longbourn or Netherfield. Maybe we'll even cross their path one day.

Montacute House - Cleveland 1995
We turn right, and right again, in order to start the walk back towards home. As we proceed we pass Cleveland, identifiable due to the presence of the pagoda, which sits just across the street from Combe Magna (it seems Mrs. Palmer was more correct in her estimation regarding the distance between these two estates than was her husband). We are almost back at Rosings, but before we reach it we must stop and admire the house that stands directly behind it. A stone building, situated in the old style upon a sheltered grove, it is almost eclipsed by the flashiness of Rosings until one pauses to examine the place. The slopping lawns are unadorned but still beautiful, and while the house can boast only a reasonable number of chimneys and windows, the wealth of the proprietor can nevertheless be perceived in the tasteful elegance of the property. This is Tegginton, seat of the Stratton family and future home to one of the heroines in my next novel Second Glances: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice Continues. I will not reveal anymore on that subject now, except to remark that the hero's association with Lady Catherine should be not be held against him, and to confess that the baby and I spend a great deal of time in contemplation of this house, which we find very much to our liking. It is time to return home now and have our morning nap. Thank you for joining us on out walk! We do it everyday the weather allows and are always happy to enjoy the company of Janeites, so please consider this an open invitation to accompany us whenever your imagination allows. 

Don't forget that every time you comment on any post related to the Extravaganza, you have another opportunity to enter the Amazing Austenesque Giveaway! Do you ever dream that the homes in your neighborhood house characters from your favorite books? Do you think the Crofts would find Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood to be desirable neighbors? Or for that matter, how would Mr. Knightley deal with this couple on a daily basis? I think he might have a very decided opinion about Mr. Dashwoods intention to enclose the parkland, don't you?

Images:
Burghley House - http://www.hha.org.uk/Property/223/Burghley-House
Groombridge Place - http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/170963

Sheldon Manor - http://drmikesheldon.org/Gen/genresources04.html
Broughton Castle - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatpicturegalleries/7472910/Jane-Austens-England.html?image=11
Kirby Hall - http://felicelog.blogspot.com/2010/07/mansfield-park-1999-photo-gallery.html
Montacute House - http://www.talktalk.co.uk/travel/features/silver_screen.html

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mr. Bennet Visits Netherfield Park

"Mr. Bennet, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," pronounced the young man with a warm smile, his complexion ruddy from a morning in the saddle. "Do sit down, please."

"The pleasure is mine, Mr. Bingley. Thank you." Mr. Bennet chose a chintz chair that was as familiar as the man in front of him was strange, having known the set during the reign of Netherfield's former occupants, and settled himself to be amused at the newcomer's expense. If his years had taught him to trust anything implicitly, it was that the addition of a new and eligible young person to a society was sure to be excessively diverting. "I bid you welcome to the neighborhood and offer my assistance, if I can in anyway provide it, in helping you settle."

"Thank you, Mr. Bennet, that is quite kind of you, but matters are well in hand. The greatest service you might do me was already been performed when you paid me the honor of calling," he declared enthusiastically, exposing a boyish grin.

"So word of my daughters has proceeded me, has it?" Mr. Bingley crimsoned slightly, but seeing nothing but humor in his guest's face, nodded good-naturedly in agreement. "It would be astonishing to learn that it was my company so sought in this country, and not that of five pretty maids, but as we need never put the question to the test, I'm willing to concede that the honor I impart by merely calling suffices for hospitality."

Mr. Bingley laughed, "As you should, Mr. Bennet. Surely you acknowledge that a large family of ladies is always an asset to a neighborhood?"

"Oh come now, Mr. Bingley!" Mr. Bennet shrewdly replied. "I challenge you to ask the mothers of other unmarried women that question. My answer concurs with theirs."

"I suppose I need only apply to my sister, who is rather jealous of all female company," he laughingly conceeded. "Dear me! What utter nonsense have I been proposing? I certainly should have qualified my question as pertaining to the bachelor's perspective."

"My wife would have it that you move here precisely to accommodate the neighborhood by distinguishing one of its daughters with your hand. Beware, Mr. Bingley. You will certainly be the darling of every matchmaker in Hertfordshire. Though the prospect of a society teeming with young ladies might seem, on the surface, to your taste, I am not sure your lot is so very enviable."

"Yes, Mr. Darcy, a good friend, warned me that might be the case, and of all men he certainly should know. He will be joining me here when I collect my two sisters and brother from London. An excellent man, and a far more exciting prospect for scheming mamas than my insignificant self. I plan on enjoying what company the neighborhood has to offer, Mr. Bennet, both male and female, as I am of a sociable disposition, but my chief purpose in Hertfordshire is to establish the family on a country estate, as my father had planned to before his death. Therefore, you may rest assured that my conduct will always be that of the gentleman he raised."

"Your reassurance must be appreciated by a man in my position," replied an amused Mr. Bennet. "I find your affability most refreshing. You will certainly raise quite a stir in my household, never mind how grand your Mr. Darcy may be. Forgive me if I do not share the details of our meeting with their eager ears, but I shall hear of nothing else if I do."

"Not at all. I shall look forward to meeting the entire family, sir. Will you be attending the next assembly in Meryton? Sir William Lucas was so kind as to invite my party."

"Sir William is nothing but gracious, and yes, the ladies are sure to be in attendance, though I will seize the opportunity of enjoying a quiet evening alone with my books," he smiled as he rose.

"I think you and Mr. Darcy share many tastes in common. It will be a pleasure to introduce you once he arrives, as it was making your acquaintance this morning, Mr. Bennet."

"And yours, Mr. Bingley. Welcome to the neighborhood." They parted amicable, the enthusiasm of the young man and the cynicism of the elder having done little soil the appreciation of each for the other.

As Mr. Bennet rode home to Longbourn, he reflected with a wry smile on how his wife would respond were he to tell her that not one but two unmarried gentlemen were soon to be in their midst. Such good fortune was sure to completely over set a good many of the ladies in his household, and though the accompanying fervor would try his patience, he looked forward with no small degree of anticipation to the amusement such circumstances were sure to provide. After all, other than causing a great deal of commotion, the arrival of the gentlemen was highly unlikely to alter life at Longbourn, for what had such town swells to do with his brood? Lack of fortune, while leaving the future unpredictable, certainly had its compensations. How excellent to be able to sit back and observe the follies of humanity, secure in the knowledge that one is safe from their influence!


Images borrowed from kellynch.com

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sass & Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler

Upon receiving an email from Jennifer Ziegler's publicist, asking if I would be interested in reviewing her new young adult novel inspired by Sense & Sensibility, I was happy to agree for three reasons: 1) with the new baby, young adult lit conforms to my attention span, 2) the book would count towards my completion of the Sense & Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, and 3) I love free books. Sass & Serendipity fulfilled my expectations, providing me with a quick and easy read - the perfect source of light entertainment while breast pumping (about the only time I have the opportunity to read these days). Though the book bears little resemblance to Austen's novel, except in its focuses on two sisters of differing personalities, it kept me engaged and amused, a rather impressive feat when one considers that I could barely tolerate the main characters.

Gabby and Daphne live in the imaginary Texan town of Barton with their divorcee mom. Gabby, the older sister, copes with her extreme anger at her father and feelings of abandonment following her parent's divorce, emotions that have left her bitter and alienated from everyone in the town except her best friend, Mule. Daphne, on the other hand, is peppy and popular, having managed to maintain a rather naive sense of romantic idealism in spite of her broken home life. The story focuses on Gabby dropping the chip on her shoulder, while Daphne gains a more realistic perspective on love and romance.

Though Daphne's story does in ways resemble Marianne Dashwood's experience, Gabby, while cast as the "responsible" sister, is nothing at all like Elinor. Instead of inspiring admiration, I actually found myself hating her, as her negative energy taints everything around her. She continuously accuses Daphne of selfishness when she is equally so, revealing herself to be completely lacking in Elinor's self-perception and consideration. Daphne too, while more tolerable than Gabby, lacks the intelligence and conviction that makes Marianne so appealing in spite of her flaws. However, there is a chance this criticism is unfair. I usually avoid young adult novels, as they tend to be a bit emotionally transparent for my taste, and perhaps that is what really bothers me about these characters. Those who enjoy the genre might be more tolerant.

For me the bottom line is that if Sass & Serendipity inspires a young reader to pick up Austen's first novel, it is worth its weight in gold, but for those already familiar with her masterpieces of literature, this book doesn't particularly add to ones appreciation. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning of this post, it was the perfect light read for me to pick up and put down again when able to grab those few moments available to me. I recommend it to any of you who find yourselves in similar circumstances and need something to just pick up now again. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Austenesque Extravaganza at Austenesque Reviews

I'm so pleased to finally be able to tell you all about the spectacular event being planned by one of my very favorite bloggers, Meredith of Austenesque Reviews. Austenesque Extravaganza is a "month long celebration of Austenesque novels and writers ... each day of the week will have a different theme and event, like a weekly twitter party with several Austenesque authors." Meredith has lined up nearly 50 writers to participate in this unique event, including myself, and it is sure to be a fabulous blog tour. The party starts in August, so mark your calenders. You won't want to miss this one!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mr. Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman by Maria Hamilton

Before I commence this review, I must apologize in advance for not doing the book justice. You see, I read it over a month ago, in that long ago, pre-mommy time, but never got to writing the review. Though I can fully attest to the novel's ability to distract and sooth at a most apprehensive time, I'm afraid I forgot some of the finer details of the plot. I hope readers will, nevertheless, find the following valuable.

Mr. Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman is a classic "What if?" reimagining of Pride and Prejudice. Maria Hamilton begins her story as Darcy and Fitzwilliam depart from Rosings, the former devastated by Elizabeth's scathing rejection of his hand. The plot veers when our hero decides to rectify some of the wrongs Elizabeth accused him of by returning to Netherfield in order to ascertain if Jane Bennet really does have deep feelings for Mr. Bingley. From this first humbling decision, Darcy pursues a course designed to improve his own temper and win Elizabeth's heart. The book follows the couple through courtship, providing a highly pleasant sojourn (despite one explicit scene, which I could have done without) within the world Jane Austen created.

One amusing consequence of Darcy's inquiries into Jane's heart is the inevitable misconstruction Mrs. Bennet places upon his actions, the consequences of which are obvious. Another fun twist arises from Ms. Hamilton's construction of a rival for Elizabeth's hand in the form of John Lucas. Darcy attends a summer assembly (an unusual occurrence) in Meryton, providing him with an explicit opportunity to reform his past behavior. I thought this scene between the two gentlemen, fueled by Mrs. Bennet's gossip, particularly interesting:
"What intrigues me is your offensive movement to this unguarded position. Clearly, something has drawn you out. You must be seeking something or someone already on the dance floor." Seeing Darcy color and the set of his jaw tighten, it was John Lucas's turn to retreat. "Please, do not worry. I have only said as much because that is why I am here as well." Looking significantly from Darcy to where Jane was dancing, he added, "I am no threat. While she is very beautiful, my tastes run elsewhere."

Darcy was in a quandary. He was relieved that his real purpose was not revealed, but upset that he may have unwittingly added fuel to any gossip about himself and Miss Bennet. If he denied that Miss Bennet was the reason for his coming over, it might open up speculation as to what it was he had been doing. John Lucas seemed to clever to let the matter drop so easily. Hoping to avoid further comment on the subject, Darcy turned the tables and asked, "And where do your tastes run?" 


"Ah, a direct question. A brilliant strategy. I see I was right in seeking you out. You also reject the confines of social rules.We must play chess someday. I will reward your boldness with a response." Looking significantly at Elizabeth, he said, "I find her sister most appealing."


Trying to hide his intense and conflicting emotions, Darcy asked, "You must be well acquainted then."


"Oh, yes, I have known her since she was a girl.But our dispositions are too similar. I often provoke her. I doubt she will accept my invitation to dance; I recently enraged her by disagreeing with her about a passage from a play we had both read. But I have reread the entire book and am armed with evidence that my position is superior. I will attempt to dazzle her with my wit and undoubtedly will leave defeated. But a man must always make an effort. Do you not agree?"
So much for books being inappropriate in a ballroom! The novel is full of both familiar (Miss Bingley's role is particularly gratifying) and new twists and turns that drag out our time with this most beloved couple, providing yet another new path to their ultimate happiness. I recommend this sweet retelling to all of you who can never get enough of Elizabeth and Darcy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Mansfield Park Janeicillin: Part One

Many pens have been charged with dwelling on guilt and misery, so I shall not lament the fact that it falls to my lot to take up that well-honed task, my explicit purpose being to thwart impatience and explore precisely how everyone – those not greatly at fault and those who are thoroughly guilty – might be punished or restored to tolerable comfort, as befits their fate. Along the way I will have the fortunate gratification of exploring how the truly worthy might discover something a bit better than mere contentment, giving me the pleasure of consigning them, instead, to perfect happiness, but first I must confront those players who are fully deserving of all the misery I can dole out.

I begin with those unfortunate creatures who will never again enjoy the comfort and niceties of life at Mansfield Park. Some might consider such banishment from that house's hallowed halls ample punishment for any crime, no matter how extreme, but the world has its ways of making the sinful pay two fold for their misdeeds. Mrs. Rushworth, deprived of those honors conveyed upon her by marriage and having forsaken those that, as Miss Bertram, she had been born into to and so long taken for granted, was certainly responsible for her own downfall. While no one could rightly argue that she had not only brought this fate upon herself, but also magnified it by her refusal to abandon her lover, as her father most urgently begged her to, some pity, as difficult as it might be to excite, must be reserved for the greatest sufferer in this tale. Regardless of her misdeeds, when comparing her lot to that of her partner in iniquity, we must acknowledge that an unfair bulk of the consequences were to be endured by her alone. No matter how much credit we give to a man of sense, such as Mr. Crawford, to provide for himself no small portion of vexation and regret for having so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved, his exemption from the punishment of public disgrace, which should in a just measure attend his share of the offense, must go a long way in providing him with undeserved consolation. Indeed, as his cohabitation with Mrs. Rushworth proved increasingly unendurable, he made ready use of those resources of society that were available to him, yet not her, in order to escape the discomforts of his home. As he fled her presence with increasing frequency, and her obstinate and fruitless hopes that he would someday marry her began to evaporate, her wretchedness became unquestionable. She had lived with him to be reproached as the ruin of all his happiness in Fanny, and carried away no better consolation in leaving him than that she had divided them. What can exceed the misery of such a mind in such a situation?

As if rejection and exile were not sufficient sources of mortification, Maria Rushworth's woes were further compounded by that of uncongenial company. For who was to be her chaperone in disgrace but that most vile creation of our beloved authoress: the abhorrent Aunt Norris. Although admittedly an altered creature by the tragedies that had befallen the Bertram family – quiet, stupefied, and indifferent to everything that passed – she was not so very changed as to have learned to improve her temper and ways, rendering her departure from Mansfield, though not conducive to Maria's comfort, a great relief to those who remained at the house. No compassion will be invoked for this character, who never herself thought to feel a twinge of sympathy for those whose concerns were not her own. That desperately valued regard from Sir Thomas which had so long provided her with place and position was deservedly withdrawn, rendering the aging lady embittered and discontent. She was forced to fruitlessly pursue a similar place in the heart of her favorite niece, with whom no amount of flattery and favor had ever succeeded, at the best of times, in creating a reciprocal attachment. Shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment. Let us now leave these gloomy considerations . We have more deserving destinies to contemplate.

If pity can be justly apportioned, let the lion's share be conveyed upon Sir Thomas. Poor Sir Thomas! So determined to be a good father, yet so mistaken in his methodology. And worse yet, rational enough to accept his share of fault when the consequences of his approach were made manifest. No one remaining at Mansfield evoked such sympathy, for Lady Bertram lacked the mental powers to agonize longer than her own discomfort remained, Tom Bertram only ached in body, not mind, and if Edmund endured heartache at the loss of Mary Crawford, it was to be of very short duration indeed. But for Sir Thomas, as a parent, and conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent, it was rather inevitable that he be the longest to suffer. Nevertheless, his was not to be an inconsolable fate. Relief was found in Julia's match proving a less desperate business than he had considered it at first. She was humble, and wishing to be forgiven; and Mr. Yates, desirous of being really received into the family, was disposed to look up to him and be guided. There was comfort also in Tom, who gradually regained his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. And let us not underestimate the good to be derived from Mrs. Norris' departure. Her removal from Mansfield was the great supplementary comfort of Sir Thomas's life. To be relieved from her was so great a felicity that, had she not left bitter remembrances behind her, there might have been danger of his learning almost to approve the evil which produced such a good.

So cheer was not forever banished from Mansfield Park. Though the bulk of the residents were, for a time, as unhappy as they had ever been, solace was not unattainable, and for at least two members of the household, happiness was available in abundance. Shall we blame the two Price ladies for being merry amidst such despondency? Susan, whose lack of previous attachment to the family at Mansfield provides ample exoneration for her feelings, was elevated to a state of bliss she had never previously known. Her escape from the bad environment that was her Portsmouth home fully explains such spirits, and those who would accuse her of lack of familial duty I dismiss as either blind or unfeeling, particularly as those relatives who should have held such prominence in her heart certainly did not mourn for her lost presence. In regards to our heroine, of whom it has often been suggested by the critical that she is a creature too good to be attractive, let this moment counter that argument, for Fanny was, at this desolate time, very happy in spite of all that she felt, or thought she felt, for the distress of those around her. She had sources of delight that must force their way. She was returned to Mansfield Park, she was useful, she was beloved, she was safe from Mr. Crawford, and when Sir Thomas came back she had every proof that could be given in his then melancholy state of spirits, of his perfect approbation and increased regard. Furthermore, happy as all this must make her, she would still have been happy without any of it, for Edmund was no longer the dupe of Miss Crawford. Of course, she had the sensibility to not demonstrate her peace of mind, particularly to that gentleman whose concerns she most valued. To have openly rejoiced would have been to alienate Edmund, thereby depriving him, and us, of the joyful ending about to unfold.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Two Weeks of Parenthood ...

C.E. Brock's illustration for Emma - mollands.net


... and though I'm a bit sleep deprived, I am loving every moment (well, perhaps not the dirty diapers and aching mammaries). Recovery from the cesarean I ended up having is a bit more difficult than I bargained for, but I feel stronger everyday. I'm almost as amazed by my rapidly shrinking stomach (and it's cottage cheese-like texture) as I am by little Miss Eliza herself! Those of you who are parents know all too well how much there is to stand in awe of at this unprecedented period of life. She was born on her due date of 6/10 at 6:10 PM, coming it at 9 lbs 1 oz (hence the cesarean). Such a prompt and orderly little lady! Needless to say, we find her excessively diverting.

Even at this time, Austen cannot be far from my thoughts. I am reading (slowly) the newly released Annotated Sense and Sensibility by David M. Shapard, whose work I adore, and my thoughts inevitably drift to those Austen novels where babies play a role. Most prominently, I keep pondering that scene at the end of Emma in which the Woodhouses meet Frank Churchill upon visiting little Ana Weston. It suddenly strikes me in a manner it never has before, and I wonder if Austen set it up this way on purpose. As you will recall, Mr. Churchill gives a speech in which he praises Jane Fairfax's previously disparaged complexion to Emma, all while the "others had been talking of the child". He says: "Did you ever see such a skin?--such smoothness! such delicacy!--and yet without being actually fair.--One cannot call her fair. It is a most uncommon complexion, with her dark eye-lashes and hair--a most distinguishing complexion!" As I have spent the better part of my time staring at a newborn lately, I must marvel that anyone could make such a statement with a baby in the room, an immediate example of far better skin, with greater smoothness and delicacy than any lady, no matter how beautiful, can ever hope to possess. Is this is yet another intentional example of Mr. Churchill's extreme egocentricity, or could Austen's childless state have possibly rendered her oblivious to the irony of these lines? I certainly prefer the former explanation to the latter, especially as Austen was certainly no stranger to the charms an infant possesses. Her familiarity with the concerns and cares of the new parent are made abundantly clear later in this scene when Mrs. Weston relates her alarm over the baby's health and having considered calling in Perry for consultation:
She believed she had been foolish, but it had alarmed her, and she had been within half a minute of sending for Mr. Perry. Perhaps she ought to be ashamed, but Mr. Weston had been almost as uneasy as herself.--In ten minutes, however, the child had been perfectly well again. This was her history; and particularly interesting it was to Mr. Woodhouse, who commended her very much for thinking of sending for Perry, and only regretted that she had not done it. "She should always send for Perry, if the child appeared in the slightest degree disordered, were it only for a moment. She could not be too soon alarmed, nor send for Perry too often. It was a pity, perhaps, that he had not come last night; for, though the child seemed well now, very well considering, it would probably have been better if Perry had seen it."
Yes, this is a great opportunity to once again laugh at Mr. Woodhouse's hypochondria, as well as the paranoia of the new parent, just as Austen has poked fun at Isabella Knightley's motherly concerns throughout the novel, but only familiarity with the realities confronting new parents could have allowed Austen to leverage her wit so effectively on this subject. In fact, Austen was so well acquainted with the less pleasant realities of child rearing that she seemed to find great satisfaction in not having to take such cares upon herself. She certainly attributes such feelings, or rationalizations, to Emma, as in this explanation to Harriet Smith regarding her feelings on marriage: 
"And as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority, the want of which is really the great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear; and though my attachment to none can equal that of a parent, it suits my ideas of comfort better than what is warmer and blinder. My nephews and nieces!—I shall often have a niece with me."
Undeniably, such an arrangement would be more comfortable, but could Austen have experienced such warmer and blinder sensations she certainly would have adapted herself to them, just as Emma surely will upon her marriage to Mr. Knightley. Little of my experiences in these two weeks of parenthood can be described as comfortable, but never have I embraced discomfort so willingly, nor has it ever been more felicitous.

Such are my musings as we approach my daughter's  two week birthday. I'm sure there are many more to come. Poor little girl! To be so quickly subjected of my Austen obsessions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jane in June and Baby Update

For the interested, I'm still waiting for this baby to make her appearance. I've had a multitude of false alarms, but my doctor told me yesterday that I will be induced next Tuesday if she hasn't arrived prior to that point, so it is now just a matter of days. In the meantime Jane in June, hosted once again by Misty of Book Rat, is in full swing and I urge you all to check out the excitement. A piece I wrote a few weeks ago, rushed towards completion as I had my first false alarm, discussing the "What If?" genre and providing an excerpt from Second Glances (read it here), the continuation of First Impressions, made its appearance yesterday, and I hope it is to your liking. There are a multitude of giveaways, a read along, and all things Jane going on, so please don't miss out on this fabulous celebration. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Mistress's Black Veil by M.K. Baxley

Still no baby. While the wait seems interminable, it has given me the opportunity to plow through some neglected reading. One of the books I had sitting in the TBR pile is The Mistress's Black Veil by M.K. Baxley. I have avoided Ms. Baxley's books in the past because I knew that they were racier than what I typically enjoy (the fact that I usually don't go for modernization, and that is what was previously available, had something to do with it too), but this book had received so many great reviews, and in such a short amount of time, that I decided to check it out. I think if the product description of the book had been more accurate, I probably wouldn't have bothered. However, that being said, I'm not sorry I read it. A discussion of the story's plot will help illuminate this somewhat mixed reaction.

This is basically a tale of Elizabeth Bennet becoming Mr. Darcy's mistress. Five years after the proposal at Hunsford, the Bennet family, following a multitude of deaths, are horribly impoverished, driving our heroine to make that most desperate of decisions by joining the demimonde. Mr. Darcy, meanwhile, continues to mourn for the lady who inadvertently stole his heart, losing himself in his business interests, which has resulted in his accumulation of a fortune surpassing the Duke of Devonshire's. At the urging of his cousins, he finally concedes to the need for female companionship and attends the ball at which Elizabeth, disguised as Sofia Molina, a Spanish lady who never removes her mask and veil, makes her debut. As she reminds him of Elizabeth, the two quickly enter into a contract, and soon this "business" relationship blooms into love.

Now had I read such a synopsis before buying this book, I would never have made the purchase, and as I began to read and discovered what the plot actually was, I admit to fearing for the very worse. But besides a few scenes, the storyline really isn't as lewd as you would expect, especially considering the subject matter. I have read many far more sexualized Pride and Prejudice reimaginations that follow much more innocent story lines. I was actually rather impressed by how Ms. Baxley took these dramatically altered circumstances and manipulated them so that the course of Darcy and Elizabeth's relationship remained remarkably true to the original tale. That being said, the obviously episodic writing of the story (I believe it was first published at A Happy Assembly) was a little frustrating. Each chapter begins and ends with a first person narration recap and conclusion, while in between the level of dramatic content almost overwhelms. Putting that aside, I was pretty entertained. I read the book in a single day, it was light and compelling, and it succeeded in keeping my mind off the elephant in the room - my enormously bulging belly. If you enjoy darker and more sexual Pride and Prejudice retellings, you will probably greatly enjoy this book. If the notion of Elizabeth selling herself to the highest bidder makes you want to scream, I would probably look elsewhere for your next read. With so many great "What if?" stories out there these days, we readers have the luxury of picking and choosing precisely those which cater most to our individual tastes.     

Monday, May 30, 2011

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Still waiting on baby, but my husband and I were able to curb some of our impatience by indulging in yet another fabulous Georgette Heyer novel. Venetia, while not being quite as uproariously funny as some of Heyer's other novels, stands out due to its wonderful characters. Our heroine, Miss Venetia Lanyon has to be one of my favorite Heyer creations. Much in the style of Frederica Merriville of Frederica (read my review here) in her familial dedication, but with the charming benefit of possessing exquisite beauty and a streak of eccentricity, Venetia is certainly one of Heyer's more capable ladies, and her intelligence and charm captivates from the first page. Take the opening conversation, for example, between Venetia and her younger brother, Aubrey. I should admit that my interest in Greek literature adds to the appeal of not only this scene for me, but also much of the book, as Aubrey's pursuits as a classical scholar causes such references as the following to abound:
"A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer," remarked Miss Lanyon. " A great-grandmother, too! You'd think he would be ashamed!" Receiving no answer, she continued, in an altered voice: "Indeed, you would! It is a great deal too bad. What is to be done?" 


His attention caught, her companion raised his eyes from the book which lay open beside him on the table and directed them upon her in a look of aloof enquiry. "What's that? Did you say something to me, Venetia?"


"Yes, love," responded his sister cheerfully, "but it wasn't of the least consequence, and in any event I answered for you. You would be astonished, I daresay, if you knew what interesting conversations I enjoy with myself."


"I was reading."


"So you were - and have let your coffee grow cold, besides abondoning that slice of bread-and-butter. Do eat it up! I'm persuaded I ought not to permit you to read at the table."


"Oh, the breakfast-table!" he said disparagingly. "Try if you can stop me!"


"I can't, of course. What is it?" she returned, glancing at the volume. "Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don't doubt."


"The Medea," he said repressively. "Porson's edition, which Mr. Appersett lent to me."


"I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother, and cast the pieces in her papa's way, wasn't she? I daresay perfectly amiable when on cam to know her."


He hunched an impatient shoulder, and replied contemptuously: "You don't understand, and it's a waste of time to try to make you."


Her eyes twinkled at him. "But I promise you I do! Yes, and sympathise with her, besides wishing I had her resolution! Though I think I should rather have buried your remains tidily in the garden, my dear!"
Though you may not gather it from this episode, brother and sister get along famously, and Aubrey, for all his own oddity, is a great asset to the humor of tale. This unusual duo is plagued by the rather insipid company to be had in their Yorkshire neighborhood, particularly Venetia's two determined suitors: one an immature young  man wrapped in the throws of calf love, and the other, a far more determined and extremely Mr. Collins like man, Edward Yardley. Though certainly more presentable and far less groveling than Austen's most famous buffoon, the resmblance is uncanny, as is demonstraited in his inability to accept it when a proposal is refused, as well as in speeches of this ilk:
His smile was one of conscious superiority. He said: "I am afraid this is a subject on which you must allow me to be a better judge than you, Venetia. We won't argue about it, however - indeed, I should be sorry to engage in any sort of discussion with you on a matter that is not only beyond the female comprehension, but which one could not wish to see within it!"
To such insufferable condescension are Aubrey and Venetia subjected to until their illusive and rakish neighbor, Lord Jasper Damerel, arrives at his ancestral home to provide the excitement and mental challenge that has been so lacking in both the Lanyon's lives. There can be no doubt that he is our hero, for Venetia is quick, upon first acquaintance, to call him an "ogre", while he retaliates with "vixen", and there is nothing more romantically promising in Heyer than an exchange of insults. However, regardless of the inevitability of their eventual union, this book has more surprises in the course of its events than is customary in her books. I found it a joy to read, and an incredibly effective way to forget my discomfort. I am saving the next new Heyer I have on hand, Cousin Kate, for when the real labor pains begin.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Pemberley Medley by Abigail Reynolds

Some of you might be wondering, after a somewhat frantic Facebook update three days ago, if I have had the baby yet or not. Sadly, though I am experiencing contractions, they are not yet strong enough to get this show on the road. So here I am, left in limbo, trying to ignore the discomfort by distracting myself with a little bit of Austenesque. Thankfully, I have a fresh supply of unread books on hand, including Abigail Reynolds' recently published collection of short stories, A Pemberley Medley. This book was exactly what the doctor ordered, to employ a rather apropos cliche. Despite my well documented discomfort with more sexualized portrayals of Austen's characters, I can never get enough of Ms. Reynolds "What if?" tales, my qualms easily overlooked in the face of some of the most delightful reimaginations of Pride and Prejudice that it has been my pleasure to encounter. Her short stories were no exception, and I will briefly describe and respond to each one in this post.

I think the first story, Intermezzo, was my favorite. A classic example of Ms. Reynolds' typical style, this story explores what might have happened if Mr. Darcy sent Mr. Bingley back to Hertforshire after learning of Jane's affections at Hunsford. Because of the disastrous results of his failed proposal, he does not accompany his friend, allowing wedding plans to proceed for the happy couple without his own courtship advancing. As a result of the timing, Lydia never goes to Brighton, and Elizabeth does not again encounter Darcy until the day of her sister's wedding. Fortunately, Georgiana, perceiving that someone in the neighborhood of Netherfield had caused her brother great heartache, proceeds him into the neighborhood in an attempt to locate the lady in question and attempt to rectify whatever problems stand in the way of his happiness.

The reason I said that I think Intermezzo was my favorite story in the collection is because I can't really decide between it and the second tale, Such Differing Reports. Also very much in Ms. Reynolds usual mode, this story takes place at Hunsford and questions what might have happened if Elizabeth had taken to heart Charlotte's intuitions regarding Darcy's affection for her. Instead of making his infamous first proposal, the couple have the opportunity to address the issues which arose during that confrontation in a more diffuse manner, leading up to a letter of a far more romantic nature than the one which Darcy pens in Austen's original tale. Be warned: swooning is highly likely when reading it.

The third story is Reason's Rule, a variation on the course of events in one of my favorite books by Ms. Reynolds, Impulse and Initiative, but you do not need to be familiar with that novel to enjoy this alternative ending. However, because of this fact, the action begins after Darcy and Elizabeth have already come to an understanding and focuses upon Lydia's disappearance from Brighton, Wickham's motives now being attributed to her new relationship with the Darcys. A bit of a spoiler: before entering into negotiations with Wickham, the players all agree to hurry along the betrothed couple's wedding date, so as he cannot use their undetermined state as a bargaining ship. This leads us to the only wedding night scene in this collection.

The Most Natural Thing is our forth tale, and while I entered into it with some reservations, the result of Ms. Reynolds introducing the story as "dating from a time when 'Dark Darcy' stories were popular", a phenomenon which I do not particularly care for, I ended up very much enjoying it. The premise is that, shortly following her departure from Hunsford, Elizabeth's father dies, and when Lydia absconds from Brighton with Wickham, Mr. Collins throws the entire Bennet family out of Longbourn. Feeling that she has few options, Elizabeth presents herself at Darcy's door in London, offering herself to him as a mistress in return for his interference with Mr. Collins on her family's behalf. A bit of a disturbing start, and definitely in that "Dark Darcy" mode, but I love the way he responds, confirming all the best attributes Darcy possesses rather than diminishing his character to that of a rogue.

Finally we have A Succession of Rain, a thoroughly sweet story that follows what would have happened if inclement weather prevented Darcy and Elizabeth from taking that detrimental walk, after Lady Catherine's visit to Longbourn, during which they reach an understanding. Those who have read my novel will understand my desire to see everything work out for the couple with relatively little angst and impediment, and Ms. Reynolds definitely caters to that urge in this tale.

All in all, I think this book is a necessary addition to every Austenites library. Sometimes we need quick reads, when life deprives us of an extended attention span, and this collection perfectly fits the bill. I could not be more thankful for its extremely timely arrival in my life.       

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

Let me begin by explaining why I have not, in my title for this post, credited this book as a collaborative effort, as is done on the cover. You see, while the basic framework for the tale is undoubtedly that of Jane Austen's original book, the story is so fundamentally altered, and in such a thoroughly bizarre manner, that we really must, in all fairness, put the entire burden of both its triumphs and tribulations solely upon Ben H. Winters. And yes, that was an admission that the book does have moments of triumph, despite the  extreme skepticism with which I approached it. I first began to read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters two years ago, when it first came out, but only one chapter in I abandoned it in fury, a thing I have only done three times in my life - that's how horrible I thought the book was going to be. I decided to pick it up again in fulfillment of the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, hosted by Austenprose, as it was already sitting on my bookshelf. Maybe this is just the happy pregnancy hormones speaking, but I was pleasantly surprised. The same elements that filled me with disgust when I first tried to read the book were no less present than before, but this time around I was able to discern in the book a satiric critique of Austen that I can't help but acknowledge as justified, even though it does rankle.

The fact of the matter is that Jane Austen strictly wrote about the tranquil lives of genteel men and women, never allowing the turbulence of the outside world to interfere with their relatively peaceful existences, despite the fact that she lived in a time of massive social upheaval. This is actually one of the essential elements that makes me love her novels so much: they are an excellent means of escapism. In Mr. Winters' tale, on the other hand, the hostility of the world is ever present. All the characters live in a constant state of imminent peril, such as to render the relatively mundane concerns of society, particularly love and romance, trivial in comparison. Is this a fair critique of Austen? Absolutely, but to take such an approach while billing the novel as a collaborative project (surely for no better reason than that having Austen's name on the cover is publishing gold) seems rather misleading to me.

Instead of the honorable world of Austen's gentlemen and ladies, Mr. Winters takes the reader to a savage place - part fantasy, part horror, and part steampunk - in which humans are engaged in a constant struggle for survival against the creatures of the water. Now one might think that, if all the fish in the sea were determined upon inflicting bodily harm, that people would avoid interacting with them at all costs, but in Mr. Winters' world such logic does not prevail. The humans in this story spend far more time in nautical pursuits than their original counterparts, tempting fate at every turn by embarking on underwater explorations, pleasure boat rides, and even going so far as replacing the role that the metropolis of London played at the time with an underwater city, entrapped in a great glass dome, called Sub-Marine Station Beta. This disregard for life and limb extends to the manner in which servants are treated, who are far more like slaves than freemen, and an unquenchable blood lust, expressed through bloody public spectacles resembling those in which the ancient Romans so greedily indulged. While I am able to rationalize such elements as a deliberate reversal of Austen's portrayal of the world, what I have a far harder time coping with is the insensibility Mr. Winters' attributes to her (I suppose I should say his) characters. Both Marianne and Eleanor constantly ignore blatant signs of danger, consumed instead in their own petty cares, an attribute of obliviousness totally at odds with the characteristics that define not only these two, but all of Austen's heroines. Of course, no one in Austen, regardless of their moral fiber, would pick their teeth, let alone with a cuttlefish bone just hacked up out of one's throat, in the manner that Marianne is here portrayed doing, but perhaps such qualms ignore the spirit of Mr. Winters' project.

Overall, I must admit to thinking this a far better book than the more profitable Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as Mr. Winters, unlike Seth Grahame-Smith, at least displays a creditable knowledge of Austen original work, his commentary displaying a legitimate engagement in the text rather than a random insertion of desperate elements for the sole purpose of marketing power. However, even disregarding the aspects of the novel that are inherently repulsive to me, it would have been much more successful if some of the newly inserted side plots came to some sort of fruition in the end. Elements such as the Devonshire Fang-Beast and Margaret Dashwood's strange story (neither of which I will elaborate upon, so as to avoid spoilers) prove to have little purpose in the end. Yet as far as monster mashups are concerned, this could have been far worse than it was, and I do not regret, as I feared I would, reading it. A rather lukewarm recommendation, I know, but remarkably generous considering my previous feelings on the genre.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lady Catherine's Necklace by Joan Aiken

With Lady Catherine's Necklace, I have now read the entirety of Joan Aiken's Austenesque offerings, and with this post, I can finally put aside the love/hate relationship I have for this author (for an explanation of these mixed emotions and more information on Ms. Aiken's other books, please check out this post). I certainly enjoyed this novel more than most of her novels, particularly as it did not contain so many of those dark and sinister elements she has a penchant for including, but her willingness to disregard essential elements of Austen's original plot continues to irk me (more on some aspects of this later). Overall, I found this to be a quick and surprisingly pleasant sequel, and I sincerely lament the fact that it is out of print. It is far more worthy of republishing than some of the other novels of Ms. Aiken's that have been so favored.

The plot of this book, which places Anne de Bourgh and Maria Lucas front and center, is instigated when the carriage of two charming strangers, Miss Priscilla Delaval and Mr. Ralph Delaval, suffer an accident in front of Rosings Hall, forcing the siblings to seek the hospitality of the always formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Their arrival coincides with the death of Mr. Bennet (whose wife has already died and daughters are all established), Mr. Collins' departure for Longbourn in order to attend to affairs, and Charlotte Collins' third lying in. Maria has already arrived to assist her sister at this time, so Mr. Collins' loss, especially when Mr. Delaval (who proves to be ordained) steps forward to deliver sermons in his place, is not mourned by any. Soon the company at Rosings is further enhanced by the arrival of Colonel Fitzwilliam and a new relative invented by Ms. Aiken, one Lord Luke Sherbine. Lord Luke is said to be a second brother of Lady Catherine's (a third also plays a background role in the plot), and while I find it irritating that Ms. Aiken is so willing to alter the biography of Austen's characters, I can't help but admit that Lord Luke was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Wildly eccentric and determined to undermine his dictatorial sister's authority, even when this requires employing rather despicable means, it is to Lord Luke that we owe many of the book's most humorous moments, like the following:
"The earliest hangman whose name survives was called Bull. Is not that interesting?" said Lord Luke. "One asks oneself if it is because of him that the English have adopted John Bull as their national figure. The most famous hangman, of course, was Jack Ketch, who executed Lord Russell and the Duke of Monmouth."

"Will you please quit this disagreeable topic, Lucius," snapped Lady Catherine. "Heaven knows that I have enough to concern my mind without your --"

"A hangman's wage," her brother pursued, wholly ignoring Lady Catherine's interruption, "was thirteen pence and a halfpenny - with another three halfpence for the rope. I daresay it is considerably more nowadays. Nobles, of course, were expected to remunerate the executioner with seven to ten pounds for cutting off their heads. That, to me, seems unfair. Why should I be expected to lay out such a sum for such a dismal service?"

"I daresay you would be glad enough to do so when it came to the point, Uncle Luke," said Anne de Bourgh, rousing herself from a gloomy abstraction. "Hanging seems to be such a chancy process."   
This episode also wonderfully illustrates the manner in which Anne begins to emerge from her shell in this story. While I cringe at Ms. Aiken's decision to make Anne only 19 years old, which would have made her fifteen at the most when Pride and Prejudice takes place, I do like how she begins to thwart her mother's dominance, assert herself, and pursue interests of her own, a development assisted by her friendships with two gentlemen artists who live on the estate (the nature of whose relationship I will not deign to question), and with a young gardener on the estate, Joss. Unfortunately, in order for her plot to develop, Anne's well-established ill-heath is completely disregarded.

Maria also adds an interesting dynamic to the story. She returns to Hunsford having developed something of a romance with Colonel Fitzwilliam the previous year, but now he is engaged to Anne and all three must cope with the ill-effects of this mismatch. I find it disconcerting that the gentleman's character suffers as a result/ Maria has also, somehow, come under the patronage of Mrs. Jennings of Sense and Sensibility, with whom she has stayed with in London and maintains a regular correspondence. While Ms. Aiken paints Miss Jennings in a far less matchmaking light than Austen did, I found her influence on the story both interesting and agreeable, even if the end result of it is extremely far-fetched.

The novel hinges on a mystery surrounding the seeming disappearance of not only Lady Catherine's diamond necklace, but the lady herself. I do not want to spoil the plot and so will say no more on that point, except to declare that the result is one of the more sympathetic portraits of Darcy's officious aunt that anyone has written (with one notable exception being myself). I enjoyed this book for what it is: a fun lark into the world of Austen's Kentish creations. If you enjoyed Ms. Aiken's other books, than this is one that should definitely be pursued.