Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson – A Review

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)Review by Aia Hussein-Yousef

In chapter five of Claudia L. Johnson’s new book Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, she notes that in the first Jane Austen Society Report for the years 1943 – 46, a memory belonging to an elderly village woman named Mrs. Luff was recorded in which she remembers watching Jane Austen walking across a field to a visit a family. “We called her the poor young lady,” recalled Mrs. Luff as indicated in the report, “and now she’s gone” (177). Stop for a moment and reflect on that. The elderly woman remembered Jane Austen not as “the venerable author” or “the national treasure” but, for whatever distressing reason, the “poor young lady.”

How interesting is it to think that at one point in time Jane Austen was nothing more than a woman named Jane who lived in an English village and visited families and did all the other things that women did in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries? That the sight of her did not immediately inspire admiration for her written accomplishments but, rather, recalled contemporaneous events or gossip attached to her? I certainly have to take a moment to remember that especially given that evidence of her talent is now on display everywhere – her novels are still prominently displayed on bookshelves at the local bookstore (no relegation to the dusty, shadowy corner for this author), new film adaptations and mini-series are advertised almost every year, her image and images inspired by her works can be found on mugs, tote bags, note cards, posters, you name it, it’s on it. The constant and formidable engine that drives the power of Divine Jane can be seen almost everywhere so much so that it can be hard to remember that she was once just Jane, a quiet author who probably would have parodied her commercialization if she were alive today to see it.

The question of how the quiet author became the modern-day celebrity or, in other words, Jane Austen’s “afterlives,” is tackled in Johnson’s new book, released this month by The University of Chicago Press. The Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, and the author or editor of several works on Jane Austen, Johnson historicizes Austen’s canonization by tracing how the very concept of Austen has changed over time and how it has shown itself to be amenable to sometimes contradictory ideas and feelings about a variety of things including history, taste and manners, and language.

In the first chapter, Jane Austen’s Body, Johnson examines how representations of Austen’s body have developed alongside the public’s perception of her art and, interestingly, how her family may have played a role in all of this. In the second chapter, Jane Austen’s Magic, Johnson explores the reception of Austen during the Victorian period, how she was used to relieve anxieties about modernity by a placement within a context of fairies and enchantment (strange, because we rarely think of Austen in this context, but fascinating). The third and fourth chapters, Jane Austen’s World War I and Jane Austen’s World War II, place Austen against the backdrop of these wars and explore the vastly different reasons why she was read by both soldiers and the larger public. In the last chapter, Jane Austen’s House, Johnson explores the almost obsessive relationship Janeites have with objects that have had both a direct and indirect relation to Austen with a specific look at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. This last chapter is extremely gratifying in the way that it invokes Austen characters Fanny Price and Anne Eliot to give shape to the reader’s relationship with the author, successfully demonstrating that the best way to invoke Austen is, not through objects that may or may not have held significance to her, but through the result of actions that we know she highly valued: her writings.

It was a real pleasure to read this book. It is richly informative and clearly outlines the ways in which Austen has been constructed and her writings interpreted by readers from the Victorian period through now in a way that is both scholarly and accessible and, sometimes even, playful with such delightfully accurate lines as “the Austen they adore has more to do with the world of wonder than with the world of reason” (5) and “to be a Janeite is really a form of possession, with a profound contentment in being thus possessed” (7). Johnson also includes in the appendix to the book three folk tales known to be told by Edward Austen Knight, and possibly heard by Jane Austen herself as a child, and a collection of Austen-related images throughout the book. This book is highly recommended for those who are interested in how Austen’s legacy has changed throughout the years.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson
The University of Chicago Press (2012)
Hardcover (240) pages
ISBN: 978-0226402031

Aia Hussein-Yousef, a proud member of JASNA, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading. She will be leaving the DC area in the fall to begin a doctoral program in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

© 2012 Aia Hussein-Yousef, Austenprose

Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment, by Elsa A. Solender – A Review

Jane Austen in Love, by Elsa Solender (2012)Review by Aia A. Hussein

While many of us can certainly understand Cassandra Austen’s desire to protect the privacy and personal life of her younger sister by destroying much of their correspondence, it is nevertheless a point of frustration for Jane Austen scholars and enthusiasts.  Not only did all that letter-burning deprive us of valuable insight into the smaller details of Jane Austen’s life but also, and perhaps most importantly, it deprived us of the undoubtedly fascinating thoughts that accompanied them.  It is only fitting, then, that the narrator for the new novel Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment, a fictional story inspired by known biographical details of Jane Austen’s life, is the protective but loving Cassandra who is imagined to have written this account of the life of her younger sister years after her death in an attempt to bring color to a life so persistently speculated and wondered about.

The voice behind this imagined Cassandra is past president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Elsa A. Solender.  Released earlier this year by Amazon Digital Services as an e-book, Solender’s novel is actually an expansion of an earlier short story “Second Impressions” that was a runner-up in the first Chawton House Library Jane Austen Story Competition in 2009.  An entertaining blend of fact and fiction – and, of course, filled with references to Jane Austen’s own novels – Solender gives narrative energy to the few known facts of Jane Austen’s life and, in doing so, imagines a series of events that takes its inspiration from actual letters and Jane Austen’s own popular novels.

Beginning with Jane as a young, energetic, and delightfully precocious child and moving into her young adulthood, Solender examines some of the early “loves” in her life that have given profound shape and meaning to it – the love between her and her family, especially Cassandra, but also the love between friends, particularly Jane’s sympathetic and elegant friend Madame Lefroy and her fascinating cousin Eliza, the Comtesse de Feuillide.  As the young Jane grows in years and intelligence, she becomes attuned to social intricacies that shape behavior and, in some instances, inspire potential subversions of it much to the dismay of society’s stalwarts but much to the delight of the young but intelligent observer.  When society threatens to potentially alienate or pass judgment on those that Jane loves and admires, she learns the importance of balancing society’s expectations with one’s own personal beliefs and values.

Moving into Jane’s adulthood, Solender visits more romantic love: the white coat-donning Tom Lefroy who amusingly reminds Jane of Henry Fielding’s title character in Tom Jones, her one-day engagement to kind but one-dimensional Harris Bigg-Wither, and the mysterious “Gentleman suitor of the seaside.”  Like the novel itself, all of this is part-real, part-imaginary, and part-derived from Jane’s own later novels.  While knowing that Solender is limited by the plain fact that Jane remained unmarried her entire life, she is still able to build an appropriate amount of tension regarding Jane’s love interests – what exactly attracts her to them?  Who or what will come between them?  What can we learn about Solender’s Jane from these imagined encounters?

I found the novel to perfectly live up to its subtitle “An Entertainment” as it is very entertaining.  More interested in character development than plot, this novel is rich with detail and extremely engaging.  Solender’s decision to write this novel from the perspective of Cassandra was a smart one because it allows the tone and style of the novel to be appropriate to the time of the novel without having to be an exact imitation of Jane Austen’s.  Plus, I have always been interested in the relationship between sisters (how interesting would it be to read a novel about Cassandra’s support but also jealousy of her sister’s success?).  Solender’s Cassandra is sympathetic and the idea that she could inhabit her sister’s consciousness and relate events from this position is convincing.  Moreover, Solender creatively uses Jane Austen’s own novels to inform and inspire events in fictional Jane’s life and you will enjoy, for example, how Mr. and Mrs. Austen are at times the Bennets, fictional neighbors are Mrs. and Miss Bates, and other references.  If you enjoy fictional biographies, I highly recommend this book.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment, by Elsa A. Solender
Amazon Digital Services (2012)
Kindle ebook (334) pages
ASIN: B0074KBJZ4

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells – A Review

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells (2012)Review by Aia A. Hussein

The epigraph to chapter 3 of Juliette Wells’ new book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination is taken from Michael Chabon’s “The Amateur Family” in Manhood for Amateurs (2010) and is one of the most interesting, almost poetic, descriptions of amateurs that I have ever read (it is quite long but worth reproducing in its entirety):

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner – through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational trifling and Talmudic debate – the world for the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art.  The closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the original best sense of the word: a lover; a devotee; a person drive by passion and obsession to do it – to explore the imaginary world – oneself.

Admittedly, the word amateur has negative connotations but not so in Wells’ book.

An amateur is simply someone who is passionate about books and pursues that passion as a hobby rather than a scholarly profession, she argues.  In the last couple of decades, Wells, an Associate Professor of English at Manhattanville College and features editor for the Penguin Classics enhanced e-book edition of Pride and Prejudice (2008), has noted the rise in Austen tributes – the countless fiction, nonfiction, biographies, films, merchandise, and so forth, inspired by Austen’s novels.  Wells offers through her new book what could arguably be thought of as a tribute to the tributes, a critical examination of Austen-mania that acknowledges the important role it has played in keeping Jane Austen culturally relevant.

Everybody’s Jane, released this month by Continuum, takes into account scholarly work on fan cultures and fictions to explore Austen appreciation and appropriation, particularly its appreciation and appropriation in the United States.  After introducing the book in chapter 1, Wells begins her study by looking back to the early twentieth-century to introduce Alberta H. Burke, an American collector and self-confessed Janeite who Wells argues can be thought of as a direct forerunner to modern fans.  Later chapters explore such topics as literary tourism, Austen images, and Austen hybrids where, in addition to exploring hybrids such as Austen-paranormal fiction, Wells also takes a look at the little-studied phenomenon of Austen fan fiction aimed at evangelical Christians.

One of her most fascinating chapters, titled Reading Like an Amateur, explores the sometimes sticky subject of amateur reading versus professional reading or, in other words, the enthusiast versus the scholar. Striking a conciliatory tone, Wells suggests that there is room for both and that, perhaps, the two reading practices that the amateur and scholar are thought to adopt are not so very different.  Quoting scholar Roger Sales, Everybody’s Jane suggests that:

…popular modern texts are relevant to the academic study of Austen since readers constructs an idea of the author, and therefore of her works and their historical period, from the materials that are readily available within a particular culture at a particular time.  It would be very arrogant indeed to assume that all those who teach and study Austen are necessarily exempt from, rather than implicated in, this cultural process. (10)

Wells examines such topics as why and how amateurs read Austen, the reading experience of the amateur, and the juxtaposition of amateur reading with professional reading in this very important chapter.

In the book’s last chapter, aptly titled Coming Together Through Austen, Wells shares her belief that a deep appreciation for Austen can bring together amateurs and scholars and that the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), since its inception in 1979, has auspiciously offered a home to a broad spectrum of Austen lovers.  An examination of the organization and a call to arms to continue exploring the works and influence of Austen conclude the book.

Wells uses novels, scholarly materials, sites of importance to Austen studies and fans, images, and films to beautifully illustrate her points in a way that is accessible to the ordinary reader but also valuable to the more professional one.  Each chapter begins with a clear and concise overview which helps give structure and order to an extremely comprehensive account of Austen in the popular culture.  It’s impossible to know if Austen will continue to remain a point of fascination for modern writers and fans in the decades to come but, nevertheless, the explosion of Austen-related materials over the last two decades makes this a phenomenon worth documenting and, thankfully, scholars like Wells agree.  This is a fascinating study.  I highly recommend this book.

5 out of 5 Stars

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells
Continuum International Publishing Group (2012)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1441145543
Kindle: ASIN: B0071GVQRC

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area.

© 2007 – 2012, Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight – A Review

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight (2012)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The archetypical figure of the fairy godmother – an imagined mentor with supernatural powers – is an attractive trope because it suggests that certain elements of the unseen universe are rooting for us whether we are aware of it or not.  The most popular fairy godmother is arguably the sweet-tempered, grandmother-like figure of Cinderella who swishes her wand to create carriages out of pumpkins and attractive debutantes out of housemaids but she has also appeared in literature as conniving and ruthless (Shrek) or even male and wizardly (Gandalf could be thought of as a “fairy godperson,” couldn’t he?).  If you’ve ever imagined a fairy godmother as equal parts scheming and shrewd, unrelenting and witty, in perhaps a bonnet with a quill in hand, then you might be interested in Alyssa Goodnight’s new novel Austentatious in which a certain popular eighteenth-century female novelist takes on the role as modern-day life coach.

With a release date of January 31, 2012, from Kensington Books, Austentatious tells the story of a modern woman living in Austin, Texas who comes across a rather strange and somewhat presumptuous vintage journal that is inexplicably writing her back.  Such messages as “Miss Nicola James will be sensible and indulge in a little romance” and one of my favorites, “cleavage is as cleavage does,” quite understandably alarm Nic and she soon begins to believe the little journal is channeling Jane Austen herself.  While the idea of a personal life coach who may be Jane Austen is definitely alluring, Nic soon finds Jane’s advice to be distracting and more than a little unnerving because it threatens to upset the life she has spent years trying to build.

An engineer based in Austin, Nic is a steadfast believer in The Plan, a rigid set of life goals meant to help Nic professionally and romantically advance in a sensible manner.  When we meet Nic at the beginning of the novel, she is bent on landing a promotion and pursuing a relationship with a similarly-minded work colleague.  All seems to be moving in the right direction when a mysterious journal makes its way to her.  Instead of quietly accepting and retaining her words, the journal inexplicably erases and rearranges them to leave messages for its owner.  Despite feeling hesitant and enormously confused, Nic decides to consider the possibility that the journal may be channeling Jane Austen herself because of the journal’s history and thinks there can be little harm in following its advice until it begins to set things in motion that go against her life’s plan.  Enter Sean MacInnes, a warm and charming musician from Scotland who just so happens to think that Nic is the one for him.  Much to Nic’s dismay, her journal feels the same way.  While struggling to make sense of her experiences, Nic must choose between The Plan or the one life seems to have for her.

As mentioned in her Austenprose blog entry, Goodnight serendipitously came across an actual journal dedication in her research written by Jane Austen to Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen with the hope that her niece would derive some instruction from her writings.  Goodnight cleverly uses this as a launching point for her novel’s premise.  Additionally, as mentioned in the novel’s afterword, Austentatious is a “(loosely interpreted) modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and part homage to the wit and timelessness of Ms. Jane Austen.”  Moreover, and much to my liking, it is also a homage to great literature including a number of witty and funny references to Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings.  In fact, one of things I loved about this novel was the writing.  Goodnight’s writing is lively, engaging, and enjoyably fast-paced.  Austentatious will be of particular interest to those readers looking for something more modern to complement their Austenesque tastes.

4 out of 5 stars

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight
Kensington Books (2012)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0758267436
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758278067
Kindle: ASIN: B005JSZOIG

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Not too long ago, I picked up my old and battered copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and reread the novel.  It was my third reading.  I was pretty confident that I would stop reading after the first few chapters, thinking that I only wanted a small dose of familiarity and good, old-fashioned Gothic comfort before turning to something else, something new.  Jane’s haunting self-awareness, however, sucked me in (again) and I read the whole thing through trying hard to keep feelings of guilt at bay for what felt like a waste of my time.  I shouldn’t be rereading Jane Eyre, I told myself, when I still haven’t read Bronte’s Shirley or the book I checked out from the library or this book or that book that I should read for this or that reason.

And yet, despite these feelings, I reread all the time and I’ll probably never stop.  In fact, I hope I never do because my third reading of Jane Eyre was, so far, my most enjoyable.  “This passion for sameness,” as recently retired Literature professor and editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Patricia Meyer Spacks describes it, is the subject of her new book On Rereading, an interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir.  Released late last year by Harvard University Press, Spacks’ book attempts to answer the very fascinating question of why we read the same books over and over again.

Spacks’ book is mostly a collection of thoughts about novels reread over a period of one year, an attempt to trace personal development and growth through literature revisited.  After a nuanced examination of the act of rereading, Spacks begins her experiment with children’s books with such classics as Alice in Wonderland.  A substantial chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma follows with a discussion of how these novels continue to instruct far beyond the initial reading.  A number of chapters are devoted to the project of trying to disentangle personal and social history from the books we read and reread followed by chapters on recreational and professional rereading.  Of course, like any comprehensive book on rereading, the temptation of rereading books we should have liked, and those we feel we shouldn’t have liked but did anyway, is also explored.  The book ends with the lovely articulation that we are never alone when we read since through reading and rereading we are in a silent exchange with the book’s author, with the generations of readers before and after us, etc., that the act of rereading can be far more dynamic and interactive than we realize.

Rereading, according to Spacks, is “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight.  It rouses or soothes or reassures.  And…it can provide security” (2).  This sense of security is born from a text’s seeming stability since, as we all know, the words on the page do not change with time.  And, yet, the conviction that change has indeed taken place when we reread can feel so powerful as to convince us otherwise.  It is this sense of change, this “something,” that fascinates Spacks.  The book may not have changed over time but we, as readers, definitely have and, consequently, our relation to the book has changed as well.

Underpinning this experiment are assumptions worth highlighting: reading fiction is important, recreational reading is important, and rereading need not be an act of avoidance or laziness but re-engagement.  Readers of this blog will probably find the act of rereading pretty standard as, according to an informal British survey mentioned in Spacks’ book, Pride and Prejudice is the third most popular reread text (the Harry Potter books, interestingly, are the first most popular).  And, arguably, the countless contemporary re-imaginings of Austen’s world are, to my mind anyway, a type of rereading – we revisit and re-imagine and relive our experience(s) of reading Austen’s books whenever we pick up a contemporary book featuring Darcy or Lizzy Bennet.  Spacks’ book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you’ve ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over.  But, fair warning, you’ll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you’re done.  Hopefully with a little less guilt.

4 out of 5 Stars

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0674062221
Kindle: ASIN: B006LZTL9O
Nook: ISBN: 978-0674063310

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Christmas at Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Holiday Sequel, by Regina Jeffers – A Review

Christmas at Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Holiday Sequel, by Regina Jeffers (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The author of several Jane Austen adaptations, including Darcy’s Passions and Darcy’s Temptation among others, Regina Jeffers returns with the appropriately-timed release of Christmas at Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Holiday Sequel.  Historically situated in Regency England, before the holiday season evolved into its present monumental proportions, Jeffers’ novel attempts to capture the simple lessons of the holiday season of which she considers love, strong family ties, and generosity to be at its core.

Of course, as this book is about the holidays and as Lady Catherine de Bourgh is now technically Lizzy’s aunt, you can also expect family drama to be present in high doses as well.

In an attempt to provide some extra holiday cheer to Lizzy, who has been uncharacteristically subdued and morose after numerous miscarriages, Darcy secretly invites the Bennets and Bingleys to spend the holiday season at Pemberley.  However, as he and Lizzy are on their way home to join the surprise gathering, a blizzard hits the English countryside which forces the couple to take shelter at a small inn.  While they wait for an opportunity to return home, a Mr. and Mrs. Joseph arrive in need of a place to stay and Lizzy becomes anxious for the very pregnant Mrs. Joseph.  It turns out Lizzy’s anxiety is spot-on as a long and painful labor quickly ensues and Lizzy is the only one able and willing to provide help.

Meanwhile, at Pemberley, Georgiana is left alone to tend to her brother’s guests and finds herself in the unenviable task of opening Pemberley’s doors to eleven unscheduled visitors – one of whom is the formidable Lady Catherine – who are all seeking shelter from the surprise storm.  Determined to shed her childhood fears of incompetence and helplessness, Georgiana tries desperately to manage the large party but Lady Catherine’s bitter resentment of the Bennets for their so-called pollution of the shades of Pemberley, the surprise return of Colonel Fitzwilliam from the American front who awakens unexpected feelings in Georgiana, Caroline Bingley’s infatuation with a mysterious American who makes everyone uncomfortable (except for Mrs. Bennet, of course, who is enamored of his talk of wealth and importance and throws Kitty in his path whenever possible), and a host of other entanglements threaten to plunge Pemberley into holiday chaos.

One of the advantages to writing sequels to beloved classics is the knowledge that your readers will automatically feel invested in your characters simply because they are familiar.  There is something about familiarity, about knowing the back story to Darcy and Lizzy’s relationship for instance, that makes the reading experience seem so much more personal.  We are willing to journey with these characters a little bit longer because we feel like we have a history with them.  In many ways, this book is like catching up with old friends.  That experience, in of itself, is usually enough for me to pick up a book like Jeffers’ novel.  That being said, there is also the risk of inserting impressions and interpretations that may seem foreign or misplaced to the reader.  The overtly religious tone of the novel, for example, is not something I would normally associate with an Austen reimagining and I found it a little surprising.  Jeffers is not heavy-handed about it, nor is she judgmental, and it all results in a very thoughtful and contemplative novel about the nature of love, pain, and trust that anyone can appreciate.

One of the problems, however, with crossing a Regency-inspired novel with the sentimentality Christmas may inspire is that you run the risk of being too maudlin and, unfortunately, I did find the book to be a little too sweet for my taste.  The structure of the novel is also a bit dizzying with the transitions to and from the multiple storylines not as smooth as I would have hoped.  All that being said, however, the holiday season is usually when some readers crave sentimentality and, to that end, this is a satisfactory novel filled with familiar characters as they continue to overcome obstacles, find love, and remind each other of the true spirit of the holidays.

4 out of 5 stars

Christmas at Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Holiday Sequel, by Regina Jeffers
Ulysses Press (2011)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1569759912

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, by Janet Mullany – A Review

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, by Janet Mullany (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

For those who have the seemingly unrelated interest in the Georgian world of Jane Austen and the macabre one of immortal vampires, Janet Mullany’s new novel Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion is a perfect combination of the two.  In fact, as was recounted in Mullany’s previous novel Jane and the Damned, beloved and proper Jane Austen is a vampire.  Or, at least, she has been bitten and is trying her hardest to fight against the metamorphosis as would any proper eighteenth-century female.  In this new Austen-vampire mashup, Jane continues to struggle against what seems an inevitable metamorphosis into one of the Damned while reconciling her feelings for a seemingly indifferent Creator, a former consort, a new love interest, a vulnerable niece, a dear friend who has an odd penchant for being leeched by vampires, and an oblivious family.  You are, indeed, correct in assuming that poor Jane has a lot on her plate.

It is 1810 and the Austen family has new, undead neighbors.  Having just been banished from polite society, the Damned are seeking less conspicuous roles in provincial society where they hope to blend in unnoticed or, at least, without too much notice.  Jane is in the middle of working on what will be her literary masterpiece when she is interrupted by the return of a number of old, undead friends – a formerly indifferent Creator who is seeking to make amends and a seemingly ambivalent former consort – both of whom have found themselves entrenched in a looming civil war between factions of the Damned right in the heart of Jane’s small provincial town.  More upsetting for Jane is the return of her vampire characteristics and feelings for her former consort, Luke.  Even more upsetting, and completely unexpected, is a sudden passionate interest in a steward named Raphael, who is similarly in-between vampire metamorphosis, and which only complicates Jane’s feelings towards Luke.

Her internal love struggle aside, Jane gets caught up in trying to prevent a civil war amongst the Damned especially since the safety of her town and family is in peril despite the high risk of metamorphosis that being near the Damned poses.  She is torn between wanting to save her town and family (especially a vulnerable niece who has caught the eye of a ruthless vampire) or her soul.  Her propriety or her passion.  Luke or Raphael.  And, perhaps most importantly, her writing or transforming into a vampire to save her family from danger since, as was demonstrated in Jane and the Damned, her vampire-self could not write.  Not to mention Jane’s dear friend who continues to have intimate contact with vampires despite Jane’s numerous warnings and who annoyingly persists in borrowing Jane’s precious silk stockings for these liaisons!

Mullany’s novel will interest those who find paranormal romances entertaining.  It is creative and is perfectly timed with the resurgence of fiction about vampires and other paranormal creatures.  I, admittedly, did find myself hoping for more depth and nuance when it came to characters and plot.  Jane’s internal and external struggles resolved themselves a little too easily and I found myself not really feeling invested in any of the characters.  I did, however, find Mullany’s suggestion – made both in the novel and on this blog – that Mary and Henry Crawford from Austen’s Mansfield Park would make perfect members of the Damned extremely interesting as I think that might lead to some very intriguing fictional possibilities.  Nevertheless, Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion is definitely recommended for those who find paranormal romances crossed with Jane Austen fan fiction their cup of tea as Mullany’s enthusiasm for her work is evident throughout the novel, and you will at the very least, be highly entertained by a Jane Austen combating evil vampires in men’s clothing while, elsewhere in the novel, insisting on wearing a spinster’s cap.

3.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, by Janet Mullany
William Morrow (2011)
Trade paperback (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0061958311

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornesbos (2011)Review by Aia A. Hussein      

The young bachelor enters a room filled with young ladies, all of whom are eyeing the invitations he holds in his hands, fully conscious that there are not enough invitations for all them.  They straighten their postures and smooth their gowns as their chaperones hold their breaths.  They all listen as the butler recounts the ladies’ accomplishment points from the recent foxhunt expedition and tea party, shares viewer ratings, and explains that a number of them will be eliminated from the competition and sent home.  The bachelor steps forwards and begins to read aloud the names of the young ladies that he has decided will stay.

You’re right in thinking that the above description is of a reality television dating game show but it’s a far cry from anything like ABC’s The Bachelor for the sole reason that it’s not set in the twenty-first or twentieth-century.  In fact, it’s 1812 and Chloe Parker is competing against seven other women for the attention of Mr. Wrightman, heir to the gorgeous Dartworth estate, along with a $100,000 prize.  Thus is the premise of Karen Doornebos’ debut novel Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, which follows a Midwestern, divorced mother with a failing antique letterpress business who decides to participate in a Jane Austen-inspired television documentary only to discover, upon her arrival to the beautiful English countryside, that it has just been transformed into an early nineteenth-century reality dating show.  Rather than return home, Chloe Parker, a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society, decides to trader her cellular phone for a lady’s fan for a chance to snare the handsome Mr. Wrightman and the much-needed prize money.

Chloe decides to do her best and ignore the constant filming, eager to immerse herself in Regency England life.  She is thrilled to discover that she has a chaperone, a maidservant, and her very own collection of Regency gowns.  The excitement soon fades, however, upon discovering that she is not allowed to use deodorant, can only bathe with water once a week, and can do very little without the permission of her chaperone, to name a few.  More importantly, Chloe finds that the rigid social hierarchy of Regency England goes against everything she believes in.  She is appalled by the treatment of her maidservant, Fiona, and other service staff by their so-called social betters and nurses a well-justified hatred for competitor Lady Grace who never fails to point out that Chloe, cast as an American heiress, doesn’t really belong in English high society.  To top it off, Chloe and her chaperone, Mrs. Crescent, both have a serious interest in winning the prize money: with a failing business and a recently promoted ex-husband who wants to increase his custody rights for their daughter, Chloe needs to rebuild herself while Mrs. Crescent is trying to raise enough money for her son’s surgery.

Even being courted by Mr. Wrightman becomes a point of complication – she is, after all, competing with other women for his attention – because she soon begins to have feelings for another man on set – the younger Mr. Wrightman who is not set to inherit anything from his family’s estate.  Not set to inherit anything and, yet, Chloe finds that he has other attractive features – he’s kind and funny and, besides, there’s something odd about the elder Mr. Wrightman even if Chloe can’t quite put her finger on it at first.  Before Chloe can emerge as a real winner, she must figure out what really matters and what kind of person she wants to be in a society so strictly defined by standards that can seem wholly alien to us now as modern readers.

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy put me in mind of Michael Winterbottom’s film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a film-within-a-film that pits eighteenth-century England alongside a twenty-first-century one.  There’s something intriguing about contemporary filmmakers and production crews, with their cellular phones and headsets, moving seamlessly amongst elaborately dressed ladies as they take their tea and politely converse about the weather.  There are numerous texts that transport us back into Regency England, or that stay firmly in the here and now but are obviously inspired by the past, but rarely do we have texts where old world actually coexists with new.  We have an obvious fascination with the past and it’s refreshing to see this fascination manifest itself in creatively modern ways even if we must tread into the world of reality television.  (Although, I’ll be the first to admit, if a reality television dating game show set in Austen’s era actually existed, I would probably watch it.)

This fascination, however, oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with the act of romanticizing and Doornebos is clever enough not to get swept up in the glamour of Regency England without pointing to its downsides as well.  Chloe’s schooling in the ups and downs of life in Regency England is refreshing and a nice counterbalance to all the texts out there that lament modernization at the expense of pretty gowns and strict social decorum.  But Doornebos doesn’t merely point to the lack of deodorant and running water as downsides to that era; strict rules limiting a woman’s mobility and a mock hanging of a young girl, punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, for instance, showcase Regency England’s dark side.  It’s not for nothing that Mr. Wrightman presents invitations during the Elimination Ceremonies for the number of invitations a young woman received during the social season of eighteenth and nineteenth-century England determined which balls she would attend, which young men she would be introduced to, and so forth.  In other words, it determined the very course of her life.

Doornebos’ novel is witty and, most importantly, refreshing but it must be confessed that elements of the plot and some themes are underdeveloped and its twists are predictable.  As stated above, however, it is Doornebos’ first novel and technical weaknesses can easily be forgiven especially in light of its refreshing perspective on a familiar era.  A great escape to the world of ball gowns and breeches, Doornebos gives us a fantasy/reality that will delight those who want a Jane Austen-inspired excursion into Regency England, warts and all.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos
Berkley Trade (2011)
Trade paperback (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0425243824

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2011; text  Aia A. Hussein © 2011, Austenprose.com

Murder Most Persuasive: A Mystery by Tracy Kiely – A Review

Murder Most Persuasive: A Mystery, by Tracy Kiely (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Following in the footsteps of her previous works Murder at Longbourn and Murder on the Bride’s Side, author Tracy Kiely has just released Murder Most Persuasive. Wherein she previously drew plot inspiration from such Jane Austen classics as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, in this new mystery novel she’s set her sights on Austen’s beloved Persuasion, re-imagining the classic tale against a modern backdrop and involving, yet again, her Austen-quoting sleuth, Elizabeth Parker.

After the death of Elizabeth’s great-uncle Martin Reynolds, the Reynolds family house is sold.  Much to everyone’s surprise, the new owners discover the body of a man under their newly dug-up pool who is later identified as Michael Barrow, the former fiancé of Martin’s eldest daughter Regina.  It had been assumed that Michael had run off eight years earlier after embezzling over a million dollars from the Reynolds family business.  The discovery of Michael’s body not only unearths questions about the earlier scandal, but it also brings Detective Joe Muldoon, former boyfriend of Martin’s second daughter Annabel (or Ann), back into the picture.  Eight years earlier, Ann had been pressured by family and a close family friend to break off her relationship with Joe, a decision she has come to bitterly regret.

Emboldened by past detective successes, Elizabeth spearheads a movement to discover Michael’s murderer, an effort that becomes all the more urgent when police begin to treat Ann as their prime suspect.  Making matters worse is Ann’s stepmother Bonnie who bizarrely escapes to a spa retreat as soon as her late husband’s funeral is over and returns with a younger man who claims to be an investor eager to get his hands on Bonnie’s and the girls’ inheritance.  Throw Elizabeth’s know-it-all sister who’s suddenly determined to help with the investigation, the mysterious behavior of her Reynolds cousins, and a boyfriend who is ready for Elizabeth to move in with him into the mix and you’ve got a very complicated situation that Elizabeth is determined to navigate.  All this and, of course, she must gently nudge Ann in Joe’s direction, eager that Ann not make the same past mistakes.  Will Elizabeth locate the murderer before he or she can strike again?  And will Ann gain the confidence and courage she needs in order to pursue a relationship with a man that her family has deemed unworthy?

Ann’s story should recall the story of Austen’s Anne Eliot who is forced to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth because he fails to live up to the expectations of family and close friends.  In fact, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel that Ann Reynolds is the modern-day equivalent to Anne Eliot, an overlooked middle daughter who must learn to trust her own instincts rather than allow others to easily persuade her.  Persuasion’s Anne Eliot has always been one of my favorite Austen heroines and it’s delightful to see a contemporary reincarnation especially since authors tend to gravitate more towards Austen’s arguably most famous heroine, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett.  While I love Lizzy, there is a quiet strength about Anne that I have always found admirable and it’s gratifying to see that quiet strength reborn in a modern Ann.

While Persuasion serves as a source of inspiration for Murder Most Persuasive, most of Kiely’s novel is made up of original material with numerous characters and one or two twists thrown in for good measure.  Like most well-written mystery novels, Murder Most Persuasive is suspenseful and the reader will definitely try and figure out the murder mystery along with Elizabeth.  I, admittedly, think that some of the characters and plot elements could have used more development but this novel is perfect for end-of-summer reading – entertaining, suspenseful, and Austenesque – with Janeites appreciating how Elizabeth always has the right Austen quote for every situation.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

Murder Most Persuasive: A Mystery, by Tracy Kiely
Minotaur Books, NY (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0312699413

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors, by Nava Atlas – A Review

Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Judging by the number of writing guides available in bookstores today, as compared to the number of guides available twenty or thirty years ago, it would seem that there has been an increase in demand for books about writing.  Admittedly, many of these guides are similar in scope and advice although their continued consumption would suggest that they are serving their purpose to some aspiring writers out there.  Imagine, though, a writing guide written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, a detailed account of where they wrote and how often, how they dealt with rejection, and how they juggled their domestic responsibilities with their need to write.  Alas, no such book exists but something close has just been written which will be of interest to aspiring writers as well as readers interested in learning more about their favorite authors.

Nava Atlas, well-known author and illustrator of cookbooks including the highly regarded Vegetariana, presents an intimate glimpse into the writing process of twelve beloved women writers in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors. Drawing from journals, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Atlas organizes the thoughts and advice of twelve successful women authors into eight chapters that specifically address relevant aspects of the writing process such as developing a voice, finding the time to write, and dealing with rejection.  More importantly, she includes chapters of particular significance to some aspiring women writers, such as “The Writer Mother,” which draws from the experiences of women authors who juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and writing.

In Atlas’ words, her book is not merely a “how-to of writing” but, rather, “something that might prove even more valuable – a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers” which includes that of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

Such intimate treasures include Charlotte Brontë’s 1846 query letter to a prospective publisher, excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal where she admits that she, herself, didn’t enjoy stories like Little Women, and a spotlight on Jane Austen’s inner critic which led her to write in a 1815 letter to James Stanier “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”  In addition to well-placed quotes and excerpts from the writings of these twelve classic authors, Atlas, departing from many how-to writing guides, draws from original images and photos to further captivate the interest of the reader.  Such images include one of Steventon, the birthplace of Jane Austen, and a number of author photos, including one of L. M. Montgomery in a wonderful, feathery hat.  Atlas also provides her own commentary which helps gives a sense of overall structure to the book.

There is something to turning to beloved authors for advice about the writing and creative process.  Not content to merely glamorize or romanticize the writing process, which happens all too often in author biographies, Atlas makes a point to highlight the frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies any writing attempt, even attempts by classic authors.  Madeleine L’Engle’s assertion that a rejection letter was “like the rejection of me, myself” will resonate with many writers out there.  Admittedly, Atlas’ ambitious attempt to organize the thoughts and advice of twelve writers undoubtedly means that readers will find themselves sifting through the book to get to the parts about their favorite writers but that’s to be expected.

A small complaint, which Atlas wisely anticipates, is the conspicuous lack of writers who are not either European or of European origins.  Citing that the increased odds against any female of color in the nineteenth century as compared to their white counterparts is what ultimately led to her decision, Atlas fails to realize that these increased odds could have been a point of interest in their own right for contemporary writers and readers.  It is important to note that she does occasionally offer the insights of Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou but they are embedded within blocks of text and easy to miss.

Nevertheless, Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is an absorbing book that will make even those who have never dreamt of pursuing a writing life want to pick up paper and pen (or, more accurately, turn on the computer) and begin a work of their own.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas
Sellers Publishing, Inc. (2011)
Hardcover (176) pages
ISBN: 978-1416206323

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander – A Review

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander (2006)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The intriguing world of nineteenth century Victorian high society, with its ruffled skirts and disciplined social manners, is crossed with the historical suspense novel in And Only to Deceive, the first book in Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily Mysteries series.  In fact, as author Martha O’Connor writes, “Had Jane Austen written The Da Vinci Code, she may well have come up with this elegant novel.”  Lady Emily Ashton, the headstrong heroine, finds herself acting as amateur detective in a mystery that takes her to the quiet corners of the British Museum, where she uncovers an art forgery plot involving artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries, and the shadowy streets of Paris where a possible murder only complicates matters.  All while being pursued by two very prominent and handsome suitors, of course.

When Viscount Philip Ashton unexpectedly dies in an African hunting expedition, his young and beautiful wife, Lady Emily Ashton, finds herself a widow after only a few short months of marriage.  Eager to discover the sort of man her late husband was, Emily pursues his interests in classical antiquity and finds a man much more interesting and mysterious than she had initially thought.  More than that, however, she finds evidence to suggest that her husband may not have been as honest as she thought, uncovering a complicated plot of art forgeries involving some of the best artifacts exhibited in the British Museum.  Compounding the mystery are the two friends of the late Viscount – Mr. Colin Greaves and the son of a Lord, Andrew Palmer – who both seem to show mysteriously equal interest in both Emily and her surprisingly authentic collection of classical antiquities.

With the help of a colorful mix of female friends – who, when considered together, exhibit the right combination of intelligence, spunk, and timidity – Emily sets out to get to the bottom of the forgeries whilst also happening upon the unpleasant discovery that her late husband’s death may not have been accidental.  Unable to ascertain if she can trust the attentive Hargreaves or the charming Palmer, Emily moves forward to uncover the mystery on her own, attempting to prove to herself and to all those around her – particularly her domineering, overprotective mother – that she is capable of existing in nineteenth century Victorian England as a person in her own right.

Alexander’s first novel shows her promise, with an attention to historical detail that will only impress her readers.  Interspersing historically correct detail of Greek antiquity with accurate portrayals of societal roles in late Victorian England, Alexander creates a novel that is every bit as layered as it is entertaining. The best thing about the novel is its female characters.  Rarely straying into archetype or tired stock characters, Alexander breathes life into charismatic, intelligent females who are fully-formed and varied.  Emily’s older, Parisian friend, Cecile du Lac, happily enjoys her widowhood status as it frees her to explore the shadowy corners of Paris without too much notice.  Emily’s intellectual, American friend, Margaret, encourages Emily’s interests in classical antiquity and pushes her to attend university lectures, much to the dismay of Emily’s mother.  And, lastly, Emily’s fellow English friend, Ivy, prefers a quiet rebellion, choosing to act at home rather than on a more public scale.  Through the complexity of its female characters, the novel distinguishes itself from the countless number of modern-day reimaginings of Victorian England.

Alexander, in the novel’s afterword, points out the importance of creating a character that was both part and outside of her society.  As an unmarried woman, Emily would have been subject to Victorian society’s repressive rules concerning the appropriate interests and activities of a young woman and, consequently, Alexander had no choice but to imagine as her heroine a widow, a female figure of society with enough freedom to be able to travel and pursue interests with little consternation.  Through these sort of details, Alexander is able to create a sympathetic character for the modern-day reader who is, nevertheless, still very much a part of her era.

An admirable debut novel, And Only to Deceive is engaging and entertaining although, admittedly, some of its plot twists are predictable.  Nevertheless, the next book in the series, A Poisoned Season, also featuring Lady Emily Ashton, will undoubtedly be entertaining.  And while, strictly speaking, Jane Austen does not belong to the Victorian era, there is enough overlap for this book to be recommended to those who find this general time period of interest.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, where she pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander
HarperCollins (2006)
Trade paperback (336)
ISBN: 978-0061148446

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose