Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos AudioBooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett – A Review

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Her knowledge of Richardson’s works was such as no one is likely again to acquire, now that the multitude and the merits of our light literature have called off the attention of readers from that great master.” – J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, ch. 5

Listed among Jane Austen’s most beloved authors is the rebellious printer-turned-novelist Samuel Richardson, creator of such potboilers as Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The novel opens at the death of Pamela Andrew’s employer, the woman who has educated her to be as accomplished as any young woman could hope to be, by eighteenth century standards. And from there commences a rather strange and disturbing plot in which Pamela must fend off the unwanted advances of her new male employer—and I’m not simply talking about sexual harassment, which would have been bad enough; I’m talking about outright attempted rape. Indeed, the main dramatic question of the novel is whether Pamela will forfeit her honor (read “her virginity”) for the sake of wealth and safety, or will she display a heroic level of Christian virtue, and risk the possibility of public disgrace. Spoiler Alert: the novel’s subtitle gives the answer away from the start.

Although this novel is incredibly didactic, overly sentimental, and downright maudlin, it does have its high points—one being the character of Pamela herself. She may be pretty and sugary sweet, and sound like a flaky saint most of the time,  she’s also fantastically brave and sassy. Indeed, the best scenes in the book are those in which Pamela wages verbal war against her oppressors. When, for example, Mr. B. has attempted his first physical assault against her and then dares to chide her for speaking back to him, Pamela exclaims, “Well may I forget that I am your Servant, when you forget what belongs to a Master.” (23). This rebuttal underscores the novel’s major theme regarding the equality of all people based on moral education.

Indeed, Richardson is rather scathing of the corruption of England’s upper class, especially as regards the treatment of the lower classes. He has Pamela write: “…proud People never think what a short Stage Life is; and that, with all their Vanity, a Time is coming, when they shall be obliged to submit to be on a Level with us; and true said the Philosopher, when he looked upon the Skull of a King, and that of a poor Man, that he saw no Difference between them.” (258). She further argues that even the claims the gentry make to noble birth are spurious, given that if family lines were traced back far enough, or if the future could be seen, it is clear that social rank fluctuates; the noble families of today are the serfs of tomorrow and vice versa (think Kate Middleton). It is the way Richardson wrestles with social questions about rank and gender that make this novel so valuable and interesting. Yes, it’s didactic, but sometimes in all the right ways.

That said, what I loved most about this novel was speculating on the ways it may have inspired Pride and Prejudice. Firstly, I thought Mr. B. was a combination of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. Like Wickham, Mr. B. plays with the affections of young women, preying on them. But like Mr. Darcy, Mr. B. is actually a generous young man who wants to be good, and who is capable of recognizing the good in others, even if their social status was below his own. Also like Darcy, Mr. B. braves the censure of society to love where he wills, despite having an interfering relative determined to marry him off to another. Lady Barbara Danvers, Mr. B.’s sister, attacks Pamela’s marriage to her brother, and is so vicious she makes Lady Catherine’s attack on Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice look like tea time with the queen. Of course, for both Pamela and Elizabeth the problem is that they are intelligent, beautiful, moral women who happen to be of “inferior birth;” and Georgian England, Christian though it was, valued money above goodness. Fortunately for both heroines, the voice of society is no match for their wit, honesty, and good sense. Indeed, Mr. B. confesses, “How then, with the Distance between us, and in the World’s Judgment, can I think of making you my Wife? —Yet I must have you; I cannot bear the Thoughts of any other Man supplanting me in your Affections.” (213). I can just imagine the young Jane Austen reading and loving these words, turning them over and over again in her mind until she felt compelled to create a hero—albeit a morally superior one—who could also say such a thing to a woman and mean it.

Richardson’s novels might also have inspired Austen in other ways, not only in terms of plot, but in terms of form. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were both originally composed as epistolary narratives, that is, as a series of letters, but she thought better of this later, and substantially revised the two novels. Perhaps she felt the form too restricting, as it can seriously limit the ways in which plot information can be revealed, besides necessitating a physical distance between the principle correspondents.  Even so, Austen’s Lady Susan is a fine example of a novel in letters. Interestingly, it, like Pamela, also features a roguish aristocrat and a virtuous damsel—though, in this case, they are mother and daughter.

Granted, I found this novel’s lack of variety in plot, despite its being 503 pages long, to be trying, but I have to award it five stars just the same, for its hilarious banter alone. I highly recommend that those brave enough to take it on should do so with the help of Naxos’ excellent audiobook recording, starring Clare Corbett as the voice of Pamela. It draws readers in from the first letter, and clarifies and enlivens a sometimes tedious text. With Naxos, even busy readers may take the drama wherever they go—in the car, at the gym, or even soaking in a tub on a snowy winter’s night.

5 out of 5 Stars

Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos Audiobooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett
Naxos AudioBooks (2013)
Unabridged CD, 21 hours 51 mins
ISBN: 978-1843797432

Further Reading:

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of Naxos AudioBooks © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2014, Austenprose.com

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library.

Indeed, if you bought this book for Dame Harriet Walter’s essay “Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle” alone, you would have spent your money well. Walter, whom Janeites will fondly remember as Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, masterfully writes about her wrestling with Shakespeare’s conflicted presentation of women from the perspective of an actress with modern sensibilities. Shakespeare, she argues, often pits the female leads against the heroes’ male best-friends in competition for the heroes’ love, as in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Merchant of Venice, to name a few. This creates an interesting, semi-homoerotic love triangle and explains the sometimes seemingly irrational actions of the heroes’ friends (390). It was coming to appreciate this male perspective in Much Ado About Nothing that helped Walter to then understand her own role as Beatrice, particularly her harsh, anti-bromantic ultimatum to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” (392).

However, full reconciliation with Shakespeare isn’t quite possible sometimes, according to Walter, especially given that many of the female roles demand women themselves pronounce misogynistic views (396). Eve Best, another English actress who has worked through the “problem spots” to find the soul of the female roles, writes beautifully about her compassion for Lady Macbeth, one of most iconic of Shakespeare’s characters. According Best, Lady Macbeth’s bloody-thirsty drive to make her husband king of Scotland, is all “…about love. And, very possibly…about finding a replacement for their child” (384). Of course, the play’s a tragedy, so the plan goes horribly wrong, dividing Lady Macbeth from her husband forever. The does not change the fact that Lady Macbeth was a woman driven by love.

I admit that I was most fond of the essays written by actors who share an abiding sensitivity for the humanity of their characters, as Rory Kinnear describes with Angelo from Measure for Measure and Hamlet, and F. Murray Abraham with Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Given he’s played the role seven times, James Earl Jones’ depth of understanding and compassion for Othello’s tragic situation is remarkable –but then so is Eamonn Walker’s, who writes “Othello is about many different kinds of love: it’s about the light, beautiful side of love, and it’s about the twisted, darker side of love, and it’s about how, if you flip the emotional coin, love can make you do terrible things” (145).

For those not in the theatre business, the insights from directors may be equally interesting and helpful for appreciating the importance of encountering dramatic works, even those from the sixteenth century, as living, evolving texts to be molded, edited, and re-envisioned. Essays by Karin Coonrod, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Jess Winfield, and the Fiasco Theatre all invite the reader to attend a play or to pick up the text and start over–refashioning the story based on time, place, and circumstance, while remaining true to the story’s essence. As Coonrod writes “I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each [play]” (291). Often, the key to unlocking the story’s secrets lies in a simple image.

Ironically, I found that some of the essays that I least enjoyed were written by career writers, authors whom I respect. Isabel Allende’s tale of encountering Shakespeare in translation was charming, but not very insightful. Jane Smiley, who wrote the powerful King Lear inspired novel A Thousand Acres, talks about her inspiration, but without illuminating the original text or her own much further. Joyce Carol Oates tediously plods through the plot of Antony and Cleopatra. And Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay is a mostly a series of quotes, including a huge passage from a story she herself wrote. Equally disappointing (though well-meaning) were Peter David’s diatribe against modern ignorance about Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ben Kingsley lament about the loss of beautiful speech in contemporary language. It is sad, of course, that people are not reading Shakespeare, and tragic that they they do not speak in elevated syntax and diction, but, alas, tell us something we did not know already.

Fortunately, the bulk of this collection is simply amazing, insightful, and entertaining. I would even argue that a few of the essays are actually important, in terms of their significant contributions to the on-going discernment of Shakespeare’s relevancy to the modern world. Among the best, Brian Cox’s essay “I Say It Is the Moon” about how Shakespeare, through characters like Edgar in King Lear, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, “teaches us how to live between one political paradigm and the next, in the middle of social contradictions, and right at the heart of all the emotional paradoxes of the human condition…The ultimate paradox, of course, [being] that even though we’re all going to die, we’ve all got to live in the meantime” (218).

Do you have to have read or seen all of the plays to understand this book? No; but I bet you will want to after you’ve read so many talented people express their life-changing experiences with Shakespeare’s immortal heroes and heroines, ghosts and witches, gods and monsters, since they all turn out to be so profoundly human like you and me.

5 out of 5 Stars

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson
Vintage (2013)
Trade paperback (528) pages
ISBN:  978-0307742919

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd 2013 From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

The Young Romantics have inspired hundreds of books, plays, and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences…A Fatal Likeness is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect those silences” (from the Author’s Note).

For fans of Jane Austen’s virtue-oriented, Christian novels to appreciate how very odd and outrageous some of her contemporaries really were might be as easy as looking at the bevy of bad boys and girls she features in each of her novels. Think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. These wild youths desperate to break free bear a striking (if superficial) resemblance to some of the most liberally minded literary stars of the late Regency Period–philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their novelist daughter Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his fellow poet and friend Lord Byron. Certainly, it was an exciting age of revolution, but every revolution comes with a heavy price. For this circle of geniuses, the price was one untimely death or devastating heartbreak  after another. But why?

In her wonderfully composed and intriguingly plotted novel, A Fatal Likeness, Lynn Shepherd seeks not simply to depict the heavy price paid by Percy and Mary Shelley and their circle of family and friends for their liberal ideals, but to try and make sense of it. Inspired by what primary sources say and do not say, Shepherd weaves a masterful trail of scandalous events that had me loathing in turns both Percy and Mary Shelley. Indeed, at the heart of this story, as in any good mystery novel, is a sinister darkness. The question is whether this darkness is the fruit of hedonistic depravity or psychological madness–and whose depravity or madness?

Enter Charles Maddox, our fictional hero. Maddox, like his celebrated uncle of the same name, is a London detective whose own reputation as a successful sleuth is steadily growing. Although he is well-meaning and determined, he is no saint–he’s sleeping with his cook Molly, a young black woman who cannot speak, and is abusive toward his male servants, especially poor Billy, the surly scapegoat. Maddox is hired by Mary Shelley’s son and daughter-in-law to retrieve papers which may contain damaging information about Percy Shelley. However, the papers are owned by Claire Clairmont–Mary’s stepsister and former rival for her late husband’s affections. It seems that Mary Shelley, widowed and ill, is obsessed with protecting the memory of her late husband and wants total control over the interpretation and telling of his life. And so, with Mary on the one hand and Claire on the other, the unfolding of two versions of Percy Shelley begins. Simply put, it’s a bizarre picture of a man who, although apparently effeminate and sickly, is able to cast a spell on nearly any young lady he encounters, to their doom. Readers are led to believe that Percy is somehow responsible for the suicides of his first wife Harriet Westbrook and his sister-in-law Fanny Imlay, that he may have killed a little girl named Ianthe for whom he had an odd affection, and that he is either being pursued by someone out for revenge or is psychotically making the phantom doppelganger up. Worst of all is the image of Percy Shelley standing over a cradle in the night committing an unthinkable crime. It makes the drama of Frankenstein appear eerily autobiographical.

But is it true? As Maddox frantically follows leads to uncover the evidence, a very different version of events comes to light, a version in which Mary, not Percy, is painted as the cold, manipulative hand orchestrating the various disasters Maddox is attempting to comprehend. Fans of Mary Shelley may cringe at the idea of Percy’s having substantially written Frankenstein, a fact Mary is eager to conceal in this novel, but that’s the least of the crimes she is accused of here. Was it Percy who so unfeelingly persecuted his first wife Harriet, or was it Mary? Was it the murder of his own child that tormented Percy, or was it the shame of a past deed which Mary used, by way of her own children, to cruelly dominate him, until he sought freedom in death? Who, indeed, deserves the epitaph monster?

Shepherd, author of three other literary thrillers including Murder at Mansfield Park re-imagining Mansfield Park, offers readers a delicious, bold, psychological and literary thriller in this excellent fourth novel. She does three important things so perfectly. Firstly, she builds a solid mystery–the kind where readers can’t rest comfortably with what they think they know. Secondly, her characters are fascinating. Charles Maddox is intelligent, insightful, but all too human. Claire Clairmont is seductive and persuasive, while Mary Shelley is aloof and just a touch frightening. And Percy? I’ll let you decide. Lest I forget the supporting cast, who wouldn’t love Nancy, a down-on-her-luck prostitute who probably has more virtue in her than any of the Shelley clan put together? Finally and most important, the prose of this novel is tight and well-constructed. With period novels, there’s always the danger that the language will feel contrived. Shepherd makes an interesting negotiation with the historical context by having her narrator’s voice be contemporary. This allows the modern day narrator to describe historical events in modern terms, leaving much of the “matching” work to fall on dialogue, which Shepherd manages impressively well.

As such, I award this novel five very bright Regency Stars. I look forward to discussing it this fall with the students in my British literature class, all of whom read Frankenstein this summer.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel (Charles Maddox Mysteries), by Lynn Shepherd
Delacorte Press (August 20, 2013)
Hardcover (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0345532442

Cover image courtesy of Delacote Press © 2013; Text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103).

Readers already comfortable with Austen’s literary interests, her family’s literary activities, and her publication triumphs and losses, may enjoy some of the more modern concerns that Byrne brings to light—for example, Austen’s playful treatment of homosexuality (63, 242-243), her avid enjoyment of the theatre (143-145), her connections to places like India, China, France, and the Americas, which brought with them conversations about opium, revolution, and the emancipation of slaves, along with the social status of biracial people and the question of interracial marriage (see chapters twelve and fourteen, among others). My own two favorite chapters were ten and fifteen. In the former, Byrne reviews the rumors about Jane Austen’s love life, including the Tom Lefroy affair, the Harris Bigg Wither disaster, and the mysterious romance at the seaside that apparently dashed Austen’s hopes of marriage. Byrne challenges popular notions on these events, and balances the family accounts with what Austen herself said and did, leaving one to wonder if this great genius and even greater flirt ever really did find a man who could win her heart. In Chapter fifteen, she explores the other side of the love coin—motherhood. I do not think there is a more enlightening way to re-encounter someone you think you know than to see them playing a role that has nothing to do with you. In Austen’s case, I mean her role in the family as “Aunt Jane”. She adored children, and had an important impact on shaping the imaginations of her young relatives. Indeed, as Byrne mentions, several of them grew up wanting to be writers just like “Aunt Jane” (290-292). There is just something about imagining Austen laughing with Fanny, Anna, Edward and the rest and mentoring them that makes her seem more tangible to me, which is why I am glad that this component to her life is so well drawn.

Although I loved much in this biography, I did often find myself taking note of things I did not necessarily agree with, sometimes simply because I did not think Byrne was being logical—for example, the idea that because Frank Austen read into his sister’s novels that she has a blank check to do so, too (5). Also, throughout the biography, Byrne illustrates Austen’s knowledge of the larger world around her beyond Hampshire, but she never satisfactorily answers why Austen did not wrestle with major historical events more thoroughly in her novels—for example, with the question of slavery mentioned in chapter twelve, or English Catholic Emancipation or the French Revolution mentioned in chapter two. While I understand it, I am not sure I buy Byrne’s argument that Austen felt too deeply about things to write about them, since we surely cannot argue she only wrote about things about which she did not feel deeply (50). There were smaller concerns I had, too, like her rather blithe labeling of Tom Bertram as homosexual, her dismissal of The Watsons as too flawed a piece to be reworked, and the rejections of Austen’s reputation for piety just because she also had a typical Georgian sense of humor (150, 275, 59 respectively). I am not saying Byrne is wrong in any of these places, necessarily; rather, I simply want a richer examination of these intriguing topics.

Despite my objections, I think Byrne’s is the best Austen biography that I have read to date. It is written well, constructed well, and so reads well. Most importantly, there were definitely moments in which I felt I had been sitting with Austen—or shopping with her, as the case may be—which is exactly the kind of Midnight in Paris experience one wants from a biography.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne
HarperCollins (2013)
Hardcover (400) pages
ISBN: 978-0061999093

(editor’s note) We think this is the most strikingly beautiful cover of any book written about Austen or anyone for that matter. The copyright page acknowledges Sarah Mulvanny for the illustrations, but we know for a fact that the cover image is based on an illustration from The Gallery of Fashion, September 1797 which we have long adored. Note the bathing machines in the lower left corner. I have always envisioned this as Jane and Cassandra during a trip to a seaside resort.

Image from the Gallery of Fashion September 1797, Morning Dress

Cover image courtesy © 2013 HarperCollins; text © 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas – A Review

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“I aim to resituate her work nearer to the stout historical novels of her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, or even the encyclopedic reach of modernist James Joyce, than to the narrow domestic and biographical readings that still characterize much of Austen studies” (Barchas, 1).

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Janine Barchas sets out to illuminate Austen’s works by performing a type of literary archeological dig on them, sifting through details that often go unremarked to show how rich in facts the novels actually are. In so doing, she hopes to reveal that Austen is an even craftier and more skillful artist than most give her credit for being. The comparison to Scott quoted above, for example, is carefully chosen since Austen weaves much more English history into her novels than is often appreciated. And like Joyce, there is reason to believe that she “mapped” out her stories, taking care not just for accuracy’s sake, but for the sake of the joke she’s setting up for the knowing reader. Since Barchas’ task is a rather grand one, she limits her scope to Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, with treatment of shorter works like Lady Susan and Evelyn, as well.  This means she all but leaves out three of Austen’s most celebrated works—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park—but she admits that her goal was to begin a project, not to complete it.

One basic starting point for Matters of Fact is to show that much of Austen’s ideas for character names came from either dramatic skeletons in the closets of noble families connected with her own or the celebrity scandals hitting the front page of the newspapers of her day, be it the Wentworth/Vernon family dispute over ownership of a castle (echoed in Lady Susan), the doomed romances of Lady Mary Anne Dashwood (reimagined in Sense and Sensibility), or the death of the name of the generous Croft family (gently alluded to in Persuasion). Indeed, given Barchas’ wide survey of Austen’s Regency context throughout the book, I suspect there is something here for every Austen fan, whether scholar or simply voracious reader. Those underwhelmed by the tame chapter on the celebrated landscaper, Mr. Evelyn, may be delighted by the shocking chapter on the rather perverse real-life Dashwoods of West Wycombe and the pious Catholic Ferrers family with which they are juxtaposed.

My own two favorite chapters were those that examined Northanger Abbey. In the first, Barchas examines Austen’s use of the surname “Allen” for the guardians of the heroine. For “Ralph Allen, postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul, and builder of Prior Park, with its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath’s most famous historical personage” (57). While this may seem like a mere bit of trivia, it becomes key to the novel’s irony if one buys into Barchas’ argument that much of General Tilney’s excitement over Catherine and her prospective wealth comes from the association of Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Fullerton with the celebrated Allens of Bath (59). Indeed, Barchas shows that the scene in which Catherine rides out with John Thorpe revolves around the real Mr. Allen, for the change in destination from Landsdown Hill to Claverton Down would have, in real-life, led “them straight to the gates of [Ralph Allen’s] Prior Park”, and believing so “It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money” (67-68).

In the second chapter on Northanger Abbey, Barchas moves on to explore how Catherine’s  perceived dangers at the Tilney estate are far from being mere farce. After all, there was a real castle the same distance from Bath built from the ruins of a former Catholic abbey that had its history of unhappy marriages and murdered spouses. Indeed, “Given the popularity of Farleigh Hungerford Castle as a tourist site near Bath, Austen likely visited the ruined castle in person” (94). Even Austen’s mention of modern stoves may be a dark reference to the stoves at Farleigh Castle that were used to cover up a murder (101). Thus, while readers may want to scold Catherine right along with Henry for some of her wild conjectures, the joke is actually supposed to be on Henry, for true knowledge of English history makes it very clear that the kind of diabolic behavior Catherine imagines  happened at Northanger Abbey was no more foreign to Protestant  England (as Henry argues it was) than it was to Catholic Spain or France or Italy (103).  These details  serve to support Barchas’ theory that “Rather than a botched fusion of disparate styles, Northanger Abbey, is a one-two punch at the use of history, near and far, in the modern novel” (93-94). In this way, she does much to redeem the novel’s underrated sophistication.

Unfortunately, despite Barchas’ impressive scholarship and excellent writing style, I found myself asking that nagging question at the book’s end: So what? The people and places she mentions, though important in Georgian England and of interest to Austen, have mostly been forgotten by popular history, and for good reason. To argue otherwise would be like our expecting in another two-hundred years that people will care who Honey Boo Boo or Donald Trump were, or that they will be enthralled by the insipid family scandals of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. On the contrary, the best a tabloid tidbit is worth is its five minutes of fame. Accordingly, much of the facts underlying Austen’s works that Barchas brings to light, whether the Wikipedia-worthy items or the “juicier” bits about murders and sex clubs, are doomed to be much less impressive than Austen’s artistic use of them. But then Barchas might not argue with me on that. After all, she only sought to illustrate that there was something tangible beneath what I might otherwise have assumed was pure creative genius. And that she did.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas
Johns Hopkins University Press (2012)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1421406404

© 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo – A Review

The Marriage of Faith Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP.

“What I want to examine in this study is how the poet Wordsworth and the novelist Austen represent a marriage of interests, an economy of literary sympathies, and a shared thematic melody that plays across their often-disparate works” (Dabundo, 9).

Laura Dabundo joins a number of scholars who have begun to show great interest in examining the works of Jane Austen in light of her Christian faith. One thinks of Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (2011), Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen (2004), Michael Giffin’s Jane Austen and Religion (2002), and Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy (1993), not to mention more devotional and reflective works like Steffany Woolsey’s A Jane Austen Devotional(2012) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education (2012). It seems the trendy intellectual bias against discussing religion is giving way to a greater emphasis on appreciating the complete context of beloved and respected authors like Austen. This is particularly important in Austen’s case because, as Dabundo states from the very start: “The deeply rooted significance of church and faith creates the rich earth out of which characters develop, her plots blossom, and her themes flower. It was her reality; it is the reality of her art” (1). To ignore Austen’s Anglican faith and spirituality, therefore, is to only half-read her novels and so to potentially mistake her intention entirely.

Given the many works listed above and the many others not mentioned, Dabundo has to create a niche for her discussion of Austen’s Christian faith. For this, she incorporates a comparison with William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet and contemporary of Austen. But what do these two literary giants have in common? Simply put, a faith in Anglican Christianity as the saving “glue” of British society, for both believed that in Anglicanism the British people found the harmonious marriage of nationalism and Christian morals—a marriage that gave birth to the ideal community. Indeed, this community is not only the source of obligation (duty to others), but also the deeper motivation for the individual’s being (inspiration) (64). Dabundo unpacks this interesting claim over several chapters, but she does so by examining the two artists’ works separately. While I understand her reasons for doing so, I found the four Wordsworth chapters to be of less interest to me than the three Austen chapters, mainly due to my own unfamiliarity with the poetry being discussed and my greater interest in the novels. As such, I will restrict my comments to the book’s latter chapters, perhaps to the chagrin of the author and Wordsworth devotees.

Happily, the chapters on Austen were superb and a delight to read. The first of those chapters, bearing the provocative title of “The Devil and Jane Austen: Elizabeth Bennet’s Temptation in the Wilderness”, compares the famous clash between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. While this clash is certainly famous, the comparison to Jesus helps underscore the fact that Elizabeth “…has been isolated, tested, and shown to be resolute, deserving, and true” (94). There is a spiritual depth to Dabundo’s analysis which is refreshing and enlightening, especially as regards her claim “…everyone’s favorite heroine is also finally one of the most morally upright, a true daughter of the church” (97). Who? Playful, sassy Elizabeth Bennet? Comparable to long-suffering Elinor Dashwood or contemplative Fanny Price? Dabundo has me revisiting a character I thought I knew so well—the sign, of course, of a good book.

The next Austen chapter, “‘The Redemption of the World’: The Rhetoric of Jane Austen’s Prayers”, gives a thorough examination of the three extant prayers that Austen composed for family vesper services at home. As others have done, Dabundo notes that there is evidence that Jane Austen regularly participated in public and private liturgies, that receiving Eucharist was important to her spirituality, and that she held rather staunchly to the tolerant, established brand of Georgian Anglicanism dominant at that time (101). Dabundo also notes similarities between Austen’s prayers and the language of the Book of Common Prayer, indicating not merely that she was familiar with that text, but that she had imbibed its central characteristics and accepted its vision of the faith (109). What I found most interesting about this chapter however, was the claim that “The rhetorical purpose of the prayer indicates that it is their world that is to be redeemed, following the sacrifice of Christ and realized through the reformed examples and good works of Elinor Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, and their mates, inspired and emulating Christ’s exemplum” (99-100). It is so easy to read the novels as fairy tale, happily-ever-after comedies. Dabundo invites us to see a certain heroic virtue playing out in the lives of these women—an interpretation that transforms familiar scenes like the clash between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine mentioned earlier—into the very types of scenes in regular life in which lay Christians are called upon to make moral decisions that ultimately prove their saintliness. Dabundo’s vision here is not only the key hermeneutic for understanding the religiosity of the novels, but the spiritual depth of Austen herself, whose Christian struggles were not fought in the monastery or in a public ministry, but day-by-day in the context of home-life amongst family and friends.

In “The City of Sisterly Love in Jane Austen”, Dabundo’s focus on community comes full circle as she examines the novels through the lens of sisterhood. She writes, “In short, within the compass of sisterhood often lurk the specters of the same sorts of social conflicts writ larger in the contexts and contests of the novels themselves. The families, in other words, may mirror through their daughters the issues that these novels seek to resolve…The progress of the novels, then, is toward the achievement of a community of sisterly affection” (113). She goes on to discuss some of the fascinating groupings of sisters found in Austen’s canon: The Bennet sisters in contrast to the Bingley sisters, the Dashwoods versus the Steeles, surrogate sisters in Emma and Northanger Abbey, and broken sororities in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. A community of sisters is so important to Austen, she argues, because it provides “an enclave of strength against the vagaries of fate and the challenges and vexations of life” (126). In other words, where there is a Christian sister on hand, the heroine’s own moral compass remains true. Undoubtedly, Austen learned this lesson first-hand living so closely with only sister Cassandra.

Dabundo’s final point is that there is more to marriage than what meets the eye in both Austen and Wordsworth’s visions. For both, Christian marriage is a metaphor that combines the earthly goal of building a righteous community and the heavenly goal of keeping one’s hopes set on the next life with God. Christianity’s central concern of redeeming the world finds its undimmed light shining out from these literary depictions of Christian marriages. In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world” (133). In this Dabundo finds what Austen and Wordsworth both must have understood to have been the merit of Anglican Christianity: its moral thrust to transform the world through the establishment of communities of discerning, conscientious Christians.

While I did not savor every minute of my reading of this book, namely its chapters on Wordsworth, I hope it is clear that I found plenty to enjoy here. I only wish Dabundo had included more commentary on the novels and was better able to integrate her thoughts on Wordsworth with those on Austen, as the book felt like two separate projects put together under an umbrella theme of community. I also regret that she neglected works like Lady Susan and the fragments of “The Watsons” and “Sanditon”, as they could have further illustrated some of her points about moral struggle, community, and sisterhood. In the end, however, this is the kind of work that has an impact on my thinking long after I have returned it to the shelf, as it invites me to revisit these favorite novels and to find in them an earnestness and depth I sometimes, like a novice, underestimate.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen , by Laura Dabundo
Mercer University Press (2012)
Hardcover (152) pages
ISBN: 978-0881462821

Br. Paul Byrd, OP, is a solemnly professed Dominican friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great (Chicago, USA). He currently teaches theology at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL, and studies creative writing and secondary education at DePaul University in Chicago. He earned his M.A. at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, MO.

© 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

A Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fischer – A Review & Giveaway!

A Charles Dickens Devotional, by Jean Fischer (2012)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

Hidden like gems among the pages of [Dickens’] novels are numerous religious images and biblical references: in Great Expectations, Pip praying for the Lord to be merciful to Abel Magwitch, a sinner and formidable criminal; in Bleak House, the image of Christ ‘stooped down, writing with his finger in the dust when they brought the sinful woman to him’; in Little Dorrit, adoration of wealth described as ‘the camel in the needle’s eye, (introduction).

As if A Jane Austen Devotional were not enough, fans of 19th century British Christian piety have a chance to sit and meditate on some of the most memorable and beloved stories of English literature with Jean Fischer’s A Charles Dickens Devotional, a collection of over one hundred vivid and engaging passages from nearly every fictional tale Dickens composed, including the ever popular David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations along with the important, but perhaps lesser read masterpieces Bleak House, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit. And just as with the Austen devotional, each Dickens passage is paired with a short reflection and scripture quote meant to inspire meditation on a particular moral principle or virtue.

As Fischer writes, “[Dickens] was recognized as a nineteenth-century advocate for the poor and the oppressed,” (210)—the result, of course, of Dickens’ own experiences of poverty and child labor. Indeed, he often supported the underdogs of society in his stories—children, women, the poor—and exposed the structures of society that oppressed the weak and allowed the greedy to exploit others even as they maintained a “Christian” front. Like Jane Austen before him, Dickens knew the power of the pen in exposing hypocrisy and upholding the virtuous. Through a keen observation of human nature—the good and the bad—and through his excellent descriptions, Dickens brings to life characters that are themselves parables; none more so, perhaps, than Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser turned saint and hero of A Christmas Carol.

One of my favorite chapters in this devotional takes its passage from Dickens’ last and unfinished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Outside the New Testament, I do not think I have ever read a more scathing description of false philanthropy. How it cuts its subject to the quick and thus, as Fischer points out, challenges the reader to search his or her own conscience. Unfortunately, not all the meditations are equally strong, and I found one in particular that I thought was rather dangerous. In the chapter “Bad Company,” Fischer writes in her meditation “In this world, every day, we come in contact with both Christians and non-Christians. God does not forbid this, but rather He desires that we not get too close to unbelievers and risk being pulled into the enemy’s snare,” (77). I understand the best possible interpretation of that statement, but I still found it overly simplistic and unhelpful, especially in a time when it is becoming ever more important for Christians to dialogue with each other and non-Christians.

That said, this is a devotional, not a theological work, and so readers are expected to bring their own faith with them, using what they find in the book, if they can, and leaving what is unhelpful and uninspiring. If you are afraid that you will be lost in a sea of unfamiliar characters and plots, don’t be; Fischer’s book is designed for the Dickens expert and the lay reader alike. The Dickens framework is merely meant to spark contemplation. If it sparks your literary interest and leads you to read the novels, as well, so much the better. I am sure that fans of Austen and Dickens, will find much to enjoy in this helpful little book, so I give it four stars.

4 out of 5 Stars

A Grand Giveaway of A Charles Dickens Devotional

Publisher Thomas Nelson, Inc. has generously offered a giveaway contest of three copies of A Charles Dickens Devotional. To enter a chance to win one copy, leave a comment stating which quotes from Charles Dickens you think are inspiring, or which of  Charles Dickens’ characters would greatly benefit from this devotional, and why by 11:59pm PT, Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, February 23, 2012. Shipment to the US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

A Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fischer
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2012)
Hardcover (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1400319541
NOOK: ISBN: 978-1400319725
Kindle: ASIN: B005ENBBUQ

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He is in the writing and publishing graduate program at DePaul University. He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

A Jane Austen Devotional, by Steffany Woolsey – A Review & Giveaway!

A Jane Austen Devotional, by Steffany Woolsey (2012)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

This book is crafted with the hope that readers would take the opportunity to get lost in the world of Jane Austen—a place where we can all pause in solitude, as though we’ve just finished a stroll in the garden with Jane and are now sitting down with her to tea, reflecting on important life lessons and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Through excerpts from her work, short devotions, and Scripture, we hope this book will bring you moments of peace while you allow God’s word to shape your own character, (introduction).

Jane Austen, Virgin and Doctor of the Church? One might look forward to the Anglican Communion adding Blessed Jane to its calendar of saints with the publication of Steffany Woolsey’s A Jane Austen Devotional (a measure this Catholic would whole-heartedly support). When Laurel Ann first told me she was sending me this book, I was off-the-charts thrilled. The title alone was enough to evoke in me a childlike eagerness to hold the book in my hands and celebrate that such a thing existed. Why this near-absurd ebullience? Well, my particular area of Austen studies focuses on Jane Austen’s religious context and the religiosity of her novels, thus a book that purposefully examines her stories in a Christian light was sure to interest me. One that does so as a devotional—a book designed as an aid to the reader’s spiritual contemplation—promised to take things to a higher, more personal level.

With over one hundred meditation reflections, paired with favorite snippets from the novels we love so well, along with corresponding scripture passages, this devotional is sure to please Austen fans of faith. Subjects covered vary widely, but may be categorized by Austen’s common religious themes: the rewards of virtuous living, the ugliness of vicious behavior, and the duty owed to one’s family, neighbors, and society. Chapter titles give you further clues into themes: “Being Generous,” “Spiritual Bankruptcy,” “Respecting One Another,” “Flirting with Sin,” and so on. By combining scenes from Austen and scenes from Jewish and Christian scriptures, the author builds the foundation for the little morals she offers or reflection questions she poses at the end of each two-page chapter. In doing so, Woolsey helps readers to do what Austen always intended them to do: to use her characters—the good and the bad—to critically examine their own behavior. Are we more like Mary Crawford or Fanny Price? Mr. Wickham or Mr. Darcy?

One reflection I particularly liked was entitled “Following the Golden Rule.” This chapter held up the example of Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice for the reader’s consideration, reminding him or her of Jane’s propensity to see the good in everyone, and her avoidance of malicious speech. As Woolsey writes, “Jane lives out this truth [the Golden Rule given by Jesus] by employing a simple philosophy: if we want to be loved, we have to give love. Likewise, if we want meaningful relationships, we need to treat others with respect and esteem. Forgiveness, kindness, generosity—in all these areas, we must lead without expectation of reciprocity,” (21). The concluding reflection questions that then follow are deep, in their own way, helping the reader to really sit and delve into the true motivations for his or her behavior and interaction with others.

A Jane Austen Devotional is a spiritual tool, not merely a gimmicky Austen collectable. If used once a day (as devotionals usually are), this book can slowly help a spiritual seeker to develop or strengthen his or her practice of reflection and contemplation, using as a starting point Austen’s very practical Anglican Christianity. In this way, it’s not a book you sit down and read through in a weekend, but one you keep around all year long, on your nightstand with your Bible, at your desk at work, in your glove compartment, or in your purse.

I give this book 5 Stars, and highly recommend it.

A Grand Giveaway of A Jane Austen Devotional

The publisher Thomas Nelson, Inc. has generously offered a giveaway contest of three copies of A Jane Austen Devotional. To enter a chance to win one copy, leave a comment stating which quotes from Jane Austen you think are inspiring, or which of which of Jane Austen’s characters would greatly benefit from this devotional and why by 11:59pm PT, Wednesday, January 18, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, January 19, 2012. Shipment to the US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

A Jane Austen Devotional, by Steffany Woolsey
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2012)
Hardcover (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1400319534

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He is in the writing and publishing graduate program at DePaul University. He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose