Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, by Deirdre Le Faye – A Review       

Jane Austen's Country Life, by Deirdre Le Faye (2014 )From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Ask any fan of Jane Austen what they love about her works and they can readily describe cherished characters, pithy quotes, and probably several screen adaptations that are especially close to their hearts. But what about what Austen loved? Jane’s niece Anna Lefroy remembered her aunt as a lover of the outdoors and natural scenery. Her letters are filled with walks in all kinds of weather and you don’t have to search her novels long to find numerous scenes that take place not in a stuffy drawing room, but on a tree-lined path or windswept hill. Jane Austen’s Country Life focuses on the Hampshire countryside where she spent three-quarters of her life:

“This first-hand knowledge of country life underpins her writing and gives the time-frame against which she constructs her plots; she was not only a clergyman’s daughter, but a farmer’s daughter as well…” (8)

The first chapter “Hampshire” begins with an overview of the county, explaining the then-controversial process of enclosure that deprived the rural poor of the use of common land. Enclosure features in three Austen novels: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma. Descriptions and illustrations of the villages of Steventon and Deane follow, as well as those of nearby Oakley and Ashe. The larger towns of Overton, Basingstoke and Odiham provided the Austen family with well-stocked market places for shopping and assembly balls for dancing and socializing. While Le Faye includes several lovely antique maps of Hampshire, I longed for a simple map showing the villages and towns in relation to one another at this point in the book.

“Life at Steventon Rectory” describes the family’s domestic routines, the love of amateur theatricals, and Austen’s early comic works now known as The Juvenelia. Young Jane and her sister also spent a short time away from Steventon at a girls’ boarding school in Reading. Le Faye suggests that as the academic regime was “very casual” and the girls were allowed to spend their afternoons as they pleased, this may have been when Jane immersed herself in the romantic popular novels that she later parodied in Northanger Abbey.

My favorite chapter “A Year in the Countryside” charts the seasons from January through December. Beginning with Plough Monday in early January when the Steventon farming community would have marked the start of the English agricultural year and finishing with the twelve days of Christmas and the New Year, Le Faye seamlessly weaves events from the agricultural calendar with Austen’s life, as well as the action in her novels. Highlights from the year include sheep shearing in June, haymaking in July, and harvesting crops from August to October. Seasonal rhythms dictate the lives of Austen’s characters as much as her family and neighbors:

“No fewer than four of Jane’s novels start their main action in September: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. This is not accidental, but tacitly acknowledges that the slight pause after the hectic and anxious time of harvesting gave the opportunity for both farmers and gentry to plan for agricultural and social life respectively.” (105)

Continuing with “The Hardships and Pleasures of Rural Life” and “Crops, Livestock and Pleasure-Grounds” Le Faye’s text and choice of illustrations create a vivid and lively picture of English rural life in Jane Austen’s time. Just as the reader is feeling at home in Hampshire, and agreeing with Austen that “there is nothing like staying at home, for real  comfort,” an abrupt removal to Bath described in the chapter titled “Urban Interlude” turns Austen’s world on its head. While Austen seemed to dislike Bath as much as her heroine Anne Elliot, the city’s relative proximity to a number of seaside resorts made possible some of her most beloved visits to the English coast. Austen uncharacteristically describes the scenery of Lyme and the surrounding countryside in Persuasion:

“…the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” (226)

Concluding with “Life at Godmersham and Chawton” Le Faye describes how Mrs. Austen and her daughters settled back into a comfortable country life when Edward Austen Knight offered them a rent-free cottage in Chawton. The author also notes a subtle shift in Austen’s novels from this time. Their author was no longer a farmer’s daughter, but the squire’s sister:

“…the novels of her maturity—Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion—are written much more from the point of view of that rank of society: the domestic lives of the men who have the responsibility of managing large estates and leading their local communities.” (253)

Regardless of her choice of subject matter, a return to country life must have appealed to Austen. With Deidre Le Faye as our knowledgeable guide, we can re-visit this vanished rural landscape and gain a greater appreciation of Jane’s delight in natural scenery. We love Austen’s characters and stories, but may not realize how her realistic depiction of time and place contributes to our sense of her works, unless we explore Jane Austen’s Country Life.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars

Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, by Deirdre Le Faye
Francis Lincoln Ltd., (2014)
Hardcover (256) pages
ISBN: 978-0711231580

Cover image courtesy of Francis Lincoln Ltd., © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life, by Hollie Keith and Jennifer Adams – A Review

So Jane Crafts and Recipes from a Jane Austen Inspired Life, by Hollie Keith and Jennifer Adams (2014)From the desk of Lisa Galek:

If you’re like most Janeites, it’s never enough just to read Austen’s novels. You want to live in them, too. That means decorating your house with Austenesque items, baking Regency era goodies, and throwing fabulous book-based soirees. So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life by Jennifer Adams and Hollie Keith is the perfect book for bringing your Austen obsession to life in your very own home.

So Jane is an extensive collection of recipes and craft projects inspired by the works and life of Jane Austen. Organized into six chapters—one for each of Austen’s major novels—the book is filled with well over 100 pages of ideas for Austenesque décor, gifts, crafts, and entertaining. There’s Breakfast in Bath (Northanger Abbey), Tea with the Middletons (Sense and Sensibility), Dinner at the Great House (Persuasion), Emma’s Picnic (Emma), A Rustic Dinner (Mansfield Park), and Netherfield Ball (Pride and Prejudice). Each chapter features a full menu and six adorable craft projects inspired by that novel and its characters.

This book is billed as a way to “help you bring all things Austen into your home in a contemporary way” and it completely succeeds. With pages and pages of gorgeous full-color photographs that really bring to life the look and taste of each section, you’ll find tons of Austenesque ideas that you’ll be dying to create. The instructions and steps are very easy to follow. The layout of the book is simple, too—just choose an entire menu or book theme and go from there. If you want to get a little more creative, you can branch out and mix and match ideas from different sections or adjust the projects and recipes for your skill level. The ideas are so creative and inspirational that the possibilities are endless.

Of course, if you’re looking for items and foods that are totally authentic to Regency England this book doesn’t promise that. This is truly Jane-inspired with a modern twist. The authors have actually done a great job using the Regency era as a jumping off point while picking colors, materials, and ingredients that are more appealing to our contemporary tastes. For example, the recipe for Hot Spiced Cocoa notes that early 19th century cocoa would have been flavored with chilies, which not many modern folks would enjoy. With a slight adjustment in flavors, you have a treat that your guests will love rather than something authentic that doesn’t taste as delicious.

The author also does a really nice job of including ideas and instructions for every skill level. If you’re not handy with a sewing machine, a few of the craft projects will be off limits. I also thought the Honey-Lemon Teaspoons looked delicious, but the fact that I had to use a candy thermometer scared me off. Other recipes would be no problem at all even for a beginner cook. As far as the craft projects go, some of them could take days or weeks to complete (like the large blanket with silhouettes of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy on it), while others (such as the paper dolls or sandwich wrappers) could be ready to go in a few minutes. It’s a variety, but there really is something for everyone.

If you’re looking for ideas for an Austen-inspired event, a handmade gift for a fellow Janeite, or just some fun Regency-ish recipes, you will definitely enjoy So Jane. Even if you never make a single craft or recipe from the book (and they’re so delightful, I’m sure you’ll want to) the book is worth it just for the creativity and breadth of its ideas. I enjoyed it so much that I started inventing reasons to recreate the picnic on Box Hill or the ball at Netherfield at my house. I’m sure my family won’t mind at all!

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars 

So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life, by Hollie Keith and Jennifer Adams
Gibbs Smith (2014)
Paperback (144) pages
ISBN: 978-1423633235

Additional Reviews: 

Cover image courtesy of Gibbs Smith © 2014; text Lisa Galek © 2014, Austenprose.com 

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, by Melanie Kerr – A Review

Follies Past, A Pride and Prejudice Prequel, by Melanie Kerr (2013)From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

In Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy wrote that post-proposal, world-altering letter to Elizabeth Bennet, telling her the truth about charming Mr. Wickham’s duplicity, I was as shocked and shaken as she was, but due to the discretion of the characters, readers get just a bare outline of what went on between Wickham and Darcy’s sister Georgiana. What exactly did happen and how did it come about? One can’t help being curious–or at least this one would like details–so when I discovered that Melanie Kerr’s novel Follies Past centers on that event I eagerly began the book, hoping it would be an Austen-worthy story with wit, appealing characters, and maybe even a wedding.

Follies Past has three heroines and opens with none other than Caroline Bingley. She and her brother are on their way to Pemberley, and while this will be her first time meeting Darcy, Caroline is already determined to marry him, even contriving things so their arrival coincides with the flattering light of early evening. By the end of the visit Caroline is sure she is well on the way to an engagement, but back in London she becomes distracted when she falls hard for another man. He has no title or estate, but he’s disarmingly handsome, they share a wicked wit, and he’s focused on her in a way she realizes Darcy never has. The power of their attraction gives her second thoughts about marrying a man she “loves” mainly for his wealth.

True to her P&P characterization, Georgiana is painfully shy and the idea of mingling with London society overwhelms her, so Darcy allows Georgiana’s dearest, slightly older school chum to accompany her on a visit to the city. Clare, the story’s third heroine, is principled, sweet, genteelly determined, and sometimes conflicted. She loves reading novels but believing they are bad for the soul she throws all of hers away before the trip, planning to set a good example for Georgiana. Georgiana looks up to Clare and they adore each other, but their situations are very different. While Clare has a highborn grandfather, she is also the daughter of a military man and without much fortune. Unlike Georgiana she has limited marriage prospects and as the book goes on her story becomes prominent.

When the trip to London reunites Georgiana and Wickham, who Georgiana adored as a child, it is Clare who is alarmed by Georgiana’s growing and, Clare thinks, inappropriate attachment. Darcy would set things right but he’s out of town inspecting properties with Bingley. Georgiana becomes distant and secretive so Clare decides she must do something, but what? There is no one around she can trust to help or advise her. Going to London is a wonderful opportunity for Clare, but being strictly brought up she feels distinctly uncomfortable around much of that city’s society, especially Darcy’s black sheep London cousin, the now ailing Lord Ashwell. Darcy has assured Georgiana that the vile rumors circulating about him are just gossip, but might Darcy be blinded by family loyalty? Desperation to protect Georgiana forces prudent Clare to put herself in company she would avoid under any other circumstance.

I found so much to enjoy in Follies Past, including the sympathetic portrayal of Caroline Bingley. She’s the same character we met in P&P, but with more insight into her character I felt moved by her story. Passages describing Caroline falling in love are the most convincing in the book, without being lewd they practically sizzle.

Playing small but important roles in the story is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s taciturn daughter Anne, and what a treat to get to know her–she’s a closet naturalist! Get Anne going about insects and she has lots to say. Anne also retains her P&P persona, but now that author Kerr has her talking we learn she has plans for her life, and isn’t the pawn of her mother that everyone, including Lady Catherine, thinks she is.

Even Wickham gets a touch of tenderness from Kerr. We see him thwarted in love (yes, Wickham in love!) and with his hopes to lead a settled life dashed when Darcy (justifiably) denies him the living. It’s possible to (briefly) feel a little sorry for him.

I felt the foiling of Wickham’s elopement plan happened abruptly, once everyone was in place it resolved in a few paragraphs and Georgiana let it go very easily, but by then Clare has become the heart of the story. The steps Clare took to help rescue Georgiana, and how those actions affect her future bring about a very Austen-worthy happy ending. Follies Past delighted me so much I actually cheered out loud a few times while reading.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars 

Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, by Melanie Kerr
Petticoat Press (2013)
Trade paperback (280) pages
ISBN: 978-0992131029

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of Petticoat Press © 2013; text Jennifer Haggerty © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet, by Marilyn Brant (2014)From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

Why is it that Jane Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, have had so many continuations, sequels, and contemporary versions based off of the originals? It’s not just the fact that her books are classics—after all, you don’t see many contemporary versions of Jane Eyre. Or Dickens. How many modern versions of Oliver Twist have you read lately? Don’t get me wrong—the brooding hero, quiet governess, gothic mystery, and melodrama are characters and themes loved by many fans, but there’s just something about Jane Austen’s wit, happy endings, realistic romance, and down-to-earth heroes and heroines that transcends space and time. Whereas Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist (and countless other classics) can only be updated with difficulty because of their two-dimensional characters and highly improbable circumstances, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion, etc. have complex characters facing realistic issues, and can be updated to virtually any situation, generation, or social class.

In Marilyn Brant’s latest contemporary reimagining, Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet, the story focuses not on Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but rather on the often-overlooked secondary characters in Austen’s original, Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, as they participate in the perfect bet—the bet of true love!

Bingley McNamara has only known one female who hasn’t fallen for his charming front, and he has the current misfortune to be constantly thrown together with her as the Best Man and Maid of Honor at his cousin’s wedding. Ever since his kiss with Jane Henderson at Beth Ann Bennet and Will Darcy’s engagement party, the Maid of Honor’s been giving him the silent treatment. With a hatred of being ignored almost as high as his hatred of being disliked, Bingley sets out to exploit the one chink in her perfect armor—her temper. Everyone else seems taken in by her nice front, but he’s convinced—with teasing, irritation, and of course, betting—that he can draw out her angry side.

Jane hates Bingley McNamara with a passion. He refuses to be serious, always manages to appear calm and in control, and is a complete flirt. Not to mention the fact that he’s the only person who has a problem with her niceness! It’s bad enough that she has to relive their kiss (and the subsequent betrayal she experienced on overhearing the bet he made about her), but she also has to spend the entire wedding and reception with him as well.

Just as the bride and groom drive away and Bingley and Jane breathe sighs of relief that they’ll never have to see each other again, they get recruited to help take care of Charlie, Beth’s son, while the Darcy’s are on their honeymoon. When their hatred turns into friendship and their truce turns into trust, will they both be able to stop hiding behind their masks and admit their growing feelings for each other?

At the end of Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet there is a blurb (media quote) saying that Marilyn Brant is known for her “complex, intelligent” heroines, and while I haven’t read any of her other books, I definitely agree with this for Jane. She was a multifaceted character whose realistic dilemmas and feelings made it very easy to empathize with her. This also applies to Bingley—he was a complicated and imperfect character who had his own issues to work out, which made his strengths all the more endearing.

While based on Austen’s original characters, Brant’s Jane and Bingley have some key differences that may disappoint Jane Austen purists. Bingley is Mr. Darcy’s cousin, and a bachelor playboy who is much more forthright (and has more depth) than Jane Austen’s Mr. Bingley, and Jane is Beth’s best friend–a woman who covers her true emotions by always acting nice, but who has a temperament more like the original Elizabeth Bennet. While these differences (and others) can be seen as a negative, Marilyn Brant added enough of a twist to Jane and Bingley that they stand out as both a tribute to Jane Austen’s originals and an entirely new literary creation.

Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet is a light read—but I don’t say that to trivialize it. This book has emotional depth, and the insight found in its pages both entertains and teaches the reader. But like Jane Austen’s novels, which focus on characters in realistic situations, Perfect Bet doesn’t use melodramatic surprises like an insane woman locked in the attic, or an evil Fagan villain tormenting children. As with the original Pride and Prejudice, it ends happily, and is a touching, funny, romantic, and entirely enjoyable read.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet, by Marilyn Brant
White Soup Press (2014)
Trade paperback (236) pages
ISBN: 978-1500473907

Read our review of Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match

Cover image courtesy of White Soup Press © 2014; text Katie Patchell © 2014, Austenprose.com 

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig 2014 From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

A new Pink Carnation novel is always the highlight of my reading season, though the anticipation for The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla was stifling. How could Lauren Willig’s eleventh addition equal or surpass her previous highly-successful novels seeped in Napoleonic spies, romance and burlesque comedy? Yes, comedy. They say “dying is easy; comedy is hard” and it is so true. There are few authors in the genre who will even attempt it. Willig excels.

One of the main reasons I enjoy the “Pink” series so much (besides the humor) is that they take me back to Regency England, and the characters are SO original. Willig started the series in 2004 with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Each successive novel features a new set of protagonists: a romantic couple thrown together by mystery, espionage and love. After ten novels I have never been disappointed.

Set in 1806 London, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla re-introduces us to the three young Misses from Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Bath, brought together in the seventh novel, The Mischief of the Mistletoe: Miss Sally Fitzhugh, Miss Agnes Wooliston and Miss Lizzy Reid. They are in Town for the Season, chaperoned by Lord and Lady Vaughn whose next door neighbor is reported to be a vampire. Yes, vampires are all the rage in London at the moment due to Lizzy Reid’s step-mother’s best-selling novel The Convent of Orsino. No one is above suspicion, especially aristocrats.

Bored by the soiree in progress, Sally takes up the challenge and enters the creepy, un-kept garden of the purported vampire next-door and immediately meets a tall, dark, pale stranger, Lucien, Duke of Belliston. Eeeek! Curiosity and sparks fly for the enigmatic duke and the adventurous Miss. After some witty repartee, Sally returns to her friends without any loss of blood or ego, determined to learn more about him. Her chance presents itself at the next ball, a coming out party for Lucien’s younger sister, who has been raised by their aunt and uncle at the family estate in England while Lucien escaped to his mother’s family in Louisiana. Their parent’s had died twelves year prior under a cloud of mystery. Was their death by poison an accident or murder? Haunted by scandal and his past, Lucien has returned to England to discover the truth. When Sally and Lucien re-connect at the party a mysterious note calls them to a midnight meeting in the garden only to discover a young woman dead on a marble bench—the blood drained from her throat. Shocked and horrified, Lucien and Sally are quick to notice that this is a staged murder in attempt to implicate Lucien. Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire slayings and uncover a decade-old murder of his parents.

Vampires? Really? I was skeptical. Haven’t vampires been done to death in novels lately? It didn’t take long for me to realize that this plot device was great fun – a way to bridge Gwendolyn Reid’s (nee Miss Gwendolyn Meadows) novel The Convent of Orsino, introduced in in The Passion of the Purple Plumeria and connect Sally Fitzhugh, sister of the famous Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh. Connections and creativity are what Willig is all about as a writer. Her historical research is also Nonpareil. Readers will be wowed by references to Gothic Fiction that Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland was addicted to in Northanger Abbey and all other manner of social context to the era and modern times including Monty Python Flying Circus jokes and Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire Edward Cullen.

What sets this novel apart in the series is its new direction away from its roots: historical romance/spy/comedy/ adventure. There is still all the Willig style of high-burlesque comedy, witty banter and suspenseful adventure, but those dead set on a Napoleonic vs. British spy espionage will be thwarted. Refreshingly, this is a Regency-era mystery with undertones of spy themes. We still have the tepid modern day story of Eloise and Colin popping in to delay the historical action, but her hunky hero Lucien is one of her most swoon-worthy and her spunky heroine Sally is down-right adorable. Vampire plot not-with-standing, I was totally glamoured and entranced by every word.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel, by Lauren Willig
NAL Penguin (2014)
Trade paperback (496) pages
ISBN: 978-0451414731

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of NAL Penguin © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”