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. Continue reading

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Belle by Paula Byrne 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

Commissioned by the producers of the new movie Belle, acclaimed biographer Paula Byrne aims to reveal the true story behind the main characters in the movie: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave, and her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is both a companion volume to the popular movie and a time capsule into the turbulent abolition movement in the late eighteenth-century England.

Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, screenwriter Misan Sagay has written a compelling story based on facts she first learned of while visiting the 2007, Slavery and Justice Exhibition. Dido and Elizabeth were Lord Mansfield’s wards and raised together at Caen Wood House, now know as  Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath near London. While the screenplay is based on actual facts, it also incorporates a fictional narrative worthy of a seventh Jane Austen novel. In contrast, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is an historical account of the people and times and not a novelization of the movie. Continue reading

Shamela (Naxos AudioBooks) , by Henry Fielding, read by Clare Corbett  – A Review

Shamela, by Henry Fielding Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“In my last [letter] I left off at our sitting down to Supper on our Wedding Night, where I behaved with as much Bashfulness as the purest Virgin in the World could have done. The most difficult Task for me was to blush; however, by holding my Breath, and squeezing my Cheeks with my Handkerchief, I did pretty well” (297).

Reading Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded, as I recounted in my previous review of it, is not for the faint of heart; but I am happy to say that it was all made worthwhile just this past week as I listened to a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Henry Fielding’s masterful parody fittingly entitled Shamela. Many know Fielding for Tom Jones, but his satirical powers are at full and outrageous height in Shamela. In a quarter of the number of pages found in the original story, Fielding highlights and lampoons all of Richardson’s characteristic tropes, transforming Miss Pamela Andrews from a paragon of female virtue into an archetypical scheming hussy. The great irony is that, as shamefully vicious as Shamela maybe, she is a great deal more fun to listen to than her saintly prototype. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey – A Review

Confessions of Marie Antoinette, by Juliet Grey 2013 From the desk of Lauren Puzier:

In 1789, Marie Antoinette was a thirty-three year old queen, a wife and a mother.  One day in October she took her last walk through the Trianon gardens, her peaceful respite from the demands of palace life, fully unaware that for the next five years she would ride the waves of one of the most moving revolutions in modern history.  Author Juliet Grey invites readers to join Marie Antoinette on a sympathetic journey through this period, in her third fictional narrative of the young queen’s life.  Grey offers a detailed glimpse into Marie Antoinette’s own thoughts as she experiences events and situations, interacts with family and politicians, and tries to understand what is happening to the world around her.

“…I sink to my knees in a deep court curtsy, inclining my head in a show of profound humility. The roar diminishes to a murmur. And when I rise, I lay my arms across my bosom and raise my eyes heavenwards, offering a prayer to God to spare my husband and children…” p. 37

Confessions of Marie Antoinette is set in Versailles, The Tuileries Palace, The Temple and finally, the Conciergie. The royal family of France is moved along from one new home to the next and forced to manage their family life in unthinkable circumstances.  Well researched, Grey provides plenty of detail about main events of the period to create a sense of chaos and reality.  Life was hard outside of Versailles; politicians were serious and mobs were a very dangerous reality.  There was not a week that would go by during this time when a new scandal, trial or story was published fueling the hostility towards the queen and aristocracy.

Peppered with hope, the story is full of attempts and plots presented to save the monarch.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette make seemingly logical decisions regarding all their actions.  Louis’ main concern is the safety of his people and Antoinette’s is for her two young children’s.  The informed reader (or anyone who is familiar with the history here) may feel a bit uncomfortable knowing what these actions will lead to and how they appear to be folly rather than sound judgment.

“At his age, while he plays he should be singing the nursery rhyme my friend the Duchess of Devonshire taught him…Instead, he dreams of another desperate flight to safety.” p. 324

Grey’s Antoinette is heartbreaking.  She spends much of the book seeking out friends, trying to find any friendly face that can show her some kindness.  Limited to her own perspective, she evokes our compassion.  I found myself dabbing my eyes while sitting in Whole Foods right around chapter twenty-five (you will know when you get there…)

Through all the losses, husband and wife strive to keep their children safe by maintaining a somewhat normal daily life. They continue their education and give them all the love they can.  Perhaps a more apt title for this novel would be Realizations of Marie Antoinette, because she is not truly confessing anything, but she is learning much, and realizing a lot about her past, present and future.

Alfred Elmore, The Tuileries, June 20, 1792. 1860, oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise

Alfred Elmore, “The Tuileries, June 20, 1792.” 1860,

oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise.

Although Confessions is the third novel in a trilogy about Antoinette, I found it read as a stand-alone story. I have not read the earlier books, although now I am curious to see how Grey’s Antoinette grew as a character over the series.  I have a feeling the first two novels are full of the 18th century court life and etiquette we miss out on in Confessions, so you may want to start there.  Some readers might find the first person present-tense narrative strange if you have not read the previous books.  I found myself struggle a little to connect with Marie Antoinette through the first chapter. However, the author succeeds in giving a voice to this historical figure; she writes with clear passion for the subject and the story moves so fast you fall right into it.

A particularly strong scene is the storming of the Tuileries Palace.  A mob of citizens breaks into the palace seeking out the king and queen. Without time to join each other or come up with a plan, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are each forced to face the mob on their own. They are caught in separate rooms with only their courage to pull them through. With a table separating mother and children from the mob, Grey describes this frightening scene beautifully, full of emotion and descriptive detail.

Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.” Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise

Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.”

Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise.

 “I glance down at my trembling hands. ‘God Himself has forsaken me,’ I murmur in reply. ‘I no longer dare to pray.’” p. 334

You may wonder what the point is of reading a book when you already know the ending. I admit I thought this too as I started the book. In a moment of self-amusement I remembered the opening credits of HBO’s The Tudors. “You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.Confessions of Marie Antoinette gives us an alternative and deeper look at this fascinating woman, and the opportunity to walk in her shoes through the French Revolution.

4 out of 5 Stars

Lauren Puzier is an art historian specializing in late 18th century French aristocracy.  Visit her at her blog Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century.

Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey
Ballantine Books (2013)
Trade paperback (441) pages
ISBN 978-0345523907

Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2013; Text Lauren Puzier © 2013, Austenprose.com

Edmund Persuader: A Romance, by Stuart Shotwell – A Review

Edmund Persuader From the desk of Jeffrey Ward

Would Jane Austen love reading this book today? She admired Sir Walter Scott, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth but what about this epic regency romantic adventure encompassing some 1,500 pages? Within its sweeping span are familiar elements of the gothic in her Northanger Abbey, the ironic humor in Emma, overcoming class barriers in Pride and Prejudice, the romantic treacheries of Mansfield Park, the familial loyalty of Sense and Sensibility, and the steadfast endurance of love in Persuasion. Yes, dear Jane, I think you would!

The “persuader” is larger-than-life hero Edmund Percy who fits the description because he is aptly tall, strong, and handsome. But what elevates him to heroic status is his unique melding of courage, insightful intellect, persuasiveness, humility, and a loving generous heart. The youngest son of a landed gentleman, he has dedicated himself to the clergy.

It is 1810 and his father asks him to temporarily suspend his clerical studies and sail to Antigua to rescue his failing sugar plantation. There, he encounters exhaustive work and intolerable slavery conditions, but ultimately Janetta, the exotically beautiful mulatto daughter of a cruel neighboring slave master. Wild and unpredictable, the slaves fear her bewitching power. Edmund falls madly in love and a torrid erotic relationship ensues, but he is torn by guilt and lost virtue. The supernatural scene of Edmund being confronted by Janetta over a chilling vision only she can see but neither can understand is the story’s ultimate mystery:

“No,” she said bitterly. “I see this woman – I see this dark queen; and you will love her more than you ever loved me.” He laughed and tried to take her in his arms, but she would not let him; she evaded his embrace and slipped away from him. “You will love her more than me! “she said angrily. “Who is this woman? Janetta!” he said soothingly. “Do not be silly, I know no queen; nor is it likely I ever shall. You are the one I love…” p. 307

Only Janetta is aware of the hopelessness of their love and she accurately predicts their ultimate separation. At the loss of his first love, heart-broken Edmund returns to England. On that return voyage he becomes a notable English hero as he prevents an American privateer from boarding and capturing the ship he is on. This action proves pivotal to his future.

Edmund confesses his sins to his mentor and is still encouraged to take up the clergy. Seeking a living, he travels to Hampshire to visit Andromeda, his beloved aunt and mother-figure. She describes the most noble, wealthy, and powerful family in the area—the Esquith De Foyes—and strongly warns him to avoid at all costs their untouchable daughter Mariah and her companion, the lovely but enigmatic Elizabeth Brownton, who manifests an autism-spectrum syndrome. Yet, at a ball the inevitable happens as he meets the entire family. Mariah is regal, impossibly beautiful, and brilliant of mind, and like Edmund, gifted with a supremely compassionate heart. Edmund also meets Mariah’s brother and family heir Tarquin Esquith De Foye. Reckless, competitive, and fiercely protective, “Tark” and Edmund become closer than brothers. The family has learned of Edmund’s high-sea heroics and motions are put into place to award him a living as temporary rector in their village church.

Mariah’s compassion and Edmund’s exceptionally persuasive gifts improve the lives of everyone within their sphere of influence, and they become more than just a friendly partnership. Yet, in spite of their growing love for each other, Edmund cannot persuade Mariah to marry him and is unaware that she is none other than the prophesied “dark queen!” Her own deeply-hidden secret prevents her marriage and will eventually turn deadly enough to threaten her entire family if Edmund fails in his quest to uncover it.

With a half-million words to work with, all of the characters are so totally and fully fleshed out that I found myself weeping over their misfortunes, laughing with their moments of merriment, and hoping beyond hope for their happy future. Yes, there are places in the story that may plod for some readers, such as an entire chapter describing a fox hunt, the intricacies of chess games, and side-plots drawn out in the minutest detail. Yet, soaring above all and not-to-be-missed is what I consider to be the most magnificent unconsummated love story I’ve read since Jane Eyre. In attempting to compare the romantic grandeur and Gothic underpinnings of Edmund Persuader, only Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece comes to mind. Don’t be intimidated by its length. The determined reader will seldom encounter a more soul-satisfying reward for the effort.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Edmund Persuader: A Romance, by Stuart Shotwell
Mermaid Press of Maine (2009)
Trade paperback (1555) pages
ISBN: 978-0984103218

© 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose