Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame – A Review

Havisham A Novel by Ronald Frame 2013 x 200Dear Mr. Frame:

I recently read Havisham, your prequel and retelling of Charles Dickens Great Expectations, one of my favorite Victorian novels. Your choice to expand the back story of minor character Miss Havisham, the most infamous misandry in literary history, was brilliant. Jilted at the altar she was humiliated and heartbroken, living the rest of her days in her tattered white wedding dress in the decaying family mansion, Satis House. Few female characters have left such a chilling impression on me. I was eager to discover your interpretation of how her early life formed her personality and set those tragic events into motion.

Dickens gave you a fabulous character to work with. (spoilers ahead) Born in Kent in the late eighteenth-century, Catherine’s mother died in childbirth leaving her father, a wealthy brewer, to dote upon his only child. Using his money to move her up the social ladder she is educated with aristocrats where she learns about literature, art, languages and the first disappointments of love. In London she meets and is wooed by the charismatic Charles Compeyson. Family secrets surface in the form of her dissipated half-brother Arthur, the child of a hidden marriage of her father to their cook. Her ailing father knows his son has no interest in his prospering business and trains his clever young daughter. After his death, the inevitable clash occurs between the siblings over money and power. Challenged as a young woman running a business in a man’s world, Catherine struggles until Charles reappears charming his way into her service and her heart. About two thirds of the way through the novel the events of Great Expectations surface. Charles abandons her on their wedding day and she sinks into depression.

I knew that the devastating jilting at the altar was coming! We all did. When it happened, I was anticipating a full-blown emotional Armageddon—like Jane Austen’s heroine Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility: bed-ridden crying jags, desperate letter writing to her lover, senseless walking in the rain, near-death illness, and miraculous survival. Some of that happened in Havisham, but not to the degree I anticipated. After all, we knew that Dickens’ Miss Havisham had taken this jilting business far beyond the depths of disappointed hopes that Marianne had plumbed. But why? Why did she choose not to move on—holding on to her anger and rage, becoming bitter and vengeful? It had to be something so startling that it would jar me to my core. I won’t reveal your choices, but when her tepid romance with Charles Compeyson and her reaction to his spurning were not what I expected, I was greatly disappointed. Readers had been waiting 150 years to know the story. Granted it was not Dickens’ narrative, but it could be the next best thing. You had gotten us to this point so admirably that I was inclined to close your book with an angry snap. If I had a white wedding dress, I would be wearing it right now in protest. You have jilted me at the altar of literature.

Do I regret reading your novel? No. Your prose was beautifully crafted and your characterizations entertaining. Would I like to give you some unsolicited advice on being brave enough to take your own narrative over the edge? Yes! After reading numerous Jane Austen-inspired sequels, you can’t play with classic archetypes and then not deliver the goods. While your plot slowly picked up momentum you missed the point. Catherine’s romance with Charles should have been the most compelling relationship in book, yet I was constantly on guard by his questionable behavior and never liked him, let alone loved him. I never understood why she did. That desperate passion between them should have consumed the pages, like Bronte’s Catherine and Heathcliff, making his final choice so shocking, so devastating, so heartbreaking, that we understood why she locked herself away from the world and enacted revenge on Pip through her daughter Estella. So close, yet miles away from the masters of human emotion, Dickens, Bronte and Austen. They would never have made that mistake.

I commend you for your attempt. It is a very tall order to write a prequel of a literary icon. Everyone who has read Great Expectations has their own great expectations for Miss Havisham. Your book exhibits many fine qualities, unfortunately your choices lacked the fire, passion, and emotional depth required to make her psychological tragedy the literary jackpot that we have been waiting for.

3 out of 5 Regency Stars     

Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame
Picador (2013)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-1250037275

Cover image courtesy of Picador (Macmillan Publishing) © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress, © 2014, 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

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace

A Heart for Milton: A Tale from North and South, by Trudy Brasure – A Review

A Heart for Milton, by Trudy Brasure (2011)Review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder

Based on the iconic work of Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, Trudy Brasure’s A Heart For Milton picks up in the middle of the original work, with Margaret, a 19th century unmarried English woman, ready to leave her home soon after the death of her father.  She has finally realized her love for John Thornton, an industrialist and mill owner in their small town of Milton, but fears a relationship between the two will never happen due to her earlier dismissal of him.  In the original tale, they are kept apart, yet in this work, a brave move by Thornton ensures their immediate and happy marriage and settling in Milton.  Brasure then weaves a tale of challenges, twists, and romantic turns that face Margaret and John in their new life together.

When I read Gaskell’s North and South I continually commented to myself about how much I liked the way Gaskell presented both the thoughts of the north and the south of England on the Industrial Revolution and social issues of the time.  The romance took a backseat to the more prevalent storylines of striking mills and labor unions.  I was happy to see Brasure add these differing opinions into A Heart For Milton.  Including these discussions on social issues not only offers the reader insight into what living in 19th century England was like, but it also offers deeper insight into all of the characters in general once one begins to understand the social context of the time.

Brasure’s vision of Thornton was a truly spectacular one.  In the original North and South we know from his interactions with Mrs. Thornton that he is a caring, hardworking man.  From his interactions with Margaret we know him to be a stoic intellectual.  Brasure’s vision of him as a completely besotted husband was wonderful new layer.  This softer side of Thornton, falling in love with Margaret, as well as the beauty of southern England, made the story warming and romantic.  It was wonderful to see the side of him that is wholly mesmerized by his wife.  It was also wonderful to see Margaret not only as a doting wife, but a woman that still stuck to her principles.  Their developing relationship was a worthwhile journey to follow.

The only thing that became a bit repetitive was Thornton and Margaret’s ways of describing each other in their minds.  The adjectives became a bit overused by the end of the novel and I found myself getting agitated.  Other than this, however, I really enjoyed seeing the fleshed out roles of Mr. Bell and Mrs. Thronton.  I was always curious to how Mrs. Thronton would adjust to Margaret being in their lives, considering that she is such a formidable woman.  In all, Brasure’s work was a great fit with the original, dovetailing nicely and giving readers of North and South a great fairytale that they can enjoy for years to come.

4 out of 5 Stars

A Heart for Milton: A Tale from North and South, by Trudy Brasure
CreateSpace (2011)
Trade paperback (398) pages
ISBN: 978-1463683436

Kimberly Denny-Ryder is the owner/moderator of Reflections of a Book Addict, a book blog dedicated to following her journey of reading 100 books a year, while attempting to keep a life! When not reading, Kim can be found volunteering as the co-chair of a 24hr cancer awareness event, as well as an active member of Quinnipiac University’s alumni association.  When not reading or volunteering, Kim can be found at her full-time job working in vehicle funding. She lives with her husband Todd and two cats, Belle and Sebastian, in Connecticut.

© 2012 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

A Crimson Warning (Lady Emily Series #6), by Tasha Alexander – A Review

Crimson Warning, by Alexandra Tudor (2011)Guest review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder

Jane Austen spoiled us.  She wrote novels about amazing women who oftentimes bucked society’s norms.  Nowadays, it’s difficult to find heroines like Elizabeth Bennet that have us rooting for them page after page.  Luckily, author Tasha Alexander decided to gift the world with a tenacious woman Austen herself would be proud of: Lady Emily Hargreaves.  In A Crimson Warning, the sixth novel in the Lady Emily mystery series, we are again thrown into a mystery that seems to have no clear ending.  It is up to Lady Emily’s wit and cunning to save the day and keep the forces of evil at bay for yet another day.

Lady Emily has been busy.  From barely escaping with her life in Constantinople and Normandy, she hopes to finally wind things down and come home to Mayfair and enjoy the normal comforts of being happily married and finally settled.  For a while, she actually accomplishes this.  Lady Emily even gets to join the Women’s Liberal Federation and work towards obtaining the right to vote for women.  Unfortunately, this ideal world is shattered in A Crimson Warning, when Lady Emily learns that an unknown person has been splashing red paint onto the fronts of many of the wealthier homes in London.  These are no ordinary homes, however, as their owners possess secrets that are potentially damaging and are hidden for one reason or another.  Soon enough, all of the upper class in London fear that they too could be the target of this criminal, and that he or she may be involved in more sinister acts than simply painting the front of a home with a red slash.  Can Lady Emily and Colin find this evil individual before it is too late and people start disappearing?  What are the secrets that these wealthy Londoners go to such lengths to protect?

Less than a month ago I had never heard of the Lady Emily series.  Shame on me!  I’ve now read all six novels in the series and am eagerly awaiting Death in the Floating City, the seventh in the series, which is scheduled for release this October.  When I reviewed the first Lady Emily novel, And Only To Deceive, my thoughts on Alexander’s writing was that it was a hybrid between Jane Austen and Agatha Christie.  Six novels later, those feelings remain unchanged.  Alexander is an amazing mystery writer.  I still had no idea whodunit 40 pages from the end.  Sure, I had my guesses regarding the culprit, but her writing is so precise and clean that it is not until the antagonist is finally revealed that you realize all the clues that were left for you to follow.

As I said above, Lady Emily is a woman that Austen herself would be proud of.  She completely disregards what society expects of women.  She refuses to be an idle wife, staying home with nothing to do but plan balls and dinners and make social calls.  Instead, she uses her mind to explore literature, art, and languages, much to the delight of her husband, Colin.  Colin works as an agent for the crown and is fully supportive of her “crimes against society”.  In A Crimson Warning we get to see a more political side of Emily, as she gets involved with the Women’s Liberal Federation.  It’s through all of her side interests (i.e art, literature) that we learn about that time period.  Alexander uses Emily’s “hobbies” to inform us about what was going on back then.  It’s obviously meticulously researched and has oftentimes led me to want to read and research certain time periods further.

I have to say of all six novels I think that A Crimson Warning is my favorite to date.  We really get a sense of Alexander’s witty and playful side here.  Her scavenger hunt through the British Museum and whiskey drinking scene between Emily and her good friend Jeremy were the best parts of the novel in my opinion.  Although we don’t normally see this side of Alexander, I’m really glad that we got to in this novel.  It added an extra touch to an already wonderful novel that I heartily recommend to everyone.  Fast paced and full of wit and terrifying danger, A Crimson Warning (and the entire Lady Emily series) is not one you want to miss.  Add it to your to-read pile as soon as possible, you won’t be disappointed.

5 out of 5 Stars

A Crimson Warning (Lady Emily Series #6), by Tasha Alexander
St. Martin’s Press (2011)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0312661755

Kimberly Denny-Ryderis the owner/moderator of Reflections of a Book Addict, a book blog dedicated to following her journey of reading 100 books a year, while attempting to keep a life! When not reading, Kim can be found volunteering as the co-chair of a 24hr cancer awareness event, as well as an active member of Quinnipiac University’s alumni association.  When not reading or volunteering, Kim can be found at her full-time job working in vehicle funding. She lives with her husband Todd and two cats, Belle and Sebastian, in Connecticut.

© 2007 – 2012 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James – A Review

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James (2009)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

“…She ruffles her readers by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her… what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through… this Miss Austen ignores… if this is heresy – I cannot help it.” Charlotte Bronte in a letter dated 12 April 1850 to William S.Williams on reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

As a staunch fan and defender of anything Jane Austen, this bit of dissidence from one of Charlotte Bronte’s letters left me most peevish and not at all curious to know anything more about said author. And, although I enjoyed Miss Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, very much in fact, I have always found myself a bit prejudiced against Miss Bronte for her slight committed against my dear Jane. In fact, when I met author Syrie James at the Jane Austen Society of America’s Annual General Meeting (JASNA-AGM: code for national Janeite convention) in October 2010 with a stack of her books for her to autograph, she observed that her book, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte was absent. My bibliophile Pride prohibited me from explaining why I could not possibly be interested in reading anything about Miss Bronte, and probably mumbled something incoherent. Nevertheless, recently I was offered a copy The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, and after reminding myself of how I had shamelessly fallen in love with every other work by Syrie James (The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Dracula, My Love and Nocturne,), I convinced myself to get over this unforgiving, taciturn disposition and just read it!

This supposed lost diary opens shortly after Charlotte Bronte receives an unexpected proposal of marriage from her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. As a maiden spinster and an already accomplished authoress, albeit concealed by the nom de plume Currer Bell, she is conflicted in her answer. Through these memoir pages, Bronte ruminates on her budding friendship with Nicholls, her obsession with her married educator in Brussels, her writing, and her beloved relationships with her now deceased siblings.

Unlike Austen, where fans and historians alike must conjecture about Jane Austen’s life and loves by piecing together what few letters were preserved, there is a wealth of meticulous correspondence and writings accessible for research. James herself admits that this novel is based almost entirely on fact. Charlotte Bronte’s life reads like a novel… from the sickness and deaths of her older sisters while they were away at the depressing Clergy Daughter’s School to her romantic attraction to her un-handsome superior in Brussels, (“it fills me with sadness to contemplate that one day I must leave you” p.204), which surely she drew from and dramatized accounts while writing Jane Eyre. I was charmed by her relationship with the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, who apparently unbeknownst to Bronte, had been in-love with her for over seven years. Almost from the first moments of meeting this seemingly disdainful, dogmatic, stoic yet handsome curate, she disliked him – because, interestingly enough, she overheard, or rather misheard a comment he had made – granted at her expense – and for years her wounded pride festered, tainting all her opinions of him. (Shades of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice seem to color Charlotte Bronte’s real life indeed!)

Like Charlotte Bronte’s work, this memoir is a melding of both tragedy and joy. Blurred lines between fact & fiction are so masterfully written I had to remind myself that The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte is just the fruit of Syrie James’ genius. James not only made me sigh in all the right places, and weep at the tragic losses – James taught me, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, to gradually allow my former prejudices to be removed. If you haven’t read this book, originally published in 2009, you need to add it to the top of your list!

Added bonus are the helpful Author Insights at the back of the book which include a succinct Q & A, Excerpts from Selected Correspondence of Charlotte Bronte, Selected Poetry by the Bronte sisters, a listing of their Works, and Discussion Points for reading groups.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, by Syrie James
HarperCollins, NY (2009)
Trade paperback (512) pages
ISBN: 978-0061648373

Cover image courtesy HarperCollins © 2009; text Christina Boyd © 2011, Austenprose.com

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 Stars

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

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: Ruth – A Book Review

Guest review by Regency Romantic

Welcome to the 4th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! Please join me and other Elizabeth Gaskell enthusiast in honoring her on birthday today with a blog tour featuring  a biography of her life and times, reviews of her books, novella’s and movies, reading resources, and a photo tour of her homes.

Visitors leaving a comment at any of the posts on the tour will qualify for a drawing of one unabridged copy of the Naxos Audiobooks edition of North and South read by Clare Willie. Deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time October 7th, 2010. The winner will be announced on October 8th, 2010. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses, digital download internationally. Good luck!

Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell – A Review

Published in 1853, Ruth is Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel and deals primarily with the theme of the fallen woman in the mid-Victorian era.  The story of the long suffering heroine, Ruth Hilton, is almost entirely based on a real life case that Gaskell herself encountered and helped resolve during her many charitable works as the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester.  Like her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), Ruth is intended as a social-problem novel.  Although Gaskell tried a lesser harsh approach, which Mary Barton was heavily criticized for, she still lacked the sophistication as a novelist to tackle such a weighty theme and to fictionalize a real-life issue.  Gaskell started to really find her distinctive voice and style in her next work, Cranford (1853), and most definitely established herself with North and South (1854-55).

Orphaned at a very young age, the strikingly beautiful, but gentle-spirited Ruth Hilton ends up as an apprentice at a dressmaker’s shop, a precarious situation that Victorian readers readily believed exposed women to moral temptation.  The innocent and lonely Ruth falls prey to the charms and attentions of Henry Bellingham, a wealthy and worldly man whose ennui is swept away by Ruth’s refreshing naiveté.  He whisks her off to London and Wales, where she lives with Bellingham as a kept woman.  When Bellingham falls ill, his morally strict mother is summoned.  She is horrified to discover that his son has been living in sin.  She bans Ruth from entering the sick room and convinces her son to abandon Ruth.  He acquiesces, leaving some money, and never looks back.

The distraught Ruth attempts suicide, but is saved and taken in by the kind and disfigured Thurston Benson, a dissenting minister, and his equally sympathetic sister, Faith.  When they learn Ruth is with child, it is, ironically, a woman named Faith who suggests circulating the lie that Ruth is a widow called Mrs. Denbigh to protect her from a society that would surely ostracize her.  Thurston, though going against his moral grain, eventually agrees to Faith’s plan.

Ruth gives birth to a beautiful boy and names him Leonard.  In the next six years, ever mindful of her sinful past and the sacrifices made by the Bensons, Ruth strives hard for spiritual strengthening and devotes herself entirely to raising her boy in the utmost manner.  In this period of calm before the storm, Ruth matures into a steady figure that draws the attention of Mr. Bradshaw, the town’s richest businessman, who is full of self-consequence and prides himself in being a morally upright man.  He is taken by Ruth’s Madonna-like demeanor and decides to hire her as the model companion and governess for his daughters.

The cruel hand of fate catches up with Ruth when Mr. Bradshaw decides to enter politics by supporting a certain Mr. Donne in the upcoming elections.  When Ruth meets him for the first time, Mr. Donne turns out to be the feckless lover that abandoned her six years ago.  As events start to unfold and the lie begins to unravel, the safe haven that Ruth has built around her and her son comes crashing down, with morally disturbing consequences to all around her.

When I was reading this novel, echoes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles kept coming to mind.  Like the heroines of those two novels, Ruth is painted as an innocent, pure as snow, who, by one naïve decision, becomes the victim of an unscrupulous man, leading to negative repercussions for the rest of her life.  But she bears all the hardships with saintly forbearance.  I have never been able to sympathize with such types of heroines.  Their outward passivity just makes me want to throttle them.  Perhaps Gaskell chose this strategy to head off criticisms for her heroine and the overt topics of sexuality and promiscuity, certainly a bold choice in that era; but by the same token, it also made Ruth unreal to me.  Is any woman ever that saintly?  I do find that Gaskell examines the central themes of the end-justifying-the-means, true faith, and forgiveness very sincerely, with deeply felt moral convictions, but oftentimes, the elements of religiosity become a little too overt for my taste.  What I did like were glimpses of Gaskell’s adept hand at descriptive passages of the outside world that clearly mirror the inner world of the character, a technique she perfected by North and South.  One such passage is this, as Ruth grapples with the confusion she feels upon discovering that Mr. Donne is her former faithless lover:

She threw her body half out of the window into the cold night air.  The wind was rising, and came in great gusts.  The rain beat down on her.  It did her good.  A still, calm night would not have soothed her as this did.  The wild tattered clouds, hurrying past the moon, gave her a foolish kind of pleasure that almost made her smile a vacant smile.  (Chapter 23)

Admittedly, it is a tad melodramatic.  Perhaps this shows why Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë were such good friends, but Gaskell truly makes us feel the keenness of Ruth’s oppression.  With the exception of the character of Sally, the Benson’s housekeeper (and the forerunner to Dixon’s character in North and South), who offers comic relief that comes too few and far between, the unrelenting doom-and-gloom tone of the novel makes the plot move at a plodding pace.  Awkward transitional passages and the contrived reappearance of the anti-hero betray Gaskell’s relatively inexperienced hand.  It is only in the final 100 pages of the novel that the plot really starts to pick up and the flawed characters start to redeem themselves – a case of too little, too late.  Although the conclusion of the novel is not a surprise to most readers, plowing through this novel is like being unable to turn away from witnessing a train wreck.  One early critic expressed that Ruth was ‘not a book for young people, unless read with somebody older’.   I would attach a simpler warning: Ruth is ‘not a book for suicidal people’.

Follow this link to the next stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Celebration Blog Tour a book review of the North and South by Laurel Ann of Austenprose

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