The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire—A Review

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire (2014 )From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP: 

What is it about Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park or any other of Jane Austen’s novels that draws readers in and then keeps them coming back again and again, even though they already know what is going to happen? In The Hidden Jane Austen, Australian Austen scholar John Wiltshire argues that the answer to this question lies in two related features of the novels. Firstly, Austen displays a keen comprehension of human behavior in all its complicated, messy manifestations—in particular, the way that humans misinterpret or misremember events in their efforts to build identities, establish and maintain relationships, and find a place in community. Secondly, Austen crafts her narratives with these human behaviors in mind, making them central elements not only to characterization, but also to plot structure. But she does this in such a way that requires her readers to “keep up”—meaning they have to be attentive not only to what is on the page at hand, but to what was on all the other pages before, and even to what wasn’t on any page at all, the silences that are provoking in their ambiguity. For it is in the unspoken that readers find the “hidden” Elizabeth or Fanny or, indeed, the “hidden Jane Austen” herself, the master writer relying on readers to pay attention.

To illustrate his thesis, Wiltshire conducts a psychoanalytic study for each of the six major novels, which basically means he tries to uncover the underlying motivations for character behavior. His angle for Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice is memory and attentiveness. Why, for example, does Catherine Morland forget John Thorpe’s clumsy marriage proposal hint, but internalize all too thoroughly Henry Tilney’s playful ghost stories? Simple, she was in love with Henry, not John (18). This same principle of memory is explored more deeply in Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose intelligent heroine somehow misinterprets and misremembers all too frequently. But Darcy is guilty of this too, although he is kinder to Elizabeth than she is to him (64). Wiltshire argues that it’s Austen’s memory games that make these two playful novels so pleasing to readers and re-readers—especially to those interested in finding out how they too were so easily mislead.

The chapter on Sense and Sensibility is a fascinating character study of Elinor Dashwood and the way in which silence is both imposed on Elinor and used by her to wage war against her romantic rival, Lucy Steele. Wiltshire highlights the harshness of this novel’s setting and the ways in which Elinor’s manipulation of others mirrors that of Lucy. Even more fascinating is Wiltshire’s claim that while the narrative approves of Elinor’s use of concealment, it nonetheless reveals Austen’s anger at society for requiring levels of duplicity which, in turn, compromise one’s moral integrity (50).

Equally fascinating are the two chapters dedicated to Mansfield Park. The first focuses on Mrs. Norris—Austen’s most glorious villain. While Wiltshire isn’t interested in exculpating Mrs. Norris, he is happy to piece together her back-story in an effort to explain her behavior. What he offers is a delicious psychological theory of sibling rivalry and coping mechanisms. He writes, “[Mrs. Norris] needs continuous self-soothing and self-appeasing, and that is because in her deepest sense of herself she is a victim” (89). If this is true of Mrs. Norris, what can be said of Fanny Price? His second chapter on Mansfield Park answers that question, tackling superbly the age-old critiques of Austen’s most underappreciated heroine by pin-pointing the tell-tale signs of her coping behavior: over-compensation, self-abasement, psychosomatic ailments, and, of course, passivity (98-100). But rather than these making Fanny into the obsequious niece both Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas expect her to be, Fanny manages to resist their bullying, because she isn’t half as blind to the sins of others as they are to her virtues. But—and this is Wiltshire’s point—she has to resist without showing all of her cards, without, that is, exposing the forbidden love she has for her cousin Edmund. Because of this delicate balancing act, Fanny is misread, both by other characters and by readers (115).

In his last two chapters, Wiltshire explores the role that overhearing plays in Emma and Persuasion. Overhearing implies attentiveness to others, particularly to what they say. But what one thinks one hears (and sees, for that matter) may not match what is actually being said (or seen) due to the interference of one’s own preconceived notions or personal desires. In Emma, this discrepancy is used to comedic effect, as a way to educate the heroine on her own flawed reading of the world. What is brilliant about Wiltshire’s exploration of this is how he highlights Austen’s construction of the miscommunications. He does this with Persuasion, as well; but in that novel the attentiveness to the speech of others is accented, Wiltshire says, by Anne Eliot’s “chronic depression” (147). At first, this may seem a startling diagnosis, but to support it he carefully analyzes Austen’s structuring of her last completed novel. In the first half of the story, Anne has a recessed presence, and her silence and exhaustion contrast sharply with Wentworth’s confidence and activity (153-154). This contrast must soften in the second half of the story in order for Anne to have a successful end, which is why, Wiltshire argues, that Austen realized she had to revise the original conclusion. In order for the psychology to be right, Anne had to finally emerge from her depression by gaining her voice (162).

As Wiltshire points out most overtly in the Mansfield Park chapters, Austen’s eighteenth century Enlightenment-influenced Anglican spirituality plays an important role in shaping the psychology of her novels. She accents self-reflection in such a way that it becomes key to understanding the internal moral lives of her heroines and heroes (91). Wiltshire deftly balances his academic expertise with his clear, often poetic, writing style. Best of all, in rooting his psychoanalysis of the novels in discussions about Austen’s crafting of narrative structure, he models for Austen fans of all backgrounds the way to conduct credible dialogues on their favorite characters. His views are modern and original, and not one chapter failed to inspire in me a greater appreciation for Austen’s masterful portrayal of human nature. That is why I give this excellent book, whose best points I have barely highlighted here, five out of five Regency Stars and recommend it as the best book on Austen I have read all year.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire
Cambridge University Press (2014)
Hardcover (204) pages
ISBN: 978-1107061873

Cover image courtesy of Cambridge University Press © 2014, text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 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 and Prejudice (Usborne Young Reading Series), Adapted by Susanna Davidson, Illustrations by Simona Bursi – A Review

PandP Usborne 2011 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Could you tell the story of Pride and Prejudice in 60 pages and make the world of Regency England come alive for a young reader? I pondered this question before reading author Susanna Davidson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel. The Usborne Young Reading Series provides young readers with stories adapted from literature classics including works by Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Bronte. Pride and Prejudice is a Level Three reader with an intended audience of young readers who are reading independently but are not ready for standard length books. How would a re-working of Austen’s masterpiece of complex social relations fare in this format?

Before I could turn my mind to this question, I was dazzled by the illustrations on the opening pages. Scenes of the Bennet family at Longbourn, Meryton quickly progressed to the Netherfield Ball where Elizabeth breaks her promise never to dance with Mr. Darcy. The soft, muted colors of the ladies gowns contrast with the scarlet regimentals of the militia and evening dress of the gentlemen. Earlier, at the Meryton assembly-room, the depiction of the entry of Mr. Bingley’s party is framed with architectural details from the walls and a chandelier hangs above the illustrated figures between the text. These elegant visual touches enliven the entire book. Lady Catherine’s Rosings glows with burnished gold and candlelight. Following Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy, as she reads his letter, we see a facsimile of the letter above an atmospheric scene of the heroine out of doors. The illustrations evoke the emotion of many memorable scenes from the story. Many readers may note the resemblance of characters to the actors and actresses of the 2005 film adaptation. I particularly enjoyed looking for similarities and differences as I re-read the story.

Happily, the text retains several of my favorite conversations from the original. Mr. Bennet chides his wife about her much-overlooked nerves, “On the contrary, I know them well. They’re my oldest friends. You’ve talked about them for twenty years.” (5) Seated at the piano at Rosings, Elizabeth delivers a restrained but pointed critique of Mr. Darcy’s reticence with strangers, “That is because you do not make the effort. I am not talented at playing the piano, but I have always supposed that to be my fault, for not trying harder.” (29) And finally, the explosive scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine that ends with Lady Catherine declaring, “I am most seriously displeased.” (58)

Pride and Prejudice, Usborne, Meryton Assembly (2011)

An example of the expert trimming of the story by Ms. Davidson is her handling of Mr. Collins. He is not mentioned as the heir to Longbourn or suitor to Elizabeth in the early part of the story, thus we lose the his hilarious pomposity until he comes on the scene as the husband of recently married Charlotte Lucas. “‘I see you are surprised by my choice of husband,’ said Charlotte, even though Lizzy had tried to hide it. ‘But I was never romantic, you know. I’ve only ever wanted a comfortable home. I’m not pretty like you, and would much rather have Mr. Collins than no one.’ Lizzy said nothing. She felt deeply that she could never marry without love.” (26)

The only possible criticism of this adaptation, as far as appealing to young readers is the lack of physical adventure in the story. Other books in the Usbourne series include stories with more conflict and danger such as Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, and The Three Musketeers. In being true to Austen’s story, this adaptation retains her emphasis on personal relationships, social commentary and the emotional development of the hero and heroine.

Pride and Prejudice, Usborne, First Proposal (2011)

Reading this adaptation reminded me of the hours I used to spend with favorite illustrated books, pouring over the pictures and imagining myself in the story. Many of these books contained just a handful of illustrations, but nonetheless I returned to them again and again. How much more engaging for a young reader to have beautiful illustrations on nearly every page of this delightful book.

Any remaining Austen purists who may be resistant to the idea of a condensed version of Pride and Prejudice, may be reminded of Austen’s own adaptations of lengthy novels, such as Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, to create short works and theatricals for her family’s enjoyment. Engaging greater numbers of readers with Jane Austen’s work is a worthwhile goal. This adaptation succeeds with young readers experiencing an Austen story for the first time as well as with readers familiar with her sensitivity and subtle wit.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Pride and Prejudice (Usborne Young Reading Series), Adapted by Susanna Davidson, Illustrations by Simona Bursi
Usborne Books (2011)
Hardcover (64) pages
ISBN: 978-1409522362

Cover image courtesy of Usborne Books © 2011; 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.”

Against His Will: The Brides of Pemberley (Volume 3), by Nancy Kelley – A Review

Against his Will by Nancy Kelley 2013 x 200From the desk of Katie P.:

The third book in The Brides of Pemberley series by Nancy Kelley is Against His Will, which chronicles the continuing saga of the Bennet and Darcy families. The second volume in the series, Loving Miss Darcy, was focused on Georgiana Darcy and Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, with other characters including Elizabeth Darcy, Mr. Darcy, Kitty Bennet, and Fitzwilliam’s spy friends, Sebastian, Ashford, and Colin. In Loving Miss Darcy, a crisis and mystery needed solved, and the best friends of both Georgiana and Richard helped to save the day. In this latest installment in The Brides of Pemberley series, the focus is on the much-ignored Bennet sister, Kitty Bennet, and is a tale of romance, adventure, murder, and espionage.

Kitty Bennet has been secretly in love with Sebastian Montgomery ever since their fascinating conversation during a dance last Season. His sharp wit, lack of tact, discerning mind, uncanny observations, and piercing grey eyes have long been in her memory and heart, despite her remembrance of the painful conversation she overhead between Sebastian and his friend, Colin, after their dance. Sebastian’s painful words to his friend about is knowledge of Kitty’s love and his plans of doing everything he could to make her dislike him still angered and wounded Kitty after almost a year’s time.

Thinking of Sebastian as the independent and unattainable object of her affection suits Kitty just fine, until she bumps into him at her best friend’s wedding and finds his conversation and attentiveness hard to resist. When she finds out that he has asked her uncle to court her, she knows that he must have ulterior motives—why else would he be pursuing her, the wallflower of the Bennet household and the woman he declared he had no interest in?

Sebastian Montgomery is perfectly content with being a free and independent bachelor—ignoring social conventions, etiquette, tact, and most importantly, marriage. He has no need to settle down and start a family, and instead of spending his time searching for a rich bride, he spends his time keeping up to date on the uneasy relations between France and England, brushing up on his old spying skills, and avoiding single females (who, with the exception of one, all bore him within five minutes). But when his grandfather and uncle die in a suspicious carriage accident, Sebastian discovers that he is the new earl of Lisle, with not only a country estate to manage, but also the responsibility to marry and have an heir.

Sebastian has no wish to be an earl or to be married to one of the irritatingly insipid females of his acquaintance. But when his strong-willed mother gives him an ultimatum—either he must marry one of his greedy and flirtatious cousins or someone of his own choice by the next Season—Sebastian names the first woman who comes to mind, and the only woman who doesn’t bore him—Miss Kitty Bennet. But before his plan to pursue Kitty can go into action, he is attacked at night by a masked man intent on killing him. Sebastian knows that this murder attempt is somehow related to his grandfather’s death. As he gets closer to solving the mystery, can he manage to woo Kitty, who is becoming less boring to him every day? And can both Kitty and Sebastian outwit his grandfather’s killer, who is quickly closing in and putting their future and very lives in danger?

Against His Will is focused on Kitty Bennet, a character from Pride and Prejudice who gets far less attention in sequels and continuations than she deserves. In Pride and Prejudice, she is seen as the flirty, giggly, irresponsible shadow of Lydia, but Nancy Kelley has created an older, more mature Kitty, one who shows that more was going on behind the scenes than meets the eye, and that her place in the Bennet family would have affected her as a character. At first, I felt exasperated with Kitty’s lack of confidence, but thanks to Nancy Kelley’s insightful explanation I discovered the reason why: Lydia had been the apple of their mother’s eye, Lizzy her father’s darling child. Jane was beautiful, Mary was good. Kitty just…was. Too silly, too plain, too loud, too annoying. All her life she had been too much of something…(Kindle Locations 903-905). The crisis that Kitty faced in Against His Will—who was she really—was one that virtually everyone faces at some point in their lives, and one that was as equally compelling to read as Sebastian’s quest to find out who was his grandfather’s killer.

Even though Against His Will can be read as a standalone, I strongly suggest that Loving Miss Darcy be read first. Loving Miss Darcy introduces Fitzwilliam’s circle of close friends who had served as fellow agents in France spying for the British, and while Against His Will has its own set of main characters and its own well-written story that can be enjoyed by itself, the knowledge of the back-story and characters’ histories from Loving Miss Darcy will make this story (and the ending) a more satisfying read.

Against His Will is a lovely romance, with a hero and heroine who are both trying to figure out who they really are, what they really want, and what is expected of them. I confess—since reading this book I have flipped through it again and again, rereading all my highlighted sections (who knew I had over 50?!), and I fully admit—without shame—that the last couple chapters have each time made my heart flip. I love a good ending, and this ending brings “perfect happiness” to not just the characters in the book, but also to the reader. Add to that the various lovable and quirky members of the Bennet and Darcy households (especially the indomitable Mrs. Bennet) and you’re in for a treat!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Against His Will: The Brides of Pemberley (Volume 3), by Nancy Kelley
Smokey Rose Press (2013)
Trade paperback (194) pages
ISBN: 9781494408503

Our previous reviews in The Brides of Pemberley Series

Cover image courtesy of Smokey Rose Press © 2013; text Katie P. © 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.”

Valour and Vanity: The Glamourist Histories, Book 4, by Mary Robinette Kowal – A Review

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Roninette Kowal (2014)From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

I have thoroughly enjoyed the first three books of the Glamourist History series which has only gotten better as it goes on, but when I read the description of the fourth book I wasn’t positive that improving trend would continue, at least for me. Pirates? The Regency version of a heist film? Those may appeal to many but aren’t my preferred cup of tea.I love that the earlier books incorporate historic events into an alternate Regency world that shimmers with glamour–a magical art of illusion. Napoleon’s wars, the Luddite uprising, and the 1816 climate disruption are integral parts of their narratives, but the new book’s plot synopsis does not hint at a similar use of history. Still, I trust Mary Robinette Kowal’s storytelling skills so there was no way I would miss her latest. I just hoped I would love Valour and Vanity as dearly as the others.

A tip from Lord Byron sends Jane and her husband Vincent to the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre where an ancient but still vibrant lion glamour roars and struts among the rubble. That beautiful lion is forever fixed in place because glamoured images made with traditional methods cannot be moved, but Jane and Vincent hope to perfect a new way of creating glamour by weaving its threads into molten glass which could then be easily transported. To that end they are headed to the island of Murano, famous for its glass-making artistry. They have been on a mostly joyous Continental trip with the rest of Jane’s family, celebrating her sister Melody’s wedding, but Jane is glad she and Vincent will soon be alone because her mother can tend to be high strung. Sure enough Mrs. Ellsworth musters a Mrs. Bennet worthy panic as Jane and Vincent’s ship is about to depart. She’s heard a rumor pirates rove the Gulf of Venice! Pirates!

That, of course, is absurd, as Jane and Vincent know. No pirates patrol this part of the Mediterranean. Which makes it all the more shocking when rakishly dressed buccaneers board their boat, robbing passengers and crew. “It is absurd that my first thought is a desire to keep this from your mother” (25) Vincent says to Jane as he prepares to help the crew defend the ship. But Vincent is knocked out and Jane and Vincent lose all of their money, luggage, and jewelry–even Jane’s wedding ring–and are almost kidnapped for ransom.

They are saved by Signor Sanuto, a kindly Murano banker and a fellow passenger. He pays the pirates off and allows Jane and Vincent to stay in his beautiful palazzo. They were supposed be hosted by Lord Byron, an old school chum of Vincent’s, but he’s skipped town to avoid an irate ex-lover. Sanuto lends them clothing and secures them a line of credit until they can access their funds in England.

This frees Jane and Vincent to begin their mission, but they immediately run into obstacles. After Napoleon’s occupation Murano’s glassmakers are wary and refuse to work with the glamourists, sure their real goal is stealing trade secrets. Again it is Sanuto who steps in, using his clout to persuade one glassmaker to reconsider, but even with Sanuto’s help the terms are limited and expensive.

Still Jane and Vincent make progress toward their goal, and are about to celebrate their success when Sanuto disappears and everything falls apart. Their line of credit dries up, authorities kick them out of Sanuto’s palazzo, someone empties their English bank accounts, and they now owe money all over town. Lord Byron, who had briefly turned up, is again missing leaving Jane and Vincent penniless, homeless criminals, unable to contact family and not allowed to leave until they pay their creditors. Added to that, the one glass ball they had successfully inscribed with glamour is gone. Jane and Vincent are barely managing to eat, but Vincent concocts a reckless and dangerous plan to turn their fortunes around.

Highly suspenseful and almost too exciting, Valour and Vanity held me enthralled, and I loved seeing how Jane and Vincent cope with their difficulties. The only thing lessening my pleasure was foreknowledge of who betrayed them, which was revealed in the original marketing synopsis. I would rather have been surprised.

But, the book’s pleasures are many. Though partially in ruins post-Napoleon, the beauty of Murano’s island city shines through the pages and vivid scenes of its daily life satisfied my history lust. Most charming is the wonderful cast of characters who help with Vincent’s plan. These include a pious but determined group of nuns, a resourceful puppeteer, and the colorful Lord Byron himself, whose wild daring and loyalty to his friends knows no bounds.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Valour and Vanity: The Glamourist Histories, Book 4, by May Robinette Kowal
Tor Books (2014)
Hardcover (416) pages
ISBN: 978-0765334169

Read Our Previous Reviews of The Galmourist Histories 

Cover image courtesy of Tor Books © 2014; 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.”

Pirates and Prejudice: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Kara Louise – A Review

Pirates and Prejudice Kara Louise 2013 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

When I first heard about a novel that turned my beloved Fitzwilliam Darcy into a pirate, I was apprehensive. HOW could anyone believably transform that noble gentleman into scurrilous brigand? He was so proper, so refined, and orderly. Picturing him as a swashbuckler…well, I just couldn’t imagine it. Enter author Kara Louise and her novel Pirates and Prejudice. I shouldn’t be surprised that Louise was able to seriously sell me on the idea, considering I loved her earlier novel Darcy’s Voyage (another version of P&P at sea.) Her characterization and unique storyline had me hooked on this new and intriguing way of looking at one of the most iconic romantic heroes ever created.

Feeling deeply spurned after Elizabeth Bennet rejects his offer of marriage, lonely and forlorn, Fitzwilliam Darcy eschews his friends and family, preferring instead to hide away at the London docks where he drowns his disappointment in drink. There, he is mistaken for an escaped pirate Captain Lockerly and imprisoned. Even though he claims “disguise of every sort is my abhorrence,” he aids the local authorities and agrees to impersonate the notorious pirate to help capture him. What was once something he would have never imagined for himself, the pirate life now calls him into action. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s Aunt and Uncle Gardiner cancel their vacation plans to tour The Lake District leaving Elizabeth open to sail to the Isle of Scilly with her father to see her ailing aunt. On their return voyage, however, they are set upon by pirates and rescued by a Captain Smith. Imagine her surprise when she discovers that this is no ordinary Captain, but the ex-pirate impersonator Mr. Darcy himself! How will Darcy explain how he came to be a sea Captain? Will Elizabeth fall in love with this new and improved version of the Mr. Darcy she once so coldly rejected?

Pirates and Prejudice is first and foremost a fun variation of P&P. Darcy’s attempts to shed his educated, genteel upbringing is at times hilarious. The scenes where he tried to make his speech sound coarse and unrefined brought tears to my eyes. Over the course of the novel, he evolves into an adventurous, suave pirate, the likes of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. Though Darcy’s path to inner transformation happens differently than Austen would have imagined it, yet it still happens. Pirating offers him the time he needs to think about Elizabeth’s rebuff and his former feelings, and it also offers readers the opportunity to take this journey with him.

For as much as I’ve said about the pirating elements of this novel, Pirates and Prejudice is also a wonderful romance filled with twists and turns. Due to Darcy needing to disguise his true identity, his reintroduction to Elizabeth is immediately slated for trouble. He knows that his false identity (when it is finally revealed) has the ability to tear them apart all over again. Darcy’s struggle with doing right for his country, while trying to do right by his heart is excellently written. Louise accurately depicts his struggle and inner war.

In the end, Pirates and Prejudice gives us a fabulously heroic Darcy, action packed sword fights, damsels in distress, and a heartwarming romance sure to please each and every reader. While the premise seems outlandish, I beg you to give it a shot. Louise is a writer with a genuine talent that will surely draw you in to this story.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Pirates and Prejudice: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Kara Louise
Heartworks Publications (2013)
Trade paperback (276) pages
ISBN: 978-0615815428

Cover image courtesy of Heartworks Publications © 2013; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: The reviewer purchased a copy of this book. 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.”