Margaret Dashwood’s Diary: Sense and Sensibility Mysteries, Book One, by Anna Elliott – A Review

Margaret Dashwoods Diary by Anna Elliot 2014 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Margaret Dashwood is only rarely mentioned in Sense and Sensibility. She starts the story as a girl of thirteen who loses her father and her home and then sits back to watch her two older sisters fall in love and get married. But, what kind of adventures did Margaret have after Jane Austen’s classic was done? In Margaret Dashwood’s Diary, Anna Elliott explores the life and loves of the youngest Dashwood sister.

As the title indicates, this novel takes the form of a diary and we begin with a brand new entry. See, Margaret has just burned her old journal after breaking off an engagement to a very eligible and rich young bachelor. She means to start fresh and has gone to stay with her sister, Marianne Brandon, at Delaford House for a change of scenery.

Colonel Brandon is away hunting down some dangerous smugglers that are operating in the neighborhood, but Margaret still runs into all kinds of old favorites. Elinor and Edward pop up every now and then. Mrs. Jennings is still poking her nose into everyone’s business. And even Mr. and Mrs. Palmer are in town to add to the laughs. But, when John Willoughby and his wife rent a house in the neighborhood things start to get a bit awkward for everyone.

Margaret is not only worried that her sister might be tempted by her first love, but her life is further complicated by the appearance of Jamie Cooper, a young man who also happens to be a gypsy that Margaret knows from her childhood at Norland Park. Jamie might have information about the local smuggling ring, but as Margaret gets closer to him she realizes that she might be falling in love with the one man she could never have.

The Margaret Dashwood presented here is a very charming character. She’s based mostly off the 1995 movie version of Sense and Sensibility. This Margaret is spunky and bright, but also understands her place in the world. Her voice as the narrator was light and yet very compelling. She begins by breaking off an engagement and it’s delightful to watch her develop as a young woman who not only falls in love but digs deep into some pretty dangerous mysteries.

We are dealing with a mystery here and pretty good one. From the opening pages of the novel the author starts to drop clues that will eventually be unraveled. It’s actually rather tightly plotted and there aren’t many details that get left hanging. Even a runaway horse ties in nicely in the end. The story sets up several characters as possible leaders of the smuggling ring, but it left me guessing until the end as to who to true criminal mastermind was.

The one side plot that wasn’t exactly right was Margaret’s broken engagement. It’s the starting point for the novel, but, later, her ex-fiancé appears for the sole reason of acting like a jerk. He never ties into the wider story, so I wouldn’t have minded leaving him in the background all together. It would have been nice to allow the broken engagement to be a growth opportunity for Margaret’s character rather than adding another villain she has to outwit.

Otherwise, the author does a nice job of using old characters like the Palmers and Mrs. Jennings as well as introducing us to new characters like Margaret’s handsome love interest, Jamie. Mrs. Willoughby isn’t new, but her personality is (and she’s just as horrid as you might imagine). The author even brings in some little-seen characters from the original novel to add a few twists and turns to the story. I really liked her take on Eliza (Colonel Brandon’s ward and the mother of Willoughby’s illegitimate child) and how her story was expanded and wrapped up.

The diary format also works perfectly as a story-telling device. Margaret’s voice is well done and you could imagine a Regency-era young woman writing as she does. The entries also felt realistic and were even sometimes abruptly cut off, not for dramatic, but for comic effect:

He helped Marianne into the curricle seat, got up beside her, and then drove off. Glancing at Elinor, I saw that she looked as stunned as I felt. 

She was the first to break the silence. “But that was—”

“I know,” I said. “That was John—”

********* 

I suppose that was a narrative break worthy of any chapter ending in a gothic tale of horror. But I did not actually stop writing there for the sake of heightened drama; Marianne came into the room to remind me that dinner would be served soon, and I ought to be going up to dress.

Overall, the novel was a fun and interesting read. The old characters are true to Austen, the new characters are well-drawn and fit in seamlessly, and the mystery was pretty darn good. It’s no easy feat to take a minor Austen character and make her shine in the spotlight, but this novel has definitely pulled it off.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Margaret Dashwood’s Diary: Sense and Sensibility Mysteries Book One, by Anna Elliott
Wilton Press (2014)
Digital eBook (244) pages
ASIN: B00HQY3GR2

Cover image courtesy of Wilton Press © 2014; text Lisa Galek © 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.”

Most Truly: A Pride and Prejudice Novella, by Reina M. Williams – A Review

Most Truly A Pride and Prejudice Novella by Reina M Williams 2013 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

The thing I like best about novellas is that they are typically quick, fun reads that don’t take up much time, but offer a lot of fun in return. When I first mused reading Most Truly by Reina M. Williams, I was intrigued as it seemed to have all of these good characteristics of a novella and was a Pride and Prejudice sequel to boot. Additionally, although this isn’t the first time I’ve read something that featured Kitty (I’ve also read Maria Grace’s Twelfth Night At Longbourn), it is always a treat to find something dedicated to the Bennet sisters who don’t steal the headlines in P&P. So, with that in mind I set aside a short block of time and dove right in! 

Most Truly begins with Col. Fitzwilliam having recently returned from war, weary and happy to exchange his fellow soldiers for members of his family and friends. This is no fleeting visit though, as the Col. is in possession of a tidy sum of money for his efforts.  As such he now intends to enter into a marriage and begin life anew as a civilian husband. He travels to Pemberley, where his beloved cousins Darcy, Elizabeth, and Georgiana reside. There he finds Kitty Bennet, who surprises him completely by catching his eye. Her charms and mannerisms make him think twice about his values and his position as a gentleman and what that entails. Kitty, meanwhile, does not want to get embroiled with military men (as she did in her past), and will not risk attracting attention from her family. She has settled into a happy new life at Pemberley, and can’t risk ruining it. However, she can’t deny her feelings for Col. Fitzwilliam, and he in turn has eyes only for her, bringing him at odds with the wishes of his aunt, Lady Catherine and his parents. What will become of this tense situation? Will Kitty have her moment in the spotlight?

I liked the dynamic of Kitty attempting to improve herself, and I especially liked to see the inner turmoil that she went through during this transformation. As a relatively unbridled individual in her youth, she was carefree and fanatical about redcoats. After the Wickham debacle she sees the error of her ways and begins her quest (with Elizabeth and Georgiana’s help) to becoming a proper and poised lady worthy of marriage. In Most Truly we see the evidence of her new outlook on life. She’s graceful and worries about saying and doing the wrong things. She truly puts forth a great effort in showing Darcy and Elizabeth that she’s dedicated to not being that girl that was Lydia’s shadow. But when Col. Fitzwilliam shows up, she begins to waver inside. Will falling in love with him prove that she is still that carefree youth? It was this inner debate that Most Truly impressed me with.

On the other hand, parts of the novella could have definitely been fleshed out more, where descriptions of characters seemed to just be told to the reader instead of shown. This lack of embellishment made the work more concise, of course, but it also detracted from becoming immersed in the story. I understand that novellas are written with the intent of being short stories, as things tend to move relatively fast, but this just felt too fast. For example, Anne de Bourgh and Alfred Fitzwilliam (Col. Fitzwilliam’s youngest brother) become engaged and you’re not really sure why. You’re told that they love each other and are given one tiny morsel of a scene together and that’s it. I would have loved seeing them have a conversation with another character (or with each other) explaining how their love blossomed, or even how they had remained steadfast in their love over the years. Small things like this would have greatly enhanced my appreciation for the novel.

In the end, if you’re able to look past the rapid story development, Williams’ Most Truly is a sweet romance with Kitty at its center. For those of you who love stories starring Austen’s supporting characters, this is definitely one for you.

3.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Most Truly: A Pride and Prejudice Novella, by Reina M. Williams
Amazon Digital Services, Inc. (2013)
Digital eBook (85) pages
ASIN: B00H07FW5E

Cover image courtesy of Amazon Digital Services, Inc. © 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.”

Northanger Abbey: The Austen Project, by Val McDermid – A Review

Northanger Abbey Austen Project Val McDermid 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

In the second installment of The Austen Project, bestselling Scottish crime writer Val McDermid takes a stab at a contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s most under-appreciated novel, Northanger Abbey. Written in the late 1790’s when Austen was a fledgling writer, this Gothic parody about young heroine Catherine Morland’s first experiences in Bath society and her romance with the dishy hero Henry Tilney is one of my favorite Austen novels. Fresh and funny, the writing style is not as accomplished as her later works but no one can dismiss the quality of Austen’s witty dialogue nor her gentle joke at the melodramatic Gothic fiction so popular in her day. I was encouraged by the choice of McDermid as author and intrigued to see how she would transport the story into the 21st century.

Our modern heroine, sixteen-year-old Cat Morland, is a vicar’s daughter living a rather disappointing life in the Piddle Valley of Dorset. Her mother and father seldom argued and never fought, and her siblings were so average she despaired of ever discovering any dark family secrets to add excitement to her life. Homeschooled, she can’t comprehend history or French or algebra, but delights in reading to fuel her vivid imagination, favoring ghost stories, zombie and vampire tales. After years of exploring the narrow confines of her home turf she craves adventure abroad. Rich neighbors Susie and Andrew Allen come to her rescue by inviting her to travel with them and attend the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland where Cat “is in her element, seeing potential for terror and adventure around every twist and turn of the narrow streets.”

Introduced to theater, art and books, and thanks to fashionista Mrs. Allen, Cat soon acquires a new wardrobe and dancing lessons where she partners with a charming and witty young attorney, Henry Tilney. After researching Henry on Facebook and Google she discovers that his father is the much-decorated general who made his name in the Falkland’s war before she was born. Even more interesting to Cat’s Gothic infused imagination, he owns Northanger Abbey, a medieval Borders abbey in Scotland. Cat also meets Mrs. Allen’s long-lost school friend Martha Thorpe and her three daughters, one of which is just Cat’s age. Bella, who recognizes the Morland last name, knows Cat’s elder brother Jamie who is attending Oxford with her brother Johnny. Before long they were “gossiping about the things that entertain young women of a certain age and type,” and becoming bff’s.

Blowhard Johnny Thorpe arrives in his racy red sports car with friend James Morland in tow. He attempts to court Cat but all she can think of is Henry and his sister Ellie. When Cat attends a céilidh, she anticipates dancing the Highland fling and hopes to encounter Henry Tilney again, who will surely save her from the unwanted attentions of crude Johnny Thorpe. As she and Bella scout the room they notice a beautiful, pale young woman dressed all in white:

“Who on earth was that?” Bella asked, “She acts like she’s in Pride and Prejudice.”

“That’s Henry Tilney’s sister Ellie.” Cat stared after the disappearing figure. There was something about Ellie, something out of time and out of style, like there would be if you were a two-hundred-year old vampire, she thought with a mixture of dread and delight.”

The story continues, mirroring the text of Northanger Abbey page for page, and scene for scene. Cat travels to Northanger Abbey as guest of the Tilney’s and the story turns Gothic and mysterious – just as Austen had devised.

McDermid made clever, creative and sensible choices in modernizing Northanger Abbey by moving the action from England to Scotland. The Edinburgh Festival easily replaces eighteenth century Georgian Bath allowing for a social hub similar in context: theater, shopping and country dancing. Later, we are treated to a really creepy medieval setting for a Scottish castle/Northanger Abbey. Cat is appropriately addicted to modern Gothic novels rivaling the famous Northanger Canon: Herbridean Harpies, Ghasts of Ghia and even Pride a Prejudice and Zombies! McDermid builds the vampire theme slowly, allowing Henry and Ellie to be pale in complexion, anachronistic in demeanor and just mysterious enough to trigger Cat’s imagination. Her characterizations are spot on: Henry is droll and swoon-worthy as ever, Cat a bit air-headed and impressionable, Bella a slick piece of work, and General Tilney deceptive and tyrannical.

The plot plays out as one would expect, and if you had not read Northanger Abbey before you would not notice that the author has really created a complete translation, scene for scene, and sometimes word for word—a No Fear Shakespeare version of Northanger Abbey. While I admired McDermid’s creative choices to bring the story into the modern world (cell phones, Facebook, language and culture), I was immediately puzzled by her choice of narrative style. This novel is really a retelling instead of the reimagining that it was advertised as. The downside of a translation is in its creative limitations, resulting in McDermid’s sentences being affected and unnatural. I just wanted her to break out of the stranglehold she had placed on herself and use the plot and characterization as a spring board, and not a noose. Limiting herself in this manner may have been her way of honoring Austen, but I think she has done a great disservice to her own writing. Having not read any of her acclaimed crime novels I have no idea of her real talent. I believe that Austen herself, who honed her craft so precisely, would be baffled at one author lessening their gifts at the expense of another.

Like the reaction to Joanna Trollope’s contemporary reimaging of Sense and Sensibility published last year, whenever you fiddle with the classics there are bound to be those who are open to the concept and those completely closed off. I read this novel in anticipation of enjoying it. In hindsight, I do not think that it was written for an Austen fan familiar with the original, but for the uninitiated who may view it in a completely different light.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Northanger Abbey: The Austen Project, by Val McDermid
Grove Press (2014)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0802123015

Cover image courtesy of Grove Press © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress, 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.”

Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner: A Pride and Prejudice Farce, by Jack Caldwell – A Review

From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner by Jack Caldwell 2013 x 200

Back in the day I read a novel entitled Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell and found myself totally impressed with the original reimagining of my beloved Pride and Prejudice (from a male author’s perspective!). I remember heading over to Caldwell’s website to see what else he had written that was available for me to get my hands on. I wound up finding a story he was publishing piece-by-piece on his site entitled Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner. I decided to read the entire story from start to finish in the course of one evening (ok, maybe some very early hours of the day were involved too….). Imagine my surprise (and delight) when I found it on sale for NOOK earlier this year. Being able to readily remember the pleasure it gave me several years earlier had me all the more excited to read it again.

We are all familiar with Mr. Darcy’s haughty nature, but it is no match for a little furry kitten in Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner. An encounter with Elizabeth’s pet cat causes Mr. Darcy to fall and injure himself, leading to a long recovery at Longbourn of all places. Because of a lack of space, Darcy is actually put up in the parlor, and he is subject to the exploits of the Bennet family, including every wail of Mrs. Bennet and every antic of Kitty and Lydia. Things get even more hectic when Bingley, Georgiana, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh come to visit Darcy in his invalid state. Hilarity ensues when these guests further antagonize the pressure cooker of emotion and frivolity that is present at Longbourn. Will Darcy and Lizzy be able to survive his recuperation? While most of us would erupt in anger and frustration at this impossible situation, Darcy shocks us all by doing quite the opposite. He shows us a kinder, gentler side of himself by taking an interest in all of the Bennet sisters, not just Lizzy.  He brings his horse to Longborn for Lydia to ride, helps Kitty with her sketches, and compliments Mary on her pianoforte pieces. In all, we see a Darcy that is quite refreshing and new, which made the story spring to life off the pages.

This book can truly be described as a comedy of errors, all thanks to a cat! I found myself just as delighted and charmed with Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner this time around as I was the first time I read it. Caldwell has a real knack at infusing comedy into Darcy and Elizabeth’s lives realistically. The scenes with Darcy confronting Mr. Collins are among my favorite. Mr. Collins is just such an odious man. Seeing him (comedically) get knocked down a few pegs had me cheering at my nook (very) loudly.

My biggest concern with reading the book was that it would get stale or drag considering much of the book takes place solely in the Bennet household. I’m happy to report that Caldwell was able to keep the book moving along at a happy pace and found many plot ventures in the Bennet sisters. It’s not often in the Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) world that we see what the entire Bennet clan would look like with grace, manners, decorum, and some education. Darcy gets a chance to show the reader (and Elizabeth) what a great older brother looks like. One that truly cares about his sisters, not just their financial wants or needs, but the parts of them that make their souls sing. Caldwell’s Darcy in Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner is one of the best representations of Austen’s vision that I can recall to date. His manners towards the working class are kind, his attention to detail and expectations of carrying out said details are sublime. He tries to better those around him but refuses to offer his respect or time to those that show idiocy (Mr. Collins) or selfishness (Caroline Bingley).

Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner is a comedic tale that offers readers a new view of our favorite characters while giving us the chance to laugh-out-loud at some of their more outlandish moments. If this all sounds slightly familiar to you, it is because it is based on the play and film The Man Who Came to Dinner, originally written for the stage by Kaufman and Hart in 1939.  Just like the original work, Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner is sure to stand the test of time. It is a sure bet for the female (or male!) Jane Austen Fan Fiction reader in your life.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner: A Pride and Prejudice Farce, by Jack Caldwell
White Soup Press (2013)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-0989108003

Additional Reviews

Cover image courtesy of White Soup Press © 2013; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 2014, Austenprose.com

Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued, by Emma Tennant – A Review & Rant

Emma in Love Emma Tennant 1996 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

When a book is universally acknowledged by Janeites as the worst Jane Austen sequel ever written, why would I want to read it? Temptation? Curiosity? Due diligence? Take your pick. I like to think that I am open to carefully drawing my own conclusions before passing judgment. After-all, Austen told us through her observant character Elizabeth Bennet, “It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”— Pride and Prejudice

So, it was with wide eyes and an open heart that I began Emma Tennant’s Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued. Published in 1996, it was controversial before it even hit bookstores. Eager to cash in on the release of two film adaptations of Emma staring Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, Tennant’s UK publisher chose to move up the publication date to stymie its competitor, Perfect Happiness, by Rachel Billington. That might seem like good business (or mercenary tactics by some), but that was not the real controversy. Tennant had chosen to include a romantic relationship between the married Emma Knightley and a new female character, Baroness Elisa d’Almane. Her reasoning for this provocative choice? Why, historical precedence by scholars of course! When interviewed in 1996 Tennant boldly stated, “I am not taking any liberties. Emma is known as the lesbian book in Jane Austen’s oeuvre. It has strong lesbian overtones and undertones. In the original, Emma absolutely adores Harriet Smith, her protégé and spends a lot of time with her. There’s a passage where she describes how Harriet’s soft blue eyes are just the type of eyes that Emma loves. I am not the first to draw out her lesbianism. Serious academics have found many clues to it in Emma.” 1.

Perfect Happiness by Rachel Billington 1996 x 150I am not an Austen scholar, nor had I picked up on the hidden subtext that some have discovered in female relationships in Emma, but I was curious if Tennant’s claims were based on a real academic debate. The amiable Austen scholar Devoney Looser kindly answered my inquiry with a list of several essays on the subject and offered this comment, “Discussing lesbianism in Emma has a longer history than we might assume, as many scholars have pointed out. Sixty years ago Edmund Wilson and Marvin Mudrick remarked directly on Emma’s same-sex attractions, though in a generally unsupportive way. 2. Wilson’s essay suggests that if the novel were continued, the married Emma would continue to indulge in infatuations with women.”

We don’t know which essays Tennant read, but she obviously ran with this notion and incorporated it into her novel. Even if the premise is founded on scholarly research, the question in my mind was how far a sequalist can stray in continuing Austen’s characterizations, and would the reading public of 2014 accept it?

With nine 1 star reviews on Amazon since 1999, it appeared that the forewarning I had received was not unwarranted. Trying not to be a partial and prejudiced reader I downloaded the new digital edition onto my NOOK and settled in for a weekend in Highbury with an author who might rival Austen’s heroine as the ultimate imaginist.Dorian Goodwin as Emma Woodhouse, Emma (1972)

Doran Goodwin as Emma Woodhouse, Emma (1972)

The Plot:

It has been four years since Miss Emma Woodhouse and Mr. George Knightley were united in matrimony. They are in residence at Donwell Abbey, the large Knightley estate that borders Hartfield, Emma’s childhood home and residence for two years after her marriage until the death of her father, dear Mr. Woodhouse. Emma’s elder sister Isabella has also met her maker after catching a fever in London (just as Mr. Woodhouse predicted) leaving five young children and husband John Knightley in deep grief. Jane Fairfax is working as a governess to August Elton’s friend Mrs. Smallridge after her feckless fiancé Frank Churchill jilted her at the altar for a northern heiress with £50,000. It is July and the charms of the Surrey countryside have drawn the two former lovers back to Highbury; unbeknownst to each other until their arrival. Frank Churchill is staying with his father Mr. Weston and his wife at Randalls, and Jane Fairfax, obliged to travel with her employer, is staying at the Parsonage with Mr. and Mrs. Elton. Both have brought a mysterious guest with them: Frank’s brother-in-law Captain Brocklehurst, and Jane’s friend, the exiled French Baroness d’Almane.

Two beautiful strangers have come to Highbury in one day! Remarkable as this is to Emma, she only sees the marriage possibilities for the single people around her and reneges on her promise to her husband never to match make again. Determined that Jane should marry her widowed brother-in-law John Knightley, she devises a dinner party at Donwell to bring them together. While walking to Hartfield to visit him and his children, she meets the very handsome Captain Brocklehurst who confides that Frank Churchill is devastated by the fate of Miss Fairfax and still in love with her. Astounded, Emma is also anxious to meet the other new visitor in Highbury and travels to the Parsonage to extend an invitation to the Baroness, Jane, the Elton’s and Mrs. Smallridge to her soiree. On the path she encounters Frank Churchill picking wildflowers in the hot sun. He entreats her to deliver them to Jane. Emma begs off and is concerned by his emotional behavior. At the Parsonage, Mrs. Elton introduces Emma to the beautiful and beguiling Baroness. She is mesmerized by her charms and annoyed by her lingering touches and loving gazes at Jane Fairfax. Feeling a pang of jealousy, Emma wonders if they are more than friends? Conflicted, Emma feels compelled to warn Jane and learn all she can about this intriguing creature.

Gwynth Paltrow in Emma (1996) x 350

Gwynth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

My Review:

Told in Austen’s inventive third person narrative style, Emma in Love reunites us with many of the Highbury characters we adore: Miss and Mrs. Bates, Harriet Martin, Mr. & Mrs. Weston, Mr. & Mrs. Elton, brothers John and George Knightley and the nonsensical girl herself, the clever, rich and handsome Emma Knightley. That is where any similarity to Austen’s tale ends.

Heavy on exposition and light on dialogue, the story begins well enough with a curious setup and conflicts, but soon lacks a balance of show and tell—and logic. To compensate, Tennant pulls in links from Austen’s original novel to tie the two together with generous abandon: Frank mends Mrs. Bates glasses again; John Knightley threatens with warnings of bad weather; Mr. Woodhouse’s worrisome predictions come to pass even from the grave; and many more. Some readers might enjoy these ah-ha moments, but after three or four they became intrusive heavy-lifting to me. Tennant continues to channel Jane Austen’s characters steadily until they go off in directions that Austen would never have broached head on: same sex relationships.

Things are definitely not as they should be in Highbury. Tennant’s Emma and Mr. Knightley’s marriage is very odd. They are indeed “brother and sister” – platonic and unromantic. He treats her like an errant school girl while engrossed in estate business and sleeps in his own room with his landscapes. Immature and insecure, Emma clings to the advice of neighbors Harriet Martin and Mrs. Weston before every move. Even dimwitted Harriet can see the writing on the wall. “Mr. Knightley was no more – and no less – than a father to her in reality.” 53 Mesmerized by the exotic and bewitching Baroness, Emma recognizes her intimate gestures to Jane Fairfax? My first reaction was a question. How would a Regency era woman raised in a sheltered country village, who has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old (according to Tennant), know about, let alone detect, same sex relationships? According to my esteemed Janeite friend Diana Birchall, who I hounded over this issue (and other annoyances about the book), “… mention of such things certainly wouldn’t have been bandied about among gentlefolk, as they are today. Certainly Jane Austen knew about homosexuality, her joking proves that, but it wouldn’t have been a topic for polite conversation among the middle class. Probably much more so among the aristocracy – you’d think Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and her set would know all about it. Fanny Hill and other such books certainly showed female/female action, but Fanny Hill et al would NOT have been in the library of the Rev. George Austen, or in the lending-libraries Jane Austen frequented!” This only confirmed my astonishment. Tennant was beginning on very shaky ground. I didn’t believe her premise for one moment.

Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

Spoilers:

After Emma meets the Baroness and becomes passionately infatuated with her, she is witness to many eye-popping events in Highbury: Captain Brocklehurst in drag, Miss Bates suddenly and uncontrollably issuing expletives during a dinner party (Tourette’s?), the Baroness passionately kissing her in her bedroom, and Frank and Captain Brocklehurst engaged in a love that shall not be named. It was all so far-fetched and sensational that it just smacked of exploitation of Austen’s characters for pure monetary gain.

Had enough yet? Well, there is more. To wrap up the novel in a slapdash fashion, Tennant ends with a boating party where Emma witnesses the estranged Baroness, Mrs. Weston and her husband Mr. Knightley conversing on an island in the center of the lake while the narrator conjectures that the fake Baroness is the secret love child of Miss Taylor (now Mrs. Weston) and Mr. Knightley. WHAT? As I shut off my NOOK in a defiant gesture of disgust I remembered, in ironic Austenian fashion, that it had been bantered about by Austen scholars that Jane Fairfax was the secret love child of Miss Bates and Mr. Knightley and Tennant had not only got the sexual subtext all wrong, she had the incorrect lovers as well! HA!

Emma (2009)

Romola Garia as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (2009)

My Rant: 

Reading Emma in Love brought up more questions than it answered for me. I was continually puzzled. So much so, that I sought the help of others to understand it. Why did Tennant write it? Who was she trying to appeal to? Was it written as a joke or was she truly attempting to promote the notion that Emma is a lesbian novel? Is it the book that she set out to write, or an abbreviated version because it was rushed to press? Only Tennant can answer these questions. Maybe one day she will be interviewed and reveal the answers. In the meantime we are left up a tree.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (2008)Was Emma in Love truly the worst Jane Austen sequel ever written? Quite possibly, at least by a professional, award winning novelist. (Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet comes in at a close second.) It failed not only because it did not present the same sex love relationship in any believable way, but it relied on sensational social issues as its axis that Austen would never have written about directly. It lacked “honour, decorum, prudence — nay, interest” as Lady Catherine would say. Yes interest. I was just annoyed and bored.

Let this novel serve as a warning to all who take up their pen to channel Jane Austen. Sensationalism may sell a few books and feed the circus animals in the press, but writing a pure bravado piece like Tennant’s Emma in Love will not earn you the respect of your readers, nor will it ingratiate you to the academics you may have wanted to please. If you do choose this route, be comforted in the fact that you will never have to meet the original author in heaven, because you will surely be in a place far below where they do not serve ice in their cocktails.

1 out of 5 Regency Stars

Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued, by Emma Tennant
Fourth Estate (1996)
Trade paperback (229) pages
ISBN: 978-1857026634)

1. Nigel Reynolds, Emma Sequels & Allusions: Perfect Happiness – How Jane Austen’s Emma Became a Lesbian, The Telegraph, 1996

2. Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950), 201-2.

Cover image courtesy of Fourth Estate © 1996; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

Given Good Principles: Boxed Set, by Maria Grace – A Review

Given Good Principles Boxed Set by Maria Grace 2013 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

I have a confession to make dear reader: I’m a book series binger. I’ll find myself reading the first novel in a series (in this case Darcy’s Decision by Maria Grace), and find it so intriguing that I have to buy the rest of the (available) books in the series and read them one right after another. It’s not a huge problem when it’s a series of three books or less, but when it’s four plus books, my husband starts to get worried that I’ll begin collecting dust from immobility. So, with all of that in mind I offer to you a post on Maria Grace’s Given Good Principles series.

Grace starts off her series with two completely creative and unique prequel novellas:

Darcy’s Decision

Beginning with the death of Darcy’s two parents and ending with preparations for his trip to Hertfordshire with Bingley, this unique and creative prequel (and about The Future Mrs. Darcy as well), is that Darcy and Elizabeth must go through situations that make them question their natures PRIOR to meeting. This means that as they are introduced to each other for the first time, they are aware of their own personal flaws. I fell head-over-heels in love with this idea. It’s not something I’ve seen in any other Pride and Prejudice re-telling, so from page one Grace had already hooked me with this fresh approach. The creation of the character of John Bradley was a stroke of genius. His fatherly, no-nonsense approach to discussions with Darcy was a pleasure to read. He simply tells Darcy how it is and doesn’t “scrape and bow” just to appease Darcy’s status.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Future Mrs. Darcy

Elizabeth and her sisters are forced to re-examine their behavior after a wealthy neighbor removes his sisters and himself from Meryton society as a direct result of a lack of decorum shown by Kitty and Lydia. What is special about this novella is the character development that is present for all of the Bennet sisters. (Well…..almost all of them. I’ll let you guess which one is the hold-out.) Grace gives each sister a skill that she focuses on. Kitty: dressmaking, Mary: herbal remedies, etc. Seeing the focus and determination that each sister had while still remaining true to their individual selves cannot be an easy thing to author, and for that I highly commend Grace.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

All the Appearance of Goodness

The series then continues with a full-length novel that takes place during the events of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy and Bingley take a trip to Meryton, during which Darcy meets Elizabeth. Of course courtship is the furthest thing from being on his mind, but a pang of jealousy helps move things along when he finds that Mr. Collins of all people is another interested party for the hand of Ms. Elizabeth Bennet. Will the intervention of Mr. Collins be enough to cause Darcy to completely change the purposes of his trip and soften his tough exterior, or will his pride be strong enough to let Collins take the object of his affections?

One of the best parts of this novel was the ability of Grace to convey the angst that Darcy and Elizabeth felt due to their inner turmoil over the events of the first two novellas. It really helped to tie the series together up to this point, and I felt that this was a crossroads for their relationship. It is appropriate that this work is the longest of the group, as it contains a new and unique set of events between Lizzy and Darcy that are sure to surprise and please you. This isn’t the typical path to love that we’re so familiar with. I’ll leave it at that as to not spoil any of the surprises awaiting readers!

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Twelfth Night at Longbourn

After Lydia’s elopement and Elizabeth’s wedding, Kitty is now alone at Longbourn. She has only her tarnished reputation as company, which has been badly damaged by Lydia’s ways. She can only hope to redeem it by transforming from Kitty to Catherine Bennet, hoping that new sophistication will endear her to the man who broke her heart long ago. Now she again has a chance to meet him at Pemberley, but will her newfound fortitude be enough to save her?

This work was definitely my favorite in the series due to its primary focus on Kitty. Her growth in the overall series arc was my favorite to follow (after Elizabeth and Darcy’s of course!), because of how deeply she matures. Gone is the frivolous girl that cared for nothing but parties, balls, and officers. Instead we have a woman who has grown into a hard-working, good-natured member of society. She finds herself satisfied with keeping occupied with sewing and other quiet tasks, which are a 180 degree turn from the days when she was ever-present in Lydia’s shadow and prone to every whimsy. Overall, I’m happy to see Kitty find herself in Twelfth Night. It is a fun read that concluded the overall story arc on a high note.

With quick novellas under 100 pages and one full-length novel, this series is a great read for any Jane Austen fan-fiction lover.  With great characters, witty writing, and a swoon-worthy romance, Maria Grace’s Given Good Principles series is a solid addition to your bookshelf.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Give Good Principles: Boxed Set, by Maria Grace
White Soup Press (2013)
Digital eBook (576) pages
ASIN: B00HK5TVJO

Cover image courtesy of White Soup Press © 2013; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 2014, Austenprose.com 

Almost Persuaded: Miss Mary King, a Pride and Prejudice Short Story, by P. O. Dixon – A Review

Almost Persuaded Miss Mary King by P O Dixon 2013 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

Jane Austen’s works have given us countless characters to fall in love with: Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney, Anne Elliot, Captain Frederick Wentworth, and Elinor & Marianne Dashwood. Along with these major players, Austen sprinkles in minor personalities who play a very small role in the plot, leaving the full back story to our imagination. P. O Dixon has taken one these lesser-known characters, “the nasty freckle-faced” Mary King, and given her story a chance to be told in her latest short story Almost Persuaded.

Mary King is accustomed to being in the background. She purposely shies away from the social spotlight, but is always keenly aware of the goings on around her. She can’t seem to keep her eyes off of George Wickham from the time they first met. Unfortunately for her, he doesn’t seem to have reciprocated any of these feelings, and in fact, does not notice her whatsoever. All that changes, however, when Mary becomes the recipient of a ten thousand pound inheritance. Suddenly she has gone from being a wallflower to the center of the social universe. Now she goes from pining for Wickham’s attention to having more attention on her than she could ever have wanted. Will this inheritance prove to be the key to finally winning Wickham’s heart, or a curse that haunts her to be alone forever?

One of the best things that Dixon’s work accomplishes is the fleshing-out of Mary’s character. She takes all the jealousy, emotions, and unpredictability of a teenager and filters them expertly into Mary’s development throughout the story. We see Mary’s jealousy towards the Bennets (specifically Jane and Elizabeth), and we understand it. Her naiveté in choosing to not follow the advice of her companion Anne is spot on for the self-centered point of view so common in teens. The pride and exultation she feels when being complimented and flirted with by the opposite sex for the first time is also so characteristic of someone enthralled by a first crush. Speaking of that first crush, Dixon shows us quite well how wicked Wickham truly is.

Sadly we don’t know whether Mary King ever gets her happy ending. The conclusion of the short story feels a bit abrupt, especially after you’ve spent the entire work getting to know her. You want to see how much farther she’ll grow and mature, and I think she was on a great path towards transforming into a new woman who no longer was focused on just herself. Despite this, Dixon’s stellar characterizations and intriguing storytelling kept me hooked for this short tale.

A super-quick read, Almost Persuaded is a perfect for anyone short on time and in need of a quick Pride and Prejudice fix.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Almost Persuaded: Miss Mary King, a Pride and Prejudice Short Story, by P. O. Dixon
Regents and Cotswold Book Group (2014)
Digital eBook (48) pages
ASIN: B00FZD5EBC

Cover image courtesy of Regents and Cotswold Book Group © 2014; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 2014, Austenprose.com