Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen’s Fine Ladies, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Rational Creatures 2018 x 200Having long been credited as the grandmother of the romance novel, it is an interesting notion to ponder if Jane Austen can also be attributed as an early feminist writer. Did she gently inject progressive thinking into her female characters to bring about the equality of the sexes? While we have been admiring Austen’s style, wit, and enduring love stories, were we missing the subtext that Austen’s strong female characters were also way ahead of their time?

Rational Creatures, a new Austen-inspired short story anthology edited by Christina Boyd posits the possibility. Sixteen Austenesque authors have been challenged with the task to create original stories inspired by Austen’s ladies—both heroines and supporting characters—revealing details, back stories, and asides that could have been part of the narrative.

If you are doubtful of the feminist infusion gentle reader, then let’s take a closer look at the famous quote from her final novel Persuasion, that obviously inspired the title of the anthology.

“But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”

In the foreword Prof. Devoney Looser explains how for two hundred years we have turned to Austen to “reflect on the world’s unfairness, and to laugh at its trivial absurdities…to avoid unequal marriages…and seek Austenian combinations of inventiveness, wisdom and entertainment.” I could not agree more. In an era when women were treated like tender plants, Austen bravely portrayed her ladies’ vulnerabilities and strengths. In this collection there is a wide variety of stories from heroines and minor characters who exhibit intelligence, patience, resilience and grace to advance their own causes. Here is a brief description of the stories that await you:

  • “Self Composed,” by Christina Morland – With the death of her father and the passing of the Norland estate to his eldest son, stoic Elinor Dashwood continues sketching her environment and the people in her life as way to cope with the loss of her home, to hold on to memories of happier times, and the affection that she harbors for her sister-in-law’s brother Edward Ferrars. Confined by her sex, social strictures, and reduced finances, she can do little but draw, and wait. (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)
  • “Every Past Affliction,” by Nicole Clarkston – Marianne Dashwood reflects upon her own sensibilities after a grave fever almost takes her life. Still resistant to Colonel Brandon as a suitor, her sister Elinor and her mother already see him as her intended. Gradually, the loss of her first love and the torment from her unguarded behavior are replaced with a sense of hope and renewal, and a new love. (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)
  • “Happiness in Marriage,” by Amy D’Orizo – As Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane discuss the possibility of her accepting the unfavorable Mr. Collins’ looming offer of marriage – they also debate the merits and shortcomings of the unions of their own parents, their aunts and uncles, and the qualities of the young men of their acquaintance as perfect, or imperfect gentleman. Later when embraced by love, Elizabeth discovers that she must re-evaluate her list of priorities. (Inspired by Pride and Prejudice)
  • “Charlotte’s Comfort,” by Joana Starnes – Being unromantic, Charlotte’s marriage of convenience to Reverend Mr. Collins has more benefits than she expected, though her best friend Elizabeth Bennet can find few. As her life takes unexpected twists, amazingly she always lands on her feet. (Inspired by Pride and Prejudice)
  • “Knightley Discourses,” by Anngela Schroeder – Nine years into her marriage with Mr. Knightley, Emma nee Woodhouse, is bored with her settled life of comfort and ease at Donwell Abbey. Warned by her husband George not to meddle or match make, her curiosity with the Winthrop family, whose return to Highbury after many years of absence, causes her to do exactly what her husband wished she would not. (Inspired by Emma)
  • “The Simple Things,” by J. Marie Croft – The weight of world lies on Miss Hetty Bates’ shoulders. As a middle-aged spinster she has refused an offer of marriage from their landlord. Certain he will evict her and her elderly mother in an act of revenge, she takes action. Reflecting upon her youth and her one lost chance at love, she is grateful for friends and family, and the strength of her own convictions. (Inspired by Emma)
  • “In Good Hands,” by Caitlin Williams – After falling in and out of love three times, Harriet Smith is in London staying with Mr. & Mrs. John Knightley when love #1, Robert Martin, arrives to deliver papers from Mr. George Knightley. Against the former advice of Miss Woodhouse, she learns to trust her first instincts. (Inspired by Emma)
  • “The Meaning of Wife,” by Brooke West – Taken in as an impoverished cousin by her rich Bertram relations, Fanny Price has been raised to be subservient and meek. Amid a household of immoral and dissipated cousins, her one solace and love has been her cousin Edmund. When he finally asks for her hand in marriage, she hesitates unsure that he truly knows her heart after she reads Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (Inspired by Mansfield Park)
  • “What Strange Creatures,” by Jenneta James – While living in London with her uncle, Mary Crawford is visited by a local magistrate, James Hunter, who is investigating the disappearance of a young heiress with connections to her family. Puzzled by this and a string of other missing young ladies, Mary is compelled to do her own sleuthing. Instead, she discovers unsettling news that will change the course of her life. (Inspired by Mansfield Park)
  • “An Unnatural Beginning,” by Elizabeth Adams – Young Anne Elliot meets dashing naval officer Fredrick Wentworth, and after a short courtship accepts his offer of marriage, only to be persuaded by a well-meaning family friend into declining it. Three years later another man calls on her wanting her hand. Can she ever love another? (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “Where the Sky Touches the Sea,” by KaraLynn Mackrory – Subsequent to dining with the Musgroves, her brother Captain Wentworth, and Anne Elliot, Sophie Croft, wife of a rear admiral of the white, reflects on their fifteen-year marriage and the one year that they spent apart while he was on duty in the North Sea. Left to wait twelve months before his return, her worry for her husband results in the worst year of her life. (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “The Art of Pleasing,” by Lona Manning – Mrs. Penelope Clay, daughter of Sir Walter Elliot’s solicitor Mr. Shepherd, visits the Elliots at Kellynch Hall to spy on the family for her father and advance his hopes that they will come to reason regarding their financial crisis and retrench. Taken to Bath with the family, Penelope maneuvers the Elliots into household economies by flattery and devotion in hopes of being the next Lady Elliot. When cousin and heir William Elliot arrives in Bath, they are soon locked into a deadly dance of power and deceit. (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “Louisa by the Sea,” by Beau North – After suffering a head injury from a tragic fall from the Cobb in Lyme Regis, young Louisa Musgrove drifts in and out of consciousness, hears poetry recited to her, and is cared for during her recovery by the Harvilles and Captain Benwick. The carefree girl who leapt from the sea wall for Captain Wentworth’s arms is now inclined toward the other captain who was there to catch her during her recovery. (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “The Strength of the Attachment,” by Sophia Rose – Following her engagement to Henry Tilney, Catherine Morland unknowingly befalls adventure abroad in Oxford while seeking her missing brother James, whose disturbing lapse in communication with his family requires further investigation. Challenged by many obstacles, Catherine never knew she was born to be the heroine of her of life. (Inspired by Northanger Abbey)
  • “A Nominal Mistress,” by Karen M. Cox – Eleanor Tilney, the dutiful daughter of a tyrannical father, navigates her second Season in hopes of finding a suitable husband to meet her father’s demanding standards, and stir her heart. Life sends her the second son of an earl, who must shortly depart for Barbados to attend family business. Will she follow her heart and elope, or abide by her father’s wishes and marry a titled lord? With the help of an unlikely ally, she may surprise herself with her decision. (Inspired by Northanger Abbey)
  • “The Edification of Lady Susan,” by Jessie Lewis – Miss Susan Beaumont, her family, and closest confidant Miss Alicia Ffordham, correspond with each other engaging in idol talk and spurious gossip, admonishment and flattery, and speculation and scheming, all while maneuvering attachments within their sphere. (Inspired by Lady Susan)

With an anthology of 486 pages it is unfortunately impossible to review every story for the benefit of the reader. I will instead mention a few that I found outstanding. They all have a common thread—they evoked strong emotion; either laughter or tears, and sometimes both. First up is “Knightley Discourses,” (Schroeder) perfectly captured the personalities of Emma and George Knightley while they discussed their day’s events during pillow talk. They say dying is easy, comedy is hard. I laughed so hard I startled my cat. “Where the Sky Touches the Sea,” (Mackrory) was a beautifully written backstory of one of the few happy marriages in Austen’s cannon. Impressive in style and scope of characterization, I will never think of Sophie Croft and Persuasion again without remembering this 2-hankie weeper. “Louisa by the Sea,” (North) visualized Miss Musgrove’s physical recover adeptly and her romance with her new beaux was swoon-worthy too. “The Strength of the Attachment,” (Rose) re-imagined the naïve spirit of a heroine in the making, Catherine Morland, to my delight. #TeamTilney will be happy that he arrives in his gig, albeit a bit late in the story.

All-in-all, Rational Creatures is an “excessively diverting” bespoke short story anthology inspired by Jane Austen’s socially and romantically challenged female characters, who after 200 years continue to reveal to us why being in love is not exclusive of being a rational creature.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen’s Fine Ladies, edited by Christina Boyd
The Quill Ink (2018)
Trade paperback & eBook (486) pages
ISBN: 978-0998654065

PURCHASE LINKS

Amazon | Goodreads

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.”

Cover image courtesy of Quill Ink © 2018; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2018, Austenprose.com

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts, by Therese Anne Fowler – A Review

A Well Behaved Woman 2018 x 200For years, I thought Gilded Age New York socialite Alva Vanderbilt’s ferocious ambition was only rivaled by Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice as the most grasping, husband hunting mother imaginable, however my assumptions have been proved totally unfounded in A Well-Behaved Woman, a new bio-fic by Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. 

Applying her skill at thorough, in-depth historical research and thought provoking fictional characterization Fowler has re-imagined Alva in my mind.

Alva Erskin Smith was born in 1853 into a privileged but impoverished southern aristocratic family. Educated in France, her mother died young and her father, also gravely ill, returns with his children to New York city in hopes of re-connecting with family and friends. One of his daughters must marry well to save their starving family. Alva sets her sights on the Vanderbilt clan, industrial tycoons who are new money to the standards of New York’s social elite. William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelus Vanderbilt, was soon her best bet. Like many challenges in her life, those in her radar are soon overtaken, and they marry in 1875. Their union would be the social event of the season, and help improve the Vanderbilts social standing.

As we watch Alva pull the Vanderbilts up the steep social ladder of New York in the Gilded Age, a fascinating story emerges revealing her many talents. With the Vanderbilt money behind her, she builds mansions, has three children, heads up charitable organizations and throws lavish parties. Her drive to raise the Vanderbilt’s social standing culminates in her obsession of her daughter Consuelo’s marriage to an English lord. History has not been kind to Alva on that front preferring to only remember the scandalous divorce that ensued, but there is much of her life that warrants the well-behaved woman that the title of this book teasingly professes.

Eleanor Roosevelt (who ironically is in the book) is often credited as the author of this quote that may have inspired the title of the novel:

Well-behaved women seldom make history.

I think the author is having a bit of fun here. Alva, while working within the confines of social stricture, eventually was known as someone who “bucked” the system and worked for change during the Suffragette movement. Most of society would not have said she was a well-behaved woman of her generation!

Awash in the decadence of an era in American history that created industrial tycoons and the women behind them, a Well-Behaved Woman is a well-deserved rediscovery of the life of a fascinating woman retold with sensitivity and spirit. Brava!

5 out of 5 Stars

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts, by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press (2018)
Hardcover, audio recording & eBook (400) pages
ISBN: 978-1250095473

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean – A Review

What Kitty Did Next 2018 x 200We were very pleased when a novel inspired by Jane Austen’s fourth daughter in Pride and Prejudice crossed our path. What Kitty Did Next is a continuation, as such, of one of the five Bennet sisters after the close of the classic novel, whose heroine Elizabeth receives most of the praise from her father and a marriage to Mr. Darcy of Pembeley in the end. Her younger sister Catherine on the other hand, or Kitty as she is called by her family, only earns put-downs and threats from her father after her involvement in her younger sister Lydia’s infamous elopement with Mr. Wickham. Accused of being silly and ignorant, what could Kitty do to regain her family’s trust, raise her self-esteem and make herself marriageable? From the title of the book, my expectations were high. How would Kablean turn the floundering duckling of Longbourn into a swan?

Much of the anticipation for the reader is generated by Kitty’s past behavior in Pride and Prejudice. For those who have not read the original, Kablean gives us ample background and character backstory.

Kitty, meanwhile, was just Kitty. A docile child, she had trailed after her adored eldest sisters but they, like many older siblings, had not delighted in her presence and had sent her off to play with the younger ones. Only sickness and prolonged periods of enforced rest had brought Jane, and occasionally Elizabeth, to her bedside, and when she had fully recovered her health Lydia had so far inserted herself as her mother’s favourite that it had seemed obvious that she should follow in her younger sister’s wake and share all the delights and comforts bestowed upon her. Neither commanding nor being the centre of attention, Kitty had become more adept at observing than doing and, until the events of the previous year, had not questioned this order of things. Chapter 6

Our sympathies run deep for Kitty. With three of her sisters married, she is stuck at the family home with sister Mary (no fun) her prattling mother (harpy) and a negligent father who has placed her on a very short leash in reaction to the bad conduct of a younger sister who is now out of harms way living in Newcastle. With no balls to attend or officers to flirt with life is a bore until sister Jane invites her to dine at Netherfield Park. After meeting Sir Edward Quincy, a very old gentleman (of at least forty-five) she wonders if his decided attentions to her could become her fate? A wealthy widow is a very eligible prospect that her family would approve of. Yet, what does she have to offer him beyond youth? Her sister Jane sees her dilemma and invites her to join herself and her husband Charles at their London townhouse on Brook street.

How thin is the line between happiness and despair! Yesterday, all had been bleak and monotonous; today, every bright prospect was open to her. Chapter 9

So, off to London Kitty goes – a town of diversions and prospects aplenty. Or one would hope. There, she meets Mr. Darcy’s younger sister Miss Georgiana who encourages Kitty to renew her love of music, is taught by Mr. Henry Adams a dishy young music master, is introduced to Sir Quincy’s eligible nephews Mr. Frederick Fanshawe and Mr. William Fanshawe, who are his heirs, attends music soirees, art galleries and museums, shops for frocks, and generally does all the things that fashionable young ladies do while in Town. Life is good for Kitty, yet after reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women she craves more and begins a diary of her time in London.

Usually, at this point in a novel, there is a crisis or a challenging event for the heroine. In Pride and Prejudice it occurs about a third of the way in the narrative after the tumultuous failed first proposal by Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth resulting in anger, anxiety and exasperation for both parties. His “be not alarmed, madame.” letter to Elizabeth is an epiphany for her. Before that moment she never knew herself and is touched and humbled by his response. This important character arc does not happen in What Kitty Did Next for hundreds of pages, which leaves readers wondering where the storyline is going. There is activity. Kitty is improving herself, slowly, and we do learn more about the Fanshawes and sense that something is amiss there. Coupled with the author’s choice to use pages of telling the story and not showing, I found myself growing as impatient and restless as the heroine. When the action finally moves to Pemberley and Lydia Wickham crashes the summer ball, things finally come to a point of true crisis for our heroine. Her reputation is tarnished and she is sent home to Longbourn in disgrace.

What she did next, I will leave for the reader to discover. The first half of the novel was very gently paced. Be patient. Like our heroine Miss Kitty Bennet, debut novelist Carrie Kablean was learning and improving with every chapter. The final third of the book was pure vindication. Kitty became accomplished, worthy of our attention and praise, and so did the author.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean
RedDoor Publishing (2018)
Paperback & eBook (416) pages
ISBN: 978-1910453612

PURCHASE LINKS:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Mary B.: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice, by Katherine J. Chen – A Review

Mary B Katherine Chen 2018 x 197 x 300Of the five Bennet sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mary is the most unlikely of heroines. Priggish, sanctimonious, and unattractive, her prospects for a happy life were bleak. In Mary B., debut novelist Katherine Chen chooses to give Mary her own story – delving into her young, awkward life with her family at Longbourn, her early attempts at romantic attachments, and ultimately her escape to her sister’s home at Pemberley where she discovers an unknown talent, and that men can be interested in women for more than their reputed beauty and handsome dowry.

In Part I of the novel, Chen has paralleled Jane Austen’s narrative in Pride and Prejudice with a glimpse of a prequel to the Bennet sisters’ childhood. We see young Mary, awkward and introverted in comparison to her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and the brunt of abuse by her two younger siblings Kitty and Lydia. As the reader we are as hurt and confused as our heroine and it is not an enjoyable experience. As the story continues, those who have read Pride and Prejudice will recognize the plot as it picks up at the beginning of Austen’s famous tale. Through Mary’s eyes we experience the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy in the Meryton neighborhood, the ball at Netherfield Park and the visit to the family home by the Bennet’s odious cousin Mr. Collins. Infatuated with the silly man, Mary throws herself at him and then watches as he chooses her sister Lizzy as the “companion of his future life.” Adding insult to injury, after her sister rejects his proposal of marriage Mr. Collins does not even think of her as an alternative, marrying their neighbor Charlotte Lucas instead.

As Austen’s narrative of Pride and Prejudice concludes with the marriage of the Bennet sisters Elizabeth and Jane to Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley respectively, author Katherine Chen begins Part II and her own story placing Mary at Pemberley, the palatial estate of Mr. Darcy and his new bride in Derbyshire. There she is given more than a modicum of male attention, something that she has never experienced before. With the encouragement of her host Mr. Darcy, Mary begins to discover a new talent as a writer, penning a Gothic fiction novel that her bother-in-law edits for her. And, with the arrival of his churlish cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam she is introduced to the delights of the physical realm when he teaches her to ride a horse – and the arts of a more private nature.

At this point in the novel, I am reminded of two quotes by Mary from Austen’s original novel:

“Loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.” Chapter 47

AND…

“every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason.” Chapter 7

Reason is something that was of importance to Mary as Austen presented her to us. Chen has decided to take her characterization in an entirely different direction. It is shocking and painful.

Writing Jane Austen-inspired fiction is a tricky business. Those who have read and admired the novel expect a certain standard of prose, character development, and reverence to the original. Chen’s writing is impressive, and I can see why a major publisher such as Penguin Random House snapped up this novel and released it in hardback. She does not try to emulate Austen’s style, but understands it enough to structure her sentences and vocabulary in a similarly pleasing manner. That is where their affinity ends.

After she breaks away from the conclusion of Austen’s story and creates her own narrative, the reader is drawn along by pure curiosity, and then by bus-accident-like compulsion to gawk in amazement at what can be done to beloved characters for pure shock value. It is understandable that people’s personalities change as they age and mature, or from circumstances, however, readers will be hard pressed to accept Elizabeth as a neurotic, cold fish to her loving husband, propelling him into the arms of another, and that his cousin, the amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam, is even more of a womanizing cad than George Wickham could ever aspire to be. And…what about Mary – tossed and jerked about by Chen like a puppet in a twisted marionette melodrama? She seeks and finds her own happiness in the end with a touch of the #MeToo bravado that we have always wished for her, but at such a cost that Austen fans will be retrieving their blown-off bonnets from the murky depths of Pemberley’s pond.

If you are up for a wild ride through Austen’s Regency-era tale – and beyond, I can recommend Mary B. for the pure thrill of the adrenaline rush. It is now the new guilty pleasure in the Austenesque genre, out pacing Colleen McCullough’s irreverent The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by ten lengths.

3 out of 5 Regency Stars

Mary B: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice
By Katherine J. Chen
Penguin Random House
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 9780399592218

PURCHASE LINKS:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Celebrating Jane Austen’s Bicentenary – #JaneAusten200

Jane Austen memoriam in O. C. Register 18 July 2017

The world remembers Jane Austen today on the 200th anniversary of her death.

A celebration is in progress today in honor of one of the world’s most popular authors. July 18, 2017 marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death at Winchester, England in the arms of her sister Cassandra. She was only 41 years old. We have six novels, one novella and minor works to cherish. Her fandom has grown to millions.

There are many tributes in progress around the world, notably in England at Winchester Cathedral where she is buried, the Jane Austen House Museum where she resided the last 8 years of her life and at Chawton House Library, the manor house of her brother Edward Austen Knight where she was a frequent guest. The Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual general meeting is being hosted by the southwest region in Huntington Beach this year, a stone’s throw from my hometown of Newport Beach. They are dedicating the entire conference to celebrating Jane Austen in Paradise. They placed an add in the Orange County Register newspaper today in memoriam of Austen’s life and legacy. My sister kindly forwarded it to me. It gave me goosebumps. Jane is indeed everywhere today.

Jane Austen bobbleheads

Three Jane Austen bobblehead’s meet to discuss the merits of long sleeves this season! Courtesy of Julie Arnold c 2017

I have written a tribute to my favorite author for the Telly Visions blog featuring 10 reasons why we still admire Jane Austen’s writing after 200 years. The subject was so close to my heart that I struggled for weeks to write it, changing the topic and tone many times. It is so difficult to narrow down the reasons why I adore Jane Austen – so I just let her tell us.

Please join the celebration by leaving a comment at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s virtual Memory Book and by posting your favorite quote or image on social media. Use hashtag #JaneAusten200 to help her trend online.

In conclusion I will add this quote by Austen’s sister Cassandra from a letter she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight on the occasion of the death of her aunt.

“She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

Cheers Janeites!

 

Actress Joanne Froggatt Goes to the Dark Side as Murderess Mary Ann Cotton in Dark Angel on Masterpiece Classic PBS

After reading the advance press on Dark Angel – the new period drama starring Joanne Froggatt as Victorian-era serial killer Mary Ann Cotton – I was seriously considering skipping my weekly MASTERPIECE appointment with my television. Multiple murders by a woman who successively kills her husbands and children by poison for their life insurance sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me – something way beyond my comfort zone. The fact that it featured Froggatt, an awarding winning actress who I adored as Anna Bates in Downton Abbey, Emmy award winning director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) softened the blow a bit, but I was still not convinced.

My tipping point was my love of English history and my curiosity. Life in lower-class Victorian England was harsh and bleak, however, many wives and mothers did not become serial killers. What was Mary Ann Cotton’s story? What pushed her beyond despair and made her a mass murderer?

“Why don’t you let me make you a nice cup of tea?” – Mary Ann Cotton

Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes had an extraordinary true-life story to draw from. It is estimated that Cotton poisoned with arsenic up to 21 people including: three of her four husbands, fifteen children, a lover, a friend, and her mother – collecting life insurance for many of them.

Joseph Nattrass (Jonas Armstrong) flirts with Mary Ann (Joanne Froggatt)

Born on Halloween day in 1832 in Low Moorsley, a small village just outside Sunderland in north east England, Mary Ann was the daughter of Michael Robson a colliery sinker (coal mine shaft construction and maintenance worker) who died in 1842 in a mine accident in Murton, Co Durham, when she was ten. This appears to be the beginning of a long list of family deaths for Mary Ann. At age 20 she married William Mowbray in 1852. He died in 1865. Husband number two was George Ward. He died in 1866. Employed in Sunderland as housekeeper by a recent widower, James Robinson, she snagged him too and they wed in 1867. Robinson resisted her pitch to insure his life and later threw her out over stolen money and debt, but not before 4 of his children and her only living daughter died under her care. Next, she became a bigamist and married Frederick Cotton, the brother of a young friend who died of stomach ailments shortly before the nuptials. Soon after their marriage she convinces her husband to move to West Auckland where a former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was now residing.

A brief aside. Nattrass is a unique last name originating in north east England. It happens to be my surname, but my line springs from Allendale, Northumberland, and Joseph’s is from Co Durham. It was a relief to know that I have no familiar connections to Mary Ann Cotton, whatsoever!

While married to Frederick Cotton, Mary Ann bears her twelfth child, Robert Cotton, in 1871. Up until now I have not mentioned all the children. All you really need to know is that up until this point they are all dead along with 4 of her step-children. (The one exception is her son George Robinson whom she left in the care of his father.) Husband number four Frederick Cotton dies in 1871, followed by their son Robert in 1872. The only child remaining is her 7-year-old step-son, Charles Edward Cotton, who she is now saddled with after the death of her husband. Free of all declared husbands, Mary Ann hooks up again with former lover Joseph Nattrass who becomes her lodger until he changes his will in her favor and dies in 1872, followed by her step son Charles Edward. This is where the madness ends for Mary Ann. You’ll have to watch Dark Angel to find out how her house of lies, deceit and death comes crumbling down.

Inspired by the book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer by noted criminologist David Wilson, screenwriter Gywneth Hughes has crafted an engrossing tale revealing the inner-motives of a ruthless killer. Over the course of twenty years, we see Mary Ann as a young mother eager to rise above the poverty, filth and disease of her life. We cringe at her dire circumstances and feel her pain. Froggatt excels as downtrodden as we experienced with her Anna Bates in Downton Abbey. It is great to see her acting chops in full action when her darker side appears as she morphs into the black widow – using her sexual allurements to entrap her next husband – and then her detached cunning in dispatching her victims; be it man, woman or child. The body count is staggering. It is no wonder that in real-life Mary Ann’s arrest, trial and execution were sensationally publicized in Victorian newspapers becoming a national obsession.

Was Mary Ann Cotton driven by nature or nurture? Her mother, step-father, husbands and friends all seem as helpful and supportive as they could be under their own limited means. It is amazing to think that no one in her inner circle noticed the pattern of death around her. Even the insurance company does not put two and two together and continued to pay her as each family member died. I have my own theories, but honestly being a pioneer of anything gives you great advantage as a criminal. Who could possibly suspect a woman of such deeds?

Mary Ann Cotton was charged and convicted of willful murder of her step son Charles Edward Cotton by poisoning and has executed by hanging on March 23, 1873 at Durham County Goal. She declared her innocence until the very end.

Of Mary Ann’s 13 known children, only two survived her: Margaret Edith (1873–1954) who was born while she was in prison and was adopted by friends and her son George Robinson whom she left with her third husband James. They survived because they were in the care of others.

Now, when anyone offers me a cup of tea, I will be hard pressed NOT to think of Mary Ann Cotton!

Watch an interview of Joann Froggatt on her role as Mary Ann Cotton.

View Dark Angel online at PBS Video through June 3, 2017.

Images Courtesy of Justin Slee/World Productions and MASTERPIECE © 2016

Giveaway Winners Announced for Love & Friendship: The Janeite Blog Tour

Love Friendship Blog Tour graphic sidebar x 200It’s time to announce the winners of the giveaway contest for the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour. The three lucky winners of hardcover copies of the book drawn at random are:

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by July 7, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments and to Little, Brown and Company for the giveaway prizes.

Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com