Victorian Authors

A Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fischer – A Review & Giveaway!

A Charles Dickens Devotional, by Jean Fischer (2012)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

Hidden like gems among the pages of [Dickens’] novels are numerous religious images and biblical references: in Great Expectations, Pip praying for the Lord to be merciful to Abel Magwitch, a sinner and formidable criminal; in Bleak House, the image of Christ ‘stooped down, writing with his finger in the dust when they brought the sinful woman to him’; in Little Dorrit, adoration of wealth described as ‘the camel in the needle’s eye, (introduction).

As if A Jane Austen Devotional were not enough, fans of 19th century British Christian piety have a chance to sit and meditate on some of the most memorable and beloved stories of English literature with Jean Fischer’s A Charles Dickens Devotional, a collection of over one hundred vivid and engaging passages from nearly every fictional tale Dickens composed, including the ever popular David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations along with the important, but perhaps lesser read masterpieces Bleak House, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit. And just as with the Austen devotional, each Dickens passage is paired with a short reflection and scripture quote meant to inspire meditation on a particular moral principle or virtue.

As Fischer writes, “[Dickens] was recognized as a nineteenth-century advocate for the poor and the oppressed,” (210)—the result, of course, of Dickens’ own experiences of poverty and child labor. Indeed, he often supported the underdogs of society in his stories—children, women, the poor—and exposed the structures of society that oppressed the weak and allowed the greedy to exploit others even as they maintained a “Christian” front. Like Jane Austen before him, Dickens knew the power of the pen in exposing hypocrisy and upholding the virtuous. Through a keen observation of human nature—the good and the bad—and through his excellent descriptions, Dickens brings to life characters that are themselves parables; none more so, perhaps, than Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser turned saint and hero of A Christmas Carol.

One of my favorite chapters in this devotional takes its passage from Dickens’ last and unfinished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Outside the New Testament, I do not think I have ever read a more scathing description of false philanthropy. How it cuts its subject to the quick and thus, as Fischer points out, challenges the reader to search his or her own conscience. Unfortunately, not all the meditations are equally strong, and I found one in particular that I thought was rather dangerous. In the chapter “Bad Company,” Fischer writes in her meditation “In this world, every day, we come in contact with both Christians and non-Christians. God does not forbid this, but rather He desires that we not get too close to unbelievers and risk being pulled into the enemy’s snare,” (77). I understand the best possible interpretation of that statement, but I still found it overly simplistic and unhelpful, especially in a time when it is becoming ever more important for Christians to dialogue with each other and non-Christians.

That said, this is a devotional, not a theological work, and so readers are expected to bring their own faith with them, using what they find in the book, if they can, and leaving what is unhelpful and uninspiring. If you are afraid that you will be lost in a sea of unfamiliar characters and plots, don’t be; Fischer’s book is designed for the Dickens expert and the lay reader alike. The Dickens framework is merely meant to spark contemplation. If it sparks your literary interest and leads you to read the novels, as well, so much the better. I am sure that fans of Austen and Dickens, will find much to enjoy in this helpful little book, so I give it four stars.

4 out of 5 Stars

A Grand Giveaway of A Charles Dickens Devotional

Publisher Thomas Nelson, Inc. has generously offered a giveaway contest of three copies of A Charles Dickens Devotional. To enter a chance to win one copy, leave a comment stating which quotes from Charles Dickens you think are inspiring, or which of  Charles Dickens’ characters would greatly benefit from this devotional, and why by 11:59pm PT, Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, February 23, 2012. Shipment to the US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

A Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fischer
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2012)
Hardcover (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1400319541
NOOK: ISBN: 978-1400319725
Kindle: ASIN: B005ENBBUQ

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He is in the writing and publishing graduate program at DePaul University. He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

Book Reviews, Giveaways, Jane Austen, Nonfiction

A Jane Austen Devotional, by Steffany Woolsey – A Review & Giveaway!

A Jane Austen Devotional, by Steffany Woolsey (2012)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

This book is crafted with the hope that readers would take the opportunity to get lost in the world of Jane Austen—a place where we can all pause in solitude, as though we’ve just finished a stroll in the garden with Jane and are now sitting down with her to tea, reflecting on important life lessons and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Through excerpts from her work, short devotions, and Scripture, we hope this book will bring you moments of peace while you allow God’s word to shape your own character, (introduction).

Jane Austen, Virgin and Doctor of the Church? One might look forward to the Anglican Communion adding Blessed Jane to its calendar of saints with the publication of Steffany Woolsey’s A Jane Austen Devotional (a measure this Catholic would whole-heartedly support). When Laurel Ann first told me she was sending me this book, I was off-the-charts thrilled. The title alone was enough to evoke in me a childlike eagerness to hold the book in my hands and celebrate that such a thing existed. Why this near-absurd ebullience? Well, my particular area of Austen studies focuses on Jane Austen’s religious context and the religiosity of her novels, thus a book that purposefully examines her stories in a Christian light was sure to interest me. One that does so as a devotional—a book designed as an aid to the reader’s spiritual contemplation—promised to take things to a higher, more personal level.

With over one hundred meditation reflections, paired with favorite snippets from the novels we love so well, along with corresponding scripture passages, this devotional is sure to please Austen fans of faith. Subjects covered vary widely, but may be categorized by Austen’s common religious themes: the rewards of virtuous living, the ugliness of vicious behavior, and the duty owed to one’s family, neighbors, and society. Chapter titles give you further clues into themes: “Being Generous,” “Spiritual Bankruptcy,” “Respecting One Another,” “Flirting with Sin,” and so on. By combining scenes from Austen and scenes from Jewish and Christian scriptures, the author builds the foundation for the little morals she offers or reflection questions she poses at the end of each two-page chapter. In doing so, Woolsey helps readers to do what Austen always intended them to do: to use her characters—the good and the bad—to critically examine their own behavior. Are we more like Mary Crawford or Fanny Price? Mr. Wickham or Mr. Darcy?

One reflection I particularly liked was entitled “Following the Golden Rule.” This chapter held up the example of Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice for the reader’s consideration, reminding him or her of Jane’s propensity to see the good in everyone, and her avoidance of malicious speech. As Woolsey writes, “Jane lives out this truth [the Golden Rule given by Jesus] by employing a simple philosophy: if we want to be loved, we have to give love. Likewise, if we want meaningful relationships, we need to treat others with respect and esteem. Forgiveness, kindness, generosity—in all these areas, we must lead without expectation of reciprocity,” (21). The concluding reflection questions that then follow are deep, in their own way, helping the reader to really sit and delve into the true motivations for his or her behavior and interaction with others.

A Jane Austen Devotional is a spiritual tool, not merely a gimmicky Austen collectable. If used once a day (as devotionals usually are), this book can slowly help a spiritual seeker to develop or strengthen his or her practice of reflection and contemplation, using as a starting point Austen’s very practical Anglican Christianity. In this way, it’s not a book you sit down and read through in a weekend, but one you keep around all year long, on your nightstand with your Bible, at your desk at work, in your glove compartment, or in your purse.

I give this book 5 Stars, and highly recommend it.

A Grand Giveaway of A Jane Austen Devotional

The publisher Thomas Nelson, Inc. has generously offered a giveaway contest of three copies of A Jane Austen Devotional. To enter a chance to win one copy, leave a comment stating which quotes from Jane Austen you think are inspiring, or which of which of Jane Austen’s characters would greatly benefit from this devotional and why by 11:59pm PT, Wednesday, January 18, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, January 19, 2012. Shipment to the US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

A Jane Austen Devotional, by Steffany Woolsey
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2012)
Hardcover (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1400319534

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He is in the writing and publishing graduate program at DePaul University. He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

Book Reviews, Georgian Era, Historical Fantasy, Paranormal & Gothic Fiction

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe – A Review

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe (2008)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

A deranged nun cloistered away in a convent hidden in the forests of southern France tells the story of when she used to be a beautiful, love-crazed noblewoman, the climax of which is her confession to persuading a married man to poison his wife—and that is just one of the many bizarre twists of Ann Radcliffe’s exciting classic Gothic tale, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance,¹ the novel that inspired Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey. It was because of Austen’s praise of Radcliffe’s novel, that I purchased Udolpho as summer reading—and how could I not, when sensible Mr. Tilney had this to say of it:

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time” (Ch. 14).

Udolpho is the story of the worst year in Emily St. Aubert’s life. Her mother dies, then her father dies, and she ends up in the care of an aunt with about as much sympathy and tenderness as the hideous Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park. This same aunt blocks Emily’s marriage plans to Valancourt, the man she loves, and takes her to Italy to live under the power of the tyrannical Montoni, the handsome fiend the aunt has just married. The narrator says, “As the carriage-wheels rolled heavily under the portcullis, Emily’s heart sunk, and she seemed, as if she was going into her prison; the gloomy court, into which she passed, served to confirm the idea, and her imagination, ever awake to circumstance, suggested even more terrors, than her reason could justify” (210). In fact, Emily’s fears are quite justifiable. While some of the subsequent terrors, seemingly supernatural, are eventually explained, the real dangers are horrific enough. Indeed, one of the most frightening scenes has nothing to do with ghostly apparitions, mysterious voices, veiled images, and haunting music—Radcliffe’s favorite tricks—rather it has to do with two drunken men chasing after Emily through the dark passages of the castle, competing to get to her first (398).

Not surprising, the vulnerability of women is a major theme of Udolpho—a theme cleverly symbolized by a bedroom door that cannot be locked from the inside (217-218). Radcliffe exposes not only the violence of men against women, but also the social system that limited women’s decision-making power over their own futures. There is no better symbol of this than the tragic character of the marchioness, forced by her father to marry a man she did not love for the sake of money, only to be poisoned by that same man when she was falsely suspected of committing adultery (606-607). In contrast, the strength of women is also highlighted in the novel, mainly through the portrayal of women as virtuous, rational human beings, as with Emily and several of the female side characters, such as the nuns and the female servants who care for Emily. Even the two villainous female characters—Laurentini di Udolpho and Madame Montoni—have conversions. Indeed, the former  exclaims: “What are riches—grandeur—health itself, to the luxury of a pure conscience, the health of the soul; and what sufferings or poverty, disappointment, despair—to the anguish of an afflicted one!” (596).

The above points to the most important theme of the novel, virtue rewarded, a common religious theme in novels of the Georgian Era. Udolpho is an important historical text, precisely because of the way it handles the subject of religion. Although the novel is set in 1584, in Catholic France and Italy, it has tale-tell signs of Eighteenth Century anti-Catholic British prejudice. Catholic devotions are frequently labeled superstitious (29-30, 84, and 194), and the regulated life of monks and nuns is condemned by one character as pretentious and stifling to real prayer (436, 439). There are also interesting touches of Rationalism’s emphasis on self-control (7, 539, 596), typical of the Anglicanism of Radcliffe’s time, and Romanticism’s emphasis on the power of nature to help the human person experience transcendence (8, 224, 436), a combination which reminds one of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Some of the less brilliant elements to the novel include the interspersion of poetry throughout the story, the interruption of the central plot by subplots, and the flatness of the characters, even the heroine. The mixing of poetry with prose in Udolpho is distracting, especially since the quality of it is not as high as that of the prose. The subplots, while tied in with the main plot eventually, are rather fantastic in subject and action. That said, they help sustain the agonizing pace that Radcliffe establishes from the beginning. These stories are designed to tantalize the reader’s imagination and keep the pages turning, which they do quite well, but they nevertheless seem to derail the main storyline. As for flatness in characters, that may be allowed for minor characters, but when the entire cast is flat, there is a problem. Even Emily, with all her tears, sighs, fainting spells, and prayers, lacks depth and development—though she is not without her moments of triumph, particularly in the wonderfully written scene in which she defends herself against Montoni when the latter attempts to bully her into a marriage with an Italian nobleman she despises (183-191).

At times, Udolpho is grossly melodramatic and sentimental, overly and simplistically pious; but despite these limitations and failings, Radcliffe’s novel is a wonderfully entertaining story, vividly described, with a roller-coaster plot that keeps the reader on the edge—a mix of the real and the imagined, with characters you love to hate, and others you would hate to see lose—all of which makes Radcliffe the rightful mother of a genre of literature that encompasses works ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.  And lest we forget, Udolpho is also an interesting piece of Christian art, designed, like a parable, to teach its readers a simple biblical premise: “though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain…innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (620).

[1] Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe
Oxford University Press, USA (2008)
Trade paperback (736) pages
ISBN: 978-0199537419

Grand Giveaway

Enter a chance to win a copy of Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe by leaving a comment stating what intrigues you about this Gothic novel, or why you would take Henry Tilney’s excellent advice (or Br. Paul’s) and read it. Deadline to comment is midnight PT, Wednesday, August 17th, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, August 18th, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the masters of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, Austenprose

Book Reviews, Jane Austen Critiques & Analysis Book Reviews

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

I hate William Deresiewicz for writing this book—but only because I would have loved to have written it myself. A Jane Austen Education resonates so closely with my own approach to studying the Austen canon—living and learning from Austen’s works, as if from a collection of sacred texts (as the term “canon” suggests to a student of theology like me)—that I can only feel that there is nothing left for me to say.

Well, I really wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that Deresiewicz has accomplished something impressive with this latest addition to Austen studies. Indeed, he has done something I think many Janeites—scholars and lay folks alike—would love to do, exploring the meaning of Austen’s major works, while articulating the impact these novels have on how one understands his or her own life and society. His memoir, therefore, demonstrates perfectly why literary works of art matter, showing that these six popular novels are not mere stories of England’s Regency Period—they are communications of what one highly intelligent person thought being human was all about—sociology, theology, philosophy all rolled into the very comprehensible and down-to-earth package of stories about ordinary women and men.

By doing so, Deresiewicz challenges the perception that Austen’s works are romance novels concerned with fairy-tale marriages only. Indeed, these are not light and airy lessons; they come with an ethic that is certainly Christian and heavy in a particular morality. Although Deresiewicz does not emphasize this religious angle, he does lay out Austen’s religious conclusions rather bluntly. In the chapter on Emma, he says Austen condemns a society of elites whose boredom, rooted in a sense of superiority, only camouflages their inattentiveness to others and lack of charity (12-13). In Mansfield Park, he says Austen shows that “the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without” (156), and in Persuasion, he says Austen argues that true friendship is about self-sacrifice and putting one’s friend’s needs before your own (194). As for romantic love, Sense and Sensibility advocates finding partners that challenge one to grow and improve, rather than people who are just like oneself. Indeed, “True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives” (237). And the key to success, as Northanger Abbey reveals, is a continual openness to learning, change, and growth (116), not to mention the ability to distinguish true goodness from specious appearances, as the other five novels also stress. Clearly, then, Austen was not an exponent of “I’m okay, you’re okay,” rather she was critical of popular society and the ignorant, idle, or selfish people who fashion and lead it.  She demanded much of her heroines and heroes precisely because she wanted them to experience a greater level of happiness—one rooted in the disciplined life of a Christian. (Again, the Christian emphasis is my own.)

Deresiewicz’s epiphany moments and subsequent insights help us to see these familiar stories and their characters in a fresh new light. Before reading A Jane Austen Education, I used to dismiss Mr. Woodhouse with his hypochondria and Miss Bates with her prattle as caricatures to be laughed at; but Deresiewicz saw something more at work in them. Mr. Woodhouse may have been obsessed of illness, but this did not devolve into self-absorption, rather he had a remarkable propensity for caring about the welfare of others. And Miss Bates, he reminds us, was a woman who had suffered many disappointments and trials in her life. At times, she may have seemed lost in a sea of trifles, but she was actually just being attentive to those around her and the joys of the present moment. Both Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are happy people, despite their hardships, and so have something to teach Emma and us (29-31). Likewise, in Northanger Abbey, I missed the importance of Catherine’s learning to love a hyacinth, but Deresiewicz saw in that little detail Austen’s moral that it is possible to learn to love (107). This contradicts the idea that love just happens to us, that we are passive “victims” of it, and it says that we can actively seek it and learn to have it for new things we might never have expected to love. Thus, rather than a romantic fatalism we find a philosophical theory of hope rooted in the idea that humans can learn—not bad for a novel branded a Gothic parody.

But what about Deresiewicz’s work as memoir? While the anecdotes he shares about his life are entertaining and well told, they are unremarkable. I do not recall a single one of them with much clarity, except the impressions I have of his unhappy relationship with his father, his friendship with a fatherly professor, his struggles as a graduate student and neophyte teacher, and his journey away from a superficial circle of acquaintances to one of true friends. Of course, I was only interested in the details of Deresiewicz’s life secondarily, as a way of understanding Austen’s novels better. I think this was the author’s intention, and I would say he was successful in his goal of teaching us about Austen and her message by simply telling us how her novels have helped him understand his own life better (or how his life helped him to understand Austen’s novels better).  It is fitting that Deresiewicz was able to glean so much meaning from such ordinary events in his life, since he says Austen herself offers her readers “just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies” (36).  Deresiewicz attempts to tell his story in the same way, and I applaud his efforts, giving A Jane Austen Education four stars and highly recommending it to others.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the master’s of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz
Penguin Group (2011)
Hardcover (272) pages
ISBN: 978-1594202889

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose