Book Reviews, Victorian Authors, Victorian Era Book Reviews

Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: Ruth – A Book Review

Guest review by Regency Romantic

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

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

Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 – 2010 Regency Romantic, Austenprose

Book Reviews, Georgette Heyer Books, Regency Era, Sweet Historical Romance

Faro’s Daughter, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

Guest review by Joanna aka RegencyRomantic

Published in 1941, Faro’s Daughter was written during a trying time in Georgette Heyer’s life when she was at odds with her agents and publishers, and war was wreaking havoc on the publishing industry.  She was forced to put this work aside in favor of another, but reading the seamless story now belies all that turmoil.  This is a rollicking romp of a romance story that features one of Heyer’s most endearing couple truly well matched in wit, wiles, and words.

‘I may be one of faro’s daughters, but I’ll not entrap any unfortunate young man into marrying me, even if my refusal means a debtors’ prison!’ (Chapter 4)

That is the pickle that Deborah Grantham finds herself in.  Orphaned 10 years prior, Deborah and her younger brother Kit were raised by their kind-hearted, but addle-brained aunt, Lady Bellingham, who was in turn left badly dipped by her husband.  To make ends meet, Lady Bellingham decided to parlay her knack for hosting famous card parties into running a ‘proper’ gambling house in the respectable area of St. James’s Square and Deborah has been presiding over her gaming tables ever since leaving the schoolroom.  Her refreshing beauty, quick wit, and charming ways are an instant hit with the ‘ton’ customers, but her reputation has been continually called into question by working in such a place.  To make matters worse, Lady Bellingham has absolutely no head for business and soon sinks them into debt.  Thus, the clever Deborah is forced to balance the advances of two patrons of consequence to keep themselves afloat.  On one hand is the odious and maquillaged Lord Ormskirk: a widower twice over who’s twice Deborah’s age, he has acquired the debts and mortgage of Lady Bellingham and only has dishonorable designs of making Miss Grantham his mistress.  On the other hand is the handsome and impetuous Lord Adrian Mablethorpe: an heir to a great fortune and title who’s five years Deborah’s junior, he vows to save Miss Grantham from her wretched situation and only has the honorable intention of making her his wife… that is, when he comes of age in two months.  Giving in to Ormskirk is unpalatable while robbing the cradle with Adrian is unconscionable, so what is a girl to do? Continue reading “Faro’s Daughter, by Georgette Heyer – A Review”

Book Reviews, Cultural Studies, Jane Austen

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman – A Review

From the desk of Regency Romantic:

The moment I opened Jane’s Fame, the catchy titles of certain chapters – Praise and Pewter, Canon and Canonisation, Jane AustenTM  hooked me and I knew I was in for a ride.  I was not disappointed.  Claire Harman’s new biography of Jane Austen is an engaging and brave account of the reluctant and evolving love story between Austen and her public as Harman holds our hands through the ebb and flow of Jane’s fame for the past 200 years.

Harman astutely points out two significant turning points for Jane’s mass popularity: first, the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870 and second, Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt in the iconic BBC film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995.  Separated by more than a century, Harman draws parallels and contrasts between the two centuries and sifts through the myths and pitfalls that have been brought about by these two events.

Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in 1870 drew a saccharine image of Austen as a brilliant writer who wrote for her own amusement, confined to a little corner, while she happily played the different roles of daughter, sister, and aunt.  Harman overturns this notion with a choice quotation from Austen herself, underscoring her own ambition and desire for financial success:

I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.  People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.

Harman goes on to track Austen’s perseverance as an unpublished writer for almost 20 years – how she would revise and update her works, which added to their ‘timeless’ and ‘unpinned’ quality, and how Austen’s ambition further revealed itself through her astute dealings with different publishers.  Austen’s lukewarm reception by and relative anonymity with the reading public during the initial publications of her six completed novels (first in the 1810s, then in the 1830s to 1860s) brought about outright plagiarisms of an obscure Jane.  This brings to mind an ironic contrast to modern-day sequels and mash-ups that cannot be more eager to attribute Austen as co-author, riding on her commercial popularity.

The mystery surrounding the unknown author in the mid-19th century brought about unwanted and unfounded speculations, which forced the hand of Austen’s family and brought about the publication of A Memoir.  Rather than clarify the mystery, more questions surfaced.  Most notably, a definitive image and portrait of Austen was never found and eludes us to this day.  A Pandora’s box had been opened and the insatiable public could not get enough.

The cult of the Divine Jane emerges and Harman relentlessly draws the rising tide of various contradictions: Austen’s work as a ‘little bit of ivory’ vs. the worldliness of her stories; the initial all-male elite club of Austen’s early critical fans vs. Austen as the figurehead for feminist movements; Austen as anti-sentimentalist compared to her contemporaries vs. Austen as the mother of romance and chick lits; Austen works considered as being quintessentially English, but whose value and worth were first noticed by American critics, collectors, and pilgrims.  Austen is, indeed, everything, for everyone.

Another parallel that Harman draws is the transforming allure of Austen’s works once they have been illustrated.  She likens the success of Hugh Thomson’s elaborate and exaggerated illustrations for Pride and Prejudice in 1894, which gave a huge boost to Austen’s sales, to the unforgettable image of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt emerging from the lake, which has spurred several more adaptations of her other works, ad nauseam.  Suddenly, Austen’s viewing public is a stronger presence than her reading public.  Coinciding with this is the emergence of a whole industry around the brand name of Jane Austen.  Consequently, these will continue to change how Austen’s novels and image will be read, whether positively or negatively.  And with her rising popularity in the internet blogs and sites, the fame of Jane seems illimitable.

It is not only Harman’s parallelisms that make for compelling reading. She debunks popular myths with sound research but delivers it in a mirthful tone, worthy of her subject.  Most enjoyably, quotable quotes by or relating to Austen that I have haphazardly read and gathered throughout the years as an Austen fan are cleverly weaved into the narrative, not only in their proper historical context but also their reverberations as Austen’s public reception cycles through changing times and tastes.  Harman’s revelations are not earth-shattering, but the ground underneath my ever-growing appreciation for Austen has shifted for the better.

Harman posits that the true connection between Austen and Shakespeare ‘lies in their popularity, accessibility, and impact’.  I will add ‘mystery’ to that.  Like a comet that burns brightly in the heavens for a brief moment, we can only bask in her brilliance but never grasp her core.  And as the competition to find the ‘definitive image’ of Jane continues, we can only throw our gaze to the passing shooting star and hope that our fascination for this enigma called Jane Austen will never wane and the love story will never end.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman
Henry, Holt & Co, New York (2010)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0805082586

Additional Reviews

(Note: Austenprose is specially mentioned twice, in the Preface and on p.276!  Huzzah!)

Cover image courtesy of Henry, Holt & Co © 2010; text Joann Go © 2010,

Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Jane Austen Books

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by Jane Rubino & Caitlen Rubino-Bradway – A Review

After being introduced to Jane Austen’s Lady Susan via A Soiree with Lady Susan, Austenprose’s rollicking cyber group read, replete with wagging tongues and fluttering fans, I delighted in discovering this ‘most accomplished Coquette in England’.  So different from other Austen heroines, I welcomed her all the more for her flagrant flaws and mercenary machinations.  Regretfully, as Jane Austen never got the chance to revise this novella, the limitations of the epistolary form did leave me with a desire for more.

Enter Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway’s novel Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, which certainly fulfills this desire… and more!  This clever re-imagining by a mother and daughter team turns my previous notion about this heroine on its head.  It intriguingly opens with an Austen inspired witticism:

A woman with neither property nor fortune must ward off this affliction by cultivating the beauty, brilliance, and accomplishment that will blind a promising suitor to the want of a dowry.  When she is securely married… she must never sink to complacency, but always keep sharp, for it may be her unfortunate lot to survive her spouse and she will be thrown back upon her wits once more.

Thus, the stage is set.  Antedating where Austen’s story begins, the novel unfolds with a credible backstory that explains why Lady Susan’s reputation as an accomplished coquette springs from malicious gossip gone awry.  Born Susan Martin, who from the cradle has been matched to her young, wealthy, and titled cousin Sir James Martin, she chooses, instead, to marry the much older and recently knighted Sir Frederick Vernon.  Becoming Lady Vernon, she inadvertently makes an enemy of Mr. Charles Vernon, her husband’s younger brother whose suit she categorically rejected.  Hell hath no fury like a man scorned!  He slovenly casts aspersions on Lady Vernon’s character that, like all gossip, assumes a life of its own. When Sir Frederick dies with the understanding that Charles would provide for his wife and daughter as he had stipulated, the embittered Charles reneges on his verbal promises.  Driven out of their home by Charles and his insipid and gullible wife, Catherine De Courcy, Lady Vernon and her daughter, Frederica, rely on the generosity of friends who place them in compromising situations that escalate the rumors.  Lady Vernon is forced to endure the advances of the married Mr. Manwaring.  Frederica is expelled from school for her kind-hearted gesture to save a friend from a ruinous elopement.  Untenable, they return to Charles’ home and confront him with his responsibility, which he continues to evade.  When Reginald De Courcy, Catherine’s brother, curiously arrives to meet the infamous Lady Vernon, the winds of persecution start to shift.  Lady Vernon maintains the protective façade of her coquetry, but underneath, her uncanny understanding of human nature and social manipulations allow her to find a way out of their financially dire situation.  Using the “most effective method of persuading both Reginald and Catherine to do anything, which was to urge them in the opposite direction”, Frederica is sent off to the forbidding estate of the De Courcy’s.  Will Lady Vernon’s gamble pay-off or just put shy Frederica in a more precarious situation?  Compounded with the return of the rebuffed Sir James Martin, a frivolous man who delights in flouting society’s expectations and making mischief, will Lady Vernon and Frederica’s pursuit for matrimonial bliss be thwarted forever?

Although I loved Lady Susan as a villain, I loved Lady Vernon more as a heroine.  Frederica, who was barely given a voice in Austen’s original oeuvre, deservedly receives her full heroine due in this re-telling.  It departs materially from Austen’s plot at certain points, but its prose and humor are so reminiscent of Austen that it is meaty enough to satisfy.  Both Lady Vernon and Frederica, echoing the trials of sister tandems Elinor-Marianne and Lizzie-Jane (albeit here as mother-daughter), are imbued with similar wit, strength, and resiliency that we have come to love in Austen’s beloved heroines.  Lady Vernon’s unerring wit outwitting a fickle society obsessed with gossip keeps this novel fresh for a modern audience whose inquiring minds want to know.  Peppered with allusion to and appearance of several characters from Austen’s other canons truly make this novel a delicious read.  So, read it not just once, for its story; not just twice, for its spin of the original work; but perhaps thrice, for all the other witty winks to Austen.  After all, there is no such thing as having too much Austen in the daily diet.

Review by Regency Romantic

5 out of 5 Regency stars

Lady Vernon and her Daughter, by Jane Rubino & Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
Crown Publishing, New York (2009)
Hardcover (328) pages
ISBN:  987-0307461667

Additional Reviews

Read a guest blog from A Soiree with Lady Susan by Jane Rubino & Cailten Rubino-Bradway