Sons and Daughters: Darcy and Fitzwilliam Book Two, by Karen Wasylowski – A Review

Sons and Daughters: Darcy and Fitzwilliam Book Two, by Karen V. Wasylowki (2012)From the desk of Shelley DeWees

Care for a slice of dialogue?  I promise that you’ll find it irresistibly juicy, bursting to the seams with wit and character.  This is Karen Wasylowski’s work, after all, and you may still have the lingering juices from her first book Darcy and Fitzwilliam on your tongue.  It tasted like Pride and Prejudice, but more tangy, more modern, more real (if you haven’t read it, you should, posthaste).  This is totally worth the indulgence.  Go ahead.  Live a little.

Just then the door opened and in walked Fitzwilliam Darcy.

            “Darcy!  It’s about time you arrived!”

            “Wonderful to see you as well, Fitz.”  Darcy then turned to O’Malley.  “Hello, Patrick.  Good to see you, how is Mrs. O’Malley?”

            “Grand, sir.  Just grand, and, I thank you for askin’.  She’s got a proper cap to wear now she does, enjoys bossin’ around her new maid.”

            Fitzwilliam slammed a cup down to kill a roach.

            “Excellent news, and well deserved I might add.  And the boys?  Getting quite tall I’ll warrant.”

            “Growin’ like weeds, they are, another on the way and, again, so good of you to inquire.”  Patrick swept away the dead bug with his hand then wiped his hand on his trousers.

            “My, aren’t you two delightful?  A regular Tristan and Isolde without all that lovely prose to distract the mind.  Well, as much as I hate to break up this heartwarming tableau I’m famished and you’re nearly a quarter hour late, Darcy.”

            “And you’re in a foul mood.  Has he been like this all day, Patrick?”

            “Naw.  Most time, he’s worse.”  Patrick then turned and left before he was sacked once again.

Brazen, boyish Fitzwilliam stands in stark contrast to his upstanding cousin, Darcy of Pemberley, of Pride and Prejudice, of the deepest wanderings of all your Colin-Firth-look-a-like fantasies of fiction male stardom.  Next to a man like that, Fitzwilliam appears undignified, unmannered, even silly — totally real.  Fitzwilliam isn’t like other male characters in Austen and Austenesque literature, because he isn’t a courtly, noble person yet remains on the side of good.  He’s as unlikely to hurt someone as Georgiana Darcy, and far more apt to offer you a toast of health and good cheer.  Sure, he’s doing it with a foul mouth and an attitude fit for a brothel, but who cares?  Charming and enthusiastic, Fitzwilliam is a breath of fresh air.  Darcy is…well, Darcy.  All that you love of him, and more, but unsurprisingly nice.  His stately, composed personality makes up for all of Fitzwilliam’s shortcomings, which is perhaps why the two make such a wondrous pair in Sons and Daughters, the second installment in the series from Karen Wasylowski.

The early portions of the story find Darcy doing his Darcy thing, wandering around his lovely homes and out into London to meet people and talk about stuff.  He pays his bills, meets his solicitors, goes “on up to Parliament” and around to see his deliciously-styled Aunt Catherine who is fabulously, unapologetically drunk on “medicinal liquid” most of the time.  I can’t help but see Judi Dench and a big pile of frosted grey hair, but what’s better than that?  Nothing.  Nothing is better than Lady Catherine de Bourgh, especially as seen through the brilliant character depiction that Karen Wasylowski employs.  Fitzwilliam is another one of these creations, though he finds himself with much less time on his hands.  As the Surveyor General, he is busy and overtaxed (hence the snarky attitude) but still manages to find time to hang out with his wife and family.

And believe me, that includes plenty of people.  Darcy and lovely Elizabeth (who remains a back-burner voice in this interpretation — don’t be surprised) have a respectable number of offspring with a respectable, quiet life and a respectable, quiet group of helpers around them.  Their kids are sweet, generous, and well-spoken.  But of course, Fitzwilliam’s brood stands in contrast, both in numbers and in personalities.  While Darcy’s children are playing the pianoforte and researching Chinese history, Fitz’s are monkeying around like hoodlums, dropping bags of flour from 3rd-story windows, sliding down banisters, and causing their parents untold amounts of torment.  It goes so far that by the end of the book, I determined that Fitz and Amanda are bloody bad parents.

But remember, this is Karen Wasylowski’s work.  She’s the master of modern Austen, unafraid to throw in little gems and goodies like these.  The faults of the parents become the faults of the children in the real world, and such is the case here.  You’ll find yourself stunned at the lack of discipline and responsibility from Amanda and Fitz’s crazy children, the end of the book exploding with the bad behavior and carelessness that only ungoverned children can enact (now that they’re grown, you see, the cracks in their foundations really begin to show).

It’s a refreshing ride through Austen territory, but not your typical trip at all.  You’ll find bits of tradition, sure, but I found myself scratching my head at their placement, almost like they were included as a token gesture to those who search for them.  Everyone seems to live the same life over and over, cooling in passions and slackening in pursuits as the years mount, forcing the narrative to focus on the offspring simply to find something interesting again!  This tiresome path simply didn’t fit alongside the edgy, flashy prose.  However, I was consistently kept afloat by Ms. Wasylowski’s excellent skill as a writer.  She is a gifted storyteller with exceptional talent, especially with character development.  Sons and Daughters won’t leave you wanting!  Saddle up and don’t forget your boots!

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Sons and Daughters: Darcy and Fitzwilliam Book Two, by Karen V. Wasylowski
CreateSpace (2012)
Trade paperback (416) pages
ISBN: 978-1480002913

© 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal – A Review

Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (2012)Review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“Accustomed as she was to the more retiring life on her father’s estate, Jane had not looked for any honors when she married Mr. Vincent.  The few months of their marriage had been filled with work and the joy of learning to shape their lives together.”

It’s a sequel!  To Shades of Milk and Honey!  Are you excited?  After the resounding success of that, Mary Robinette Kowal’s first book, you probably should be.  But beware as you peruse this, gentle readers, for I have written it under the assumption that you’ve read and enjoyed the lovely first novel.  Spoilers abound!

The end of Shades of Milk and Honey brought an explosive duel, the victory of a suitor, and, as all Regency-era novels tend to do, a wedding.  Vincent and Jane are as happy as they’ve ever been, enjoying life not only as a romantic pair, gazing into each other’s eyes and invoking pet names at every opportunity, but also as a creative partnership.  They effectively go into business together as England’s Best Glamourists and are swiftly snapped up by the Prince Regent and his cohort.  Jane soon finds herself rubbing elbows with the aristocracy, and feels a certain apprehension at the new attention.  Any mistake in her creations now affect her partnership, her place in the world…everything!  Needless to say, she’s always the first one to leave the party and go upstairs.

Not that she’s unproductive.  Much of the story is taken up by the discovery and implementation of Jane’s transport theories for magic, something she discovers by accident as she’s bouncing around Belgium on a working vacation/honeymoon.  She explores, experiments, figures a few interesting things out…a few, uh, remarkable surprises.  One is highly predictable.  One is not.  Another is utterly absurd. Blowing the cover on all of them now would be unkind, suffice to say that Jane’s life is again thrown into turmoil and she’s forced to call upon all her knowledge and expertise (and call in a few favors) to get everything to settle down again.

All of this is superimposed over Ms. Kowal’s elegant magic system, “glamour” as she calls it.  Using the language of textiles, glamourists pull sheets and strands of glamour out of the “ether” and manipulate them in the way a master weaver would.  Folding, braiding, knotting, and tying-off are all common acts with glamour, but it’s in the doing where creativity and deftness of hand where Jane really shines.  She’s totally devoted to her craft, her confidence having grown exponentially as she took her first timid steps away from her father’s home.  Yes, it’s a lovely arrangement, yet it still remains as mysterious and under-explained as it was in Shades of Milk and Honey.  The only moderate salvation to the magic-curious people who take up Glamour in Glass is in a 2-page Glamour Glossary, tucked into the back of the book almost as an afterthought.  Now, to be fair, Ms. Kowal does make the attempt to showcase the logistics of the magic with Jane’s stay at a school for glamourists, an innovative move but one that still left me guessing.  For an author who’s so widely known for her fantasy and science fiction work, I’m still wishing for more!  Certainly more than a glossary.  Please?

But in general, the story bounds along in an elegant way.  Kowal’s writing style is beautiful and engrossing, not to Regency-y but still conforming to the canon of the time.  It’s a noble effort for a second novel, and displays a lot of growth and maturation for her second attempt.  Her characters are still a little shallow, her pace a bit too quick, but a trip through Glamour in Glass shouldn’t leave you disappointed.  If you enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey, give this one a shot!

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books (2012)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0765325570
NOOK: ISBN: 9781429987288
Kindle: ASIN: B006OLOUQY

© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Second Impressions, by Ava Farmer – A Review

Second Impressions, by Ava Farmer (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

With her husband’s solemn assurances that he did not regret his marriage to her as the cause of no heir, his generous and reasonable reflections on the matter, and his half-jest that , ‘should Georgiana never marry, one of the Bingley boys will do very well,’ Elizabeth could have no cause to repine.  She had daily the very pleasant female society of Georgiana, and could visit the Bingleys whenever she chose.  Mistress of her days, spent in the informed intercourse and agreeable companionship of her husband and his sister, Elizabeth regarded her own as the best of blessings.  Elizabeth was as happy as even the wife of Mr. Darcy should be.

As a continuation of Pride and Prejudice, Second Impressions is a monolith of good Austen example, a shining beacon of this-is-how-we-do-it research technique that is so prettily put together – the original author of Pride and Prejudice would be dazzled.  And me?  Well, I was dazzled too.

The very first, uh…impression that you get of Second Impressions is this.  The amazing proficiency that Ava Farmer shows is astounding, and as she flexes her Regency muscles on the page your mind will reel.  Just how long did it take her to figure this out?  To write as Jane Austen wrote without second guessing every word or running to an encyclopedia, making it seem as natural as if she were simply channeling our beloved author?  26 years, actually.  It took Ava Farmer 26 years to put this baby together and believe me, it shows.  Paragraphs about architecture, medicine, education, climate, horticulture, and the care of animals bubble up everywhere and fly out of every character’s mouth, both in England and abroad.  Beyond the research, Farmer’s writing positively smacks of Austen, even down to inserting the next word after the page-turn at the bottom of the one before it, a cute and clever addition to the elegant prose.

The story loosely revolves around Georgiana, Elizabeth, and Darcy while they live out their days in all the luxury and stimulation that Pemberley has to offer.  They wine and dine and dance and visit and play music, all the while shaking their fists at the sky over the lack of an heir.  Elizabeth’s sister Jane’s pregnant with her fifth, however, and seems to slowly be settling into exhaustion just as younger sister Kitty nails down a suitor for herself.  The reader becomes privy to the fabulous background stories of Cousin Fitzwilliam and Lady Catherine DeBourgh as the story continues, and later, even familiar Austen characters show up, both as representations and as the real thing.  Darcy asks Mr. Knightley (from Austen’s novel Emma) “on a tour of the Pemberley collieries” and “often of a morning joins Captain Wentworth (from Persuasion) at the Corn Exchange to review the news.”  Sidney Parker from Sandition is a favored confidante of Mr. Darcy, and the less-than-loveable windbag character found in Emma’s Miss Bates is reproduced for the portly, voluble Parson Overstowey.  Yes, it’s a veritable feast for any student of Austen or lover of Pride & Prejudice, and certainly not unworthy of enormous praise and passion.

Yet despite all the beauty of Second Impressions (First Impressions was the original title of Pride and Prejudice…but you already knew that), I did find flaw with the tendency for all the scholastic research to cloud and impede the forward movement of the story.  There were a few moments that drew out like a stick through molasses, slowly and heavily trudging toward an unknown end, and one particular comment from Elizabeth that forced my brow to furrow and my mouth to form the words, “Uh…when would Jane Austen ever write something like that?”  The characters sometimes act more like caricatures, intricately arranged to display the research in greater detail rather than take part in the scene.  The resulting plot is a bit slow, and is particularly arduous during the Darcy’s family trips abroad.  BUT!  My quibbles are small, and yours will be too.  There was great enjoyment during my time in Ava Farmer’s world, and truly, the study and examination that went into its creation cannot be lauded enough.   This one should go on your shelf.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Second Impressions, by Ava Farmer
Chawton House Press (2011)
Hardcover (412) pages
ISBN: 978-1613647509
Kindle: ASIN: B0079M51RY

© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

A Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Summer in Europe, by Marylin Brant (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“A chorus of Happy Birthday roused her into greater awareness of the rest of the group.  Her aunt, who’d managed to light candles on a big, chocolate, sprinkle-covered birthday cake, came forward in song and demanded Gwen’s attention.  She thought about her wish: to be happy, secure, loved by someone and not so very afraid her life would end before she got to experience this.  She took a breath and blew.

Every candle went out.  All except one.”

So begins the 30th year of the life of Gwen, a beige-slipper-wearing, commitment-obsessive, scrupulously diligent Iowa girl.  She loves Andrew Lloyd Weber, meticulous flossing and fruit kebabs, and she knows in her heart that all she wants is to be engaged…to an insurance agent with the company motto on the back of his car.

If you think it sounds dull, you’re right!  Gwen is lost in a life of muted and measured structure, swimming in bowls of bran cereal and floral peach skirts, Barbara Streisand, pearl earrings, and crippling juvenile embarrassment about her own sexuality.  She’s the dreariest 30-year-old you’ll ever meet, but you’ll hope for the best as Gwen’s feisty Aunt Bea surprises her with a trip to Europe.  Think of the possibilities!  She can walk among the ruins of Rome!  She can eat Sachertorte in Vienna and meander the watery streets of Venice!  She can live for once!  That is, if she’s ready to be alive at all, to breathe in and out, to take it all in.

I had my doubts, actually.  Gwen is chronically detached from everything around her, constantly moping and pouting as she participates in the classic American-in-Western-Europe experience: Italy, Austria, Hungary, France and England with a tour guide and a group of octogenarians.  As she wanders around, uninspired and lifeless, she begins to slowly understand how much she’s missing as a result of her fear and mistrust of the unknown.  Where was her path leading?  What the hell was she doing, traipsing around like a lost puppy?  Where’s the life in her life?  Gradually, she begins to figure things out with the help of a gregarious English man and his spontaneous younger brother, her aunt, and the other tour mates whose sparkling personalities utterly dwarf her own.

Having read Marilyn Brant’s work before, I was unsurprised when the prose and phrasing of the book rolled through my mind like honey, beautifully structured and carefully executed with the clarity of a practiced writer.  A Summer in Europe reads a lot like a travel guide, with snippets of history and accounts of heavily-visited landmarks and restaurants, hotels and gelato stands, coffeehouses and boutiques, an undertaking that must’ve been challenging and complicated.  Again Ms. Brant’s commitment to quality sings true, as seen in her previous works like Friday Mornings at Nine.

But just like Friday Mornings at Nine, my scruples with the book came with the depiction of characters, both main and supporting.  I rolled my eyes at Gwen’s lack of strength, passions, or pursuits and her inability to order her own meals, but I let out an audible “UGH!” at her girlish blushing in front of David in Florence.   I found myself saying, “REALLY?!” when Gwen bounced back and forth between two men, entertaining the idea of being with both of them but never considering what would happen if she were to simply be alone, to wander off the beaten track by herself and think things through.  Gwen is on a non-adventure adventure, and her determination to be a woman of the world seems disingenuous and totally insincere by the end.  A Summer in Europe’s secondary roles are filled by wholly predictable creatures, complete with bad jokes, gender stereotypes, and rounded off with an absurd encounter with “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” that I’ll leave open to your imagination.

With all the talent that seems to be pouring out of Marilyn Brant’s fingers, I still greatly look forward to another contribution.  A Summer in Europe may absolutely be worth your time if you appreciate the simple beauty of seamless prose, or if you’re thinking about visiting Europe for the first time, but you may also find that you’re better off waiting for her next book.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant
Kensington Publishing (2011)
Trade paperback (352) pages
ISBN: 978-0758261519
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758274212
Kindle: ASIN: B005G023VI

© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

George Knightley, Esquire: Charity Envieth Not, by Barbara Cornthwaite – A Review

George Knightley Esquire: Book One, by Barbara Cornthwaite (2009)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

The fact that he was in love with Emma had been confronting him for some time, but he had pushed it away and given other names to the emotions that ought to have enlightened him. He had blundered on, deaf to the pleadings of his heart until the revelation of them burst on him in a surprising and, it must be said, inconvenient way.  No doubt he had appeared as a complete imbecile tonight, standing there in a trance and unable to do anything but watch Emma as he acknowledged to himself for the first time that it was not because he was a partial old friend that he admired her dancing and her figure and her liveliness—it was because he wanted her for himself.

Ever prudent, inner-directed and thoughtful, George Knightley struggles with his feelings for Emma.  Is she more like a little sister or a girlfriend?  Can he really handle her conceited and sometimes impudent ways?  Would marriage with her be a constant string of reprimands and eye-rolls for being so precocious?  Boy oh boy Mr. Knightely is confused, and probably more so than you thought from your Emma readings.  George Knightley, Esquire, by Barbara Cornthwaite, is a delightful re-telling of Emma that gives Mr. Knightley a chance to shine.

Truth be told, I went into this review kicking and screaming.  Emma is my least favorite Jane Austen novel, mostly because it seems like a story that happens in high school (and as the movie Clueless shows us, I’m not entirely wrong).  Emma herself seems an over-inflated child of idle pleasures to me, a quality which might really lend itself to a story if only something would happen!  It plods along with the pace of a turtle walking through molasses.  Despite the work being from the lovely Jane Austen and therefore commanding instant respect, Emma gets a big ‘ol “meh” and a dismissive hand wave from me.  I tell you this only so you can fully understand the breadth of my meaning when I ask, is it a crime to like the re-telling better than the original?

Because well, I did.  SURPRISE!  George Knightley, Esquire was a delight.  Written from the perspective of the oft-unexplored quiet life of the neighborhood bachelor, it makes the reader privy to all kinds of mindful musings, delicious realizations (WOW!  I LOVE EMMA!), and even bouts of loneliness spent in front of the fire in the soft gloom of Donwell Abbey’s library.  George Knightely goes about his business keenly aware of his surroundings and indeed, of all Emma’s schemes and shortcomings while he moves about his lands.  It was wonderful to see the rarely-exposed work life of a gentleman, with all his account balancing, estate visits, charity donations, and efforts to rebuild a cottage for one of his residents.  It was even more wonderful to point and laugh at Emma, whose actions seem positively absurd when seen through the clear mind of Mr. Knightley.  I found myself laughing more than once.

George Knightley, Esquire is but half the story of Emma and her silliness, leaving off at the moment when Frank Churchill heads for the hills instead of the dance floor and leaves Mr. Knightley to muse about whether he should be open with Emma about his feelings.  He’s consumed with love for her but won’t say it.  How very English.  Hope remains, however, and it becomes obvious that Knightley and Emma are truly great friends with a mutual adoration for one another (despite the fact that many days go by where one is ignored by the other or haunted by japes and snarky comments).  It’s really quite adorable, made only better by Barbara Cornthwaite’s mastery of prose and storytelling.  The book is teeming with interest and intrigue and will leaving you grumbling when it’s over, especially when you realize that the sequel isn’t available until August 25th.  No matter, though!  This will keep you entertained until then!  This is Emma, but better!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

George Knightley, Esquire: Charity Envieth Not, by Barbara Cornthwaite
CreateSpace (2009)
Trade paperback (260) pages
ISBN: 978-1449587079

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn – A Review

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn (2010)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“Of the parents who survive [in Austen’s novels] only Catherine Morland’s and Charlotte Heywood’s are unexceptionable.  For the rest, Mrs. Dashwood is kind and loving but admits that she is imprudent.  Most of the others are foolish (Mrs. Bennet, Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram, Sir Walter Elliot), ill-judging (Mr. Bennet, Sir Thomas Bertram), weak (Mr. Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove), over-indulgent (Mrs. Thorpe), incapacitated by circumstances (The Prices, Mr. Watson), or downright poisonous (Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Susan).  They do not on the whole add up to an encouraging picture of parenthood, and in view of the fact that Jane Austen herself had exemplary parents, we can only assume that as an author she found that bad parents made for richer drama and better comedy than good ones.”

Those who are looking to take a gander at Jane Austen’s time with intense, academic vigor need look no further than Jane Austen and Children, the newest book by the great David Selwyn, a mammoth name in all things Jane Austen.  On top of acting as the Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, he’s contributed to the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen and also to the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Long story short, this guy knows his stuff.

Jane Austen and Children is an expansive work, covering all aspects of the lives of children and their parents.  Selwyn opens with a description of pregnancy and birth practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, which every woman everywhere should be thankful she doesn’t have to endure, and continues with the portrayal of life as a new mother.  He then examines the world of the child as they grow…their clothes, toys, and games, as well as their probable sicknesses, punishments, and relationships with other children and their parents, all of which is seen through the eyes of Austen’s characters and Austen herself.  The book is extraordinarily well researched, and I found myself with my jaw on the table, staring at the dizzyingly long list of references Selwyn used, both published and unpublished.  Your head will positively swim when you see just how much work went into this book!  Quotes from letters, books, and papers grace nearly every page, sometimes to the point of oversaturation but mostly acting as an example of the standard Mr. Selwyn has employed, one that every researcher aspires to.  It’s truly remarkable!

The account of the relationships Jane Austen enjoyed with her nieces and nephews is particularly intriguing, and uses support from letters and notes penned by relatives I’d never ever heard of!  Another winning portion is an analysis of the bond between Fanny Price and her brother William, in contrast with that of Anne Elliot and her insipid sister, Elizabeth.  Selwyn also explores the cost of raising a child and their subsequent education, and enjoys a notable tangent into the life of a governess (with all its rather frightening variations).  The book is, as you would expect, a bit dry, but not so much that it’s unreadable, either as a cover-to-cover crash course or as a chapter-by-chapter reference guide.  The only noticeable flaw in Jane Austen and Children was the blatant absence of illustrations, the lack of which is only slightly alleviated by a laughable attempt on page 123.  The photos are poorly printed, predictable, and (dare I say) somewhat irrelevant to the topic at hand.  However, the book as a whole is an amazing piece of literature, phenomenally well-researched and more than enough to add another tick mark on David Selwyn’s list of amazing achievements.  It was a breath of fresh air in many senses and took me into an interesting state of mind…I’ll call it “geeking out.”  I wanted to think more, do more with Jane Austen’s characters.  I wanted to meet the people who were lucky enough to live around her, sitting on the floor as she reads the real Little Goody Two Shoes story.  I enjoyed this read immensely, and I think you will too!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn
Continuum International (2010)
Hardcover (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1847250414

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

The Countess and the King, by Susan Holloway Scott – A Review

The Countess and the King, by Susan Holloway Scott (2010)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“I deftly slipped free as soon as I could with a pretty, breathless show of resistance, enough to make him smile as he let me return to the ball. Seduction was better played in several acts, and we both knew it.  But that single kiss had excited me mightily. I’d tasted the power of royalty in it, and of a man who was accustomed to having whatever he wanted. Yet I’d power, too, because what he wanted was me, exactly as I was and without any regard for my fortune.  Was there any more heady realization than that?”

Thus, the big question of Catherine Sedley’s life begins to rage inside her. How can a woman be in love and still keep a hold of what’s hers? Raised to be willful and sharp-tongued by a father who participated in endless royal frivolity, a marriage contract for Catherine would mean a huge loss of wealth and freedom. So, despite the wishes of her father and the questionable morality of mistresshood, she decides to forsake that silly marriage idea in favor of becoming a professional bedfellow…a lowly station indeed in most situations. However, her situation is different.

Born in 1657 to an 18-year-old fledgling playwright, Catherine Sedley was never a pretty girl.  Too thin, too small-chested, too pale, she learned quickly to distinguish herself from the sea of bedecked beauties with her clever humor and outspoken manner. Her mother had lost her mind and her father, being highly favored by King Charles II, was involved in a constant cycle of partying, recovering, and preparing to party again. Left to her own devices and without much direction from schooling, it was only a matter of time before Catherine joined in the royal debauchery. She learned the ropes, met the important figures, and began to impress the highest ranks of people with her unguarded intellect.  So it was that she attracted the gaze of the king’s brother, the Duke of York, and eventually became his most favored coital co-hort.

Huzzah! What an exalted position!  It was better than being some rich guy’s wife, and way better than living a life of spinsterhood. Each day was a veritable fountain of finery for Catherine, and she lived a life removed from the bonds of royal matrimony…no pressure to produce an heir, no need to be presented as a paradigm of good principles, no reason to uphold the honor and integrity that the bonds of marriage were supposed to represent.  She lived like this for several years, standing by her man as he ascends to become King of England himself. He put her up in her own place, gave her a large allowance by which to support herself and their daughter, and continued to care for her even as his own circumstances were in question. It wasn’t so bad.

This is the story of Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester as told by Susan Holloway Scott in The Countess and the King. It’s a wonderful book, impeccably researched and extremely well written. The vocabulary is delicious, the imagery beautifully detailed, and the characters are full of depth and intrigue, all of which combine to successfully breathe life into this dusty ‘ol narrative that, if it hadn’t been so skillfully crafted, could’ve been as sleepy as a little kid in the back of a car. Ms. Scott weaves a fantastic example of historical fiction and romance, intertwined with life in 17th-century England and its constant trouble with religion. Should the kingdom be Catholic?  How about Anglican? What about our allies…what religion are they? Round and round it goes, bouncing back and forth between the two royal brothers, King Charles and the Duke of York, who each have a foot in a different pool. This battle of spirituality is explored exhaustively, so much that I found the last half of the book to drag a bit. But in the larger sense, The Countess and the King was an enjoyable romp through the palaces of English royalty, a naughty little glimpse behind the bedroom doors of those who made history, and most definitely an educational look at the plight of women. I think you’ll like it.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James II, by Susan Holloway Scott
Penguin Group (2010)
Trade paperback (400) pages
ISBN: 978-0451231154

© 2007 – 2010 Shelley Dewees, Austenprose

My Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt – A Review

My Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt (2009)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“When I began to write a mystery story set in the early 1800’s in the form of a series of letters, I thought a splendid way to give it authenticity might be to interweave those of my heroine with the letters written by Jane Austen. Fully aware that this was a truly presumptuous thing to do, nevertheless I have plundered that treasure house—a most enjoyable occupation.” Hazel Holt, Author’s Note

The book positively reeks of academic and literary esteem. Written by the great Hazel Holt, who is known far and wide for her Mrs. Malory mystery series, My Dear Charlotte had all the appearances and praise of a work of one seriously admired author. It boasts a beautiful cover and spectacular printing, but, more impressively, also includes a raving introduction by Jan Fergus, a noted and appreciated literary scholar from Lehigh University. By the time you’ve flipped through the first few pages, you’ll begin to think, “Wow.  This is gonna be good.” And to some extent, you’d be right.

It’s no small challenge to weave pieces and parts of Austen’s letters into those of a protagonist with dignity. Ms. Holt was aware of the precarious nature of this experiment and likened it to borrowing an “expensive and powerful car that is thrilling to drive, but you’re terrified of breaking it.” She doesn’t break it, crash it, or even dent it. No dust on the paint, no mud on the floor. No bugs on the windshield, even. The car is returned in pristine condition, perhaps even looking a little better than it did before in its freshly-driven state, beautiful in its revitalized modernity.

Indeed, the structure of the novel was brought about carefully and with the good judgment of a seasoned author, but seemingly without much regard for the actual story. Under normal circumstances, Hazel Holt is capable of fantastic edge-of-your-seat mystery writing, portraying the kind of suspense that makes you cringe in your bed, huddled under dim lighting in the wee hours of the morning. Her writing isn’t usually the kind you can fall asleep to, and certainly not the kind that stagnates or wears out.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself wondering where the shadowy, intoxicating mystery had run off to as I slumped against my pillows. What gives?

The story is told through the eyes of Elinor Cowper who writes unendingly to her sister, the “Dear Charlotte” of the novel. Charlotte is away visiting relatives and wishes to stay apprised of all the details of home, even those that a third-party reader could never care about. Fabrics and fashions, gossip and bonnets are talked about at great length, first inspiring the reader’s interest and gradually arousing annoyance. The constant presence of mundane minutiae doesn’t diminish, even after the untimely death of one of Miss Cowper’s neighbors, Mrs. Woodstock. Elinor is soon engaged by the justice of the peace, Sir Edward Hampton, to assist in solving the mystery after she innocently discovered a few clues, and she sets out to glean more information. Sir Edward also happens to live next door in this inordinately interesting neighborhood, along with a beautiful highly-sought maiden and her two potential suitors, the tension of which surrounds the mystery of Mrs. Woodstock’s death. Suspicions are raised, suspects are investigated, relationships are built and torn asunder, and people are eliminated all through the window of a tête-à-tête between sisters and snippets from Jane Austen’s letters. What results is an over-blown academic exercise that lacks meaningful settings, strong characters, or passionate musings by anyone except Elinor.  It’s disappointing and even a bit tiresome.

That’s not to say the story didn’t have promise, because it most certainly did! The decision to write it in letter format was the major blunder, every other shortcoming being symptomatic of that resolution, admirable though it was. Ms. Holt is talented and progressive, slightly sarcastic, and even hilarious at times, but My Dear Charlotte, despite its charming moments, is a departure from her usual genius and is less than marvelous. Enjoy it simply as another glimpse of Regency England, another depiction of the loveable Jane Austen and her world, another sweet taste of Janeite brain candy, but nothing more.

3 out 5 Regency Stars

My Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt
Coffetown Press (2009)
Trade paperback (202) pages
ISBN: 978-1603810401

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

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