Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsley — A Review

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsely (2017)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

What can the places that Jane Austen called home tell us about the author’s life and work? In Jane Austen at Home, historian, author, and BBC presenter Lucy Worsley looks at the author’s life through the lens of Austen’s homes.  As Worsley notes in the book’s introduction, “For Jane, home was a perennial problem. Where could she afford to live? Amid the many domestic duties of an unmarried daughter and aunt, how could she find the time to write? Where could she keep her manuscripts safe?” (1) Worsley seeks to place Jane Austen “into her social class and time” while admitting that, as an Austen reader and biographer, she has a vision of the beloved author that allows Jane to speak for her and to her circumstances. “Jane’s passage through life, so smooth on the surface, seems sharply marked by closed doors, routes she could not take, choices she could not make. Her great contribution was to push those doors open, a little bit, for us in later generations to slip through.” (4)

Jane Austen at Home is divided into four major sections, titled as acts in a play. I thought this a lovely touch by Ms. Worsley, reminding readers of the Austen family’s love of amateur theatricals. “Act One: A Sunny Morning at the Rectory” covers Austen’s early life at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire (1775-1801). During this period, Jane traveled to relatives’ homes and even lived away at boarding schools for several years. Nonetheless, Steventon remained her place of safety until her father’s retirement forced Mr. and Mrs. Austen, along with Cassandra and Jane, to move to Bath.

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

Continue reading

The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern, by Robert Morrison — A Review

The Regency Years, by Robert Morrison (2019)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

The subtitle for Robert Morrison’s history of Regency Great Britain, “during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern,” hints at the variety and diversity within its pages. In contrast to Jane Austen’s tightly focused fiction, famously self-described as “three or four families in a country village,” Morrison widens his lens to present extensive information and detail about Regency life that illuminates not only Austen’s world but our current time.

Morrison begins with a brief sketch of George Augustus Frederick, eldest son of George III and Queen Charlotte, in the book’s prologue. “The deep contradictions in the Regent’s character both energized and undermined him and were evident from an early age.” (3) With a string of mistresses, a secret and unlawful marriage to a Roman Catholic widow, an officially sanctioned marriage that was an abysmal failure, and the financial means to indulge every whim and fleeting inclination, the Regent was a constant feature of gossip and scandal during his lifetime. In 1812 he assumed the full authority of the crown, making him “not only the most powerful man in Britain but also the man at the head of the wealthiest, strongest, most ambitious, vibrant and productive country in the world.” (6)

George Cruikshank Loyal address's & radical petetions, or the R-ts most gracious answer to both sides of the question at once (1819

This print by George Cruikshank, was published on December 4, 1819, and is entitled “Loyal Address’s & Radical Petetions, or the R____ts most gracious answer to both sides of the question at once.” (48)

Continue reading

Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman – A Review

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman: 

Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.

Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman?  His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”

Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel. Continue reading

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, by Curtis Sittenfeld – A Review

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen is a tough act to follow and that is exactly what the Austen Project asks contemporary authors to do: reimagine one of Austen’s novels in the here and now. Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of four novels including Prep and American Wife, was chosen to take on Austen’s best-known work, Pride and Prejudice. While P&P-inspired books and films such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride and Prejudice demonstrate that the story and its themes have broad appeal, I wondered how Sittenfeld’s Eligible would handle the main plot points in a modern setting. Many of the issues that Austen’s characters grappled with are barely recognizable if they exist at all in modern daily life.

In Eligible, the tension between the original story and Sittenfeld’s inventions kept me turning pages. Brief, episodic chapters mirror the short attention span of a digital era audience. In contemporary Cincinnati, Mr. Bennet spends as much time as possible alone at his computer, while Mrs. Bennet’s life revolves around country club gossip and planning luncheons for the Women’s League. Jane and Liz have carved out careers in Manhattan: the eldest Miss Bennet teaches yoga while her sister writes features for a magazine. They return to Cincinnati when Mr. Bennet has a heart attack. Their practical assistance and support are needed because their younger sisters while living at home, are little help to their parents. Socially awkward Mary is pursuing her third online master’s degree while Kitty and Lydia, as crass and self-absorbed as ever, are obsessed with working out at the gym and following trendy diets. Sittenfeld’s group portrait of the Bennet clan was one of my favorite parts of Eligible. It’s easy to picture Jane Austen smiling at this: Continue reading

Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen, edited by Gabrielle Malcolm – A Review

Fan Phenomena Jane Austen 2015 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen fans cannot be filed neatly into a single category any more than Austen’s works can be limited to one literary genre. How might an editor attempt to do justice to the multiplicity of Janeite fandom in a slim volume of essays and interviews? This question was uppermost in my mind as I began reading Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen. The Fan Phenomena series website explains that the goal of the series is to “look at particular examples of ‘fan culture’ and approach the subject in an accessible manner aimed at both fans and those interested in the cultural and social aspects of these fascinating–and often unusual–‘universes’.” 

What is the joy of Jane? What is it about her work that keeps readers, and viewers, coming back for more? Is it the Darcy effect? Is it the irony, the wit, the romance? Or is it a combination of all these factors? Many critics and authors have compiled works to analyse this vast and still growing phenomenon of fandom…This collection offers material about the fans, for the fans, by the fans, and offers a combination of the popular and the academic. (5)

Editor Gabrielle Malcom’s introduction provides a clear description of the purpose and scope of the collection. She acknowledges the differences between mainstream fan culture and the academic treatment of Austen. After setting Austen’s work in its historical context with a few concise and insightful paragraphs, she provides brief descriptions of the essays and interviews that follow. While Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen has the look of an academic journal, its design and use of color photographs creates a visually appealing experience for the reader, with the exception of the excessively small font size used for the text of the essays. Although I suspect that the text format is dictated by the Fan Phenomena series as a whole and not unique to this volume, the cramped appearance distracted me from the content at times. I found the format used in the Fan Appreciation interviews to be much more appropriate and reader-friendly. Continue reading

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, by Winston Graham – A Review

Ross Poldark A Novel of Cornwall, 1783 to1787 2015 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Never having watched the original series on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s, I was unfamiliar with Ross Poldark and a little curious about the buzz surrounding the new BBC/PBS series starring Aidan Turner. I wondered whether there was more to Ross Poldark than his good looks. When Laurel Ann Nattress assured Austenprose readers that Ross was a hero every bit as worthy of their warm regard as Mr. Darcy, John Thornton or Mr. Rochester, I decided to read the first novel in Winston Graham’s saga and decide for myself.

Ross Poldark is subtitled “A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787” and is strongly rooted in the geography, people, and events of the Cornish countryside. The wind and the sea figure as characters in their own right. In the book’s prologue, six months before Ross returns from fighting in America, his father Joshua is close to death.

He felt he would like one more look at the sea, which even now was licking at the rocks behind the house. He had no sentimental notions about the sea; he had no regard for its dangers or its beauties; to him it was a close acquaintance whose every virtue and failing, every smile and tantrum he had come to understand. (10)

Continue reading

The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London, by Hannah Greig – A Review

The Beau Monde by Hannah Greig (2013)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Several recent histories have popularized Georgian England as “The Age of Scandal” with members of the beau monde starring in colorful “stories of gambling, adultery, high spending, and fast living” (30). Author, lecturer in 18th-century British history, and historical consultant Hannah Greig takes an alternate approach in The Beau Monde. By focusing on the fortunes of the beau monde as a whole, rather than concentrating on the biographies of a few individuals, such as the Duchess of Devonshire, she seeks to present the culture as “a new manifestation of social distinction and a new form of social leadership, one oriented to the changing conditions and contexts of the period.” (31)

After ousting James II from the throne with the support of the English nobility, William III began a series of wars that required him to summon parliament regularly to secure funds for his war chest. Beginning in 1689, the titled nobility came to London for the yearly meeting of parliament and the London season was born.  Continue reading

Life in an Eighteenth Century Country House, by Peter and Carolyn Hammond – A Review

Life in a Eighteenth Century Country House Peter and Carolyn Hammond x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

The Grove was a large country house and estate in Chiswick, England owned by Humphrey Morice, the son a highly successful London merchant and slave trader. Morice was an animal lover, and in contrast to the common practices of his day, did not destroy animals that were unable to work any longer. He kept a number of horses, dogs, and other animals at Grove House, causing many of his contemporaries to consider him an eccentric.

The main attraction of Life in an Eighteenth-Century Country House is the series of letters written by head groom Will Bishop to Morice during his stay in Italy from 1782-1785. Bishop wrote regularly to his employer, sending detailed accounts of all the bills for the house and stables for Morice’s approval. This was unusual, as most estate owners employed a “man of business” to handle these matters. As head groom, Bishop was mostly concerned with the welfare of the animals of the estate and wrote extensively about them, especially those that were unwell. He also kept Morice abreast of the personal lives of the staff, recounting their illnesses and conflicts with other workers, as well as general news about local people Morice would have known. One of my favorites was the “he said, she said” battle in the kitchen between the cook and stable lads: Continue reading

In Her Own Hand: Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, by Jane Austen, introduction by Kathryn Sutherland – A Review

In Her Own Hand 2014 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

The first time I read a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, I remember relishing the sheer fun and silliness of the stories and plays. It was a slender paperback that included transcriptions of selected works from the original notebooks written from 1787 to 1793. These handwritten notebooks had circulated within Austen’s family during her lifetime and were later given to family members by her sister Cassandra, but the stories were not published until the twentieth century. Because none of Austen’s six completed and published novels exist in manuscript form, these early notebooks are rare examples of her fiction that have survived intact “in her own hand” and reside in the collections of the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Volume the First) and the British Library (Volume the Second and Volume the Third).

The three-volume set, In Her Own Hand, gives Austen fans the opportunity to read Jane’s handwriting in facsimile pages that match the size of the original notebooks, the color of the paper, and the brown-black iron gall ink that Austen used. Inkblots, smudges, and revisions pepper the pages, giving the reader a glimpse into Austen’s early creative process. When faced with deciphering a difficult word or phrase, text transcriptions by Austen scholar Robert W. Chapman provide a handy reference. Each volume contains an introduction by Professor Kathryn Sutherland that places the writings in context and highlights important aspects of the stories and sketches such as their chronology and how they relate to later Austen works. As Sutherland points out, these notebooks were not Jane Austen’s private journals but rather “confidential publications” that were “intended and crafted for circulation among family and friends.” (6) Continue reading

At Home with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson – A Review

At Home with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson 2014 x 300From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

I have been a Kim Wilson fan since reading her books In the Garden with Jane Austen and Tea with Jane Austen. Her latest work At Home with Jane Austen, a luscious coffee table book, promises a virtual tour of the places Austen called home. Some of these homes were permanent residences and others were temporary: the sites of visits to wealthy relatives or seaside holidays with her family.

The chapter titles follow the course of Austen’s life. After introducing “The Author” in the first chapter, the remaining chapters are Steventon, Away at School, Bath, Travels and Tours, Stately Mansions, Southampton, By the Sea, Chawton, London, and Winchester. True to its genre, you could have a lovely experience of this book by merely turning the pages and looking at the illustrations and photographs. However, I found Kim Wilson’s narrative of Austen’s life, focused on her surroundings and travels in southern England, to be equally appealing and informative.  As Ms. Wilson points out:

Though Jane changed her residence many times, family and home remained the emotional center of her life. She expressed her love of home in her work, creating heroes and heroines who also cherish the idea of home, even when, like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, they are uprooted and must learn to love a new one: “When [Fanny] had been coming to Portsmouth, she had loved to call it her home, had been fond of saying that she was going home; the word had been very dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield. That was now the home. Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home.” (10)

Continue reading

The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love, by Sinead Murphy – A Review

The Jane Austen Rules by Sinead Murphy 2014 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

When author Sinead Murphy chose to title her guide to modern dating The Jane Austen Rules it was guaranteed to generate a certain amount of controversy. In the mid-1990s, a dating guide titled The Rules became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for imparting to women “a myriad of tricks and schemes” (14) for finding Mr. Right.

Does Murphy seek to replace one set of arbitrary opinions with another, using Jane Austen’s name as a marketing ploy? Happily Ms. Murphy has not taken this approach. Rather than a narrowly focused “how-to” for dating, she takes readers through the novels of Jane Austen, examining the women and men Austen created and the way their character informs their actions, whether in the pursuit of love or in making other important life decisions.

As such this is not really a dating guide at all; its scope is much wider. In the introduction titled “The Real Thing” Murphy proposes that modern dating guides have a Regency ancestor in the conduct book, full of dos and don’ts for women wishing to succeed in society:

…the Regency conduct book tended to judge a woman by how she conducts herself–that is, by how she acts, by how she seems. The novel, by contrast, was concerned with what women are really like, admitting—perhaps for the very first time—that women too have a fulsome interior life, with thoughts and feelings that are as crucial to get right as the actions that follow from them…And Jane Austen was at the forefront of it all, presenting to the Regency world a host of real women—so determined to do so, indeed, that she invented her very own narrative style, which gives the reader almost unrestricted access to the internal life of her female characters. (4)

Continue reading

Jane Austen: In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her, by Helen Amy – A Review

Jane Austen In Her Own Words, by Helen Amy (2014)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to biographies of Jane Austen these days, but that was not always the case. As Helen Amy notes, it was not until fifty years after Austen’s death that a growing number of readers wanted to know more about her life. At that time, the only outlet for this increasing public interest was Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral. Flocks of people began visiting the site, causing a puzzled verger to inquire, “Is there anything particular about that lady?” (172)

This interest coincided with the death of Jane’s last surviving sibling and prompted her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh to write his biography of her in 1869. Other family biographies were subsequently published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and by this time Austen was regarded as an important literary figure. Later scholarly works have uncovered a somewhat different Jane than the quiet homebody her family described. Since Helen Amy’s work references the family biographies extensively, I was curious to see the portrait of Austen that would emerge in Jane Austen In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her.

From the first chapter “Childhood 1775-1786” the Austen family home is described as cheerful and harmonious with Jane growing up in a “well-educated, intellectual and cultivated family whose members were close, loving and united.” (13) However, this fondness for one another did not blunt the acerbic wit within the family. For example, Jane’s mother remarked upon her young daughters’ close relationship by saying, “if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.” (13) Continue reading