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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

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

PURCHASE LINKS

Amazon | Goodreads

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well-behaved women seldom make history.

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

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

5 out of 5 Stars

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

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

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

PURCHASE LINKS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND…

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 Regency Stars

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

PURCHASE LINKS:

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

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

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes – A Review

Regency Spies by Sue Wilkes 2016 x 200

From the desk of Stephanie Barron:

PARANOIA RUNS DEEP

From the moment I saw the title of Sue Wilkes’s latest book, Regency Spies (Pen & Sword Books, 2015), I was desperate to get my hot little hands on a copy. In a distant chapter of my life I was trained in espionage by the CIA, and I have a habit of inventing spies in my Jane Austen novels—most of them working nefariously on behalf of Bonaparte, but a few ready to die for King and Country. There’s a paucity of scholarly data on tradecraft, recruitment, and spy running during Jane Austen’s heydey, as Lauren Willig’s fictional Eloise discovers in the absorbing adventures of the Pink Carnation. A century ago, Baroness Orczy handed us the consuming history of the Scarlet Pimpernel and forever transformed our sense of the French Revolution. (Can there be any pleasure greater than tucking oneself up in bed with a soothing drink and a copy of one of these books on a stormy night?) Patrick O’Brian channeled the Secret Funds of the Admiralty’s Sir Joseph Banks into the hands of his irascible polymath Stephen Maturin, who collected intelligence wherever his voyages with Jack Aubrey took him; but O’Brian failed to detail his sources at the back of his marvelous novels.

Perhaps, like me, he had none.

So I was eager to discover what Ms. Wilkes had to share with the world.

I confess to a moment of dismay when I opened Regency Spies. As Georgette Heyer’s character Freddie Standen often observes, “I never knew a more complete take-in!” And as is so often the case with poor Freddie, the fault lay with me, not with Ms. Wilkes. I assumed that by Regency spies, she referred to dashing men in cravats and pantaloons, fencing the despicable minions of Napoleon on behalf of the Crown. In fact, Regency Spies is an impeccably researched and scholarly record of the informants recruited, generally by the British Home Office but also by local militias and constabularies, to report on the seditious conspiracies of their fellow Englishmen. Continue reading

The Summer Before the War: A Novel, by Helen Simonson – A Review

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson 2016 x 200From the desk of Debra E. Marvin:

Discovering just-released fiction on my library’s New Audiobooks shelf makes me feel as if someone has let me slip in at the front of a long line. When I found Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, I was delighted she’d chosen another charming English town (I’d quite enjoyed her debut Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) and the summer of 1914. Whether she planned it or not, the timing may help some of us adjust to the end of a ‘certain’ British historical drama, though enjoying this novel can’t be limited to Downton Abbey fans. What better time than the centennial of The Great War, to revisit its impact.

Protagonist Beatrice Nash is a young woman of high intellect, low tolerance for the superficial, and a middle-class income stymied by the death of her beloved father. Mr. Nash’s academic profession provided his daughter an unusual upbringing ripe with experiences beyond England, and making Beatrice independent, resilient, and practical. She was “not raised to be shy, and had put away the fripperies of girlhood.” All very good indeed when she takes a position as Latin teacher for the local children and is tested by the restrictions and social expectations of small town life in this delightful corner of Sussex. She simply must succeed or risk returning to her wealthy aunt’s suffocating control.

If this novel was a miniseries, she’d be the lead in an outstanding ensemble cast. To her left, Mrs. Agatha Kent, mentor, and “of a certain age when the bloom of youth must give way to strength of character, but her face was handsome in its intelligent eyes and commanding smile.” To Beatrice’s right, Hugh Grange, likely the most uncomplicated man in town…who happens to be a brain surgeon. The residents of Rye create the rich background we so enjoyed in Ms. Simonson’s debut, and Rye itself rounds out the cast as quintessential England. I had no trouble balancing the many characters who exit the other side of the war—the autumn after the war, so to speak—forever altered. Just as it should be. Continue reading