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

Downton Abbey – A Celebration: The Official Companion to All Six Seasons, by Jessica Fellowes – A Review

Downton Abbey a Celebration 2015 x 300“It’s that time of year when the world falls in love” … with Downton Abbey all over again. The final season starts in less than one month on Masterpiece Classic PBS on January 3, 2016. My anticipation of another season of great drama, romance and witty retorts runs high.

I am, of course, paraphrasing The Christmas Waltz; the famous 1954 holiday song written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne for Frank Sinatra. There is nothing like listening to Christmas carols to make me sentimental. Coupled with the fact that this will be the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, one of my favorite period dramas on television, and I am ready for a double shot of brandy in my eggnog.

Despite my melodramatic angst over the conclusion of the Crawley family and their servants’ story, fellow Downtonites can revisit the fabulous plots, locations and characters by reading the final companion volume to the series, Downton Abbey – A Celebration, by Jessica Fellowes. This is her fourth large and lavish book spotlighting the phenomenally popular, award winning television series.  And, it truly lives up to its title—a jubilant fête worthy of her uncle Julian Fellowes’ vision of portraying the changes in the British aristocracy through the Crawley family and their servants from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the Jazz Age of 1925. Continue reading

The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes – A Review

Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes 2015 x 200Will we ever be able to explain the phenomenon that is the television series Downton Abbey? Watched by millions and showered with awards, I find the reason for its success as elusive to pinpoint as Jane Austen’s lasting appeal. It means so much to so many. In two hundred years time will people be watching and reading about this period drama as passionately as we do Austen’s novels?

Quite possibly so. Their common link is the witty writing. Clever bon mots and cheeky retorts never go out of fashion. They make us smile, laugh-out-loud and reflect upon what makes us tick as humans. They are a window into our souls.

The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes is a collection of those fabulous zingers that make this series so “light, bright and sparkling” to Austen fans and the bazillion other viewers around the world. Creator and writer Julian Fellowes must love Austen as much as this Janeite. He certainly recognizes how her prose can sing with humor and social reproof using the same technique in his own dialogue. Whenever anyone complains about anything I am tempted to use a little Lady Catherine, oops, Lady Violet on them… Continue reading

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman: A Mystery, by Tessa Arlen – A Review

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen 2015 x 200For those who are in the doldrums after last week’s final episode of season five of Downton Abbey and in need of another English country manor house upstairs/downstairs story, Tessa Arlen’s debut novel could fit the bill. Set at the fictional estate of Iyntwood in the summer of 1913, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is a murder mystery in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and P.G. Wodehouse. Here is a brief preview and review for your consideration:

DESCRIPTION (from the publisher)

Lady Montfort has been planning her annual summer costume ball for months, and with scrupulous care. Pulling together the food, flowers and a thousand other details for one of the most significant social occasions of the year is her happily accepted responsibility. But when her husband’s degenerate nephew is found murdered, it’s more than the ball that is ruined. In fact, Lady Montfort fears that the official police enquiry, driven by petty snobbery and class prejudice, is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect.

Taking matters into her own hands, the rather over-imaginative countess enlists the help of her pragmatic housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case, track down the women that vanished the night of the murder, and clear her son’s name. As the two women search for a runaway housemaid and a headstrong young woman, they unearth the hidden lives of Lady Montfort’s close friends, servants and family and discover the identity of a murderer hiding in plain sight.

In this enchanting debut sure to appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, Tessa Arlen draws readers into a world exclusively enjoyed by the rich, privileged classes and suffered by the men and women who serve them. Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is an elegant mystery filled with intriguing characters and fascinating descriptions of Edwardian life–a superb treat for those who love British novels.

Continue reading

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear. Continue reading

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Ashford Affair, by Lauren Willig © 2013 St. Martin’s PressFrom the desk of Christina Boyd

In a departure from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation Series, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig ventures into new territory with The Ashford Affair. Entwining one generation’s story with that of another, from post-Edwardian British society to modern day Manhattan to a coffee farm in Kenya, the long veiled secrets of a woman are unraveled.

Clementine Evans, a focused, driven law associate on the cusp of making partner in a large Manhattan firm, attends her beloved grandmother Adeleine’s 99th birthday and is accidentally enlightened to a family secret. At 34, Clemmie, feeling like her life is nothing but a 70-plus hour workweek, and a failed engagement, this intrigue becomes more than a distraction to the un-fulfilling, lonely details of her days.

Clemmie slid the picture back into the drawer. There was another underneath it, a studio portrait of a woman, her head tilted. Her pale hair was crimped in stylized waves around her face and her pale eyes gazed soulfully into the distance. She looked, somehow, strangely familiar, her cheekbones, the shape of her lips, as if Clemmie had seen her somewhere before.” p. 65.

But trying to get any information from her own tight-lipped mother proves difficult. And how is it that her ex-stepbrother knows more about the family histories than she does?

Adeleine Gillecote’s parents die when she is almost six and she grows up as the mouse-brown ward of her aristocratic aunt and uncle at Ashford Park, a grand English country house. Though brought up with her cousins, Addie never overcomes the status of a poor relation. Despite this, her best friend from almost the start is her vivacious, beautiful, golden cousin, Bea, who takes Addie under her wing, sheltering Addie from her unwelcoming mother, and earning her love and fidelity. As the girls grow and experience the pre-WWI balls and English society, Addie tries not to begrudge Bea’s beauty or her unaffected graces. But when a man comes between the two, it appears all loyalties come to an end, and, escaping to Kenya still isn’t quite far enough. “Addie pressed her fist to her lips, trying not to think what she was thinking. She closed her eyes, fighting a terrible certainty, the certainty that what she was hearing was true, that this was Bea, that Bea had, did, and always would do what she liked, regardless of the consequences, regardless even of Addie.”  p. 196.

Although this latest offering is a non-Pink novel, fans of Willig’s the Pink Carnation Series will be giddy with delight when they meet the handsome, cynical and witty descendant of Lord Vaughn. Yes! That Vaughn from The Masque of the Black Tulip.

“He looked feline himself, all boneless grace, with the measureless self-satisfaction afforded by knowing his ancestors had been dining off gold plate when others had still been scratching about in the dirt: the Honorable Theophilius Vaughn, the despair of the ancient line. According to his frustrated family, he had both the morals of a cat and all of its nine lives.” p. 248.

The spawn of Vaughn.”  Ha!! Her words from her website, not mine!

Some have described this novel as Out of Africa meets Downton Abbey. *sigh* Well, use those cinematic visuals if you must, but I can honestly attest, The Ashford Affair is so much more. Much more. This is the kind of the novel that will stay with you; keep you mulling over the vibrant characters and intrinsic detailing long after you’ve inhaled that satisfying last page. Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair is brilliant! Glittering brilliance.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press (2013)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-1250014498

Cover image courtesy © 2013 St. Martin’s Press; text © 2013 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace