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.

As the reader has perhaps noticed, great care has been taken with the punctuation used in this account. For me, as regards literature, punctuation is what separates true greatness from the merely good—and certainly from the false. I would commend the reader to glance (no more) at the spinster’s mendacious account included as an appendix to this volume; even a cursory look will show gross carelessness of her attention to punctuation. Can someone so careless of the rules of punctuation—known to everyone and most apparent in the breach—be counted upon to strictly adhere to truth in the absence of such direct surveillance? I think not. (131)

With a list of principal characters, locations, and a genealogical table, Rufus seeks to present his defense of Lady Susan Vernon in an authoritative manner, while simultaneously revealing his agenda. In a list displaying his own mastery of the use punctuation, he describes Jane Austen as “The Spinster Authoress, a writer careless of both punctuation and truth, zealous only to do the bidding of her Aristocratic patrons.” The inclusion of Austen’s original story as an appendix, perfect for comparing scenes between the two versions, is another strength of Love & Friendship. Rufus begins the appendix by annotating the first fifteen letters, but his weak arguments further undermine his creditability. He then tries to save face by questioning the publisher’s motive for including the letters:

I cannot forget the troubling factum that Mr. Murray is also the publisher of this Lady’s final so-called “novels.” Could his true interest be to attract Readers to these other works by attaching her history to a superior volume? Such a conflict of motives is not unknown in the world of book-jobbers, though I make no accusation. I have therefore decided to refrain further comment on these letters, the malicious falseness of which should be self-evident. (202)

I was hard-pressed to find fault with Love & Friendship, apart from wishing that Stillman had chosen a different title for his reimagining. Austen did write another short story with this name, but I doubt many readers will be tripped up by the change, so it is a minor quibble rather than a serious issue.

Since many movie tie-ins offer little more than a printed version of the screenplay, Love & Friendship surprised and entertained me. Stillman’s playfully Austenesque sensibility delivers an imaginative interpretation of the story that Austen abandoned “to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue.” (273) His clever tribute to the original Lady Susan showcases tongue-in-cheek humor perfectly suited to this comedy of manners.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Love Friendship Blog Tour graphic banner x 500

Award winning writer-director-filmmaker Whit Stillman tours the blogosphere June 13 through June 24, 2016 to share his latest release, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. Thirteen popular book bloggers—card carrying Jane Austen fans one and all—will feature interviews, book excerpts and reviews of this highly acclaimed novel. A fabulous giveaway contest, including hardcopies of the book will be open to those who join the festivities. 

THE LOVE & FRIENDSHIP JANEITE BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE: 

  • June 13                  AustenBlog (Interview)
  • June 14                  The Calico Critic (Review)         
  • June 15                  Diary of Eccentric (Excerpt)      
  • June 16                  Laura’s Reviews (Review)
  • June 17                  My Jane Austen Book Club (Review)
  • June 17                  Confessions of a Book Addict (Excerpt)                            
  • June 20                  Austenesque Reviews (Review)
  • June 20                  Austenprose (Interview)                      
  • June 21                  So Little Time…So Much to Read (Excerpt)
  • June 21                  Luxury Reading (Review)                    
  • June 22                  Just Jane 1813 (Review)                                         
  • June 23                  Savvy Verse & Wit (Excerpt)                         
  • June 24                  Austenprose (Review)           

   GRAND GIVEAWAY CONTEST

In celebration of the release of Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, Mr. Stillman’s publisher, Little, Brown & Co has kindly offered a chance to win one of three hardcover copies of the book!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any or all of the blog stops on the The Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour starting June 13, 2016 through 11:59 pm PT, June 30, 2016. Winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments and announced on Austenprose on July 1, 2016. Winners have until July 07, 2016 to claim their prize. Shipment is to US addresses. Good luck to all!

Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, by Whit Stillman
Little, Brown and Company (2016)
Hardcover, eBook & Audio (288) pages
ISBN: 978-0316294126

PURCHASE LINKS:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | 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 Little, Brown and Company © 2016; text Tracy Hickman © 2016, Austenprose.com

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

A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd – A Review

A Man of Genius Janet Todd 2016 x 200From the desk of Shelley DeWees:

Once as a child he’d had himself electrocuted to see how it would feel. He’d let the current course through him. He’d felt vibrant. 

Perhaps he’d never been the same since, just full of sparks. Perhaps touching him she’d taken on some of his electricity, only instead of making her more alive, it had singed and dulled her.

Confident, theatrical, and opinionated, the genius anti-hero of Janet Todd’s novel—which is a departure from her well-known nonfiction work on Jane Austen and others—positively reeks of potential for unusual behavior, right from the start. He’s fussy and aloof; he gets upset if he is forced to walk through pale-colored soil in dark boots; he balks at tea cups that are “coarse” or “thick” and favors a more delicate model of his own choosing. He is Byronically volatile and tense, but in Ann’s eyes, Robert James is the picture of perfection, a man she simply cannot ignore. Their first meeting at a party in 1816 leaves her reeling with desire to hear more of his rhetoric, and to become familiar with his not-so-attractive yet completely arresting face—for this face, in that moment, becomes the face to Ann. “Robert James,” she acknowledges within five pages, “changed everything.”

And it’s true. At the beginning of the story, Ann St Clair is a different person. She’s plainly-dressed—relying as she does on her Gothic writings as her only source of income—and “not dissatisfied with her mode of life” in her small lodgings. Yet as soon as she connects herself to Robert James, she must change, first by demurring to his opinions of proper dress, and later, far more destructively, by abandoning her life in order to accompany him to Italy. This, in fact, is the point in the story where the relationship begins to degrade in haste: With one snide comment after another, one slight, one violent outburst, one mad musing after another, Ann and Robert James fall apart. Quality of life deteriorates for both of them, and in a long crescendo we are swept to the inevitable conclusion of a relationship built on half-truths and unspoken grievances. Yet you need not worry that it will be predictable; rather, it’s quite surprising how it all shakes out in the end. Continue reading

The Dark Days Club (A Lady Helen Novel), by Alison Goodman – A Review

The Darck Days Club by Allison Goodman 2016 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Fantasy novels with a supernatural bent are all the rage right now. So, if you love a battle between the forces of good and evil… all set against the backdrop of the upper-crust society of 1812 London, then The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman should be on your reading list.

We meet 18-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall on the eve of her presentation to Queen Charlotte. Helen’s mother, who drowned at sea ten years before, was allegedly a traitor to England, and Helen’s current guardians—her aunt and uncle—really hope this won’t affect Helen’s chance of making a good marriage. After all, isn’t that the best that any young lady with fortune and tainted family connections can hope for?

But, Helen has other ideas. Wilder ideas. She gets the feeling she’s meant for something more than ballrooms and husband hunting. When she meets the mysterious Lord Carlston, who has quite the checkered past himself, she discovers that the growing spirit inside her actually points to the rare ability to identify and destroy a group of supernatural baddies that are overrunning England. Will Helen follow her demon-fighting destiny with Lord Carlston? Or will she resign herself to the life of a proper English wife instead?

The Dark Days Club is the first in what will be a series of novels focused on Lady Helen and her adventures in Regency London. It actually reminded me a lot of The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (which actually has a Victorian spinoff of its own). The basic premise is the same—a young girl with a mysterious family history finds out she actually has the ability to fight supernatural villains. It’s miles from a Jane Austen novel, but the author does a great job of giving us the Georgian-era feel while still mixing in elements of mystery and fantasy. Continue reading

Lady Maybe, by Julie Klassen – A Review

Lady Maybe, by Julie Klassen (2015)From the desk of Katie Patchell:

  • Betrayals and Lies. Harmful Secrets. Surprising Redemption.

For the past several years, Austenprose has had the joy of reviewing books inspired by beloved author, Jane Austen, as well as those set in the Regency period. One author in particular has appeared more than once, and has written numerous Regency books inspired by the timeless novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters: Julie Klassen. In her latest novel Lady Maybe, Klassen blends notes of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, to create a mystery-filled Gothic romance about the power of truth, and the lengths people will go to conceal it.

Lady Marianna Mayfield: Pressured into a marriage to Sir John Mayfield by her money-obsessed father, Lady Marianna ignores her older husband to instead focus on her many flirts, especially her lover, Anthony Fontaine. When her husband suddenly decides to take her with him to a house far away from Bath, she obeys—her silent companion and husband beside her, and the surety that her lover will do anything to find her. Continue reading

Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, by Winston Graham – A Review

Demelza A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790 by Winston Graham 2015 x 200From the desk of Pamela Mingle:

If you’re like me, you are spending your Sundays killing time until Poldark lights up the TV screen. When I learned that Season One would be based on Winston Graham’s first two books in the series, Ross Poldark and Demelza, I was determined to read them before viewing the adaptation. Although the episodes I’ve seen so far can stand on their own merit, reading the books has given me a richer understanding of the two protagonists. If Ross’s character functions as the moral compass of the story, Demelza’s represents the emotional heart of the books. Her struggle to be accepted as Ross’s wife makes us empathize with her, root for her, right from the start.

Demelza opens with the birth of Ross and Demelza’s baby girl. The new mother plans two christening parties, one for the country folk and another for the gentry. Trouble arises when her father, now a Methodist and wearing his religion like a cloak of righteousness, shows up on the wrong day and promptly insults some of the guests. Put in the uncomfortable position of defending his father-in-law, Ross must intervene. Demelza flees to the house, mortified. “…I thought I would show ’em I was a fit wife for you, that I could wear fine clothes and behave genteel an’ not disgrace you. An’ instead they will all ride home snickering behind their hands…” (51) 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