The late eighteenth-century is one of my favorite eras in history. England and France and America were all in turmoil—fighting with each other, and internally. While Britain tried to maintain its colonies in America, France’s people were resisting their government and the aristocrats that ruled them. The outcome in America was the defeat of British tyranny and the creation of a new nation. In France, a revolution upended a feudal system and the monarchy, creating a new government. Men mostly get all the credit for the outcome of these events in the history books. Ribbons of Scarlet, a new collaborative novel written by six bestselling and award-winning authors corrects that omission. Each of the authors has taken a woman from history and brought her life to the forefront. Cleverly, each of their stories is interwoven into the narrative forming a complete novel. The possibility that multiple authors could work together, with strong women from history as their muses, was the compelling factor in my wanting to read this new book. Could they indeed pull it off?
The novel is divided into six sections, each titled to reflect the personality of the character and a hint of their social status. The story begins in Paris in the Spring of 1786 with The Philosopher, by Stephanie Dray. Sophie de Grouchy is a well-educated, upper class, unmarried woman with strong principles and ideals who marries the Marquis de Condorcet, an older statesman with similar political passions. Sophie opens a school for the lesser-privileged and we are introduced to the next character to take the baton, Louise Audi, a fruit seller in The Revolutionary, by Heather Webb. Princess Elizabeth, the sister of King Louis XVI of France, who we were first introduced to in Sophie’s story, is brought forward in The Princess by Sophie Perinot. Through her, we experience the Revolution through the eyes of the Royal family. In The Politician, by Kate Quinn, we see how a strong woman, Manon Roland, with a powerful husband, the Minister of the Interior, can be even more influential than the person in the office. In The Assassin, by E. Knight, Charlotte Corday is driven to stop the one man she feels is responsible for so much death and destruction. And finally, with The Beauty, by Laura Kamoie, we experience through Émilie de Sartine what it would have been like to live in fear of being imprisoned, condemned to death, and then await your appointment with “Madame la Guillotine,” which came to symbolize the French Revolution. The story concludes ten years after the Revolution with an epilogue with our first heroine Sophie. After so much bloodshed and destruction the people are worn down and tired. Craving security, they hope making Napoleon their Emperor will bring them peace and happiness. Continue reading
Set in an English country village at the onset of WWII, The Chilbury Ladies Choir is told through letters and journal and diary entries by four female characters who are faced with keeping the home fires burning while their menfolk are off fighting Nazis. The first-person format intrigued me, and the subject sounded promising. However, it was the anticipation of escaping into the lives of “three or four families in a country village” that really hooked me. If English-born author Jennifer Ryan could dish out endearing and foibled characters I was in for a great read.
Ominously, the novel begins with the funeral of Commander Edmund Winthrop, the first casualty of the war from this tight-knit community. The reality of his death hits the remaining residents hard, coupled with the fact that the vicar decided to close the church choir due to the lack of male voices. The ladies rebel. They are done with being told what to do by the few men remaining. Disobeying the vicar, they form the Chilbury Ladies Choir led by Miss Primrose Trent, a music tutor from the local university.
“First, they whisk our men away to fight, then they force us women into work, then they ration food, and now they’re closing our choir. By the time the Nazis get here there’ll be nothing left except a bunch of drab women ready to surrender.” Mrs. Brampton-Boyd (3)
Are there any historical fiction readers out there who have not read the insanely popular Lilac Girls yet? Hello!
Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was published in 2016 – and like all book fledglings was sent out into the world with high hopes. Early reviews were rather mixed, but it hit the NY Times bestseller list immediately, a phenomenon for a debut novel. It has become one of those rare books in publishing that has an enormous wingspan, remaining on the bestseller lists for years.
One cannot even imagine the pressure on Kelly’s shoulders to produce her second novel, Lost Roses, released last month by Ballantine Books. A prequel to Lilac Girls, many of her readers will have high expectations. If she was smart, she would stick to her winning formula: base the story on real-life women facing challenges during historical events; transport readers into their lives and times through first-person narratives that are impeccably researched; offer page turning-prose that keeps you up into the wee hours; and finally, develop characters that we can empathize and care about. A very tall order, indeed.
Again, the story features a tryptic of women struggling on the home front during a world war. Lilac Girls introduced us to Caroline Ferriday in the 1940’s WWII. Lost Roses begins a generation earlier in pre-WWI and features Caroline’s mother Eliza Ferriday, an American socialite and philanthropist, her friend Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat, and Varinka Kozlov, a Russian peasant. Continue reading
Between 1870 and 1914, there were at least a hundred marriages of American heiresses to British peers. Fueled by microeconomics—supply and demand—American industrial tycoons bought position, prestige, and coronets by bartering their daughter’s dowries to cash-strapped aristocrats. One transatlantic trade was Brooklynn born Jeanette “Jennie” Jerome. In 1874 she became one of the first “dollar princesses” when she married Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the Duke of Marlborough. Her wildly rich father reputedly paid a dowry equaling 4.3 million dollars in current currency. What a way to start a life-long marriage—and what delectable fodder for this new biographical fiction of Jennie’s life, That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron.
Lady Randolph Churchill is one of those larger-than-life women from history whom we look upon with shock and awe. Most people will know her as the scandalous American mother of Winston Churchill, the famous politician and prime minister of Great Britain, however, there is so much more to know about this intelligent, fiercely independent woman. Born in 1854 into wealth, privilege and the excess that it generates, she was raised in New York City, Newport, Rhode Island, and Paris. Her childhood was colored by her parents Leonard Jerome and Clarissa “Clara” nee Hall’s Victorian marriage. He was a notorious womanizer. She turned the other cheek and befriended his long-time mistress Fanny Ronalds. When the affair finally ended the two women banded together, left their respective husbands, and sailed for Paris with their children.
Another significant event in her early life was the death of her younger sister Camille when she was nine. Devastated by the loss, her father consoled his young daughter with sage advice: “The only way to fight death, Jennie, is to live. You’ve got to do it for two people now—yourself and Camille. Take every chance you get. Do everything she didn’t get to do. Live two lives in the space of one. I’ll back you to the hilt.” Continue reading
Along with oodles of other media outlets and book bloggers, it’s time to reveal my own favorite books of 2018. It has been a serendipitous journey—full of adventure, comfort, and surprises—mostly generated from reading beloved authors and stepping outside my sphere.
Traditionally I gravitate toward classic or modern authors in the historical fiction genre, focusing on novels inspired by Jane Austen. My reading choices this year were diverse within historical and contemporary fiction, romance, mysteries, and nonfiction, exploring new tropes and themes. However, they all share a common thread—sharp writing, comprehensive research, compelling stories, and levity.
In my very, very small way, I hope that my reading experiences this past year will act as a catalyst to those seeking a curated list of books from the vantage of a Janeite. Enjoy!
BEST AUSTENESQUE FICTION
The Longbourn Letters, by Rose Servitova
Lo and behold. Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins are pen pals! For those familiar with these two minor characters in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you will not be disappointed in the full story of their relationship featuring Mr. Bennet’s dry sarcasm in all it’s glory while he goads his cousin and heir in pursuit of amusement, and in return the Odious Ones (Mr. Collins) obsequious prosing and sermonizing right back at him. I enjoy Austenesque novels that expand upon Austen’s characters more than any other type in the genre. Servitova’s creative and reverent take on the Bennet & Collins relationship is an impressive debut novel that many Janeites will enjoy, if only they knew about this sharp sleeper. 5 Stars Continue reading
For 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 reconnecting 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, the grandson of Cornelius 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 with 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. Continue reading
It’s time to announce the winners of the giveaway contest for the Julian Fellowes Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour. The three lucky winners of hardcover copies of the book drawn at random are:
Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by June 30, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.
Thanks to all who left comments and to Grand Central Publishing for the giveaway prizes.
Cover image courtesy of Grand Central Publishing © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com
From 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 a 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 the 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
From 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 teacups 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 a desire to hear more of his rhetoric, and to become familiar with his not-so-attractive yet completely arresting face—for this face, at 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