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 One’s (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
Now that my holiday décor, baking, and gift shopping are finished—reading time was in order! What better way to celebrate the season than tucking up with a cup of tea and a good holiday themed story? Fortunately for my Jane Austen obsession, a surprise anthology appeared like an irresistible kitten with a big red bow arriving on your doorstep on Christmas Eve.
Yuletide is a new short story collection edited by Christina Boyd. Inspired by Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, seven altruistic Austenesque authors donated their stories, along with others involved in the independent publishing process, to create a small collection of stories to benefit Chawton House, the manor house owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight near Alton, England. This seemed a win-win for me. My purchase would benefit a worthy cause and support the Austenesque genre.
I understand that the book was pulled together in a very short time frame, so we shall see what magic happens when authors, editors, and book designers’ mettle is tested. Here is a rundown of the seven stories in the anthology. Continue reading
What better way to get yourself into the holiday spirit than with a Victorian themed Christmas romance. Set in the Dickensian London of the 1860’s, and in Mr. Darcy territory of Derbyshire, A Holiday by Gaslight, by Mimi Matthews offers everything that a Victorian-era Christmas love story should. A snowy Palladian country manor house to set the idyllic scene: holiday traditions of bringing family and friends together to celebrate by decking the halls, sleigh rides, and yule logs—all culminating in a Christmas ball. Mix in a dutiful daughter of a baronet whose ill-founded assumptions of her suitor result in her rejection of their courtship, and you have a second chance love story reminiscent of North and South (1855). Like Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic tale of social division and misconception, the hero and heroine of this novella have both pride and prejudice.
Pressed by her family’s sinking finances into courting a prosperous cotton merchant below her social standing, Sophie Appersett and Edward “Ned” Sharpe’s relationship was doomed from the start. She does not want to marry, and he, after being raised in an austere household does not know how to woo a lady, relying on a stuffy etiquette manual for advice. No matter how much it would please her father to marry him, she thinks him too taciturn and dull and does not suit her expectations of a future husband. He, on the other hand, overlooks her family’s grasping need for her to marry money and only sees her fine character. When she calls it off, he seems unmoved at the loss. She is relieved. Her father is furious.
Placing her doubts and her pride in her pocket, Sophie ventures out to his Fleet Street business attempting to offer an olive branch of reconciliation. Would he, his family, and his business partner attend the Appersett Christmas holidays at the family estate in Derbyshire? She reasons that they could be honest with each other and give the courtship a second chance. Ned is doubtful, and his judgmental mother even more so – yet how could they pass up the opportunity of ten days in the country at the home of a baronet? Continue reading
Having 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: 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 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. Continue reading
We 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
Of 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. Continue reading