Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly—A Review

Jane Austen Secret Radical 2018From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Was Jane Austen a radical? Was she sympathetic to the “radical reforms” of Charles James Fox and others that included universal male suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and women’s rights? Few would readily place her in the company of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, or Mary Wollstonecraft, but perhaps that is because she kept her dangerous views so well hidden that most of her contemporaries, as well as later generations, have missed them. While I began reading Jane Austen, The Secret Radical with an open but somewhat skeptical mind, I was curious to see what evidence Helena Kelly would provide. In Chapter 1, she throws down the gauntlet: 

We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like [William] Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive. But we haven’t been willing to do it with Jane’s work. We know Jane; we know that however delicate her touch she’s essentially writing variations of the same plot, a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in any romantic comedy of the last two centuries.  

We know wrong. (4%)

Kelly cites a number of reasons for what she calls the misreading of Austen, including a lack of reliable biographical information about Austen, the destruction of most of her letters by her sister Cassandra, and a concerted effort by surviving family members to reframe Jane’s life and creative endeavors along more conventional and non-threatening lines. Delays in the publication of her early works obscured themes that were rooted in the upheavals of the French Revolution and the literary phenomenon of the Gothic novel. Add to these the many film adaptations and biopics that have nearly overtaken the original novels in the consciousness of the current age:

When it comes to Jane, so many images have been danced before us, so rich, so vivid, so prettily presented. They’ve been seared onto our retinas in the sweaty darkness of a cinema, and the aftereffect remains, a shadow on top of everything we look at subsequently. (10%)

The first and last chapters bookend chapters exploring Austen’s novels in the order in which they were made ready for publication, starting with Northanger Abbey and ending with Persuasion. Each chapter is introduced with a black and white illustration and a “truthful fiction” featuring Jane Austen. These imagined sketches are used to highlight the major themes of each chapter, examining the historical, political, and cultural events of Austen’s time and creating a bridge between Austen’s biography and her literary creations.

Chapter 1 “The Authoress”

Chapter 2 “The Anxieties of Common Life” Northanger Abbey

Chapter 3 “The Age of Brass” Sense and Sensibility

Chapter 4 “All Our Old Prejudices” Pride and Prejudice

Chapter 5 “The Chain and the Cross” Mansfield Park

Chapter 6 “Gruel” Emma

Chapter 7 “Decline and Fall” Persuasion

Chapter 8 “The End”

Ms. Kelly states that the novels “deal with slavery, sexual abuse, land enclosure, evolution, and women’s rights. They poke fun at the monarchy and question religion.” (11%) Kelly’s research and analysis illuminated aspects of the novels that I had not previously considered. This was especially true for novels that I am only passingly acquainted with, namely Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Overall, I enjoyed Kelly’s exploration of the irony and subtle digs that Austen planted in her writing, although some of the author’s interpretations of specific characters and scenes seemed to go beyond the scope of reasonable deduction. While I agree that Jane Austen was a sharp social critic who understood the pragmatic necessity of tempering some of her observations, I found myself unable to swallow some of Kelly’s more speculative and subjective characterizations in Jane Austen, The Secret Radical. She has few positive things to say about any of Austen’s male protagonists, so Team Tilney and others should be duly warned.

Kelly finishes strong in the final chapter detailing Austen’s illness, death, and burial. This closing chapter was one of my favorites as Austen’s burial in Winchester Cathedral has always puzzled me. The author posits an intriguing reason for Jane’s burial in stately grandeur rather than closer to home at humble Steventon or Chawton. She also reveals Austen as spirited and sarcastic to the very end, in spite of her family’s determined attempts to remember her otherwise.

Regardless of whether one agrees with every assertion Ms. Kelly makes, her work raises questions that encourage interested readers to dig deeper. Supplementary material includes notes and suggestions for further reading ranging from works by Edmund Burke and Erasmus Darwin to novels by Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe to poetry by William Cowper, John Clare, and Walter Scott.

As Kelly points out, Austen’s life and innermost thoughts will always be shrouded in mystery. However, we have her words—hundreds of thousands of them—in her novels. “They’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” (98%) I agree wholeheartedly with the wisdom of Helena Kelly’s final instruction.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly
Vintage; Reprint edition (April 3, 2018)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (336)
ISBN: 978-0525432944

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS: 

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | INDIEBOUND | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2018; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com

And Dangerous to Know (Rosalind Thorne Mystery Book 3), by Darcie Wilde—A Review

And Dangerous to Know by Darcie Wilde 2020From the desk of Sophia Rose:

When a mystery series is introduced with such words as, “…inspired by the novels of Jane Austen,” you may be sure that I will be more than willing to delve right in with alacrity. Wilde created a capable heroine who was high born, fallen with her family’s disgrace, and risen by her own resolution and strength as a useful woman to those who were once her peers, and what began with curiosity continues to impress with a deep appreciation for her spirit and intelligence.

And Dangerous to Know is so titled to best suit one of the intriguing real historical elements of this third installment in the Rosalind Thorne series which works best read in order. In this latest, Rosalind is involved with ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron, indirectly. While never actually present, he can be felt throughout the book.

Rosalind has recovered from her last encounter with murder and peacefully keeping up her prodigious amounts of correspondence, her household affairs, and trying to help her friend Alice figure out where Alice’s brother George has been disappearing to each evening. Meanwhile, she ponders the affairs of her conflicted heart—a duke or a detective?

This is all interrupted when an imperious summons brings her to the august doors of Melbourne House and she encounters its notorious mistress, Lady Melbourne, and her more notorious daughter in law, Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Melbourne has letters written by Lord Byron that have gone missing and they are such that ruin for several will happen if they are ever published or the contents bandied about.  Rosalind has a bad feeling about the whole thing, but when Lady Jersey recommended her and another society queen wishes to hire her, there is only one answer to give. Continue reading

Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom—A Review

Thaw by Anniina Sjöblom 2019Epistolary novels were all the rage in the late eighteenth century prior and during Jane Austen’s early writing career. One does not run across novels written in letters very often today. The fact that characters do not meet face-to-face is restrictive and can be a challenge to readers.

Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom harkens back to Austen’s first epistolary format before she re-wrote Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it a novel written entirely in letters, it is told in the first-person by one character—Elizabeth Bennet—and is a variation on Austen’s classic tale. With all of these unconventional restrictions and plot changes, one does not know what to expect. If this complex hook is not enough to get your attention, dear reader, then you are not paying attention.

The story begins with a letter by Elizabeth to her sister Jane from London on Christmas day. It is one month after the ball at Netherfield and Elizabeth is married to Mr. Darcy. Their marriage, however, is not the HEA that we imagined after Austen’s classic tale, but a patched-up business due to a devastating scandal. While walking near a frozen pond, Elizabeth’s misstep lands her in the icy waters. Injured and freezing, Mr. Darcy rescues her and returns her to her family, but not before a local resident witnessed the mishap and is telling a different story. Elizabeth’s reputation is ruined, and Darcy, being an honorable man, agrees to marry her. Neither is happy about the forced marriage, yet agree that they must marry.

So, there is no longer three-quarters of the story that Austen wrote. No departure of Darcy and Bingley to London. No Mr. Collins proposing to Lizzy and then later to Charlotte. No trip to Kent by Lizzy and the first failed proposal by Darcy. No trip by Elizabeth and the Gardiners to the north on holiday where they visit Pemberley, and no reconciliation of Elizabeth and Darcy after Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane. Just jump straight to Elizabeth as Mistress of Pemberley writing long missives to her Aunt Gardiner and her sister Jane about her miserable existence as the wife of a surly, disagreeable man. That is the big leap-of-faith part for readers in this variation. You will need to disarm reproof and just go with it. Continue reading

Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor — A Review

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor (2000)From the desk of Pamela Mingle:

When I was a young girl, I found a copy of Forever Amber on my aunt’s bookcase. I’d heard about its scandalous reputation and asked if I could borrow it. Written by Kathleen Winsor and published in 1944, the book became famous for its racy and bawdy storyline. It was banned in Massachusetts and subsequently in several other states. Preachers railed against it from their pulpits. Despite all that, Forever Amber was the bestselling book of the 1940s, and by 1947 the movie, a very condensed version of the book, starring Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde, was released.

As a teenager, the frenetic passion between the two main characters, Amber St. Clare and Bruce, Lord Carlton, was all I cared about. The heady feeling of experiencing a great romance through a literary character stuck with me through the years. Although explicit sex is kept behind closed doors, the underlying desire between Amber and Bruce is always there, simmering beneath the surface.

The setting for the book is the Restoration (1660-1688), which begins with the return of Charles II to the English throne after the collapse of the Commonwealth. Winsor, an American, read over 350 books about the period while writing Forever Amber, which was published when she was only twenty-four.

Amber is the illegitimate daughter of a gentlewoman and a nobleman. They never married because their families were divided by the English Civil War. After her mother dies in childbirth, Amber is given to a local woman to be raised. In her small village of Marygreen, Amber is a beautiful and voluptuous sixteen-year-old, who catches the eye of Bruce, Lord Carlton, a Cavalier traveling to London. Desperate for a more exciting life, Amber begs him to take her with him, which he does. Continue reading

The Mitford Scandal: A Mitford Murders Mystery (Book 3), by Jessica Fellowes—A Review

The Mitford Scandal by Jessica Fellowes 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

From 1928 to 1932, the British middle and upper class still experienced a bright time. The Roaring Twenties are dimming, yet the fun and frolic continue for those “Bright Young Things” who still have plenty of money. “They drink too much and they’re careless. They’re rich and young and they believe themselves to be invincible.” The descent into decadence plays a major role in The Mitford Scandal, a complex mystery, by Jessica Fellowes.

Foremost among them, Diana Mitford (an actual British socialite of the era) is presented as the embodiment of Daisy Buchanan, the heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby.  She believes “One should live life to the absolute fullest, not doing anything dreary but surrounding oneself with love and beauty.” Sadly, the reader comes to understand that “life to the fullest” includes infidelity, adultery, and opium addiction among Diana’s social set.

The book begins with a series of behind-the-scenes views at a high society party in 1928, mostly seen through the eyes of Louisa Cannon, who’s employed as a temporary servant for the evening. Chapter One ends shockingly: a maid falls through a skylight into the middle of the partygoers in the ballroom, dead. While it seems obvious that this was an accident (she had been peeking at the party from a floor up above through the glass dome but fell into it, shattering the glass), evidence years later suggests the cause may have been something more sinister. Continue reading

All the Ways We Said Goodbye, by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, & Karen White — A Review

All The Ways We Said Goodbye, by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White (2020)From the desk of Katie Patchell:  

Three Women. Three Decades. Two Wars. 

In All the Ways We Said Goodbye, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, & Karen White take readers across two continents and through two World Wars to uncover spies and secrets. Each of the three heroines, Aurelie, Daisy, and Babs, fight to bring freedom of heart and country in this tale that spans fifty years. The drumbeat of war reaches to stately mansions and across war-ravaged fields, calling each of the unique heroines to right the wrong in their corners of the world. Despite their seemingly unconnected lives, the same glittering Ritz holds the answers to what they search for: Courage, love, and a final goodbye. So reader: welcome to Paris — welcome to the Ritz — welcome to All the Ways We Said Goodbye.

If there was one word to describe this novel, it would be “secrets.” Aurelie, Daisy, and Babs have many secrets that they hide from even those closest to them, and it’s the job of the reader to sniff them out. I cannot give a detailed description of the plot because of the twists and revelations that happen to start in the very first pages. What I can do without spoilers is to give a brief introduction to each of the heroines:

  • Aurelie – 1914. Aurelie lives in Paris and is the daughter of a French aristocrat and an American heiress. Her ancestors fought with Joan of Arc, and this hero inspires Aurelie to go off on her own daring quest to save lives as a second “Maid of Orleans.” Rebelling against the German soldiers comes naturally, as they’re the invaders of her country and home. But when she meets an old flame now dressed in the garb of a German officer, the clear lines between “Who is my enemy?” and “Who is my friend?” vanish.
  • Daisy – 1942. Another resident of Paris, Daisy struggles against life under Nazi occupation. Her grandmother, a wealthy American expatriate, encourages Daisy to join her spy ring. For Daisy, the cost is great–if caught, her two young children and beloved grandmother are put in terrible danger. With the aid of a mysterious English spy and his worn copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Daisy embarks on a path she never would have planned in order to protect her family and people.
  • Babs – 1964. Babs was always content in her role as wife, mother, and leader in her area of Devonshire, England. When her childhood sweetheart-turned-husband dies after World War II, she sinks under the loneliness of an empty home and heart. But when Babs finds out that her husband may have lied about everything — even his love for her — she starts out on a transformative journey to Paris that takes her through old letters and long-buried stories at the Hotel Ritz.

Continue reading

Sanditon: A Novelization of Andrew Davies’ TV Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Unfinished Novel, by Kate Riordan

Sanditon, by Jane Austen and Kate Riordan PBS (2019)A new Jane Austen adaptation/continuation written by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice 1995) debuted last night in the US on Masterpiece PBS. Inspired by an unfinished novel that Austen began shortly before her death in 1817, Sanditon, the original novel, the television series, and the novelization by Kate Riordan, all share the same title. A tie-in novel based on a screenplay based on an uncompleted novel. That is six degrees of separation that is a challenge to get my mind around. Today we are reviewing the novelization!

The story unfolds from the perspective of Charlotte Heywood, a young lady experiencing her first trip away from her family as a guest of the Parkers of Sanditon, an emerging seaside village on the Sussex coast. Mr. Parker and his business partner Lady Denham are the two entrepreneurs behind its redevelopment from a fishing village into a fashionable watering-place offering the therapeutic and curative benefits of sea-bathing. Mr. Parker has three siblings: Arthur and Diana, a comical pair who are obsessed with their health, and the mysterious Sidney, whose handsome portrait greeted Charlotte when she entered the Parker home. Lady Denham is a widow twice over whose heirs are circling in anticipation of her “ shuffle of this mortal coil,”: Sir Edward Denham and his sister Esther, and Clara Brereton, all young and eager to please their aunt to win her approval, and her fortune.

Every experience in Sanditon is a new adventure for Charlotte—seeing the ocean for the first time and meeting new people. Her first day after her arrival is spent sea-bathing, a bracing experience from the cold temperature of the ocean, and by the view of naked men bathing from an adjoining stretch of the beach. Later, while walking with Mrs. Parker to visit Lady Denham at Sanditon House, she sees Sir Edward and Clara together in the park engaging in an intimate activity that she is uncomfortable with. Inside, Charlotte is in awe of the splendor of the grand manor house. Everything about Sanditon and its residents is so different than her life as the daughter of a gentleman farmer. Continue reading

Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance, by Jennieke Cohen — A Review 

Dangerous Alliance, by Jennieke Cohen (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Set in 1817 Regency England, Dangerous Alliance has a teen-aged heroine who is a devotee of Jane Austen’s first published novels. As her childhood playmate Tom Sherborne observes: “She was still very much like the girl he remembered who’d believed in fairy stories, except now she believed in the novels of some Miss Austen. … Did she have any idea how fanciful she sounded? How naive? How would she ever survive in the cruel world with such notions?

In the first chapter, Vicky is attacked by a masked assailant who’s prevented from delivering a killing blow by Tom’s fortuitous arrival. (More about Tom later.) “Just because sensational events happen in novels, that doesn’t mean they cannot happen. And just because ordinary events occur during the majority of one’s life, that doesn’t stop the unexpected from happening at a moment’s notice.” Rather than leaving all the heroics to Tom, Vicky takes off on her horse in pursuit of the villain. Indeed, whenever Vicky’s life is at risk, she’s an active participant in saving herself.

Vicky’s independent spirit becomes an issue when a family crisis necessitates that she marry as soon as possible. (More about the “family crisis” later, too.) She’s not enthusiastic and for good reason. “Most of the gentlemen she’d met were decidedly narrow-minded when it came to females interfering in what they considered the male sphere.” Very reluctantly, Vicky agrees to put herself forward in the London marriage mart and settle for a suitable husband rather than waiting to fall in love. Before long, both Mr. Silby and Mr. Carmichael are frequent callers.

Tom Sherborne is the book’s other protagonist, with the story told alternately from his point of view and Vicky’s. A year ago, his father died and Tom reluctantly returned to his childhood home after having been banished for the last years of Lord Halworth’s life. Aside from the neighboring Astons, Tom has only miserable remembrances about his family estate. Until their dramatic encounter, he and Vicky hadn’t seen each other since his return, and things are awkward between them. Continue reading

Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things, by Jacqueline Firkins — A Review

Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things, by Firkins (2019)From the desk of Katie Patchell 

For all its stylistic elegance and its iron-backboned heroine, Mansfield Park is the black sheep of the Jane Austen canon. It’s the book most likely to be placed at the bottom of “Which is your favorite Austen novel?” polls. Public opinion hovers somewhere between “That’s a book by Jane Austen?” and “Gross…cousins marrying.” For many readers, it’s the heroine that’s frustrating. Fanny Price is usually seen as duller than dishwater – her moral compass providing a guide for the plot, but no passion. Even though I’m a staunch fan of Mansfield Park and Fanny’s quiet strength, I can understand why not everyone enjoys it to the level I do. However, the novel’s understated beauty, full cast of characters who are neither fully good or fully bad and Jane Austen’s characteristic humor is all too good to miss. It is this magnetic, complex blend that I eagerly searched for in Jacqueline Firkins’ new Mansfield Park adaptation, Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things.

The book opens with Edie, the heroine (based off of Fanny Price), en route to live with her kind but absent uncle and his unkind and controlling wife (switched around a bit and based off of Mrs. Norris). Edie doesn’t fit in with her two very rich cousins, Maria and Julia, and not just in the financial category. They only care about fashion and kissing hot boys in the neighborhood, while Edie cares about writing music, reading classics, and avoiding romantic entanglements at all costs. Without her mom or best friend by her side, all she has left is her guitar without strings and memories of better times…including one blissful summer spent playing with the adventurous boy next door. Once she arrives at her new home, life becomes way more complicated than she imagined. For starters, that boy next door, Sebastian, is now a (secretly) aspiring author…and still magnetic to Edie. The only problem? He’s already dating someone way out of her league. Henry Crawford, the local handsome but slimy flirt, seems to think he can take turns trying out each of the Price cousins, including Edie. With college application deadlines looming and a mess of drama to contend with, what’s a level-headed, heartsore girl to do?

What I loved about this book is a long list! Chief among them is the writing. I felt connected to Edie every step of the way, more than I’ve felt for a heroine in a while. Her pain over her mom’s death, she struggles to fit in and yet not conform….these things were deftly and beautifully written. Readers expecting this adaptation to be written in the style of Jane Austen will be disappointed, although some characters do occasionally use long, 18th century words. In my opinion, however, because Firkins didn’t aim for replicating the style of Jane Austen’s original (a near-impossible task), she was able to consistently capture its heart. Twists and turns – some like the original, some uniquely different – weave a story that still centers around the main question: Can discovering and staying true to your values help you weather any storm and bring lasting happiness? Continue reading

Matters of the Heart, by Fiona Palmer — A Review

Matters of the Heart, by Fiona Palmer (2019)From the desk of Sophia Rose:

One of the brilliant things about modern retellings is the amusement in discovering the similarities in the characters and scenes to the original while still getting a unique flavor to the story by seeing them in a new setting. Fiona Palmer’s, Matters of the Heart, a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice set in rural Western Australia strikes a happy balance between complete correspondence to the original and wise alterations to suit the times and keeps it fresh for the readers. The draw of an Australian author and setting for Austen’s classic could not be missed.

The book opens with an introduction to the main character, feisty Lizzy Bennet, her family, and her small town, Coodardy. Lizzy pursues her deep-seated fulfillment in farming and bravely forges ahead using new methods in agriculture and animal husbandry to save the family farm following a few tough years and her dad’s indifference. Lizzy is not immune to other people’s doubts that a mere woman can be a farmer let alone save her family farm which causes her to stick out her chin and resent a certain rich, successful, and handsome farmer’s officious remark. So much for being excited about having the farm next door purchased and new people arriving in the neighborhood, she thinks. Charles might be nice enough and fun to converse with about farm methods, but his sister and best friend are as welcome as a bank foreclosure in Lizzy’s mind.

Matters of the Heart was very much in tune with Austen’s story. That said, it was freshened due to the Australian farm setting, Australian customs, and dialogue with new characters for the reader to engage with whether brand new to Austen or an old fan.

This version of Elizabeth Bennet, the jewel of the story for me, is a woman succeeding in a non-traditional career and is a bright non-conformist like the original. Continue reading