Miss Austen: A Novel, by Gill Hornby—A Review

Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby (2020)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Austenesque fiction has produced numerous works told by supporting characters from Austen’s novels, using these fresh viewpoints to breathe life into familiar and beloved stories. Similarly, the title character of Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen is not the famous author, Jane, but her devoted elder sister, Cassandra. In many Austen biographies and surviving family letters, Cassandra figures as an exemplary daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, her quiet fortitude and domestic competence contrasted with her younger sister’s more volatile temperament and creative talent. But what happens when an author shifts the spotlight from Jane to Cassandra? How would a fictionalized retelling of her view of Austen family life engage readers?

Jane Austen once wrote to her niece Anna, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” and Ms. Hornby has taken Jane’s advice for Miss Austen. In a narrative that alternates masterfully between Cassandra’s youth and old age, Miss Austen features the extended Austen family as well as the Lloyd and Fowle families. Miss Austen begins with a prologue set in 1795 that introduces two young, dutiful lovers: 

He asked for her patience; she promised it without thinking. Cassy was just twenty-two; they had years yet to play with. And patience was, famously, one of her many virtues. They turned back to the house to spread their glad news. 

It was met with all the exuberant delight that they could have wished for, though not even a pretense at surprise. For this engagement—between Miss Cassandra Austen of Steventon, and Mr. Tom Fowle of Kintbury—had been settled as a public fact long before it was decided by the couple in private. After all, it was the perfect match, of the sort that would bring such pleasure to so many. So it must be their future, their one possible happy ending.

The universe had agreed on that for them, many years before. (2)

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Elizabeth: Obstinate Headstrong Girl (The Quill Collective Book 5), edited by Christina Boyd—A Review

Elizabeth Obstinate Headstrong Girl 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

The Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) world has been exploding with stories about Elizabeth Bennet for a long time now. What can possibly be left to explore about this beloved Pride and Prejudice character and her Mr. Darcy? Ten talented storytellers prove they can always find new ground to cover in the character-driven anthology, Elizabeth: Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.

One of these storytellers is the anthology’s editor, Christina Boyd, who took on two roles by including her own contribution here. Well-known historical romance author Tessa Dare provided the foreword. In it, she eloquently explains her lifelong admiration for the fictional Elizabeth Bennet.

As the book’s title suggests, Elizabeth’s obstinacy and stubbornness are highlighted; however, her intelligence, humor, and willingness to admit when she’s wrong are apparent throughout, too. Another recurring topic is Elizabeth as a young woman struggling to fight male dominance in society. Naturally, other Pride and Prejudice characters have important roles, most particularly Mr. Darcy himself. All the ten stories are told from Elizabeth’s point of view, though not necessarily in first person. The snippets below give a small taste of the delicious contents.

Starting with the modern era and making our way back to traditional Regency settings, we begin with Leigh Dreyer’s contribution, “The Last Blind Date.” Charlotte to Elizabeth: “You convince yourself at the start of any relationship that the guy is an idiot, treat him like he’s an idiot the whole time, and refuse to even consider a second date.” Continue reading

A Good Name: A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Sarah Courtney — A Review

A Good Name, by Sarah Courtney (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

This is one of those books that completely took me by surprise. I’m still gobsmacked by it. Do NOT be put off by the fact that the first part of the story — well, actually, the whole book — is centered squarely on George Wickham. Please trust me. It works.

The book’s Prologue tugs at your heartstrings, introducing George at age ten. His mother is a neglectful drug addict and he doesn’t even know who his father is; Rebecca Wickham has had several boyfriends, and Mark, the guy she’s currently living with, is better than most only because he doesn’t beat them. George has just one set of clothes, and he’s always hungry. He gets bullied at school. He can read, but not very well. With such a start in life, there doesn’t seem to be much of a future ahead for him.

But little eight-year-old Lizzy Bennet approaches him on a playground bench, offers him a sandwich, and unconsciously introduces him to the perfect escape from his miserable life by reading aloud a Harry Potter book. “[H]e wished she didn’t have to go. It was like coming out of a dream somehow, to close the book and go back to real life. He felt let down. Going home, going to bed, lying there hungry… how could he go back to that now that he had been on a train to magic school?” It’s a game-changer for George.

The story continues. The two friends are separated, but George’s situation improves thanks to Mr. Darcy (senior). Fitzwilliam Darcy eventually turns up in the book a couple of years later. His entrance is an inspired twist, and I hope other reviewers are kind enough not to spoil the surprise.

More time passes, with Will becoming COO of his father’s company, AirVA, which is a national air ventilation system corporation based in Virginia. Anyway, when Will’s father and mother are in a car crash, Mr. Darcy’s injuries and subsequent rehab require Will to step up as CEO years before originally planned. It’s a difficult transition for an introverted, insecure young man. Everyone seems to want a piece of him — both in business and in his social life.

The plot gets into recognizable Pride and Prejudice territory with Will reluctantly attending Charles Bingley’s engagement party, hugging the periphery, and resisting his friend’s suggestion that he enter into the spirit of things. When Charles offers to introduce Will to Jane Gardiner’s sister Elizabeth, we just know what’s coming. As expected, Elizabeth overhears him say, “Charlie, leave off. I have no interest in dancing with whatever floozy you’re trying to throw at me this time.” …aaand we’re off! Continue reading

The Clergyman’s Wife: A Pride & Prejudice Novel, by Molly Greeley — A Review

The Clergyman's Wife, by Molly Greeley (2019)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Readers of Pride and Prejudice often compare Charlotte Lucas unfavorably with Elizabeth Bennet who bravely resists financial and familial pressure to accept a proposal from the comically inept Mr. Collins, the man who stands to inherit Longbourn upon her father’s death. While nothing but the deepest love will induce her into matrimony, her closest friend Charlotte decides that she does not have the luxury of waiting for love and quickly catches Mr. Collins on the rebound. Lizzy’s bold refusal stirs our hearts; Charlotte’s pragmatic and calculated choice elicits feelings of resignation and dismay. But I’ve often thought that Charlotte is unfairly maligned by readers, who seem to expect her to possess courage equal to that of Jane Austen’s daring heroine. Could a P&P-inspired novel offer Charlotte something other than a loveless marriage of convenience?

Molly Greeley’s debut novel The Clergyman’s Wife explores Charlotte’s married life in the village of Hunsford. The main storyline takes place three years after Charlotte becomes Mrs. Collins. Her life is quiet, comfortable, and secure, though she must endure visits to Rosings Park from time to time. Housekeeping, parish duties, and raising her infant daughter, Louisa, keep Charlotte busy. While this is the life Charlotte chose, the opening pages of Chapter 1 hint at her well-concealed malaise:

“Behind me on my writing desk, a fresh piece of paper sits ready. The salutation at the top—Dear Elizabeth—has been dry for some time. I never feel the quiet uniformity of my life as fully as when I am trying to compose a letter to my friend…There is always the menu to plan, the accounts to balance, the kitchen garden to tend. I embroider a great deal more than I used to, and my designs have improved, I think. But descriptions of embroidery do not an amusing letter make.” (8)

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Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, by Hilary Davidson — A Review

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, by Hilary Davidson (2019)“Fashions come and go; bad taste is timeless.” — Beau Brummell

So saith the arbiter of style in the Regency era when all of Jane Austen’s books were published and she and her characters dwelled. Since fashion is mentioned sparingly in her novels how is one to know, two hundred years after the fact, what is fashionable and what is in bad taste? Is that actress in the current period drama wearing clothing appropriate to the era, her age, and her social status? Is the hero wearing a top hat that Victorian author Charles Dickens would have worn? Is that pelisse polyester, and is a half “updo” hairstyle totally inappropriate? Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, by Hilary Davidson explores these dilemmas for modern readers of Austen’s fiction, the adaptations of her works, and those set during the same timeframe.

When I first opened this book and skimmed its pages, I was overcome by its beauty. Page after page of eye-popping images of Regency clothing, portraits, landscapes, fashion plates, and cartoons by famous artists and illustrators of Austen’s day. The publisher states that the book boasts 180 full-color illustrations, and I do not doubt it. Here is a slide show of a few that I found especially significant to give you a glimpse of the extensive research that the author conducted to bring the book to life.

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That Churchill Woman: A Novel, by Stephanie Barron – A Review

that churchill woman barron 2019 x 200Between 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

Jane and the Waterloo Map: Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 13), by Stephanie Barron – A Review

Waterloo cover x 200From the desk of Christina Boyd:

As a fan of the Being Jane Austen Mystery series, I have been all anticipation for the latest edition, Jane and the Waterloo Map. Author Stephanie Barron knows her Austen lore, as well as a being a masterful storyteller and researcher; writing in a most Austen-like style. She is also The Incomparable when it comes to Regency mysteries. Given that disclaimer, and holding the series in much esteem, I feel quite at liberty to share my impressions herein.

The novel opens with our dear Miss Austen attending her sick brother Henry at his London residence while editing the proofs of her latest novel, Emma, for her publisher John Murray. Summoned to Carlton House, the opulent London mansion of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, Jane meets his toady Historiographer, Mr. James Stanier Clarke, who not only arrogantly invites her to use the Royal Library to write her next novel, but welcomes her to dedicate her work-in-progress to the Prince Regent himself. As she holds the prince and his profligate ways in contempt, Jane cautiously makes no commitment and politely continues on with the tour. Upon reaching the library, they come upon a Colonel MacFarland, the hero of Waterloo, collapsed upon the floor in an apoplectic fit. As Mr. Clarke finds help, the colonel utters his last words to Jane, “Waterloo map.” After a curious inspection of the colonel’s vomit, Jane speculates that the colonel may have been poisoned. The next day, word reaches her that the colonel did succumb, and it is not long before the royal physician confirms that the hero of Waterloo was murdered. Thus begins the intrigue—and danger—for our clever authoress as she exposes whodunit in this thirteenth of Stephanie Barron’s mystery series. Continue reading