The Making of Jane Austen, by Devoney Looser—A Review

The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser (2017)From the desk of Katie Patchell:

I remember what I felt when I discovered that Jane Austen was not famous in her lifetime: Outright shock. I had been a self-proclaimed Janeite for years when I discovered this fact. I had read her books multiple times, collected movie adaptations, researched and written papers about her novels in college, etc. The enormous amount of 21st-century hype around Jane led me to believe that, like Charles Dickens, her fame began in her lifetime. How wrong I was; in fact, many of Austen’s early readers never even knew her name until after she died.

Discovering you are mistaken is always a jolting experience, and I felt like my own literary world had shifted on its axis. Somehow not knowing this fact earlier was very unsettling, and with hindsight, I think it was so unsettling because my ‘Jane Austen timeline’ was thrown off. The little fact about when Jane was famous shouldn’t be a footnote in her history because how and when she became THE Jane Austen is of cultural and historical importance. Not only for what we know about the author, but what we know about ourselves, her fandom. Timelines really do matter. Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen is a gem of a book because, in it, she answers the integral questions of “how” and “when” that has rarely been asked. How did the early illustrations in Sense and Sensibility affect people’s views of the novel? When did the idea of a brooding Heathcliff-esque hero replace Jane Austen’s original reserved Mr. Darcy? These questions and answers are only a few of the many addressed in The Making of Jane Austen.

Mansfield Park illustration from Groombridge 1875 edition

Image from chapter two, of an illustration by A. F. Lydon from Mansfield Park, Groombridge & Sons’ (London) 1875. Fanny Price gazing over the verdant park to the manor house.

As advertised on the cover flap, the key question of this book is “How is a literary icon made, transformed, and handed down through the generations?” Each of its four parts contains anecdotes and research that generally follows a chronological journey from the 1800s to present. In the first – “Jane Austen, Illustrated” – Looser gives an in-depth analysis of the artistic interpretations of Austen’s novels. She includes some pictures which are fascinating to view, although I wish there had been more. A highlight for me was learning that Victorian illustrators updated the clothing styles from the Regency to be more “modern” in their images – although these clothing choices are severely outdated now! Continue reading

The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan — A Review

The Chilbury Ladies Choir x 200Set 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)

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The Work of Art, by Mimi Matthews—A Review

The Work of Art Matthews 2019 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell

Recently, I discovered the joy that comes from not reading the description on the back of a book prior to opening page one. When I was asked to review The Work of Art, I heard “Regency” and “Laurel Ann recommends” and I was all for it. After downloading this novel, I opened my Kindle edition to a story as beautiful, atmospheric, and arresting as its haunting cover—one that captured me from the very first line…

“Captain Arthur Heywood had never seen such an ill-mannered assortment of canines in his life.”

…to the very last line, with its soul-satisfying conclusion.

When Phyllida Satterthwaite’s grandfather dies, she is plucked from her freedom in the Devonshire countryside and sent to Town to the constrained, shallow world that her vile aunt and uncle and odious cousins bask in. She lives for the few nature-filled walks she can take, with her dogs as her only companions. When she meets the solemn but kind Captain Heywood, Philly discovers that she’s not the only one yearning to be free from London society’s iron rules.

Captain Arthur Heywood, ex-Corinthian and ex-soldier, is facing his own bleak future. His life is ruled by the terms set by his injuries. His memories of the Napoleonic Wars and what gave him his scars haunt his dreams, as do the visions of the carefree life he’s lost. When Arthur meets Philly by chance he finds someone who quietly treats him with the same intuitive kindness she treats her dogs—which he quickly finds is a compliment of the highest sort. Continue reading

Ayesha At Last: A Novel, by Uzma Jalaluddin— A Review

Ayesha At Last 200From the desk of Natalie Jenner

I am a firm believer that the love story at the heart of Pride and Prejudice is the best-constructed romance arc in all of literature. Author Julian Barnes once said of Darcy and Elizabeth that “the lovers are really made for each other—by their creator. They are constructed for each other: interlocked for wedlock.” The result for so many of us is the need for an occasional new hit of these two characters and their lust-versus-logic dynamic. So, when a promising debut author pens a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in my very own city of Toronto, Canada, I quickly find myself attending her local book signing and grabbing up several copies for the Austen lovers in my life.

In Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last, the setting is Scarborough, a suburban and diverse community in eastern Toronto full of townhouses and waterparks and strip malls. Our Darcy and Elizabeth are Khalid and Ayesha, two young Muslims who are both fatherless, both still living at home, and both experiencing the typical career angst of the millennial generation. After the meet-cute, not at a local assembly but rather an open-mike poetry slam night at a local bar, Khalid and Ayesha engage in a series of almost wilful misunderstandings as they both end up working on a Muslim youth event for the local community centre. Yet Khalid, in particular, is drawn to Ayesha and does not protest when he thinks that his mother has orchestrated an arranged marriage between him and the young teacher. But then events start to spiral comically out of control as Khalid’s mother intervenes in his life Caroline Bingley-style, one of Ayesha’s many young female cousins falls prey to a modern Wickham, and the community centre faces a financial and ethical crisis. As the two most level-headed, attractive and charismatic characters in the plot, Khalid and Ayesha must learn to work together for the sake of their families, their community, and their own romantic destiny. Continue reading

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors: A Novel, by Sonali Dev—A Review

Pride Prejudice and Other Flavors 2019 x 200Recently I pulled Pemberley, or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant off my bookshelf. I was feeling nostalgic after looking at my “to be read” pile of new Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice retellings that have or will hit bookstores this year. It was one of the first P&P inspired novels that I read way back in 2002. Published in 1993, the author was forging virgin territory. At this point, there were very few Austen-inspired books in print and readers did not know what to expect. It received a tepid reception from critics and the public. One recent Amazon reviewer called it “a real nightmare.” Ouch! You can read my detailed review of Pemberley from 2013, or read it and decide for yourself.

Since Tennant’s Austenesque-trek to boldly go where no author dared to go, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of Pride and Prejudice prequels, sequels, continuations, and inspired by books. Recently we are in a retelling cycle—all presented with an ethnic twist. Last year we had Pride, by Ibi Zoboi, a contemporary retelling of Austen’s classic hate/love romance set in Brooklyn, NY featuring an all-black cast of characters. This year we have three new novels: Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal set in 2000 in Pakistan; Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin in which Darcy and Lizzy are transported to contemporary Canada featuring Muslim characters; and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, which after this long and winding introduction is the book I will discuss today.

Another contemporary retelling, PPAOF is set in the “bay area” of San Francisco, California. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s spikey romance where the roles of the rich, proud Fitzwilliam Darcy and the much-less-rich, prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet are reversed. Meet Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant thirty-something neurosurgeon specializing in cutting-edge microsurgery at a prominent hospital, who also happens to be an Indian Princess by default. Her father was the second son of the royal line of an Indian Principality which is no longer in power. When he immigrated to the US, his wealth and royal mien came with him. At the premature death of his older brother, he became HRM in name only. The family live like royalty in their Woodside estate with multiple servants and the exotic air of old-world nobility with all its privileges and baggage. Even though Trisha is a successful and highly prestigious doctor she is a disappointment to her parents, who cannot forgive her for a fifteen-year-old social faux pas against her brother, a rising Politician, and, the fact that she remains unmarried. Continue reading

Lost Roses: A Novel, by Martha Hall Kelly – A Review

Lost Roses 2019 x 200Are 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

Unmarriageable: A Novel, by Soniah Kamal – A Review

unmarriageable kamal 2019 x 200It is a truth universally acknowledged that readers and writers are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. Since Sybil G. Brinton’s 1913 Old Friends and New Fancies, the first original Jane Austen-inspired novel, there have been thousands of prequels, sequels, and variations penned by those who wish to never let the characters quietly rest in literary heaven. Next up for our praise or censure is Unmarriageable, a retelling set in Pakistan in 2000 by Soniah Kamal. Never one to suffer Austen renovators gladly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

Over the years I have read and reviewed many P&P inspired books containing a variety of themes including zombie bedlam, religious conversion, S&M and slash fiction. There have also been some retellings that I really enjoyed, yet I yearned for the full story retold in a fresh and reverent light. It’s the Holy Grail of Austen fandom. Could moving the story to Pakistan at the turn of the twenty-first century be the opportunity to explore southern Asian culture infused with Jane Austen’s story of reproof and redemption? If so, it would be catnip to Janeites!

Unmarriageable’s premise and opening chapters were immediately promising. Kamal had converted Austen’s characters into clever doppelgangers of her Regency equivalents: the Bennet family became the Binats with sisters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia becoming Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady respectively. After being introduced to the Bennet family, whose financial and social position had fallen subsequent to a scandal that destroyed their fortune, the anticipation of meeting Mr. Darcy, now transformed into Mr. Darsee (snort), was quenched by the modern interpretation exhibiting all of the noble mien of the original—rich, proud, and dishy. ZING! Continue reading

Yuletide: A Jane Austen-Inspired Collection of Stories, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Yuletide Boyd 2018 x 200Now 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 surprising 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

A Holiday by Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella, by Mimi Matthews – A Review

Holiday by Gaslight Matthews 2018 x 200What better way to get yourself into the holiday spirit than with a Victorian-themed Christmas romance. Set in the Dickensian London of the 1860s, 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

Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen’s Fine Ladies, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Rational Creatures 2018 x 200Having 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, backstories, 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, which 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

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts, by Therese Anne Fowler – A Review

A Well Behaved Woman 2018 x 200For 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

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean – A Review

What Kitty Did Next 2018 x 200We were very pleased when a novel inspired by 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 Jane Austen’s classic novel, whose heroine Elizabeth receives most of the praise from her family and marriage to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley 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

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