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)

The demise of Edmund sets off a chain of events that will ripple throughout the course of the novel. As the sole male heir to Chilbury Manor, he was set to inherit the family pile. His overbearing father, a retired brigadier prone to bursts of outrage and indignation, is determined to keep the property in the family. To ensure that his pregnant wife delivers a male heir, he engages the services of the dodgy local midwife Miss Edwina Paltry to orchestrate a baby-swapping scheme.

Another key character sharing the narrative is Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a timid middle-aged widow whose only child is preparing to leave for the front lines in France. And then there’s the Winthrop sisters: Venetia and Kitty. At eighteen and thirteen-years-old respectively, they have a lot on their plate and even more to write about to their best friend in London and in their diary. Their not-so-beloved bother has just been killed—blown up in a submarine in the North Sea; their pushing middle-age mother is miraculously pregnant; all the illegible men are away at war; there are food and clothing rationing, which means there is no sugar or new frocks to be had; and their tyrant of a father—well, he is just fuming about everything.

“Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life. Prim Trent (104)

Through the letters and diaries, we engage with the characters as they share the everyday events and challenges of their lives. Each of the four ladies has their own set of problems yet they are intertwined with each other. Ryan has chosen a range of ages and social strata of the characters varying the perspective of voices as the main narrators of her drama. In addition to the humorous events surrounding Miss Paltry’s hyperbolic baby-swapping scheme, Venetia, the local “accomplished flirt,” who had multiple men pursuing her before they departed for the war, is involved with the one young man left in the village, an rakish artist who appears to be involved in the black market and other activities of national security; Mrs. Tilling, on the other hand, is required to house a gentleman working at a local war defense think tank; while Kitty suffers teen romance angst and dreams of becoming a professional singer. The one constant in their lives during a time of uncertainty is the choir. When they sing together all their troubles melt away and they feel joy again.

Thwarting my concerns, Ryan succeeds in conveying the immediacy of each character’s impressions and emotions through her clever use of melodrama. This is a high-energy novel. There is always something new to prompt us to turn the page! I also found that the strength of this novel lies in her skill at building unique characterizations—people whose personalities we can identify with through personal experience or from the pages of fiction. While the outcome of Mrs. Paltry’s machinations is predictable, (and in turn thoroughly amusing for this reader), I was delighted by the character arc of Mrs. Tilling who represents how subjugated women were before the war, and of the shallow, vain Venetia, whose value shifts were the biggest surprise.

“Perhaps there is something good that has come from this war: everything has been turned around, all the unfairness made grimly plain. It has given us everyday women a voice—dared us to stand up for ourselves, and to stand up for others.” Mrs. Tilling (168-169)

I listened to the audio recording while I read this book, an engaging feature on my Kindle that brought the story vividly to life by an excellent ensemble of five narrators. I do not often mention artwork or book design in my reviews; however, the cover is so stunning it earned my sincere admiration. In addition, I was delighted to find a hand-drawn map of Chilbury village on the endpapers which I studied intently. (I adore maps in books).

In turns comical, tragic, and joyous, The Chilbury Ladies Choir soars like a crescendo of a classic English hymn, rousing our emotions, lifting our spirits, and transporting us onto a different plain—I recommend it highly. I am looking forward to reading Ryan’s next novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, which was released in June 2019.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan
Crown Publishing Group (2017)
Hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, and audiobook (432) pages
ISBN: 978-1101906774

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Disclosure of Material Connection: We purchased a copy of the eBook and the audiobook for our own enjoyment. We only review products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Cover image courtesy of Crown (Penguin Random House) © 2017; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com

 

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean – A Review

What Kitty Did Next 2018 x 200We 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

Continue reading

Mary B.: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice, by Katherine J. Chen – A Review

Mary B Katherine Chen 2018 x 197 x 300Of 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

Giveaway Winners Announced for Love & Friendship: The Janeite Blog Tour

Love Friendship Blog Tour graphic sidebar x 200It’s time to announce the winners of the giveaway contest for the Love & Friendship Janeite 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 July 7, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments and to Little, Brown and Company for the giveaway prizes.

Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com

Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman – A Review

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman: 

Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica, while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.

Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman?  His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”

Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel. Continue reading

Giveaway Winners Announced for the Julian Fellowes Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour

Belgravia_blog-tour_vertical-final x 200It’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

Q&A with Love & Friendship Writer/Director/Author Whit Stillman

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200Austen scholar Devoney Looser joins us today during the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour to interview ‘Friend of Jane,’ writer/director/author Whit Stillman, whose new hit movie Love & Friendship, and its companion novel, are on the radar of every Janeite.

Welcome Ms. Looser and Mr. Stillman to Austenprose.com.

Devoney Looser: We Janeites know that you go way back as a Janeite yourself. (Would you label yourself that? I see you’ve copped elsewhere to “Jane Austen nut.”) You’ve admitted you were once dismissive of Austen’s novels as a young man—telling everyone you hated them—but that after college you did a 180, thanks to your sister. Anything more you’d like to tell us about that?

Whit Stillman: I prefer Austenite and I consider myself among the most fervent. Yes, there was a contretemps with Northanger Abbey when I was a depressed college sophomore entirely unfamiliar with the gothic novels she was mocking — but I was set straight not many years later.

DL: What made you decide that “Lady Susan” wasn’t the right title to present this film to an audience? (Most of Austenprose’s readers will be wise to the fact that Austen herself didn’t choose that title for her novella, first published in 1871.) I like your new title Love & Friendship very much, but clever Janeites will know you lifted it from a raucous Austen short story, from her juvenilia, Love & Freindship. What led you to make this switch in titles? (I do want to register one official complaint. You’ve now doomed those of us who teach Austen’s Love & Freindship to receiving crazy-wrong exam answers on that text from our worst students for years to come.)

WS: Perhaps it is irrational but I always hated the title “Lady Susan” and, as you mention, so far as we know it was not Jane Austen’s;  the surviving manuscript carries no title (the original binding was chopped off) and she had used “Susan” as the working title for “Northanger Abbey.”  The whole trajectory of Austen’s improved versions of her works was from weak titles, often character names (which I know many film distributors hate as film titles*) toward strong, resonant nouns — either qualities or place names.  “Elinor and Marianne” became Sense and Sensibility, “First Impressions” became Pride and Prejudice, “Susan” became Northanger Abbey. Persuasion and Mansfield Park are similarly sonorous. Continue reading