Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Belle by Paula Byrne 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

Commissioned by the producers of the new movie Belle, acclaimed biographer Paula Byrne aims to reveal the true story behind the main characters in the movie: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave, and her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is both a companion volume to the popular movie and a time capsule into the turbulent abolition movement in late eighteenth-century England.

Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, screenwriter Misan Sagay has written a compelling story based on facts she first learned of while visiting the 2007 Slavery and Justice Exhibition. Dido and Elizabeth were Lord Mansfield’s wards and raised together at Caen Wood House, now known as  Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath near London. While the screenplay is based on actual facts, it also incorporates a fictional narrative worthy of a seventh Jane Austen novel. In contrast, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is a historical account of the people and times and not a novelization of the movie. Continue reading

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103). Continue reading

Edmund Persuader: A Romance, by Stuart Shotwell – A Review

Edmund Persuader From the desk of Jeffrey Ward

Would Jane Austen love reading this book today? She admired Sir Walter Scott, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth but what about this epic regency romantic adventure encompassing some 1,500 pages? Within its sweeping span are familiar elements of the gothic in her Northanger Abbey, the ironic humor in Emma, overcoming class barriers in Pride and Prejudice, the romantic treacheries of Mansfield Park, the familial loyalty of Sense and Sensibility, and the steadfast endurance of love in Persuasion. Yes, dear Jane, I think you would!

The “persuader” is larger-than-life hero Edmund Percy who fits the description because he is aptly tall, strong, and handsome. But what elevates him to heroic status is his unique melding of courage, insightful intellect, persuasiveness, humility, and a loving generous heart. The youngest son of a landed gentleman, he has dedicated himself to the clergy.

It is 1810 and his father asks him to temporarily suspend his clerical studies and sail to Antigua to rescue his failing sugar plantation. There, he encounters exhaustive work and intolerable slavery conditions, but ultimately Janetta, the exotically beautiful mulatto daughter of a cruel neighboring slave master. Wild and unpredictable, the slaves fear her bewitching power. Edmund falls madly in love and a torrid erotic relationship ensues, but he is torn by guilt and lost virtue. The supernatural scene of Edmund being confronted by Janetta over a chilling vision only she can see but neither can understand is the story’s ultimate mystery:

“No,” she said bitterly. “I see this woman – I see this dark queen; and you will love her more than you ever loved me.” He laughed and tried to take her in his arms, but she would not let him; she evaded his embrace and slipped away from him. “You will love her more than me! “she said angrily. “Who is this woman? Janetta!” he said soothingly. “Do not be silly, I know no queen; nor is it likely I ever shall. You are the one I love…” p. 307

Only Janetta is aware of the hopelessness of their love and she accurately predicts their ultimate separation. At the loss of his first love, heart-broken Edmund returns to England. On that return voyage he becomes a notable English hero as he prevents an American privateer from boarding and capturing the ship he is on. This action proves pivotal to his future.

Edmund confesses his sins to his mentor and is still encouraged to take up the clergy. Seeking a living, he travels to Hampshire to visit Andromeda, his beloved aunt and mother-figure. She describes the most noble, wealthy, and powerful family in the area—the Esquith De Foyes—and strongly warns him to avoid at all costs their untouchable daughter Mariah and her companion, the lovely but enigmatic Elizabeth Brownton, who manifests an autism-spectrum syndrome. Yet, at a ball the inevitable happens as he meets the entire family. Mariah is regal, impossibly beautiful, and brilliant of mind, and like Edmund, gifted with a supremely compassionate heart. Edmund also meets Mariah’s brother and family heir Tarquin Esquith De Foye. Reckless, competitive, and fiercely protective, “Tark” and Edmund become closer than brothers. The family has learned of Edmund’s high-sea heroics and motions are put into place to award him a living as temporary rector in their village church.

Mariah’s compassion and Edmund’s exceptionally persuasive gifts improve the lives of everyone within their sphere of influence, and they become more than just a friendly partnership. Yet, in spite of their growing love for each other, Edmund cannot persuade Mariah to marry him and is unaware that she is none other than the prophesied “dark queen!” Her own deeply-hidden secret prevents her marriage and will eventually turn deadly enough to threaten her entire family if Edmund fails in his quest to uncover it.

With a half-million words to work with, all of the characters are so totally and fully fleshed out that I found myself weeping over their misfortunes, laughing with their moments of merriment, and hoping beyond hope for their happy future. Yes, there are places in the story that may plod for some readers, such as an entire chapter describing a fox hunt, the intricacies of chess games, and side-plots drawn out in the minutest detail. Yet, soaring above all and not-to-be-missed is what I consider to be the most magnificent unconsummated love story I’ve read since Jane Eyre. In attempting to compare the romantic grandeur and Gothic underpinnings of Edmund Persuader, only Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece comes to mind. Don’t be intimidated by its length. The determined reader will seldom encounter a more soul-satisfying reward for the effort.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Edmund Persuader: A Romance, by Stuart Shotwell
Mermaid Press of Maine (2009)
Trade paperback (1555) pages
ISBN: 978-0984103218

© 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose

A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton – A Review

A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton (2012)For those who have seen a ballroom dance scene in a Jane Austen movie adaptation, or witnessed a group of ladies and gentlemen dressed in Regency finery engaged in a country dance, you know the awe and energy that it generates can be quite thrilling. Then imagine what it would be like in Jane Austen’s day and you have a good notion what to expect in Susannah Fullerton’s new book A Dance with Jane Austen. Everything from frocks, carriages, music, dancing and flirting, and so much more are included in this tidy volume. Ready your fans ladies and take a stiff bracer of brandy gentlemen; we have entered the ballroom.

Did you know that Austen featured dance scenes in all six of her major novels and that Pride and Prejudice has no less than three? (The Meryton Assembly, an impromptu dance at Lucas Lodge, and the private ball at Netherfield Park.) Our heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters meet, spark, fuel, or flee from romance illustrating how dance was not only the pinnacle of social activity – but key to attracting a mate. Yes. I may be pointing my inelegant finger, but there it is. Balls and dances where the primary stage to attract the opposite sex and snag a partner. Jane Austen knew this fact very well and used it to her advantage in each of her novels. Here is a foreshadowing of its importance from the Bennet household:

The prospect of the Netherfield ball was extremely agreeable to every female of the family. Mrs. Bennet chose to consider it as given in compliment to her eldest daughter, and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr. Bingley himself, instead of a ceremonious card. Jane pictured to herself a happy evening in the society of her two friends, and the attentions of their brother; and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr. Wickham, and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Mr. Darcy’s looks and behaviour. The happiness anticipated by Catherine and Lydia depended less on any single event, or any particular person; for though they each, like Elizabeth, meant to dance half the evening with Mr. Wickham, he was by no means the only partner who could satisfy them, and a ball was, at any rate, a ball. And even Mary could assure her family that she had no disinclination for it. – Pride and Prejudice chapter 17

Image from A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton (2012)Written in a lively and accessible manner Fullerton delves into the subject with the energy of a fluttering fan cooling an overheated dancer. As an Austen enthusiast, and president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, her knowledge and authority take us on a journey from learning to dance, dressing for a ball, types of balls, transportation, music, food, etiquette, conversation and even a short bit about the movie adaptations. It is primarily a cultural reference, but she liberally uses quotes from her novels, letters and family recollections throughout making it very personal and incisive.

Aimed at those who crave more knowledge of the cultural history of the Georgian era and insights into Jane Austen’s novels, A Dance with Jane Austen is inspiring, discerning and richly crafted. The illustrations add to each topic, but are sadly not credited, so the reader does not know who created them or when. However, there is a partial list of image credits, a plump bibliography, and short index to assist the reader with the paper trail.

It was a pleasure to dance with Jane Austen and her characters. I now have a better understanding of the importance of social position and wealth in marrying the right partner and how instrumental balls and dances were in attaining them.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball, by Susannah Fullerton
Frances Lincoln, Limited (2012)
Hardcover (144) pages
ISBN: 978-0711232457

© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose