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, back stories, 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, that 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:

  • “Self Composed,” by Christina Morland – With the death of her father and the passing of the Norland estate to his eldest son, stoic Elinor Dashwood continues sketching her environment and the people in her life as way to cope with the loss of her home, to hold on to memories of happier times, and the affection that she harbors for her sister-in-law’s brother Edward Ferrars. Confined by her sex, social strictures, and reduced finances, she can do little but draw, and wait. (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)
  • “Every Past Affliction,” by Nicole Clarkston – Marianne Dashwood reflects upon her own sensibilities after a grave fever almost takes her life. Still resistant to Colonel Brandon as a suitor, her sister Elinor and her mother already see him as her intended. Gradually, the loss of her first love and the torment from her unguarded behavior are replaced with a sense of hope and renewal, and a new love. (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)
  • “Happiness in Marriage,” by Amy D’Orizo – As Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane discuss the possibility of her accepting the unfavorable Mr. Collins’ looming offer of marriage – they also debate the merits and shortcomings of the unions of their own parents, their aunts and uncles, and the qualities of the young men of their acquaintance as perfect, or imperfect gentleman. Later when embraced by love, Elizabeth discovers that she must re-evaluate her list of priorities. (Inspired by Pride and Prejudice)
  • “Charlotte’s Comfort,” by Joana Starnes – Being unromantic, Charlotte’s marriage of convenience to Reverend Mr. Collins has more benefits than she expected, though her best friend Elizabeth Bennet can find few. As her life takes unexpected twists, amazingly she always lands on her feet. (Inspired by Pride and Prejudice)
  • “Knightley Discourses,” by Anngela Schroeder – Nine years into her marriage with Mr. Knightley, Emma nee Woodhouse, is bored with her settled life of comfort and ease at Donwell Abbey. Warned by her husband George not to meddle or match make, her curiosity with the Winthrop family, whose return to Highbury after many years of absence, causes her to do exactly what her husband wished she would not. (Inspired by Emma)
  • “The Simple Things,” by J. Marie Croft – The weight of world lies on Miss Hetty Bates’ shoulders. As a middle-aged spinster she has refused an offer of marriage from their landlord. Certain he will evict her and her elderly mother in an act of revenge, she takes action. Reflecting upon her youth and her one lost chance at love, she is grateful for friends and family, and the strength of her own convictions. (Inspired by Emma)
  • “In Good Hands,” by Caitlin Williams – After falling in and out of love three times, Harriet Smith is in London staying with Mr. & Mrs. John Knightley when love #1, Robert Martin, arrives to deliver papers from Mr. George Knightley. Against the former advice of Miss Woodhouse, she learns to trust her first instincts. (Inspired by Emma)
  • “The Meaning of Wife,” by Brooke West – Taken in as an impoverished cousin by her rich Bertram relations, Fanny Price has been raised to be subservient and meek. Amid a household of immoral and dissipated cousins, her one solace and love has been her cousin Edmund. When he finally asks for her hand in marriage, she hesitates unsure that he truly knows her heart after she reads Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (Inspired by Mansfield Park)
  • “What Strange Creatures,” by Jenneta James – While living in London with her uncle, Mary Crawford is visited by a local magistrate, James Hunter, who is investigating the disappearance of a young heiress with connections to her family. Puzzled by this and a string of other missing young ladies, Mary is compelled to do her own sleuthing. Instead, she discovers unsettling news that will change the course of her life. (Inspired by Mansfield Park)
  • “An Unnatural Beginning,” by Elizabeth Adams – Young Anne Elliot meets dashing naval officer Fredrick Wentworth, and after a short courtship accepts his offer of marriage, only to be persuaded by a well-meaning family friend into declining it. Three years later another man calls on her wanting her hand. Can she ever love another? (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “Where the Sky Touches the Sea,” by KaraLynn Mackrory – Subsequent to dining with the Musgroves, her brother Captain Wentworth, and Anne Elliot, Sophie Croft, wife of a rear admiral of the white, reflects on their fifteen-year marriage and the one year that they spent apart while he was on duty in the North Sea. Left to wait twelve months before his return, her worry for her husband results in the worst year of her life. (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “The Art of Pleasing,” by Lona Manning – Mrs. Penelope Clay, daughter of Sir Walter Elliot’s solicitor Mr. Shepherd, visits the Elliots at Kellynch Hall to spy on the family for her father and advance his hopes that they will come to reason regarding their financial crisis and retrench. Taken to Bath with the family, Penelope maneuvers the Elliots into household economies by flattery and devotion in hopes of being the next Lady Elliot. When cousin and heir William Elliot arrives in Bath, they are soon locked into a deadly dance of power and deceit. (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “Louisa by the Sea,” by Beau North – After suffering a head injury from a tragic fall from the Cobb in Lyme Regis, young Louisa Musgrove drifts in and out of consciousness, hears poetry recited to her, and is cared for during her recovery by the Harvilles and Captain Benwick. The carefree girl who leapt from the sea wall for Captain Wentworth’s arms is now inclined toward the other captain who was there to catch her during her recovery. (Inspired by Persuasion)
  • “The Strength of the Attachment,” by Sophia Rose – Following her engagement to Henry Tilney, Catherine Morland unknowingly befalls adventure abroad in Oxford while seeking her missing brother James, whose disturbing lapse in communication with his family requires further investigation. Challenged by many obstacles, Catherine never knew she was born to be the heroine of her of life. (Inspired by Northanger Abbey)
  • “A Nominal Mistress,” by Karen M. Cox – Eleanor Tilney, the dutiful daughter of a tyrannical father, navigates her second Season in hopes of finding a suitable husband to meet her father’s demanding standards, and stir her heart. Life sends her the second son of an earl, who must shortly depart for Barbados to attend family business. Will she follow her heart and elope, or abide by her father’s wishes and marry a titled lord? With the help of an unlikely ally, she may surprise herself with her decision. (Inspired by Northanger Abbey)
  • “The Edification of Lady Susan,” by Jessie Lewis – Miss Susan Beaumont, her family, and closest confidant Miss Alicia Ffordham, correspond with each other engaging in idol talk and spurious gossip, admonishment and flattery, and speculation and scheming, all while maneuvering attachments within their sphere. (Inspired by Lady Susan)

With an anthology of 486 pages it is unfortunately impossible to review every story for the benefit of the reader. I will instead mention a few that I found outstanding. They all have a common thread—they evoked strong emotion; either laughter or tears, and sometimes both. First up is “Knightley Discourses,” (Schroeder) perfectly captured the personalities of Emma and George Knightley while they discussed their day’s events during pillow talk. They say dying is easy, comedy is hard. I laughed so hard I startled my cat. “Where the Sky Touches the Sea,” (Mackrory) was a beautifully written backstory of one of the few happy marriages in Austen’s cannon. Impressive in style and scope of characterization, I will never think of Sophie Croft and Persuasion again without remembering this 2-hankie weeper. “Louisa by the Sea,” (North) visualized Miss Musgrove’s physical recover adeptly and her romance with her new beaux was swoon-worthy too. “The Strength of the Attachment,” (Rose) re-imagined the naïve spirit of a heroine in the making, Catherine Morland, to my delight. #TeamTilney will be happy that he arrives in his gig, albeit a bit late in the story.

All-in-all, Rational Creatures is an “excessively diverting” bespoke short story anthology inspired by Jane Austen’s socially and romantically challenged female characters, who after 200 years continue to reveal to us why being in love is not exclusive of being a rational creature.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen’s Fine Ladies, edited by Christina Boyd
The Quill Ink (2018)
Trade paperback & eBook (486) pages
ISBN: 978-0998654065

PURCHASE LINKS

Amazon | Goodreads

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend 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 Quill Ink © 2018; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2018, Austenprose.com

Lady Maybe, by Julie Klassen – A Review

Lady Maybe, by Julie Klassen (2015)From the desk of Katie Patchell:

  • Betrayals and Lies. Harmful Secrets. Surprising Redemption.

For the past several years, Austenprose has had the joy of reviewing books inspired by beloved author, Jane Austen, as well as those set in the Regency period. One author in particular has appeared more than once, and has written numerous Regency books inspired by the timeless novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters: Julie Klassen. In her latest novel Lady Maybe, Klassen blends notes of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, to create a mystery-filled Gothic romance about the power of truth, and the lengths people will go to conceal it.

Lady Marianna Mayfield: Pressured into a marriage to Sir John Mayfield by her money-obsessed father, Lady Marianna ignores her older husband to instead focus on her many flirts, especially her lover, Anthony Fontaine. When her husband suddenly decides to take her with him to a house far away from Bath, she obeys—her silent companion and husband beside her, and the surety that her lover will do anything to find her. Continue reading

The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen, by Joan Strasbaugh – A Review

The List Lovers Guide to Jane Austen by Joan Strasbaugh 2013Every wonder what books Jane Austen read, who her relations were, where she lived and traveled, or what were her pet peeves? Well, what true Janeite doesn’t? Do you want to learn more about your favorite author than you ever expected to discover all packed up and neatly arrange in one tidy volume? Then read on…

The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen is a delightful little fact book on the famous author and her world that was a welcome diversion from the drama and angst of the current Austenesque fiction book that I am entrenched in. Packed full of information compiled in list format, even this die-hard Janeite learned more than a few new tidbits about Austen’s novels, characters, family, Regency culture and her life.

This beautifully designed reference book would be the perfect primer and or fact checker for a Jane Austen quiz. Broken down into categories like:

  • Forward: (including ten reasons for reading this book!)
  • Her Life: (including what she looked like, books she read, who she met on her travels and much more)
  • Her Correspondence: (great selected quotes)
  • Timeline for Jane Austen: (featuring events from every year of her life)
  • Her Writing: (from her juvenilia to her novels to her last poem)
  • Bonus List: Jane’s Royal Ancestors: (who knew?)
  • Bibliography: (exclusive and the best)

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

A Garden Folly: A Regency Romance, by Candice Hern – A Review

The Regency Romance Reading Challenge (2013)This is my fourth selection in the Regency Romance Reading Challenge 2013, our celebration of Regency romance author Candice Hern. We will be reading all of her traditional Regencies over the next nine months, discussing her characters, plots and Regency history. You can still join the reading challenge until July 1, 2013. Participants, please leave comments and or links to your reviews for this month in the comment section of this post.

My Review:

In landscape design, a garden folly is a structure whose only objective is to deceive. They have no purpose other than as ornament—to delight the eye and draw one to their door to evoke a romantic scene or time. How apt that author Candice Hern chose to name her Regency romance A Garden Folly, since her main characters are follies themselves.

Set at the Kent grand country estate of the Duke of Carlisle, two impoverished sisters impersonate aristocrats to entrap rich husbands, while the wealthy and titled owner of the dukedom, and the continuing custodian and creator of its grand landscape, hides behind the mantle of head gardener to avert interaction with Society. Both hero and heroine have serious trust issues. How they will overcome their personal challenges is a serpentine path that teasingly twists, turns, and surprises the reader until the last page.

Catherine and Susannah Forsythe are down on their luck. Living in genteel poverty in the wrong side of London with Aunt Hetty was not what they had expected at this time in their lives. Their father, Sir Benjamin Forsythe, squandered their family fortune before he died two years ago, but they still have beauty and wits in their corner. A surprise invitation from Aunt Hetty’s childhood friend, the Duchess of Carlisle, for her annual summer house party at Chissingworth may be their only chance to catch rich husbands. Determined to pull off the deception that they are wealthy young ladies, Catherine, with the help of their servant McDougal, magically acquire all the tools needed to disguise their poverty: clothes, carriage, jewels and servants. Now they must set their caps for the right man, steering clear of the wrongs sorts: “penniless younger sons, clerics, or half-pay officers.” Arriving in style, the deception begins. Continue reading

The Tutor’s Daughter, by Julie Klassen – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Tutors Daughter, by Julie Klassen © 2013 Bethany House PublishersFrom the desk of Katie Patchell:

In keeping with her much loved style of traditional Regency romances, Julie Klassen has recently published her sixth novel, The Tutor’s Daughter, a romantic mystery set in Regency England. This novel blends the satisfying romance of Jane Austen with the Gothic surprises of Charlotte Bronte, coming together in a delightful style that is all the author’s own.

Ever since her mother died, Emma Smallwood has helped her father run his all-male boarding school. At twenty-one, she has found her time consumed by the many school related burdens that her father, in his grief, has ignored; teaching history, geography, and math, as well as trying to make ends meet for the quickly failing academy, with only a few moments to spare to dream about travel and adventures of her own. But just when the last pupil graduates and Emma runs out of all options to restore Smallwood Academy to its glory days, a letter arrives offering a new position to both Emma and her father, as tutor and tutor’s daughter for one year at Ebbington Manor along the stormy coast of Cornwall. While her father is overjoyed to leave the place that reminds him of his departed wife, Emma unearths long buried memories, ones that remind her of two particular pupils from her father’s academy. Phillip Weston, of the kind blue eyes, warm friendship, and stolen kiss, and Henry Weston, of the flashing green eyes, malicious pranks, and partner in one hard-to-be-forgotten dance. For Emma has discovered that the letter and advantageous job opening is from none other than Lord Weston, the father of both her friend, and her nemesis. 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