My Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt – A Review

My Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt (2009)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“When I began to write a mystery story set in the early 1800’s in the form of a series of letters, I thought a splendid way to give it authenticity might be to interweave those of my heroine with the letters written by Jane Austen. Fully aware that this was a truly presumptuous thing to do, nevertheless I have plundered that treasure house—a most enjoyable occupation.” Hazel Holt, Author’s Note

The book positively reeks of academic and literary esteem. Written by the great Hazel Holt, who is known far and wide for her Mrs. Malory mystery series, My Dear Charlotte had all the appearances and praise of a work of one seriously admired author. It boasts a beautiful cover and spectacular printing, but, more impressively, also includes a raving introduction by Jan Fergus, a noted and appreciated literary scholar from Lehigh University. By the time you’ve flipped through the first few pages, you’ll begin to think, “Wow.  This is gonna be good.” And to some extent, you’d be right.

It’s no small challenge to weave pieces and parts of Austen’s letters into those of a protagonist with dignity. Ms. Holt was aware of the precarious nature of this experiment and likened it to borrowing an “expensive and powerful car that is thrilling to drive, but you’re terrified of breaking it.” She doesn’t break it, crash it, or even dent it. No dust on the paint, no mud on the floor. No bugs on the windshield, even. The car is returned in pristine condition, perhaps even looking a little better than it did before in its freshly-driven state, beautiful in its revitalized modernity.

Indeed, the structure of the novel was brought about carefully and with the good judgment of a seasoned author, but seemingly without much regard for the actual story. Under normal circumstances, Hazel Holt is capable of fantastic edge-of-your-seat mystery writing, portraying the kind of suspense that makes you cringe in your bed, huddled under dim lighting in the wee hours of the morning. Her writing isn’t usually the kind you can fall asleep to, and certainly not the kind that stagnates or wears out.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself wondering where the shadowy, intoxicating mystery had run off to as I slumped against my pillows. What gives?

The story is told through the eyes of Elinor Cowper who writes unendingly to her sister, the “Dear Charlotte” of the novel. Charlotte is away visiting relatives and wishes to stay apprised of all the details of home, even those that a third-party reader could never care about. Fabrics and fashions, gossip and bonnets are talked about at great length, first inspiring the reader’s interest and gradually arousing annoyance. The constant presence of mundane minutiae doesn’t diminish, even after the untimely death of one of Miss Cowper’s neighbors, Mrs. Woodstock. Elinor is soon engaged by the justice of the peace, Sir Edward Hampton, to assist in solving the mystery after she innocently discovered a few clues, and she sets out to glean more information. Sir Edward also happens to live next door in this inordinately interesting neighborhood, along with a beautiful highly-sought maiden and her two potential suitors, the tension of which surrounds the mystery of Mrs. Woodstock’s death. Suspicions are raised, suspects are investigated, relationships are built and torn asunder, and people are eliminated all through the window of a tête-à-tête between sisters and snippets from Jane Austen’s letters. What results is an over-blown academic exercise that lacks meaningful settings, strong characters, or passionate musings by anyone except Elinor.  It’s disappointing and even a bit tiresome.

That’s not to say the story didn’t have promise, because it most certainly did! The decision to write it in letter format was the major blunder, every other shortcoming being symptomatic of that resolution, admirable though it was. Ms. Holt is talented and progressive, slightly sarcastic, and even hilarious at times, but My Dear Charlotte, despite its charming moments, is a departure from her usual genius and is less than marvelous. Enjoy it simply as another glimpse of Regency England, another depiction of the loveable Jane Austen and her world, another sweet taste of Janeite brain candy, but nothing more.

3 out 5 Regency Stars

My Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt
Coffetown Press (2009)
Trade paperback (202) pages
ISBN: 978-1603810401

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Persuasion, by Jane Austen (Naxos AudioBooks) Review & Giveaway

Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last completed novel was written between 1815 and 1816, with final chapter revisions in August of that year. Published posthumously in late 1817 with her earlier work Northanger Abbey, each of the novels represents the alpha and omega of her writing career. Even though they are divergent in tone and topic, they each share a commonality in being partially set in Bath and display Austen’s trademark play on social strata, money and courtship. Austen finished the manuscript of Persuasion in declining health which may account for its slim size in comparison to her heftier previous efforts Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Or, quite possibly it is exactly the length that she preferred for her story, allowing for a simpler plot and focus on fewer characters. Its size in no way diminishes it value. Some scholars consider it her finest achievement and readers have long cherished it for its jab at social mobility and moving love story. 

In 1817 Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Austen Knight in her usual ironic manner, “You may perhaps like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me.” At age 27, Anne is not your typical Austen heroine. The middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot she is from a distinguished family of a landed Baronet. Her vain father takes their aristocratic ancestry and social position very seriously and expects his three daughters to make prominent matches. Quiet, reserved and not as pretty as her father values, Anne is often overlooked and her opinions dismissed by her family; “but Anne…was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way — she was only Anne.”  Eight years prior Anne met and fell in love with a young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. Because he did not match her social and financial status, Anne was persuaded by a well meaning family friend to reject his marriage proposal. Wentworth returned to sea and forgets her. Anne never forgets him and remains unmarried. When he returns eight years later a wealthy and successful naval hero he reenters her social sphere with heightened status. On the other hand, Sir Walter’s extravagant lifestyle has out paced his income to the point of serious debt and the family must retrench, let Kellynch Hall and remove to Bath. As Anne watches the younger ladies of the neighborhood swoon and play for Captain Wentworth’s affections she is painfully aware of her lost bloom of youth, deeply regrets her decision and pensively longs for his favor until a tragic accident at Lyme Regis and events in Bath renew her hopes.  

In yet another brilliant reading of a Jane Austen classic novel, British actress Juliet Stevenson interprets Austen’s poignant story of fidelity and second chances with wry humor and sensitive pathos. Her depth of characterization is remarkable and I am never in doubt that she is relaying Austen’s intension faithfully. Those who have previously read the novel will find new enjoyment in this beautifully produced audiobook and those new to Austen’s masterpiece will be treated to an unabridged eight hours and forty three minutes of pure perfection. Such equal blending of masterful story and artistic integrity is rarely encountered and I highly recommend it. 

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Persuasion, by Jane Austen, read by Juliet Stevenson
Naxos AudioBooks, USA (2007)
Unabridged, 7 CD’s, 8h 43m
ISBN: 978-9626344361 

GIVEAWAY CONTEST 

Enter a chance to win one copy of a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion by leaving a comment by midnight PST March 2, 2010 stating who your favorite character is in the novel or movie adaptation of Persuasion. Winners will be announced on March 3, 2010. Shipping to continental US addresses only. Good luck!

The giveaway drawing has now concluded and the winner has been announced. Many thanks to all who paticipated. 

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Oxford World’s Classics Pride and Prejudice: Our Diptych Review

Cover of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Oxford World Classics, (2008)

his perfect indifference, and your pointed dislike, make it so delightfully absurd!” Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 57

Gentle readers, Please join us for the second in a series of six diptych reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view. 

 

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Oxford World’s Classics Revised edition, (2008) 

Laurel Ann’s Review 

Any reader of the novel Pride and Prejudice, be it novice or veteran, has certain expectations and apprehensions based on its incredible popularity and renown. The same can be said for the media, whose recent over-use of its famous opening line, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ can be found repeated in the opening of many a news, magazine or blog article announcing some creditable or dubious connection to Jane Austen’s characters or plot. Interestingly, it has become the meme of the day passed along and re-used by those who want to appear in the know, but are sadly missing the point. It is debatable if Pride and Prejudice’s profound truths can be reduced to just universally acknowledged one-liners. If the novel was that easy to figure out we would not care two figs about it, and after nearly two hundred years, it would have been lost to obscurity! What one can expect though is so much more; an engaging plot that keeps you thinking and re-evaluating characters every step along the way, witty, sharp and humorous dialogue that others wish to emulate but never quite achieve, and a love story which just might reign supreme for all eternity. With all of these expectations before us, who could not be a little intimidated?  

The Oxford World’s Classics new edition of Pride and Prejudice might just meet your need to read and explore Jane Austen’s classic novel. This edition presents the reader with a wide variety of supplementary material to help you along in your discovery of the universal truths in Pride ad Prejudice. Like many editions, it supplies us with an unabridged text that has been carefully edited by prominent scholars since it was first published in 1813. ‘Carefully’ is the operative word here, since the debate is on about what has been changed or removed from the text. I will again defer to my learned co-reviewer Prof. Moody to delve into that arena. In addition to the brief biography of Jane Austen, select bibliography, chronology of her life, and two appendixes on dancing and social status that are repeated in each of the six editions in this series, (and previously mentioned in our first review), this volume includes a twenty-six page introduction by Fiona Stafford, notes on the text including a publishing history, textural notes and explanatory notes unique to this edition filled with insights and facts neatly organized and easy to find. 

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Polly Shulman’s ‘Enthusiasm’ for Jane Austen is Infectious!

I had a blast reading Polly Shulman’s novel Enthusiasm, her hommage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice! It had been released in 2006 and was on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time until I felt the need for something summerish and light to read. Since it is classified as a young adult novel for grades 7-10, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by a less than sparkling plot and characterizations. My assumptions were so wrong! Totally!

It is quite amazing to think that this is Shulman’s first novel! If you check out her picture on her web site she looks barley old enough to be ‘out’ in society!. Educated at Yale Univeristy as a mathematician, she obviously possesses both left and right brain skills! This writer is pea green with envy and is in total awe of this level of talent in one so young. Like Jane Austen, Shulman is all about language, social observation and characterization. It is easy to see why Austen is one of her favorite authors and how she inspired her writing.

The book’s auspicious opening quote, “There is little more likely to exasperate a person of sense than finding herself tied by affection and habit to an Enthusiast” sets the tone of Austen-esque language throughout the novel that is respectful but not mimicy to Austen’s prose. The narrative is told from the perspective of fifteen-year old Julie, whose best friend since grade school is Ashleigh, an ‘enthusiast’. From Harriet the Spy to candy-making to military strategy, Julie never knows what or when the next craze will over-take her friend, but she is certain to be pulled into it. Now, her latest inspiration is also Julie’s passion, Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. However, Ashleigh’s new possession of Regency manners and decorum mortify her conservative friend. Not only do they include speaking in Austenese, but wearing Regency attire to school, learning to country dance like her idols Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, and ultimately, the ardent pursuit of her own true love. Ashleigh’s latest hair-brain scheme is to find their Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley by crashing a boy’s prep school dance!

Knowing Austen’s world through her novels and movie adaptations was helpful, but not a prerequisite to enjoying this delightful novel. By following Julie’s 21st-century hardships, anxieties, mix-ups, and social blunderings we see that they are interchangeable with any 19th-century Regency Miss’ life; — for what young lady of any era does not wish, hope, and dream that a young gentleman will notice her, and return her affections?

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Regency Stars

Enthusiasm, by Polly Shulman
Puffin, New York (2007)
Trade paperback (208) pages
ISBN:  978-0142409350

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© Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Oxford World’s Classics: Sense and Sensibility – Our Diptych Review

Image of the cover to Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, Oxford Unversity Press, (2008)“Pray, pray be composed,” cried Elinor,”and do not betray what you feel to every body present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet.” Elinor Dashwood to her sister Marianne, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28 

Gentle readers, Please join us for the first in a series of six diptych reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view. 

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Oxford World’s Classics, Rev. Ed. (2008) 

Laurel Ann’s Review 

So you want to read Sense and Sensibility. Great choice! Jane Austen’s first published novel (1811) can get lost in the limelight of her other ‘darling child’, Pride and Prejudice, but is well worth the effort. There are many editions available in print today, and the text can stand on its own, but for those seeking a ‘friendlier’ version with notes and appendixes, the question arises of how much supplemental material do you need, and is it helpful? 

One option is the Oxford World’s Classics new revised edition of Sense and Sensibility that presents an interesting array of additional material that comfortably falls somewhere between just the text, and supplemental overload. This volume offers what I feel a good edition should be, an expansive introduction and detailed notes supporting the text in a clear, concise and friendly manner that the average reader can understand and enjoy. 

The material opens with a one paragraph biography of the life of Jane Austen which seemed rather slim to this Austen enthusiast’s sensibility, and most certainly too short for a neophyte. The introduction quickly made up for it in both size and content at a whopping 33 pages! Wow, author Margaret Anne Doody does not disappoint, and it is easy to understand why after eighteen years publishers continue to use her excellent essay in subsequent editions. 

Illustration by C.E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J. M. Dent, (1898)Amazingly, the introduction is not at all dated. The material covered is accessible to any era of reader, touching upon the novels publishing history, plot line, character analysis, and historical context. Doody thoughtfully presents the reader with an analysis of the major themes in the novel such as; the dichotomy of sense and sensibility as it relates to the two heroines Elinor and Marianne, the portrayal of negligent mothers, men represented as the ultimate hunter, secrecy, deceit and concealment, and the crippling impact of the inheritance laws and primogeniture on women during the Regency era. Interlaced with Doody’s interpretations are her astute observations of Austen’s writing style with references to pages in the novel and outside sources. The entire essay is well researched, populated with footnotes, and an enjoyable complement to the text. 

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