Archive for August, 2009

Murder at LongbournGentle Reader, Tracy Kiely’s first book, Murder at Longbourn, is set to be released tomorrow, September 1st. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy, who was kind enough to provide these fascinating insights in response to my questions. Her murder mystery is a rollicking fun read in the style of a modern Agatha Christie with Austenesque overtones. I think that Tracy summarizes her book best on her website:

If you are a fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and love classic English mysteries, then you just might enjoy Murder at Longbourn. Set in a picturesque Cape Cod B&B on New Year’s Eve, the story follows Elizabeth Parker, a young woman on the mend from a bad breakup. Instead of a peaceful retreat, she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation and in the company of the nemesis of her youth, Peter McGowan – a man she suspects has matured in chronological years only. As she investigates her fellow guests, some bearing more than a striking resemblance to characters in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth fights to keep her inner poise while she hunts down a killer who keeps killing.

1) Hi Tracy, thank you for agreeing to chat with me. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying reading your book. Murder at Longbourn, while echoing Jane Austen (and I suspect the cottage industry that has grown up around it) is refreshingly not an Austen sequel, but an original story with Austenesque overtones. How did you conceive of the plot? Can you share with the reader one of your “inside” Jane Austen references? I simply laughed out loud as I encountered them.

The plot for Murder at Longbourn, is something of a mishmash of my favorite forms of entertainment. I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and watching Alfred Hitchcock movies (I am something of an Anglophile, much to the consternation of my Irish Catholic family). I love the twisty, deviously clever plots of Christie, the sublime wit of Austen, and the “average man caught in extraordinary circumstances” themes of Hitchcock. When I began to think of writing my own mystery, I realized it would have to have those elements. Then one day I was watching the news and – I kid you not – there was a story about a woman who killed her husband at a B&B after they attended a Host-A-Murder Dinner. I was off to the races! However, while there are many references to Pride and Prejudice throughout the book, I didn’t want it to be a retelling of Austen’s classic. Instead, it’s a gentle wink at the reader who is familiar with Pride and Prejudice, but one doesn’t necessarily need to be a fan to “get” the book. That said, I had such fun weaving in the Austenesque aspects. I think my favorites are Henry Anderson’s pride in securing a rare first edition of Fordyce’s Sermons for his client and the ill-mannered white Persian cat, aptly named Lady Catherine.

2) This is your debut novel in print. Due to the maturity of your writing style, I suspect this is not your very first attempt at writing. How long have you been writing? How many first attempts lie upon dusty shelves? And has your work been published in other forms before, such as a magazine?

I have wanted to be a mystery writer since I was a kid. I did briefly entertain a dream of being a cartoonist for The New Yorker but even the early cave dwellers would have rejected my sketches. Several years ago, I wrote a mystery titled An Ostentation of Peacocks. It never really went anywhere (a fact I refuse to attribute to its title) and I put it aside. But it was a bit like taking a SAT prep class; you get an idea of what you’re in for. When I felt ready to write again, I decided to start fresh. However, I was able to use some of the research I did for Ostentation in Murder on the Bride’s Side (the second in the series).

3) The book is funny at times. It is so nice to read an Austenesque novel that echoes Jane Austen’s wit. When did you become a Jane Austen fan, and would you describe yourself as an acerbic wit in real life?

I became a fan of Jane Austen in high school when I first picked up Pride and Prejudice and one of the many aspects of it that I loved was the wit. I would categorize my humor as “acerbicous tardious” which, I believe, is the Latin for thinking of zingers ten minutes too late. I think the French have a term for it too, but I prefer the Latin because it is a dead language and no one can make fun of my pronunciation. However, the beauty of writing is that my characters don’t need to respond in real time.

4) I did you a disservice by calling your book Austenesque, for it is a stand alone novel that even non-Jane Austen fans will like. What are your plans for a second novel? Will it be another mystery?

If calling my book Austenesque is a disservice, then hit me again, dear sir! Luckily, St. Martin’s signed me for the first two in the series. The second, Murder on the Bride’s Side, is due out September 2010 and continues Elizabeth’s sleuthing adventures. My goal for each book is to parallel a different work of Austen’s. The first, obviously, was Pride and Prejudice. The second weaves in elements of Sense and Sensibility. Should the gods smile on me, I will be asked for the third, which is tentatively titled Spirit of Murder and parallels Northanger Abbey. In it certain events occur while Elizabeth is staying in a historic house on Nantucket, which lead her to wonder if her imagination is getting the best of her due to a recent re-reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho or if there is a more sinister explanation.

5) Tell us a little about yourself and your family. How do you fit writing into your schedule when you are raising three children who, I presume, are young?

My husband and I have three kids aged 13, 9 and 6. Throw in a puppy, an uppity cat, and a few fish and there’s precious little time for sanity, let alone a set writing schedule. So I do it when I can: while the kids are brushing their teeth, while the dog is chasing the cat through the dining room, while my youngest is painting his room with crayon. For me, writing is something I can’t not do. Jasper Fforde put it best when he said “Writers write because they can’t stop. They scribble notes in books, write poetry, jot down good snippets of dialogue and generally exist in their own little world.”

Thank you for your wonderful insights, Tracy. I wish you the best of luck as your book hits the stores. You can read my review at this link.  Readers may order copies here,  and enter Tracy’s website at this link.

Tracy KielyAbout the Author: Tracy Kiely graduated from Trinity College in 1990 with a degree in English. This accomplishment, however, merely seemed to prompt most job interviewers to ask “how fast can you type?” Her standard answer of “not so fast” usually put an end to futher questions.

She was eventually hired by the American Urological Association (AUA), who were kind enough to overlook the whole typing thing, mainly because they knew just what kind of stuff she’d be typing. Beggars can’t be choosers, you know. After several years, Tracy left the AUA taking with her a trove of anecdotal stories that would eventually result in her banishment from polite society.

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For a review of Inspector Lewis Series III, 2010, Counter Culture Blues, Click Here.

The Point of Vanishing was this season’s last Inspector Lewis episode. What a fine way to end a fine season. If you have missed the episode, click here to view it online for one more week.
Here’s the episode’s synopsis: “Steven Mullan is found dead in his bathtub, the scalding water indicative of the white-hot rage that motivated the murder. Lewis recognizes Mullan as having been recently released from prison after having tried to kill celebrity atheist Tom Rattenbury while driving drunk. Mullan’s sentence may be over, but have the scars healed for the Rattenburys, especially daughter Jessica who remains in a wheelchair from the incident? Lewis and Hathaway find a postcard at the crime scene of a Renaissance painting inscribed with the words, “It was no dream.” But the case is about to take a surreal, dream-like twist, leaving Lewis and Hathaway drowning in questions about crimes of the past and the present.”


Click here for Radio Times images of Kevin Whately as Inspector Lewis.

Episode One, Season II: And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea

And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea –
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Lewis and Whately

Lewis and Whately

The first murder at the Boleian Library in Oxford in 500 years is nothing to dismiss. In fact, the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley is a key link to the murder of maintenance engineer Chapman (Darren Clarke) in the library and lovely student Nell Buckley (Emily Beecham), who is found floating in the river. How are these deaths connected? Inspectors Lewis (Kevin Whately) and Hathaway (Laurence Fox) are in a race against time to find out in “And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea”, the first episode of the second season of Inspector Lewis.

Set in Oxford, the settings are stunning, with the story’s action occurring inside the Bodleian library, on the grounds of the university, and in and around that venerable city. The plot, while not particularly suspenseful, was complex and interesting enough to hold this viewer’s interest. Emily Beecham is especially appealing as the doomed student, Nell, and Tom Riley (Lost in Austen fans will remember his delicious portrayal of Wickham) is unforgettable as art student, Philip Horton, a murder suspect who is probably autistic.

PBS will be showing the Inspector Lewis series, season 2,  from August 30 to October 18th. Missed the first episode? Recent episodes are available online on PBS for two weeks after they aired in the U.S.

poster_musictodieforEpisode Two, Music to Die for, Season Two

“Music to Die For”, the second episode of Inspector Lewis, Series 2 on PBS’s Mystery! did not disappoint, and in fact was among the best television I have watched in a long while. As with “And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea”, this murder mystery is intelligent, restrained, witty, and informative. I learned about no-rules boxing and the Cold War intrigue in East Berlin in which informants caused the imprisonment (and deaths) of thousands of their friends, acquaintances, and family members. Add the setting of Oxford (I’ve seen more of the town in this series than during  my half day visit a decade ago), and your 90 minutes are well spent.

If you missed Episode two, you can watch it online until September 20th at this PBS link.

Episode Three, Life Born of Fire, Season 2

Will McEwan staggers into a church and takes his own life at the altar, leaving behind a suicide note cloaked in religious symbolism — “On the road from Gethsemane to Calvary, I lost my way” — and a pamphlet for a shadowy spiritual group “The Garden.” What would lead a young and faithful man to such desperation?


I found this episode particularly fascinating because the story delves deeply into Hathaway’s past and his reasons for leaving the priesthood. Both Lewis and Hathaway are loners, as most detectives of mystery series seem to be these days, and I found the glimpses into their personal lives  intriguing. My only quibble with this episode was the sequence of the fire itself. Had it been set off by gasoline,  I doubt that it would have taken more than 2-3 minutes for the fire to rage out of control. The timing of those scenes was off just enough to distract me. The acting was, again, superb, and I thought I had solved the mystery, but I was wrong. The actual solution was so much better than my suspicions. I cannot praise this series enough.

Episode Four: The Great and the Good

the great and th good

The ending of this episode is haunting, with Inspector Lewis desperate to find information about his wife’s death. In this episode, Oxford is made up of two kinds of people: those who are on the “inside,” in this instance, Oxford dons, and those who will never enter that magical circle, like Inspector Lewis and Hathaway. Although the plot was a bit convoluted and at times hard to follow, I found myself watching the last ten minutes with keen interest. Once again, I failed to identify the killer, but once his identity was revealed, the story began to make sense.

Ep 5Episode Five: Allegory of Love

Tom Mison (2)

In this episode “Lewis and Hathaway get pulled into the world of Oxford’s literary elite, only to find that it harbors resentment and jealousy and at its center, holds terrible secrets beyond all imagination.” The stars are Tom Mison (Mr. Bingley in Lost in Austen) as Dorian Craig, bestselling novelist, and James Fox, professor. The ending of this episode is particularly memorable and upsetting.

Episode Six: The Quality of Mercy “Lewis and Hathaway methodically try to make sense of the murderous plot, but before they do, another death occurs with a Shakespearean sensibility. As the final act is about to unfold, the case takes an intensely personal turn for Lewis, bringing back traumatic memories and invoking a lesson in mercy.”

quality of mercy

Episode Seven: The Point of Vanishing

More links:

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rolinda sharples men ballRolinda Sharples’s 1817 painting of the Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms is a familiar one to most Jane Austen fans. This image graces many book covers and has been used for depicting life in the Regency era. Looking closely, one sees that the assembled party seem to be enjoying the occasion as they wait and chat. A lady’s maid is helping a woman exchange her shoes, a man holds a lady’s fan, and the ladies are wearing an assortment of pale dresses, and colorful headwear and shawls. John Harvey, author of Men in Black, 1996, a book about the predeliction men have had over the centuries for wearing black, noted on p. 37 that Rolinda’s painting illustrates the direction that fashion was taking in the 19th century:

The white-haired man to the left is dressed in the older style, with light-coloured knee-breeches and lighter stockings. The stooping man to the right is a transitional type, wearing black knee-breeches, black stockings.

Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Room, 1817, Rolinda Sharples

Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Room, 1817, Rolinda Sharples

The man to centre-left is dressed as Brummel dressed, in skin-tight black trousers.

The above style and the two previous styles would have been familiar to  Jane Austen, for she died the same year that this painting was made.
Rolinda Sharples Clifton detail of brummel type

Rolinda Sharples Clifton detail

It is the man to the right of him, in looser black trousers, who is dresed as the century was in future to dress. The men at Mr. Rochester’s party [in Jane Eyre] would all be in his style.

These links do not describe formal menswear, per se, but the are descriptive of men’s clothes of the era:

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Jane's Window View, copyright Keith Mallet

Jane's Window View, copyright Keith Mallet

Gentle Reader, Keith Mallett wrote to me to say that he visited his homeland of England for the first time in 35 years after moving to Australia. One of his fondest memories of the trip is of a visit to Chawton. When he was a teenager living in England he used to almost drive past the house on the way to and from boarding school each term, but “I have to admit Jane Austen was not high on my teenage reading list.”

We can sympathize, Keith. Not many teenage boys relate to Jane. Not many men do, either, so it is my pleasure to share your insights with my blog’s readers. I also thank you for giving me permission to publish your photograph. How apropos that is was raining that day, for I have often imagined Jane finding excuses to stay inside and write.  Keith wrote in his journal about Jane:

It can be taken for granted that I am a fan of Jane Austen’s writing – I find the acute social commentary woven into the fabric of the romances and intrigues of those Regency days quite fascinating, and wonder how much the novels reflect Jane’s own personality and desires. She would have been a fascinating person to meet. But sadly I was too late by 191 years. I could only tread the bare floorboards of the house, peer into the rooms that contained her life all those years ago and take a few photographs. But she was suddenly present as I looked out from the window of the bedroom she shared with her sister, Cassandra. She must have looked out through the rain-spattered panes many a time, perhaps pondering on the chances of walking on that day, or absently plotting the life of one of her creations. They were dedicated walkers, and I suspect even the dirty weather of my day there would not have deterred that walking. The bedroom window looks out over the back yard to the out-buildings: where the day-to-day domestic tasks would have been done: the baking, the washing, and drawing cool water from the depths of the well.

More About Chawton House (where Jane’s brother Edward lived) and Chawton Cottage (where Jane lived with her mother and sister):

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Murder at LongbournMurder at Longbourn will be available in book stores on September 1. My review for Tracy Kiely’s debut novel will be up next week.

Meanwhile, you can explore the book at the publisher’s site and Tracy Kiely’s website, and see this short video clip.

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1800-1819 Cover Fashion Plates
The moment I learned of Regency Era Fashion Plates, 1800-1819: A Collection of Fashion Plates and Descriptions by Timeless Tresses, I ordered it. Available in the U.K. through the Jane Austen Centre and at Amazon.com in the U.S., the book is not inexpensive. (My copy cost $44.) When it arrived I immediately tore open the package and began to peruse the book, which contain pages upon pages of colored fashion plates almost full copier paper size. That’s the good news. Compiled from the personal collections of Timely Tresses, the book is the joint venture of Mandy Foster and Dannielle Perry, two participants in living history who research fashion and create costumes based on the plates of a particular historic era. This is not the team’s first compilation. If you visit their site, you can choose from a variety of fashion plate books. But as I went through the book I was disappointed to find out that, while the fashion plates are arranged in date order, very few come with descriptions, nor are they identified by the season for which the dresses were designed. The plates are so large that in some instances they are blurred, and except for the cover, their colors are washed out.

Detail of a plate in the book, Costume Parisien, 1799

Detail of a plate in the book, Costume Parisien, 1799

For those who are new to Regency fashion, it would have been helpful if these two seasoned collector/historians had shared some pertinent information about their fashion plates, helping the reader to “see” the changes in the silhouettes and styles of the gowns, where the fashion influences came from, and the difference between British fashion of the era and French fashion. Over half the plates are from Le Journal des Dames et des Modes Costumes Parisien or Costumes Parisien.  The Journal des Dames et des Modes was published in Paris from 1797 to 1803 and called Costume Parisien from 1803 to 1839. Until about 1825 the plates were drawn by Horace Vernet, which means that all of the Parisien plates in this book were drawn by him.

Before the Napoleonic wars, there had been a “pan-European” approach to dressing in which the rich and fashionable from countries across Europe largely wore similar fashions influenced by Parisian designs. But because of the war between the two countries, Britain and France took distinctly different approaches to dress design between 1808-1814. During this time period, very little information about fashion trends was shared. French waistlines remained high as British waistlines were lowered. Except for a few Ackermann plates, Regency Era Fashion Plates, 1800-1819, largely ignores British fashion during this 6-year time span, with most of the plates coming from Costumes Parisien. Since the book aims to be a resource for those desiring to make accurate costumes of the era, these differences need to be pointed out. A costumer for a film or play might mistakenly use  a French fashion plate to create a gown for a British character, for example. When British women were finally allowed to visit Paris after the war, they saw a stark difference between their British designed gowns and Parisian high fashion. In no time the French influence took over once more and British waistlines crept up again. After 1820, French designers looked across the Pond for inspiration and English-inspired motifs became all the rage.

The most obvious differences between British and French fashion would have been in the use of lace. Through a decree by Napoleon, French ladies were forbidden to use British fabrics, resulting in the revival of the French Valenciennes lace industry. British dresses began to be heavily influenced by Romantic motifs, such as the Gothic, whose embellishment looked ridiculous and cumbersome to the French.  I had hoped that these trends would have been pointed out clearly in the book and discussed at some length by the authors, but the annotations were sorely lacking, and only the end plates and a very few plates at the beginning describe the details of cloth and trim that the gowns were made of.  Even the simple expedient of sorting the plates according to year AND season would have made the plates easier to understand. (It is hard to tell whether the dresses were to be worn in fall or spring, for example.) Thankfully we can turn to the Ladies Monthly Museum on Cathy Decker’s site for some of the descriptions, but, frankly, this is a lot of work that the book could have saved us. One other point: the book concentrates solely on women’s fashion. Anyone looking for examples of men’s or children’s clothes of the era must look elsewhere.

3 regency fansFor the number of fashion plates, I give the book 3 out of three Regency fans. For overall impact and usefulness, I give it 2 out of three.

More links:

Regency Era Fashion

From Classic to Romantic: Changes in the Silhouette of the Regency Gown

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Sea – Ship – drowned – Shipwreck – so it came,
The meek, the brave, the good, was gone:
He who had been our living John
Was nothing but a name. – William Wordsworth

The Shipwreck, 1805, Turner

The Shipwreck, 1805, Turner

In 1805, John Wordsworth, a captain employed by the East India Company and younger brother of the poet William Wordsworth, died along with 2/3  of his crew on board the Earl of Abergavenny only 1 1/2 miles off the shoreline of Weymouth in shallow waters.  John was anxious to sail from Portsmouth, for he had invested a large sum of his own money in this trip, intending to make a fortune for himself and his family, including his brother William.

Loss of the Abergavenny

Loss of the Abergavenny

The ship, headed for India and China, carried valuable goods  such as books, lace, perfume and silver for trade, and was worth an estimated £270,000. (John’s investment represented only a tiny portion of the whole.) The Earl of Abergavenny encountered bad weather and hit an underwater shingle bank off Portland, and was “badly holed.” Taking in water, the ship was unable to reach a safe haven. Most of those who died, did so from drowning or the cold. It was surmised that John Wordsworth did not try to save himself, but clung to the ropes and drowned with his ship.

Rowing to the Rescue, Shipwrecked Sailors Off the Northumberland Coast

Rowing to the Rescue, Shipwrecked Sailors Off the Northumberland Coast

Rescuing those in distress was a perilous venture, for storm conditions made it extremely dangerous for rescuers to set out. While sea rescues were dangerous, there was a cost benefit for the local citizens, for many of the ships carried precious cargo. Once the crew had been saved, the locals could plunder the bounty after the storm had subsided, which many did. A breed of dog known as the Portland Newfoundland Sea Dog or Rescue Dog (which died out in the 19th century), was trained to rescue people in danger of drowning.

Portland Sea Dog: "portrait of a dog which brought 3 barrels of spirits out of the sea."

Portland Sea Dog: "portrait of a dog which brought 3 barrels of spirits out of the sea."

Jane Austen would most likely have heard of the loss of The Abergavenny, as well as the story of another famous tragedy, that of the Halsewell, which foundered in Weymouth Bay in 1786. This wreck was especially poignant, for the captain died along with his two daughters.

Loss of the Halsewell, Wilkinson

Loss of the Halsewell, Wilkinson

Over a hundred perished in the wreck, including the Captain, his two daughters and nieces, and the First Officer, his nephew. Another 60 seamen and soldiers, who managed to reach the cliffs, died of cold or were washed into the sea. About 70 were rescued from the cliffs. – The British Library

The tragedy, with the deaths of so many, including the women (who had joined the voyage probably in search of marriage), excited the keen interest of the public. Two ship’ officers wrote an account, which sits in the British Library. Read portions of the account in this link.

Georgian Housing development 1789

The waters off East Sussex were known for their treacherous conditions, and over 1,000 ships have wrecked in the area. Strong undertows and currents, shingle banks, and unexpected storms combine to make the area deadly.

As John Meade Faulkner wrote in his classic tale “Moonfleet” in 1898, “And once on the beach, the sea has little mercy, for the water is deep right in, and the waves curl over full on the pebbles with a weight no timbers can withstand. Then if the poor fellows try to save themselves, there is a deadly undertow or rush-back of the water, which sucks them off their legs, and carries them again under the thundering waves. It is that back-suck of the pebbles that you may hear for miles inland, even at Dorchester, on still nights long after the winds that caused it have sunk, and which makes people turn in their beds, and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet Beach”

Hurricane and storm surges make the area dangerous for the citizenry as well. In 1824, a storm surge swept over the shingle spit on which a Georgian housing development (pictured above) sat, and swept away parts of villages. There was extensive damage as is indicated in the image below.*

Hurricane Map, 1824

Hurricane Map, 1824

Luworth Cove, Dorset

Luworth Cove, Dorset

More Information on the Topic

JMW Turner: The Shipwreck, 1805

East Devon and Dorset World Heritage Site

Grace Galleries: Images of Shipwrecks

Dove Cottage, The Wordsworth Museum

*Geology of the Wessex Coast of Southern England.

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